This case description of the fashion label Suspicious Antwerp, which has created a unique following through its focus on unexpected collection drops, limiting the availability of its products, and using influencer marketing. This contribution is written by Marie Zoé Kleinerüschkamp, graduate student in the Master in Fashion Management program at Antwerp Management School.
Suspicious Antwerp is a lifestyle streetwear brand from Antwerp that sells unisex clothing worldwide through its own web shop. The company was founded in 2017 by Philipe Libert and Frederik Janssens as part of a project during their studies at the University of Antwerp. The collections’ main focus are sweatshirts and t-shirts plus a few accessories. A sweatshirt sells for €70 to €100 while a t-shirt’s price lies around €35 to €45.
Suspicious Antwerp’s business model
Suspicious Antwerp’s uniqueness stems from the fact its entire commercial success is built on three basic ideas: (1) unexpected collection drops, (2) limited availability, and (3) influencer marketing.
Unexpected collection drops & limited availability
The purchase of a Suspicious item is only possible via the brand’s own website. There are no wholesale or retail arrangements. Furthermore, the company works with unexpected drops of collection pieces. A new collection is typically announced on the brand’s Instagram page. Thereafter, potential customers can go to the web shop and register to be alerted when the new collection will be available for purchase. An hour before a drop, all registered customers receive an invitation in their mailbox to shop the collection for a limited time only. Hence, it is not possible to simply go to the online shop and order an item you like. This concept gives the brand’s items a certain type of rarity and exclusivity. New collections are typically introduced 1-2 times per month. However, the date is never fixed. Furthermore, even though there are some ‘classic’ pieces that come back for more than one collection drop, each collection usually includes novel pieces (adapted to the season and customer preferences). Hence, an item you can shop this time might not be available anymore at the next drop.
Suspicious’ marketing strategy solely relies on influencer marketing on Instagram. The company has managed to use rather famous supermodels and influencers (no one with a following of less than 1 million) to heavily promote the brand, giving it a type of “it”-factor and creating a strong desire for customers to “be a part” of the brand. As secondary research has shown, these influencers are as diverse as Suspicious’ customer groups. Nationalities vary from German to Swedish, Dutch, American and Hawaiian. The followings also range from 1 million to over 150 million. Hence, the brand tries to attract its customers by finding influential people who are well- known and whom customers, in different countries, admire. When Suspicious started in 2017 the first influencer who was used to promote the brand was Jay Alvarrez. According to Libert (2019), at that time, three Instagram posts with him represented the total marketing budget the company had available. Up to this day, the largest expense for Suspicious remains its influencer marketing (Interview with founder Philipe Libert, December 2019).
Overall, due to the fact that Suspicious dictates when a collection will be dropped, it has been able to create a very low-cost business model. Before the production for a new collection starts, the company heavily promotes the brand via Instagram. Suspicious only starts production, once it has a feel for what the customers browsing, liking and commenting on Instagram, want. Then, the company starts to produce a limited number of items. Once Suspicious can estimate accurately at what time the items will be finished at the factory in Portugal, the company announces the drop. This process is then repeated for every following collection.
Suspicious Antwerp – a lean start-up
When looking at Suspicious’ journey from 2017 until today, one could say that the two founders started their brand in a similar way to a lean-startup. A lean-startup describes the concept of building a new business with minimal resources and scaling it by investigating, experimenting, testing and iterating product and processes along the way. According to Eric Ries (2014), lean start-ups set out with a product idea and deliver this idea in form of a minimum viable product to the market as quickly as possible. Through this experiment, entrepreneurs learn about the product and their customer first-hand and can thereafter adjust and make changes to improve the idea (Ries, E., 2014).
Suspicious can be classified as a lean start-up because it started out with a collection of only five pieces and it solely relied on the marketing power of one big influencer, namely Jay Alvarrez. After the first few collections proved to be a huge success, Libert and Janssens closely monitored their consumers’ preferences and started to adjust the collection designs accordingly. They continue to do so today by teasing their audience with some ideas via Instagram and then only starting production after they have their communities “approval”. Ries (2014) describes this constant feedback process as build-measure-learn.
Another example of continuous monitoring and optimization is Suspicious’ change in logistics strategy from 2019 onwards. In the beginning, Suspicious’ only key partner was the production facility in Portugal, which produced a clothing line and then directly shipped it to Antwerp. Once received in Antwerp, Suspicious’ employees themselves would take care of the shipping and handling for all international orders placed by customers. However, once demand and production increased, Suspicious realized that the order handling took a lot of effort and a large amount of time. As a result, the company decided to hire a logistics partner so that it could focus on growth and the design of new collections. Today, MCS fulfilment receives all finished goods from the factory in Portugal and processes all orders for Suspicious Antwerp (see Figure 1 and Figure 2 for a visual representation). This example of validated learning shows that through experimentation, the brand figured out which elements of its business model needed to change in order to keep Suspicious’ vision sustainable.
Figure 1. Previous supply chain scheme
Figure 3. Supply chain scheme as of 2019
Overall, Suspicious Antwerp has positioned itself as a mysterious, underground and disruptive brand. The business model on which the brand has based its success is defined by scarcity, surprise moments and product placement with influencers. Until now, the lean start-up approach as well as the continuous monitoring have worked very well. In 2019, Shopify named the label within the 1% of the fastest-growing companies in the world (Pub, 2019). Nevertheless, in order to sustain these successes, Suspicious should consider a few factors that might influence the brand in the future.
First of all, Suspicious’ biggest obstacle will be to keep the buzz around the brand going. Not only will it need to be able to attract the next generation, currently Suspicious customers are mainly Millennials (i.e. people born in the late 1990s), but the label also needs to bring new designs to the market. While owning a piece from Suspicious may be initially desirable because it gives the customer a sense of exclusivity, Suspicious is not a brand from which customers can shop an entire wardrobe. As a result, new and innovative designs play an important role to keep the brand interesting. This would also ensure that customers who already own a piece from Suspicious will come back to purchase again. Furthermore, in order to attract the younger generations, the influencer focus might need to shift. Libert and Janssens should closely monitor teenagers’ interests and the social media channels as well as the influencers they prefer. Depending on the evolution of Instagram’s popularity, Suspicious might have to adapt its entire business model in order to sustain its success.
Secondly, although rarity is one of Suspicious’ main selling points, not selling the products in a physical setting might be a risk in the future. In order to maintain loyal customers and to create a community, I believe that the brand needs to offer more than a limited-access-only web shop. After its initial success and the fast growth that the label experienced in the past three years, it should now aim to maintain or create a strong customer base. While one can only own so many t-shirts and sweatshirts, Suspicious could keep the buzz around the brand going by planning exclusive events, such as for example a pop-up store in which customers can shop the collection in a physical retail setting.
In conclusion, Suspicious Antwerp’s lean start-up approach helped the brand to create a successful apparel business from scratch. With continuous learning and adaptation, Libert and Janssens have managed to grow the label drastically within the first two years. Their philosophy – “inspire the world and each individual to make their passion their lifestyle” – made them successful in a highly competitive fashion industry. While the lean start-up was a good idea for the company to begin with, I believe that in order to maintain relevant Suspicious needs to become more structured now. Collection design and customer relationship building should be tackled in a systematic way (e.g. by hiring a creative director and by creating a Suspicious community). Nevertheless, monitoring and validating the current business model has proven to be very beneficial for the fashion e-tailer and will remain key to the success of the business.
Pub. (2019) (in Dutch)
Schoofs, N. (2019) (in Dutch)
Suspicious-Antwerp. (2019a). BTS | THE REVEAL – CREATING SUSPICIOUS:
Suspicious-Antwerp. (2019b). BTS I 1.4 MILLION PACKAGES!: