Can Amazon Save Luxury Fashion?

Canadian Vogue
For retail in America, the current prospect is dim. New data released by the Department of Commerce on Friday showed a staggering, record-breaking drop of 16.4 percent in April. But for clothing-and-accessories stores in particular, the details are even bleaker. The two-month decline for them stands at just over 89 percent. 

Luxury fashion is not the largest part of the clothing-and-apparel market — far from it — but luxury is hurting too. The high-end department stores are floundering (Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy this month; Barneys was sold for scrap last year); Net-a-Porter shut its warehouses and paused orders when the pandemic hit. Stores canceled orders or demanded new and impossible sales terms, leaving companies stuck with piles of produced but unsold merchandise and factory bills to pay without incoming revenue to pay them. If only there were a gigantic store-to-end-all-stores waiting in the wings to help. Wait just a minute — what’s that? Up in the sky, there. It’s a bird! It’s a plane!

Nah. It’s Bezos.

Amazon, currently valued at over $1 trillion, is a one-stop shop for just about everything. What was once a bookstore is now toilet paper, toenail clippers, consumer electronics, yoga mats, grocery delivery, an Oscar-winning film studio. But it has never quite been able to crack — and not always been interested in — high-end fashion. Apparel, yes; you can buy your Hanes T-shirts, your Levi’s, or one of 100+ Amazon house brands (whether you realize they’re house brands or not). But luxury fashion, whose sale depends, at least in conventional industry wisdom, not only on quality but on exclusivity, context, and intangibles like “storytelling” that swirl around and justify its high cost, did not see itself there.

“I did not ever envision that,” said the designer Adam Lippes. But now he has. Lippes is one of 20 small-to-midsize American fashion brands that are selling on Amazon — many for the first time — as part of a new program finessed by Vogue in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. The magazine reached out to designers to see how it could help and discovered that many were sitting on merchandise that they couldn’t move. In short order, it had orchestrated Common Threads: Vogue x Amazon Fashion, a digital storefront for alumni of its Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund competition.

Amazon offers its enormous platform and in some cases its logistics expertise; in return, it takes a small commission. (Participating designers would not say how much; optional use of its logistics comes with an additional fee. Vogue emphasized that the platform’s primary motivation was to support designers, and Amazon Fashion also made a $500,000 donation to A Common Thread, the magazine, and the CFDA’s industry-support initiative.) “We didn’t think twice about doing this,” said the designer Rebecca de Ravenel. “It’s the right time to do it.” Her pieces on the site start at $125; the most expensive is $1,495.