How Fiercely Independent Fashion Brand Tissa Fontaneda Has Survived And Thrived
The premium and luxury fashion sectors are increasingly dominated by multinational conglomerates with huge marketing budgets like Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (LVMH) and Gucci-owner Kering Group, still mired in controversy over ill-judged messaging from Balenciaga. However, many discerning consumers are shifting loyalties to independent fashion labels that stand out from the crowd.
With roots in haute couture and a strong signature identity in the form of the leather “bubble bag”, Tissa Fontaneda has found a USP that it can exploit and which has attracted some big, and somewhat sophisticated, names. They include royalty like the queens of Spain and Jordan, respectively Letizia Ortiz Rocasolano and Rania al Abdullah, plus Australian actor Cate Blanchett.
The handbag and accessories brand was founded by Munich-born Tissa Fontaneda in 2010, having honed her skills at Daniel Swarovski in Paris as a design assistant to Rosemarie Le Gallais and Hervé Leger, followed by a long stint at Spanish luxury brand Loewe (fully owned by LVMH since 1996) in the mid-nineties. In Madrid, she developed the Thierry Mugler handbag collections (via Loewe’s production) and later became the head of product for the brand.
“These were the creative times before the big groups took over the fashion industry and transformed luxury into big business,” Fontaneda told Forbes.com.
Despite working with some major fashion names, the designer decided to go it alone more than a decade ago. Opening her flagship store in the heart of trendy Marylebone in London just before Covid-19 struck was another leap in the dark—but it seems to have paid off in 2022.
I recently caught up with Fontaneda across the cobbled lane from her London boutique to find out how the brand has survived the cut-throat pressures of the fashion business, not to mention the Covid downturn, and retained its market position.
The fashion business has changed since your days in Paris and Madrid in the nineties… how so?
In luxury, the handbag business was so different. The designers had their own personalities… it wasn’t all the same thing. Whether it was Saint Laurent or Lacroix, they all had their individual approaches. We also had artisans in Spain with skills that you could not begin to imagine. It wasn’t focused on business and money-making in the way it is today.
So do you feel creativity has taken a knock?
Yes. It has become centralized without attention to the core values of the labels. Today, there is a uniformity of looks; that’s because the personality of brands is disappearing. This is a sad development for me to see as a designer. Normally when you produce a handbag collection you start with an idea, followed by the prototype, and then the production. Now the process is adapted to what the production can do.
Production efficiency is driving huge profits for these companies though; Bernard Arnault (LVMH’s CEO) has just become the world’s richest man again. Isn’t it just a sign of the times?
Indeed, the production set-up today means you can make thousands of luxury bags with a much bigger margin than in the past. It’s fine that they can make so much money, but this is a business model, not a creative one. And it’s not what I want to do.
What is your vision for luxury handbags?
Let me give you an example. An American woman walked into the store the other day and she said that it was frustrating for her, when traveling around Europe, that all the luxury shops looked the same. She was delighted to discover mine because it is so different. We find this a lot; people want something that stands out, and stands for 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 has been entirely organic, with some investment from friends and family. We can’t spend a lot on advertising, which these days can also drive editorial, so it has not been easy to get our name out there.
Yet we have become quite widely distributed and we expect to close the year with 25% growth. Our biggest distribution markets are Germany, the U.K., Switzerland, and Austria; with some sales locations in North America; and we are now looking at expanding in South America. I would like to create a new company that owns our distribution where I don’t necessarily have the majority stake so I can focus on store development.
A string of stores is the way forward, then?
A brand like mine needs its own stores, that is vital. We are a label that has to be presented and explained. We are not a department store brand because, though our price point is high, we don’t fit with the designer labels, while the niche fashion brands tend to be positioned at a different level. We do well in multi-brand fashion retailers, for example in high-end ski resorts and the boutiques of luxury hotels where there are a lot of tourists. This is something we are focused on.
Do you have specific locations in mind for new boutiques?
There are several places on my wish list, of course. One example is Madrid, where we have a showroom, and which is becoming a hot city, especially since the pandemic, thanks to how the municipality treated small businesses during that time. Many investors have been attracted to the capital which is seen as dynamic, and several luxury hotels have been opening, for example, the Rosewood and Four Seasons where we now have a presence. The city is a connecting point for South Americans who are keen shoppers.
Why did you choose London for your first flagship store?
Firstly I love London; it is a melting pot of so many things—the whole world meets here. But London is also free of the constraints you might find in Paris or Milan where they have strong fashion traditions. I feel London is a lot more open to niche brands, plus we already had some wholesale distribution here. As I was about to take the plunge Brexit came and it felt like it was a big risk so in the end, I opened through a retail partner in Marylebone, unfortunately just as the pandemic arrived. Nevertheless, we are still standing and the store is a success.
And can bags alone sustain revenues in this trendy part of the city?
This year we added ready-to-wear to develop a lifestyle look but we are not a clothing label so we are finding our way. In the meantime, we have brought in other independent brands that we like and that match the Tissa Fontaneda look. We are creating our own mini-concept store at a time when multi-brand fashion boutiques are disappearing.
Being independent gives you that freedom, but as so many concept stores are in decline is this the right strategy?
Today you can dress amazingly at Zara, but it is the accessories like handbags that make the difference. Not everyone wants to look like a footballer’s wife. For the discerning, it is not about the logo, it is about the beauty of the line. I am determined. The Tissa brand has power… it works, as the Marylebone store shows. Collaborations with other designers would also be mutually beneficial as long as we are on the same wavelength. We sell to women who are independent thinkers and not slaves of typical luxury brands.