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The misguided love affair with creating lifestyle brands

This article is guest-written by Leon Hughes, Senior Associate at Piper Equity.

I was invited last week to speak to a group of fashion entrepreneurs at a UKFT Rise for Fashion dinner at The Trampery, a fantastic creative space for innovation and entrepreneurship and an incubator for small creative businesses in London’s Old Street.

I was fascinated to hear about their new project, based in a Victorian warehouse in the shadow of the Olympic stadium, which will house a diverse community of around 50 emerging designers. It will have affordable housing for them to live in on site, workspaces, talks, one-to-one mentoring as well as workshops on issues such as intellectual property, social media and crowdfunding. A true lifestyle brand for entrepreneurs.

During the course of the evening, the entrepreneurs were subjected to networking musical chairs and I got to hear a number of their stories. Although their ambitions stretched far beyond creating a lifestyle (hobby) business, what struck me most was their woolly use of the word ‘lifestyle’ to describe what their brands stood for.

Generally, the use of the word ‘lifestyle’ frustrates me. Not because it isn’t a useful way to describe certain brands’ ability to transcend beyond product but because it has become an overused shorthand for those that don’t understand what it means.

Many brands believe that being a ‘lifestyle brand’ means SKU proliferation or posting sexy lifestyle images on Instagram. But it’s much more than that. It’s about creating a world that customers want to be part of. Celebrities can do this easily by leveraging their fans turned consumers who want to emulate them, such as Beyonce’s Ivy Park, Jay Z’s Rocawear (‘a borderless, global lifestyle’) and Kanye’s Yeezy.

For others, above all else, it means owning an aspirational feeling: a sense of fun, health and adventure. It also means owning an occasion or location, a time and a place where a customer feels good about themselves and can therefore feel good about using a brand: a holiday, a special occasion, the bedroom. It can also mean inspiring customers to see the brand through the eyes of an aspirational individual that embraces their values: a jet-setting entrepreneur mum with four kids who manages to balance an 8am school run and a 1pm board meeting. Two Piper brands, Boden and Orlebar Brown are heralded as trailblazers in the ‘lifestyle’ arena. Their success has been in owning these emotions, occasions and, in the case of Boden, Johnny himself.

Inherently, eponymous affordable luxury fashion brands are best at this. Brands such as Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, Kate Spade and Michael Kors do so through a very clear articulation of their lives. They can instinctively say what fits into their lives and what doesn’t. With one of our brands, Monica Vinader, Monica understands her customers (she is one herself) and creates designs that reflect the needs of women like her.

Millennial direct to consumer brands are also naturally able to do this well. Without wholesale, they can strictly control their brand image, communications, experience and pricing. Through clever ecommerce and beautiful literary-inspired stores, Warby Parker translate the founders’ passion for reading (Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker are both Jack Kerouac characters) and use their extra margin to give back to help others to read. Everlane asks you to buy into its ethical production and pricing philosophy that can only be possible by cutting out the middleman. Rapha does it by only stocking with serious cycling stores that add to the gravitas of the brand and by owning both the aspirational urban cyclist and lycra worlds, brought to life in its cycling geek emporium cafés.

By owning their distribution, these brands have also become masters of inconspicuous consumption – making their products exclusive makes them aspirational. Established luxury lifestyle brands are the kings of this – Moncler only has 100 stockists worldwide. Meanwhile, others offer accessible pieces that allow aspirational customers a glimpse into their world (e.g. Anya Hindmarch’s £45 stickers).

It’s not only fashion brands that can do this well. In hospitality, Soho House has led the way in creating small pockets around the world that define their members. Frame too has done a great job in creating a trusted fitness brand that plugs into a broader healthy lifestyle outside the workout, which customers want to be part of.

Getting there takes a long time. It requires being brutal in espousing a way of thinking and acting, based on genuine passions and values. This involves creating a strong and controllable direct to consumer offering, ensuring a deep understanding of the customer, hiring people who fit the culture, not buckling to retailer pressure to stock in the wrong stores and produce designs you don’t want to produce, resisting unsuitable collaborations and protecting pricing from discounting.

By achieving this, entrepreneurs can look forward to creating significantly more valuable, future-proofed brands.

Leon Hughes is Senior Associate, e-Commerce at Piper Equity. Working initially as a consultant working for a wide range of clients including Shell UK, Powergen, Divertimenti and Aga Rangemaster, he began work with Maximuscle in 2002 when the business turned over £7m.

By 2010 when Maximuscle (a Piper investment) was bought by GSK for £168m, Leon had become e-commerce Director and had established the online and IT infrastructure and created a world class team of online marketeers, web and system developers to build and fulfil more than 20 global e-commerce sites for Maximuscle.

Leon was a keynote speaker at The Beauty Symposium in March 2016, an event founded and organised by The Red Tree.

The Red Tree is the UK’s leading international beauty brand consultancy and a powerhouse of ideas, insight and inspiration. For an informal discussion on how we might help you, please contact us.

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