What’s With Disney’s Push Into Luxury Fashion?

Traditionally, the twin concepts of Disney and high-fashion being mentioned in the same sentence would have been laughed at. Low-grade, mass-produced, and with mass-appeal are what defined Disney merchandise for decades. Things appear to be changing though, as the company makes a concerted push into luxury fashion in a move that is bewildering yet not entirely surprising.

The Disney of Old

Aiming to please everyone has long been the mantra of Disney when it comes to merchandise. For decades, their cheap and cheerful toys bought by kids with their pocket money or allowance provided significant profits for the then-animation studio. Quality was important (so much so that knock-offs were ruthlessly pursued) and the many originals still out there are highly valued by collectors today. Simple, cheap, and bringing joy to kids: the three tenants that ruled Disney’s merchandise empire.

So where does luxury fashion fit into the long-established business model? According to Fashionista:

Obvious cute factor aside, the recent onslaught of Disney collabs clearly plays to millennial buyers’ love of all things #throwback-related (see: chokers, Pok√©mon Go); what all these items have in common is that they resonate on an emotional level.

Emotional appeal, fitting in with a crowd, displaying your allegiances. Trademarks of the millennial generation all. The rise in consumer’s desire to identify with something coincides nicely with the rise in luxury fashion.

It’s Part of a Larger Trend

It’s a trend that appeared in cars almost 20 years ago when sales of mainstream marques like Nissan declined in contrast to the rise of luxury brands like BMW. Even Volkswagen; the ‘People’s Car’ made a concerted effort to move upstream and shake off the everyman image it embodied since the days of the Beetle. Such efforts have not gone unrewarded: VW’s profits increased at a greater rate than its sales.

Another company that aped the formula? Apple. Deserting the mass market appeal of Dell and Microsoft, Steve Jobs zeroed in on consumers who were willing to pay a premium for design and coolness. Sales figures have never matched those of its competitors, but Apple’s profits are the envy of the entire industry and beyond.

Luxury Disney Fashion?

Is Disney beginning a similar shift towards luxury at the expense of the masses? It’s probable, but unlikely. After all, being appealing and accessible to all segments of consumers is Disney’s goal. Middle class consumers are the company’s bread and butter, yet the company has undoubtedly identified a sector in which its presence is lower than it ought to be.

Aligning its brand with haute couture fashion houses lends a cool factor that Disney has noticeably lacked throughout its entire history. The much-prized Mickey Mouse watches made by Ingersoll in the 1930s only became cool when worn as a counter-culture statement in the 1970s. In the 40 years in between, they were a kitschy product worn only by kids.

Of course what’s missing from the current discussion (and what tends to be missing from a lot of luxury fashion conversations) is whether the products in question actually look good. For my own money, too many luxury fashion products and accessories don’t actually look good enough to be worth purchasing. Then again, most consumers who buy such products are only interested in the image that wearing such products create, and the message they send to others.

The Message It Sends

If you step back and think about it, what sort of a message does the bag in the image above send? That you can afford a Coach bag? That you identify with Mickey Mouse? That you value branding and trends over actual aesthetics?

In thinking about such questions, it’s a good opportunity to compare them with the typical Disney consumer. You know the one, who’s more than happy to wear a regular ol’ T-shirt with Mickey’s face on it. Who has a pink Minnie Mouse coffee mug they got for Christmas. Who gladly wears Mickey Mouse ears during their holiday to Disneyland.

Which consumer sends a stronger message?

The answer probably depends on who you ask. Yet only one of these two consumers will contribute revenue to Disney on a regular basis. Can you guess which consumer that’s likely to be? How many Minnie Mouse mugs equal one $600 Coach bag? Not near as many as you might think.

The end result of these latest developments is also a concern. Will Disney become a premium brand like Apple or BMW? Can an entertainment company actually do that without alienating audiences? Perhaps Disney is putting the theory to the test. One day consumers may need to pay a premium to enjoy Disney’s output. They already do of course, but what if the cost is pushed outside the reach of the average consumer?

Something to think about.

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