Market research is gathering information about target customers needs and preferences with the goal of creating product that provides value to them. Lifestyle, demographic, income level, and aspirations of your target customer all filter the decisions made in the design of a garment.
There are many different market categories within the fashion industry. Markets are categorized by:
age, size, and body shape of customers
Navigating different markets and determining where brands are categorized is challenging. Not only do market names change, but many brands have several different lines, at different price points, to attract as many customers as possible and win a greater market share. It can get a little convoluted.
I did my best to provide a well-rounded explanation with examples below, but the best way to get a handle on the retail industry is to do market research and explore yourself. Most department stores separate market categories by floor, this way a customer can shop her favorite brands without traveling to other floors. Studying floor directories, price points, how brands sit next to each-other in real life, provides so much context into the fashion industry.
In reality, you don’t have to memorize each market and know where all brands sit. The most important thing is to study your competitors—brands that share the same customer base (similar aesthetic and price point)—and aspirational brands—brands that are relatively one or two markets higher end than the one you’re currently in (similar aesthetic with higher price point.)
1) Below are market categories separated by age, size, and body shape:
Junior (teenage to early 20s)
Misses (35 and up)
Petites (under 5ft 4”)
Women’s plus size
2) Below are market categories separated by price range. The price point set by a market isn’t arbitrary. Factors like fabric quality, construction technique, design originality, exclusivity, brand recognition, brand relevancy, and overall quality affect price point.
• $$$$$$$ Haute Couture, also known as “made-to-measure.”
In contrast to designer “ready-to-wear” collections, haute couture pieces are made custom to an individual’s measurements. These custom fit pieces are made of the finest material and with the most traditional, labor intensive, and impeccable construction. As you might have guessed, this is the highest end market with prices from several thousand to tens of thousands of dollars in price.
This is the most prestigious market, with only a handful of couturiers officially registered and recognized by The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture in France.
Examples: Chanel, Christian Dior, Valentino
• $$$$$$ Designer, also knows as “ready to wear” (the translation to the French term “prêt-à-porter), “off-the-rack"
Often abbreviated to RTW (ready-to-wear), this designer market category utilizes standard sizes and faster construction techniques—a departure from made-to-measure haute couture. The design, fabric, and construction details of designer collections are still high-end and expensive, but relatively more accessible than custom made clothing.
With a smaller pool of elite customers and lower profit margins, couturiers are most utilized for marketing. Most couture brands have a diffusion RTW collection as a revenue stream.
Advanced Designer/ Ready to Wear (slightly higher price point) — Givenchy, Saint Laurent, Gucci, Celine, Vetements, Dries Van Noten, and Proenza Schouler.
Designer/ Lifestyle—Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, St. John, Victoria Beckham
• $$$$$ Bridge, also known as “diffusion”
This market category attempts to bridge the gap between mass-market retail and high-end designer brands, with an “accessible luxury” price point. Often designer lines will create a separate or secondary “diffusion” line with lower price points.
Examples: DKNY by Donna Karan, Lauren by Ralph Lauren, D&G (by Dolce & Gabbana)
• $$$$ Contemporary
Contemporary is the market category for culturally relevant brands, or for product that is modern, hip or in. While contemporary clothing is fashion-forward and trendy, it’s not low quality or disposable. Since denim is so popular, many high end denim brands are in this category and are positioned on the same floor as other contemporary brands for outfitting purposes.
Examples: Etoile Isabel Marant, See by Chloe, Self-Portrait, Iro, Sandro, Whistles, Reformation, Maje, Rebecca Taylor, Zimmerman, Veronica Beard, A.L.C., Alice and Olivia, Theory, Tibi, Tory Burch
Contemporary Denim: Re/ Done, Moussy, J Brand, Frame, Rag & Bone
• $$$ Better
A step above moderate, and a step below contemporary, this product category is difficult to pin down but is usually more classic and less trend driven for a slightly more mature customer.
Examples: MICHAEL Michael Kors, Anne Klein, Jones New York, Perry Ellis
• $$ Moderate, also known as mid-priced specialty stores, or mid level high street*
This market is similar to the budget mass market, but the price point and product is slightly elevated. These are the brands you would find commonly in malls. Companies in this category must establish and maintain authentic brand identity to attract core customers and differentiate product in a saturated and competitive market.
Examples: American Eagle, Levi’s, Express, Lululemon, and department stores—Macy’s + Dillards. Fast fashion examples include Zara and Topshop
“High street” is the UK equivalent to “main street.” These are mass market brands that would usually have a flagship store on the main street of big cities.
• $ Budget Mass Market, also known as “value market,” or “mass market high street.”
Designers for this market typically design with a democratic approach and make design decisions that will appeal to a broad customer base. This market operates on high volume and low profit margins.
Examples: Target, Walmart, Old Navy, Primark and department stores like JC Penney and Kohls. Fast-fashion examples include Forever 21 and H & M.
• $-$$$$ Off-price market, also known as “discount market.”
Off-price retailers sell clothing at a discounted price. The clothing could have originated at any price point—from mass market to designer—but was discounted after it didn’t sell at the intended price point. Some of these reasons including slight defects, close-outs, or decreased relevancy based on season or brand popularity.
In some cases, discounted product is produced specifically for the off-price market, which is the case in licensed apparel. The product will boast the main label of a desirable brand, but often the quality and design is inferior to the brand’s main line.
Examples: TJ Maxx, Marshalls, Nordstrom Rack
While I respect the traditional methods of bespoke design in haute couture houses, I’m also excited about new developments in the market as fashion catches up with technology.
•$-$$$$ Direct to consumer
Web only companies like Everlane, Asos, Outdoor Voices, and Misguided are increasing, shifting some of the market share to e-commerce.
Amazon and other online shops have increased the popularity of dropshipping where inventory is shipped from a wholesaler or manufacturer directly to the consumer, and the selling merchant conveniently doesn’t stock inventory.
With subscription services, instant gratification, and fast fashion on the rise, Subscription services like StitchFix and Rent the Runway gain popularity. Even traditional brick and mortar stores like American Eagle are offering new subscription services to their customers.
Consumption of used apparel including the resale and thrift & donation sector is increasing with secondhand apps like Poshmark, Mercari, thredUP. Customers get great product at a fraction of the cost. It’s exciting to think consumers are becoming more conscientious and responsible with their financial health and long-term impact on the environment. This is a category I feel most passionately about.
Let’s get real for a second. Each market category has a certain reputation. I want to go over that a bit, in case you are wondering which market you are most suited to design for. I don’t have experience in every market, so I am speaking from my experience, friends’ experience, and reputation. Obviously, I can not speak for every company in every market as culture can vary. I hope I don’t get in trouble for this…
In general, the higher end the market, the more creative and original the design work; the trade-off is longer hours, lower pay, and crankier people. Larger, more mass-market companies, tend to keep more regular hours and workers are generally more protected by human resources; the trade off is the work can be less creative and obstructed by bureaucracy. The best way to proceed is to keep your ears open and do your research. If there is high turnover in a position at a company—there is probably a reason.