Diffusion Lines: How Cheap Offerings Saved the Fashion Industry
Diffusion lines. The bane of every fashion collector and enthusiast. While some truly great and creative diffusion lines exist (Think Rick Owens DRKSHDW or MM6 by Margiela), the vast majority such as Versace Versus and D&G occupy a hellish landscape of overly branded and shoddily designed garments defecated onto the market with such ham-fistedness that even George Lucas would wince. However, the original diffusion lines that were released onto the market did not exist as mere ways for brands to maximize their own self-fellating tendencies, but rather as the only course for survival. Sounds hard to believe right?
In the late 80’s and early 90’s, a massive shift in fashion began. While brands such as GAP and Ann Taylor had existed for decades, they were for the first time beginning to break into the mainstream clothing market. These stores offered cheap designs that were released year round, circumventing the traditional fashion model of offering fall/winter and spring/summer seasons. In addition to this, these brands were able to offer clothing similar enough to current trends in the fashion industry that consumers who normally would have splurged on a few items each season found themselves in a position where they could purchase entirely new wardrobes at a lower price point. While there had always been a strong disconnect between high fashion and “ordinary” clothing, these now mainstream brands began to blur those lines. By allowing anyone to purchase items that resembled high fashion, the allure and unattainability that drove consumers to write 4 figure checks for blouses began to fade. In fact, over time, consumers began to see high fashion as a rip off when they could obtain similar garments for 5-10%.
In a way, they were not wrong. Brand complacency had become an increasingly glaring problem in this period and it shown through in the overall quality of the garments being produced. A 1994 Consumer Report found that a $300 knit sweater from Barney’s was only “marginally higher quality” than the $17 K-Mart alternative. The lack of competition in the decades leading up to this period caused brands to become lazy in their offerings and settle for mediocrity. Within just a few short years of the aforementioned Consumer Report, another even more damning report was released. Consumer Report had tested the quality of polo shirts on the market, and had determined that the $8 offering from Target was higher quality in its construction than Polo, Nautica, Tommy Hilfiger and a platitude of other fashion houses.
As time went on, it became clear that the commodification of fashion, in which societies move towards embracing function and affordability over brand names, was going to become a threat to the bottom line of designer brands ("Stylish" T shirts and pants were able to be produced for mere pennies once labor was outsourced). Even worse was the fact that Parisian fashion labels were no longer able to set trends reliably. Styles such as minimalism were not pioneered out of the mind of some avant-garde designer, but rather from the pocketbooks of fast fashion companies. While sweatshop workers overseas were cheap, they lacked the technical skill and prowess of Italian ateliers. Due to this, fast fashion brands realized that the most efficient way they could use this was to release plain simple garments and saturate the market heavily enough that they became the new trend. A growing disillusionment with high fashion was the perfect kindling for this, and minimalism flourished. Never was it mentioned that minimalism was created out of a need to maximize profits from unskilled sweatshop workers, rather it was billed as the rejection of snobbishness and high fashion.
Most troubling, children born in the late 70’s and early 80’s grew up in an environment where they had exposure to cheap fashion offerings from an early age. These children never learned how to properly discern the differences between luxury and cheaper imitations, and thus no longer had motivation to purchase these brands when a substantially less expensive alternative was readily available. A massive shift in this is represented by people no longer having clothes ordered in exact sizes or having the garment specifically made for them, but rather purchased off of the rack in sizes small, medium, and large.
All of these factors combined to create the perfect storm that lead to the market dominance of low-end clothing. These market shifts forced the corporate owners of high fashion to come up with radical solutions on how to fix this problem. One revolutionary idea that was proposed was the diffusion line
Diffusion lines allowed a brand to sell their image while not cheapening their own mainline. When a brand has a drastic price drop due to failure to meet expected sales, it is easily perceived that a brand has lost its value. This perception leads to an increase in brand weakening and lower sales revenue as a result. However, offering a less costly secondary line allowed a brand to enter a lower end market while still keeping their primary offerings at the same value. Diffusion lines in their initial offerings, and still to an extent in modern days, heavily relied on large graphics of the brands logo as their selling point. By offering a cheaper line that still invoked the ideology of the brand, labels were able to sell their own image without cheapening their own mainline. In addition to this, each consumer served as a walking billboard for the brand everywhere they went.
Some brands actually thrived in this domain so much that their diffusion lines became more important in the mainstream than their own mainline. Think about how much attention mainline Calvin Klein(Before everyone’s favorite designer joined) or Ralph Lauren currently attracts in the modern day clothing market. While brands such as Rick Owens and Alexander Wang still have relevance in both their mainline and their diffusion lines, try and imagine the last time you saw someone wear Ralph Lauren that wasn’t Polo.
By launching diffusion lines, high fashion brands were able to connect with the audience that they had lost to the ever-growing grasp of cheap fashion. Through an ingenious business strategy, brands managed to make a cheaper representation of their brand that still sold the ideas of their label. People felt special wearing Polo Ralph Lauren and Versace Versus, regardless of the fact that actual fans of high fashion ridiculed them.
Whether one likes diffusion lines or not, the benefits of them are hard to understate. Without diffusion lines, companies such Armani would have shut their doors as yet another causality of the increasingly murky landscape of fashion. As we move into the modern era of polarization of fashion, middle market companies such as GAP and Ann Taylor are beginning to feel their own hurt as consumer purchasing trends have gravitated towards the ultra cheap (Think H&M, Forever 21 etc.) and towards the traditional lines of mainstream fashion houses (Gucci, SLP, Dior etc.). Looking to the future, one might speculate the rise of a reverse diffusion line as a mimicry of the trends described above, in which a middle market brand begins to offer a high-end line in an attempt to bring back attention to their labels. Imagine in a decade from now, the first ever GAP runway show (directed by Virgil Abloh of course, just to piss off the last of the readers who made it this far).
Many ideas found in this article were inspired by the writings of Teri Agins in The End of Fashion. Purchase the book if you find this article interesting