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The Complicated History of the Diffusion Line: Three Case Studies of Avant-Garde Diffusion Lines By: Alexander Azar

Diffusion lines are everywhere. They are unavoidable within the world of fashion. In between the world of high fashion and fast fashion, these brands have had a hold on the mid-level fashion market for decades. Most high-end fashion labels see their diffusion line as a way to make the brand’s art more accessible to the general public. However, these lines are primarily a source of hefty profit and exorbitant marketing for the brand. Often affiliated with in-your-face logos and gaudy patterning, diffusion lines for mainstream designers offer a false feeling of luxury to a market obsessed with displays of wealth. While this is true for many mainstream brands and their bridge lines, a few niche avant-garde brands use their bridge lines to promote accessibility of their clothing.

            Diffusion lines became popular in the 1980s when high-end designers began to franchise their brand names. Brands like Ralph Lauren, Pierre Cardin, and Giorgio Armani – who were developing housewares and accessories – saw the potential to enter the mid-level fashion retail market. This led to the creation of bridge lines. Run by the same parent companies, these lines held entirely different design teams and rarely maintained similar design integrity to the original brand. Throughout the 1990s and the early 2000s, many more brands developed their own diffusion lines, and the similarities between the original brand and their bridge line solely rested within a shared name and CEO. Diffusion lines were a steady source of profiting and advertising that investors loved and cherished, and they flood the mid-level fashion market.

            In the tail end of the 200s, the traditional bridge line began to phase out, but consumers became hungry for high-fashion designs at more moderate prices. The response: high-end fashion labels collaborating with fast fashion retailers. These collaborations work by recruiting designers from both brands to make clothes with the design inspiration of the high-end brand and the manufacturing of the fast fashion house. These collaborations ultimately fulfill the true spirit of what diffusion lines aimed to do: share the artistic message of the high-end brand to a new audience, and also make affordable clothing for those already interested in the high-end brand. Collaborations between brands like Maison Margiela and H&M as well as Undercover and Uniqlo have been incredibly profitable, and also generated new interest in the high-end brands. Through the prioritization of innovative style over the appearance of luxury, the market for bridge lines has been replaced with a market eager for high-fast fashion collaborations.

            While some innovative brands have collaborated with major fast retailers, dark-fashion avant-garde designers have not been part of any major high-fast collaborations. Since dark fashion clothing is targeted towards a niche market, fast retailers would not be able to profit by filling up entire stores with fully black clothing. Furthermore, the foundation of many gothic chic brands rests in utilizing abnormally finished rare materials - which are expensive. Considering the impracticality of dark-fast collaborations, avant-garde bleak labels have opted to create diffusion lines.

            In order to succeed, brutalist avant-garde diffusion lines need to be very different than the bridge lines created by other high-end labels. While most bridge lines tend to sacrifice design quality and construction in order for mass production, this is not the case with pioneering black-heavy diffusion lines. These lines tend to find success maintaining the design and construction quality of the original brand, while marginally reducing the price of production – and ultimately the cost to consumers. Their designs tend to be more simplistic and functional than the mainline brand. The three most notable brutal avant-garde brands with diffusion lines are Boris Bidjan Saberi, Damir Doma, and – no shock here – Rick Owens. However, these diffusion lines are not all run identically.

 

Boris Bidjan Saberi

 

            Boris Bidjan Saberi launched his namesake in 2007, quickly becoming one of the premier avant-garde dark-fashion labels in the world. In 2013, Boris Bidjan Saberi released the brand’s diffusion line, 11 by Boris Bidjan Saberi. The line was named after Saberi’s fascination with numerology, specifically his love for the number 11, the day of the month he was born. Since its launch, BBS and 11 by BBS have released two full collections each year. The diffusion line opened up its flagship store in New York City on September 11, 2015 – Saberi’s 37th birthday.

While the two lines share the same design team, the collections from each label vary in terms of a few main elements. Boris Bidjan Saberi’s mainline primarily hand produces their clothing in Spain, while 11 by BBS uses slightly less expensive factory-based Portuguese construction. Furthermore, the brand’s mainline dedicates itself to the experimentation with garment construction and materials, and while this holds true for 11 by BBS, the diffusion line does not use as obscure – and expensive – leathers and fabrics as the mainline. 11 by BBS also tends to be less maximal than Saberi’s mainline, featuring less exposed stitching and fewer elements of detailing.

With regards to design, similarly to the mainline label, each collection from 11 by BBS has a major theme. For example, the S/S 18 collection, “Keep the Fight,” focuses on the UK mod (modernist) subculture - featuring calligraphy centered on the theme of rebellion. Stylistically, this collection flows with the general aesthetic of 11 by BBS, as the bridge line intersperses logo graphics and branding within each collection. These logo graphics feel far less gaudy than traditional logo based designs, as they serve a design purpose rather than display wealth: 11 by BBS employs them to create juxtaposition and tension within pieces, giving 11 by BBS a subtle streetwear vibe. In an interview with a Grailed writer, a representative of the 11 by BBS New York store discussed the brand’s streetwear focus, saying: “It works for a younger audience, and even for the mainline BBS consumer, it's great for more casual wear.”

Since 11 by BBS launched, Boris Bidjan Saberi himself has been its creative director, while simultaneously maintaining his role as the creative director of the mainline brand. In this way, Saberi’s brand is still much less like a diffusion line than the standard bridge line. The quality of construction of 11 by BBS is impeccable, and there is clear effort behind each of its collections. While the lines produce entirely different collections each season, there is nearly an invitation to style the clothing from both brands together in one outfit. 11 by BBS – while certainly not simplistic in terms of design – utilizes subtle minimalism to compliment the detailing of the mainline designs. It’s no wonder the two brands work side-by-side so well: Their stylistic consistencies flow together, and their differences allow for consumers to personalize the level of maximalism within each outfit.

 

Damir Doma – Silent by Damir Doma

 

            Damir Doma launched his mainline collection in 2007 – at just 26 years old. Having already studied under designers Ann Demeulemeester and Raf Simons, it took no one by surprise that Doma’s menswear label instantly took off. Described as priestly and gothic for its drapey, soft, fabrics, and passionate love of dark colors, Doma’s clothing quickly developed a niche following of dark fashion fans. Nonetheless, Doma wished to expand his market, and by the S/S 10, he launched a diffusion line, SILENT by Damir Doma: “I felt there was a need for something more accessible to compliment my mainline and offer basics with a fashion edge,” Doma told Dazed Digital: “The philosophy behind it being that it is both more accessible in price and style but at the same time something very effortless.” Since that collection, Doma released two full seasons each year for his mainline menswear and SILENT until F/W 15 when Doma closed SILENT.

From SILENT’s launch, Doma pinpointed market-growth as the main aspect of the diffusion line. With regards to production, Doma cut costs massively through producing much of the SILENT clothing in China, with primarily inexpensive fabrics such as polyester and other synthetics. The pieces produced under SILENT were simple: plain hoodies, tees, and sweatpants, with some bombers and sneakers also thrown into the mix. However, nothing about them felt particularly adventurous or special, unlike Doma’s mainline clothing. In a sense, SILENT did not feel authentic towards to mission of the brand – it felt like any other bridge line: slightly overpriced and woefully uninspired.

With the closing of SILENT, Doma has still managed to expand his audience outside Rick Owens fans through incorporating pieces that would have been in the diffusion line into the mainline collections. For example, in his F/W 17 collection, Doma included plain t-shirts similar to the ones made by SILENT and more obscure tees, allowing his minimal pieces to merge with his more elaborate ones. Through this, Doma has gathered audiences interested in gothic minimalism to further experiment with his more eccentric and drapey mainline clothing. In addition, Doma managed to cut costs of running the bridge line while unifying his brand as a whole. Doma’s experimentation with SILENT and its aftermath serve as a lesson about diffusion lines: they must remain honest to the brand’s artistic philosophies.

 

Rick Owens – DRKSHDW

 

            Rick Owens launched his namesake label in 1994. Owens spent the next few years producing clothes at his home in Los Angeles and selling them to local retailers - gaining popularity within LA’s underground fashion scene. In 2001, the Italian sales agency, EBA, invested in Owenscorp and he moved his production to Italy. Within the next few years, Owens gathered more celebrity features and held seasonal NYC fashion week shows. In 2005, Owens announced the launch of a separate women’s line, Rickowenslilies, and a men’s denim line, DRKSHDW. Over the next couple years, DRKSHDW developed a men’s and a women’s line, and became more of a diffusion line than a denim line. However, as opposed to most bridge lines, Owens has been the head designer of DRKSHDW since its foundation, and all DRKSHDW clothing is produced in the same Italian factory as the mainline garments.

            In many ways, DRKSHDW is the antithesis of a diffusion label. While most bridge lines are significantly less expensive (and lower quality) than their high-end counterparts, DRKSHDW clothing is priced similarly to mainline clothing. Even though an aim of DRKSHDW is to spread Owens’ artistic vision and focus on practical clothing, Owens fully maintains his obscurity and dark aesthetic that defines his mainline wear. It’s brutal, dark, and avant-garde. DRKSHDW differentiates itself from Rick Owens mainline through its minimalistic approach to clothing. While its clothing is often exaggerated and strange, DRKSHDW pieces tend to be more within the realm of dark yet simple streetwear. DRKSHDW translates Owens’ avant-garde aesthetic to something that can be worn on an everyday basis.

            Another way Owens differentiates DRKSHDW from other diffusion lines is through its incorporation with the mainline. Most diffusion lines have entirely different teams and runways for each collection. Meanwhile, Owens uses the same team for DRKSHDW and his mainline collection, and even places pieces from his DRKSHDW line onto the mainline runway shows. With regards the DRKSHDW design process, most DRKSHDW pieces are designed through manipulating the fabric or flow of a mainline piece into a similar yet more casual silhouette. For example, most DRKSHDW shoes are designed to look like a mainline sneaker, but instead of using leather, Owens uses materials ranging from canvas to reflective nylons. Furthermore, many mainline pieces that remain within Owens’ collections become DRKSHDW pieces over time, as the diffusion line tends to carry the staple Rick Owens pieces. While most DRKSHDW pieces have a mainline equivalent, Owens does carry certain pieces solely under his DRKSHDW label.

            Even though the line is no longer exclusively a denim line, all Rick Owens denim is produced under the DRKSHDW moniker. His denim tends to be dark, exaggerated in length, with front-facing stitching and subtle spirals. However, Owens recently decided to focus more attention on his denim, and decided to produce all DRKSHDW denim in Detroit - fitting as his most popular denim style is named “Detroit denim.” Owens uses his denim to create a quintessentially minimalist American look, and his S/S 18 denim line features exclusively variations on black jeans - many of which test the boundaries of traditional denim. Owens’ denim and DRKSHDW as a whole merge simple clothing with elements of the avant-garde.

DRKSHDW appeals to Owens’ followers’ appreciation of minimalism, while still maintaining the integrity and aesthetic of his mainline clothing.

 

 

Conclusion

 

            Avant-garde dark fashion diffusion lines work when they are not really “diffusion” lines. 11 by BBS and DRSKHDW appeal to an already existing fan base that appreciates the main brand’s silhouette, and allows for the clothing to be worn on a more everyday basis. What SILENT by Damir Doma and many other diffusion lines failed to do was create a line of consistency between the original brand and its sub-line. The lines feel like last-minute add-ons. However, what differentiates 11 by BBS and DRKSHDW from other diffusion lines can be summed up in one word: care.

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