What Pokémon Go and Angelina Jolie can teach high-end fashion retail

Gotta catch ’em all.
Gotta catch ’em all.
Image: AP Photo/Amr Alfiky
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Being successful as a designer fashion label requires a tricky balancing act. You need to sell lots of clothes, but they can’t be so widely available they stop feeling special and become commodities, because scarcity is fundamental to our feelings about what makes something luxurious or cool.

So how should a brand approach the very serious business of putting its products into stores? Look to Pokémon Go and Angelina Jolie.

The insight came from founders of two of fashion’s most talked about independent labels of recent years, Pyer Moss and Vetements, while speaking at the WWD Apparel + Retail CEO Summit in New York this week. Pyer Moss is a rising American label by designer Kerby Jean-Raymond, who has been lauded for his graceful weaving of black-American narratives into his work and was recently named to the board of American fashion’s governing body. Vetements quickly became a sensation a few years back, influencing much of fashion with its gritty, oversized, and innovative look.

On stage, Jean-Raymond said it would be a mistake for his brand to sell the same products to a number of stores, or to offer them the same items it sells on its own e-commerce site. He might give two stores the same silhouette, but would ensure one got it in purple and the other in yellow.

Kerby Jean-Raymond speaks to WWD's Alex Badia
Kerby Jean-Raymond on stage at the WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit.
Image: Jeff Fried/WWD/Shutterstock

The reason, he said, is it makes for a “more experiential” way of shopping. “Now it becomes a scavenger hunt in a way,” he said. He used the analogy of Pokémon Go:

Retail is the same thing. We have to create these scavenger hunts and get people engaged. Because at the end of the day we’re not competing with other retailers. We’re not competing with Zara. We’re competing with Instagram. We’re competing with the scroll. So how do I get you engaged enough to come see me? I have to give you enough stuff to get out of your house. That’s what Pokémon Go is about.

Guram Gvasalia, cofounder and CEO of Vetements, made a similar point in his talk. The brand deliberately keeps its distribution to about 200 stores around the world, even though it could sell to more. He described visiting some of New York’s top fashion retailers, including Barneys, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman, and finding roughly the same selection from the same brand at each. The problem with this scenario, he said, is that “you take away the excitement and you dilute the brand.” He continued:

Everyone is on Instagram, but there are a few people who are not. And the people who are actually not on Instagram are the big movie stars. The reason they are not on Instagram is because if you look at their daily pictures every day, you have no excitement to go to the movies and pay the money for the movies… At the end of the day, Angelina Jolie is not there and there’s a reason why she’s not. Because the moment she goes on that level, there’s no going back. The same happens with brands.

Guram Gvasalia on stage at the WWD Apparel and Retail CEO Summit
Guram Gvasalia, CEO of Vetements.
Image: Jeff Fried/WWD/Shutterstock

The analogies aren’t perfect, of course. The exposure of Instagram doesn’t hurt artists such as Rihanna, and while Jolie doesn’t need the image-sharing network, fashion brands certainly do, including Vetements. Pokémon Go may also not have been quite as successful if you had to shell out a few hundred dollars or more to catch rare monsters.

But the point stands: in the age of Instagram, Amazon, and instant access to seemingly everything, keeping products scarce still matters.