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Consumer Psychology and the Fashion Industry: An Extensive Interview with Lena Çavuşoğlu

Consumer Psychology and the Fashion Industry: An Extensive Interview with Lena Çavuşoğlu

By Kyle Sosa

 

KYLE

Thank you so much for doing this.  Can you talk to me about your specific role in the fashion industry.  My first questions is one that I always ask specifically of designers:  At what point did you realize that you not only loved fashion, but had something to offer fashion?

 

LENA

I always loved fashion since I was a kid. After I graduated from high school I wanted to be a designer, actually.  I could sketch and draw, but my family told that it was not a good career choice. Back then in Turkey, designers were not really making any money, so they told me that maybe I should consider going into marketing instead of into designing.  They actually influenced me to change my designing career. I worked in the industry for a little bit–in marketing not in fashion–when I decided that I wanted to do something with fashion. In my PhD, I chose fashion studies, which is more on the consumer behavior in fashion and fashion psychology–how it affects our shopping behavior, our personality, our identity, preferences, emotions, and our physiological well-being.  I think at heart, I always wanted to work for fashion and found this way to do research on fashion and be included in the fashion industry.

 

KYLE

How did you transition into the academic world?

 

LENA

I always liked to read and write, so what combines reading, writing and fashion is actually a PhD doing research.  So if you like to read about fashion and write about it while doing research at the same time, it’s a good way to combine in academics.  The industry and the corporate world is not a good space for me. I don’t feel like I can express myself in a creative way. But, even writing research on fashion allows me to express my creativity on fashion, finding holes that the industry ignores and then publishing them where practitioners can use them.  If I show the bad sides of fashion, I can also help society. All of this brought me here.

 

KYLE

While you studied fashion at the Politecnico di Milano, did you have a good experience there?

 

LENA

Yes.  Milan is the ‘it land’ that makes you fall in love with fashion because you are surrounded by fashion.  Even on a regular day walking down the street, you see all the models and the designers. My friend saw Giorgio Armani in a restaurant one day, so it is very typical that you are exposed to fashion.  I studied Politecnico di Milano’s Poly Design Faculty, which was was where we were doing strategic design and marketing design. All the other classes around us were either in fashion design, architectural design, interior design, etc.  It was all about design. The whole world is surrounded by fashion, whether you want it or you don’t want it. You subconsciously find yourself doing something fashion related in Milan, which I believe also affected my pursuit in academia fashion.  

 

KYLE

Now, jumping right into the more in-depth part of our discussion, you have been analyzing market research for some time.  In what ways, particularly in your lifetime, have you seen consumer behavior change? How have fashion brands had to change their approach to consumer marketing?

 

LENA

When I compare today with 2012 or even when I started my PhD in 2014, I feel like we are going through a digital transformation everywhere.  Everything is digitalized, and brands had to adjust their marketing mix to compete with this digitalization. Right now, consumers are becoming lazier every day.  We don’t want to have to open our laptops or look for products or watch runway shows. They are all useless unless you go, participate, and share it on your Instagram story.  We don’t have the time for it. We follow life through Twitter news and Instagram visuals when it comes to fashion. Brands on instagram are even adding shopping links to their posts.  You can even buy just from Instagram. Right now, Instagram is changing into a platform for online retailing. It’s a personal department store, as I call it, because your feed is based on your interests and the brands you follow.  Once you see them in your feed, if you like them, you can just shop through Instagram. So what happens is that consumers don’t even need to go to the Nordstrom app or the Macy’s app. You can create your own personal shopping mall based on the brand’s you follow on social media.  When you have your own shopping mall at your feet, people don’t even have to look for new products because it comes to you automatically in your newsfeed. That’s why I think consumer behavior has changed dramatically with the social media and digital transformation. If brands did not adopt this change into their marketing campaigns, they would fail.  

 

I think now we are only shopping online and buying/finding products online.  We get heavily influenced by online sharing, micro-celebrities, Instagram bloggers, and bigger celebrities that change our shopping behavior dramatically.  

 

KYLE

It’s interesting to look particularly at high fashion brands and how their target market demographics are changing–the kind of visionary man or woman they are appearing to design for and how that links to their typical customers.  I talked about this in my Karl Lagerfeld tribute article. There are many brands that focus on practicality. For instance, if you are buying sunglasses from Oakley, Ray-Ban, or Maui Jim, you are most likely buying them for their performance in outdoor sport.  However, if you are buying sunglasses from Chanel, you are buying them to express yourself. The ‘fashion world’ has a much different emotional connotation to it. Karl’s work for instance, acted as a prosthesis, allowing people to express who they are on the interior and project it to the exterior.  What image do you think that is today? Are you seeing changes in the patterns of the kind of persona fashion brands are trying to appeal to?

 

LENA

First of all, I totally agree.  In my dissertation research, when I asked what fashion meant to people, my participants all associated the term ‘fashion’ with luxury fashion.  We have an association that fashion is Gucci, CHANEL, Dior, and other high-end labels. However, when we look at what all these high-end luxury fashion brands are trying to do, they are incorporating streetwear and street style into their luxury.  There is an irony there because we as a consumer quantitate luxury fashion as fashion for elegant, luxurious customers. But brands are trying to include streetwear and street style from subcultural societies into their lines.

 

Before, brands like CHANEL were very difficult to obtain even if you had the money.  It is still hard to afford, but there are ordinary people and everyday influencers who can just save the money and go buy a CHANEL accessory without the obstacle of access exclusivity.  Luxury style has become a hybrid. You don’t have to have a head-to-toe designer outfit to be fashionable and luxurious. You can combine less expensive pieces in your wardrobe with statement high-end accessories.  People are matching cheap vintage items with a statement piece. If you look at social media influencers for example, a girl may wear a lot of expensive brands, but you can see that she pairs with $50 jeans or a second-hand dress.  That’s why brands are targeting broadly right now. In the past, you could only buy Dior or CHANEL exclusively in stores. Now, you can save your money and shop for it online.

 

KYLE

I believe Anna Wintour was actually a crusader for the juxtaposition between luxury and street style.  Her very first Vogue cover featured an Israeli model wearing Christian Lacroix bejeweled top paired with cheap blue jeans.  This was quite unheard of in the time of ‘80s fashion.

 

LENA

It’s become the cool look to pair athleisure with high-end fashion.  Consumers are finding it much more alluring and more down to earth.

 

KYLE

I want to talk more about social media specifically, a subject you cover heavily in your marketing class, and what a platform it has become not only for the fashion industry, but for all business owners big and small.  In this current era of social media, in what ways does social media benefit the fashion industry and in what ways does it hurt the fashion industry?

 

LENA

There are definitely ways that it hurts the fashion industry, but the fashion industry as an institution is very elastic in that it swallows everything.  The exclusivity in the high fashion industry is very strict with stereotypes and ideal beauty, making it by nature a bit discriminative. The movement right now is pushing the industry towards body positivity and ‘fatshionistas.’  Consumers find social media as the medium to express themselves and to be included in the fashion industry that way. Consumers are able to post pictures with messages defying gender roles and body stereotypes. Whatever the problem is that causes consumers to feel they are being underrepresented, marginal creative consumers through social media can get followers and create a community around individuals who feel the same way.  They become an inspiration. They give recommendations on styles and fashion industry brands they support. If brands are smart, they will recognize these movements on social media and include those influencing leaders into their production.

 

Once these marginal creative influencers start gaining following and making money out of blogging, they often start their own line to make economic capital out of the movement they started.  They become a part of the industry through activism, and therefore, change the fashion industry. The market is able to expand through social media, but that doesn’t mean that the fashion industry is more inclusive to everyone.  The rise of influencers is creating an unattainable image. The problem with social media is really that it hurts the consumer more than the brands. We are now following everything that is going on all over the world. We can look and immediately see who bought what, who is wearing what, purchases people made today etc., creating the feeling for many people that they are not good enough.  

 

KYLE

In 2015, Anna Wintour spoke at the Oxford Union during a Q&A saying that, “so many more things are possible now and fashion has become much more democratic and open to everybody.  It’s no longer a closed door, where you’re standing outside on the ropes and nobody will let you in.” Do you think that is true or untrue?

 

LENA

No.  We call it the ‘trickle down’ theory.  Fashion theory tells us that fashion is diffusing from elites in the higher strata of society to the lower, and they call this the democratization of fashion.  Is it really democratizing? Is it really treating everyone equally? Under the term ‘democratization of fashion,’ it implies that fashion is available to everyone.  Yet, we are still talking around sexism, racism, gender identity, and budget disability. There are still stereotypes in fashion that excludes people who do not possess the traits that brands view as fashionable or beautiful.  

 

KYLE

Do you believe that fashion can move towards a positive direction?  Is it possible to make fashion totally inclusive?

 

LENA

I think what Anna Wintour was trying to say is that as a whole, there used to be a whole fashion industry world that no one had any exposure to.  Now because of social media and its engagement with different types of people, people are able to see it, see the shows, and get a closer look at the clothes.  But, it still doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is attaining. They can watch bloggers attain all of these things but there is still a five-thousand dollar price tag.  Democratizing does not mean making it available for all social classes, the price tag is still there. If it means making it available to see, then yes.

 

KYLE

Fashion has been criticized for years on the basis of discrimination based on race, body type, gender, etc.  Now we are seeing a huge movement happening where a lot of designers are putting more effort into including different models of age, height, gender identity, and race.  Do you think this period is a trend or do you think that the fashion industry is actually evolving? Will we revert back to the same iconographic images in fashion that have always existed?

 

LENA

New York fashion week this year was the most diverse in all of history.  However, when you look at the numbers, it was still almost 80% white models, some plus sized and some hispanic, etc.  It’s still white dominant, thin, tall models who are representing in fashion. What I observe is that industry trying to be politically correct.  They don’t want to create offensive consumers against their brands. Can we go there? Yes. Can fashion definitely be more inclusive? Yes. But, I don’t think the attainability will change because what fashion sells in aspiration.  It’s not just a piece of clothing or a dress. They sell inspiration, aspiration, identity expression, and individuality. If you blur the lines between those, you won’t sell anymore. For example, let’s look at Dior, Gucci, or CHANEL.  Normally in the demand-supply line, once the product price goes higher the demand should lover. However, with those kind of fashion brands, when the price goes higher the demand goes higher. It’s difficult to attain, and once you own it, it means something from a social standpoint to walk around with a designer purse.  It’s more than just a purse, they are selling identity, social status, individuality, and expression.

KYLE

I want to talk a little bit more about social media in terms of consumer interaction translating directly to sales.  It’s difficult to narrow down how much influence social media has translating directly to purchases. During many large fashion weeks in London, Paris, Milan, and New York, social media feeds become overwhelmed with content.  Several researchers have said that the swarm of social media hurts in terms of people wanting to buy because it’s just too much and they just scroll past and it all. Shelly Socal, executive vice president and founder of digital agency One Rockwell told WWD last year that, “People are having a hard time combing through all the hashtags. There is so much going on that it’s becoming overwhelming. It’s too much information too fast. Everyone is viewing everything at once, and they can’t even decipher what they want and what they don’t.”  From my understanding, the scope of influence that social media truly has can in fact be hard to scope. Even with access to Instagram linguistics, it is impossible to tell how many people are truly influenced to purchase based exclusively on social media viewings. Are consumers really paying attention enough on social media to influence buying decisions? From your knowledge and experience, are you making active sales that cause people to purchase right away, or is it about passively planting seeds for purchasing decisions?

 

LENA

I think it’s more difficult to track, as you said, the exact conversion rate from social media to sales.  But, I know for sure that when some influencers post something on their Instagram account wearing an article of clothing with a link to the brand, it gets sold out in thirty seconds to a minute.  Social media is very effective on that, hence why brands are doing paid collaborations with influencers that pay huge amounts of money. Now with new shoppable links that are attached to Instagram posts, you can know exactly where the consumers are coming from.

 

KYLE

That much I understand.  But there are certain things that I’ll see on social media and think “Oh god, I really want that.”  However, I’ll save my money or forget about it and then randomly buy it at a Nordstrom or some other store that wouldn’t get tracked directly to my account.  

 

LENA

For that kind of consumer behavior, which is definitely an influenced behavior, it is not trackable.  But the general influence that it has can be somewhat taken into account by business and brands even if not directly traceable to Instagram linguistics.  

 

KYLE

The culture of blogging is baffling to me.  I cannot understand how people invest that much time in social media.  And now, when everyone has an Instagram and everyone is a photographer carrying their phone around in their pockets, do you believe that blogging is the future of the fashion industry?  Or, is it a generational fad that will become obsolete in the marketing world?

 

LENA

I think Instagram will fade away.  Right now, bloggers are fading away and have become Instagrammers.  Even Youtube vloggers are becoming less popular. Seven or eight years ago, blogging was where social media all started in old development and now blogging is dead.  So until the new ‘big thing’ comes, we have Instagram influencers which have made a huge mark on marketing theory. There are even research cases going around connected to Instagram.  The culture of social media is an ongoing process. I think current platforms are definitely going to die, which is why most bloggers and influencers try to find a way to be stable in the fashion industry by launching their own lines after they are representatives in the community.  What it will all evolve into? I don’t know. I cannot forecast what it’s going to become.

 

KYLE

Social media has also caused a surge in consumption, where people often feel they cannot wear the same outfit twice after being photographed in it on social media.  With access to so many brands, companies, and influencers on social media, how is brand loyalty possible?

 

LENA

That’s what is concerning.  Just by the way something looks in a picture or the occasion that people are seen wearing something in photographs, people will buy it, wear it, and throw it away.  Brand loyalty is decreasing because almost no one has those funds when we try to imitate influencers. Who besides influencers is getting all their clothes for free?  Or as presents? If you don’t have the funds to buy what you see online, your loyalty to a specific good-quality brand will fall down because in trying to stay trend-relevant you are forced to get into fast-fashion.  And then you wear it once and after the first wash you throw it away or get rid of it. This overconsumption has a huge impact on the environment. The fashion industry is the second most harmful industry regarding pollution aside from oil.  As we see influencers wearing head-to-toe different looks every day, consumers who are desperately trying to keep up buy cheaper fast-fashion brands. For psychological reasons, they don’t want to be seen in the same outfit again. How people are perceived on social media now has a direct correlation to consumers’ self-esteem and self-worth.  

 

When I was in high school, before Instagram culture took over, you would buy a gown for a wedding occasion and would probably wear it to six different weddings as well.  Now when you go to one wedding, you take a picture in your beautiful dress. The next wedding that comes, you don’t want to wear the same dress even if the people who are going to the wedding are totally different.  You naturally want a different dress because you know that you’re going to take a picture and it’s probably an occasion where your photos will be posted on Instagram or you’ll get tagged on Facebook.

 

KYLE

I believe social media, particularly for my generation, has caused a huge distortion in what people really expect out of life, especially in terms of success.  We see young, beautiful people wearing Gucci, getting endorsements from companies, traveling all over the world. And then we ask ourselves: How are these people affording this?  Why am I not living like this? Why can’t I afford designer? Why am I not front row at Paris fashion week? As fabulous as it sounds, it’s creating a false perception of reality. Social media is a curated version of the way people are living they causes viewers to feel insecure.  That limelight and success of social media influencers doesn’t live on a lot of the times. In an era where being famous is not particularly difficult, people still associate fame with success and that isn’t always the case.

 

LENA

Exactly, what they’re selling is that lifestyle.  We as consumers want to have that lifestyle. We want to take the same picture on the same occasion with the same kind of outfit.  What amazes me and surprises me is we all, including me, actually buy that front. Logical people know that it is a creation, not reality, and they are making money out of it.  However, we buy into it anyways.

 

KYLE

Lastly, I want to talk about internet purchases and online shopping.  Personally, I find the growing culture away from physical shopping heartbreaking.  Because internet buying has become so popular, do you see physical store locations for companies and fashion brands becoming obsolete in the future?  Or, do you think there will be a push back for in-person shopping to some degree?

 

LENA

There just isn’t really a need to ‘shop’ anymore, which is helpful to contemporary people who are working and don’t have the time.  However, it is also highly demanding to major industries.

 

KYLE

I recently interviewed the UpNXT designers from FashioNXT 2018, which is for emerging designers.  I asked all of them what their future goals were, where they saw their business growing, and if they ever saw themselves opening a physical store.  All of them said no. Do you think physical in-person shopping as we know it has the potential to die out?

 

LENA

I mean personally, I love to go shopping and feel the fabric, see the embroidery and all the crafting behind fashion because for me, fashion is the combination of art and craft.  However, that kind of shopping experience is dying with the use of online shopping. Very recently, Dior even started online selling, a brand that was exclusively in-store only. Even minor inconveniences, like parking in the city to go to Zara, is enough for people to feel more inclined to shop online.  Consumers are obsessed with convenience.

 

KYLE

It’s interesting though because I do also see in this age when fast fashion and digital marketing is so prevalent in our society, people really crave something artisanal.  Personally, I appreciate handcrafted couture more than ever before because we are so used to buying and seeing garments that are outsourced and mass produced.

 

LENA

Yesterday I was reading an article saying that millennials are actually really into sewing.  They are into doing it themselves and personalizing clothing with patches, embroidery, and add-ons.  They want it to be customized and personalized as a way of expressing themselves.

 

KYLE

Thank you so much for speaking with me, Lena.  You were terrific in our interview. Is there anything else you would like to say before we conclude our interview?

 

LENA

I want to add to our conversation about the fashion industry being discriminative and exclusive, and just say that Portland is different.  When I compare it with Milan, Portland has more inclusivity, and FashioNXT has a part in my dissertation about that. I see more female body types represented on the runway, people with disabilities.  It’s definitely much different than other fashion capitals which are more exclusive.

 

KYLE

Portland has a less extensive and less intense fashion history than Milan, Paris, London or New York.  I think it allows room for change and growth, giving designers emerging from Portland the opportunity to set or break their own boundaries for the type of fashion community they want to establish here.  

 

What a great note to end things on.  Thank you so much, Lena.

 

LENA

Thank you for talking with me.  

 

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