The premium and luxury fashion sectors are dominated by multinational conglomerates with huge marketing budgets, such as Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and Gucci owner Kering Group, who are still embroiled in controversy over Balenciaga’s messaging. However, many discerning consumers are shifting allegiance to independent fashion labels that stand out from the crowd.
With haute couture roots and a strong signature identity in the form of her leather “bubble bag”, Tissa Fontaneda has found an exploitable USP and attracts some big and somewhat sophisticated names. They include royalties including the queens of Spain and Jordan, respectively Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano and Rania Al Abdullah, and Australian actress Cate Blanchett.
The handbag and accessories brand was founded by Munich-born Tissa Fontaneda in 1998. at LVMH since 1996) in the mid-nineties. She designed Thierry Mugler’s handbag collections in Madrid (via Loewe) and later became head of the brand.
“These were the creative times before big conglomerates took over the fashion industry and luxury turned into big business,” Fontaneda told Forbes.com.
Despite working with some major fashion names, the designer decided to go it alone ten years ago. It was another leap in the dark when it opened in London’s Marylebone flagship store before Covid-19 hit – but it looks set to come to fruition in 2022.
I recently caught up with Fontaneda across Cobble Street from London Boutique to find out how the brand has survived the cut-throat pressure on the fashion business, not to mention the fallout from Covid, and continues to stay afloat.
How has the fashion business changed in the nineties since your days in Paris and Madrid?
The luxury handbag business was very different. Designers had their own personalities… not all were the same. Both Saint Laurent and Lacroix, they all had their own approach. In Spain, we had skilled artisans beyond your imagination. It was not focused on business and money making the way it is today.
Do you feel that creativity has been affected?
Yes. It has become centralized without paying attention to the core values of the labels. Today, the look is uniform; Because the personality of brands is disappearing. This is an unfortunate development for me as a designer. Normally when you create a collection of handbags, you start with an idea, then with a prototype and then with production. Now the process is adjusted to what the product can do.
Production efficiency is leading to huge profits for these companies; Bernard Arnault (LVMH’s CEO) is now. Again the richest man in the world. Isn’t it just a sign of the times?
Indeed, today’s production organization means that you can make thousands of luxury bags with a greater difference than in the past. It’s great if you can make a lot of money, but that’s a business model, not an innovation. And that’s not what I want to do.
What is your vision of luxury handbags?
Let me give you an example. An American woman walked into the store the other day and said that when she traveled around Europe, she was frustrated that all the luxury stores looked the same. She was so excited to find mine because it was so different. We get this a lot; People want something that stands out and stands out b Something.
But being independent is always financially risky in fashion. Is it worth it?
I started this whole business with €50,000 and our growth is completely organic, with some investment from friends and family. We can’t afford to spend a lot on advertising, it’s not easy to get our name out there because it can be editorial driven these days.
However, we are broadly distributed and expect to close the year with 25% growth. Our largest distribution markets are Germany, UK, Switzerland and Austria. With some sales locations in North America; And now we are looking at expansion in South America. I would like to create a new company that owns our distribution where I don’t have a majority stake so that I can focus on store development.
Is a string of stores the way forward, then?
A brand like mine needs its own stores, that’s important. We are an identity to be approached and defined. We are not a department store brand because our price point is high, but it doesn’t match designer labels, but specialty fashion brands tend to be at a different level. We do well in multi-brand fashion retailers, such as boutiques in high-end ski resorts and luxury hotels with lots of tourists. This is our focus.
Do you have specific locations in mind for new boutiques?
There are many places on the wish list. One example is Madrid, which has become a particularly hot city since the outbreak of the pandemic, and the way the municipality has treated small businesses at that time. It became dynamic as more investors were attracted to the capital, and several luxury hotels were opening, for example, where we are now, the Rosewood and the Four Seasons. The city is a hotspot for avid South American shoppers.
Why did you choose London for your first flagship store?
First of all I love London; It is a melting pot of many things – the whole world meets here. But London is free from the restrictions you might find in Paris or Milan, where there are strong fashion traditions. I feel London is very open to market brands, plus we’ve had some mass distribution here. Just as I was about to get the paper, Brexit came up and I felt it was a big risk so eventually, I opened through a retail partner in Marylebone, unfortunately just as the pandemic hit. However, we are still standing and the store is successful.
And in this trendy part of the city, can only the wallets keep the income?
This year we added ready-to-wear to develop a lifestyle but we’re not a clothing label so we’re finding our way. In the meantime, we have brought other independent brands that we love and are related to Tisa Source look up. At a time when multi-brand fashion boutiques are disappearing, we are creating our own small concept store.
Being independent gives you freedom, but with so many concept stores in decline, is that the right strategy?
Today you can dress amazingly at Zara, but it’s the accessories like the handbag that make the difference. Not every footballer wants to look like a wife. For the discerning person, it’s not about the logo, it’s about the beauty of the line. I am determined. The Tisa brand has power… it works, as the Marylebone store demonstrates. As long as we are on the same wavelength, collaborating with other designers will be beneficial to both. We sell to women who are independent and not slaves to conventional luxury brands.