TUCSON, AZ -- High fashion and bulk vending would seem to have little in common, except that one of today's best-selling temporary tattoo lines is based on the edgy designs of Ed Hardy, the California tattoo artist whose incorporation of Japanese tattoo artistry into American styles led to a variety of successful ventures in haute couture and celebrity marketing.
Vending Supply inc., which acquired the license four years ago, has seen the popularity of the license build inside and outside bulk vending. Launching its sixth Ed Hardy series, the firm recently rolled out the Ed Hardy PINK series, a softer version of the designs.
"We had the license before it was really big, and it started slow," said VSi sales director Cindy Wilson. "But as celebrities started wearing Ed Hardy designs, and they're retailed everywhere, sales have really picked up."
The Ed Hardy clothing line is based on the designs of famed tattoo artist and author Don Ed Hardy. Signed first by Ku USA to create a line of high-end fashion, then by Von Dutch designer Christian Audigier, Hardy created Asian-influenced tat artwork that quickly became standard casual garb among celebrities, celebrity wannabes and trendsetters who didn't mind paying $60 or more for a T-shirt.
More recently, the branding and licensing powerhouse Iconix Brand Group, which built such brands as Candies, Sean John and Skechers, bought into the Hardy franchise leading to even more licensing, wider distribution and affordable product lines.
"Consumers are seeing Ed Hardy merchandise at every major retailer," Wilson explained. "Macy's has an Ed Hardy section. It's in T.J. Maxx and Dillard's, and Walmart is starting an Ed Hardy section."
In the fashion world, moving a line from exclusive high-end boutiques out to the big box stores and mass-market retailers through licensing agreements is standard operating procedure. However, licensing a fashion designer has put VSi and Ed Hardy on the cutting edge in bulk vending. The industry, which has made a serious and continuing commitment to acquiring high-profile licenses over the past decade, is now venturing into a whole new arena. And so is the fashion industry.
In the more than 30 years since pioneering designer Calvin Klein first embroidered his name on the backside of blue jeans, designers have become celebrities in their own right – and their names enormously bankable licenses. Even designers associated with haute couture are not immune to the lure of lucrative licensing agreements.
"The Ed Hardy brand is now going into the mass market, getting into mainstream," said Ian Cooper, VSi's vice president. "You'll see toys this fall with the Ed Hardy license, as well as an energy drink, lighters and key chains."
Licensing high-profile fashion designers is different from other brands brought into the bulk vending industry. Not only does the Ed Hardy brand enjoy high recognition on the part of consumers from tween to adult, but the clothing itself acts as a promotional vehicle, extending the lifespan of the vendible merchandise by increasing the perception of its value. Movie licenses, by contrast, have short life expectancies, usually measured in months, if not weeks. And multiple series based on a single film license are seldom practical in bulk vending.
The longevity of couture-inspired themes is due in part to the nature of the fashion business. Like vendible product producers, couturiers continually refresh their brands with new designs and promotional efforts. And, as VSi officials point out, the Ed Hardy license has been gaining momentum for four years or more.
"We had the Ed Hardy license four years ago and a lot of people didn't understand it," said Cooper, "but we kept with it. Prior to this year, Ed Hardy has been among our top 10 licenses, but this year it surged ahead. It switches back and forth between number one and number two."
Fashion designs are also unique in other respects, VSi added. "The difference between a fashion brand and a movie brand is that the fashion brands have already proven themselves," Cooper pointed out. "You never know how a movie going to do. You can have a film with a big promotional buzz around it, but it flops."
Is fashion in bulk vending's future as a standard licensing segment? Industry skeptics point to the fact that the Ed Hardy brand and its tattoo designs are particularly well suited to bulk vending, with its traditional tattoo segment. Even if young consumers didn't know who Ed Hardy was, they liked his designs. What these cynics may be overlooking is the increasingly graphic orientation of casual youth fashion. It is no longer simply Calvin Klein's signature, nor even the fit of the clothing itself. Like bulk vending, it is the graphic elements that add value. Ed Hardy may just be part of a larger trend in the fashion industry that makes it particularly well suited to bulk vending.
"Clothing companies are now contacting us after seeing what we've done with Ed Hardy," explained Cooper. "They see it as more exposure for their brand and additional revenue for their company."
VSi recently licensed Skelanimals. Like the Ed Hardy brand, Skelanimals designs, which could be described as Hello Kitty's evil twin, are "tween edgy," appealing to young patrons even without immediate brand recognition.
"Skelanimals is also a fashion-driven license," said Cooper. "It's a license we considered specialty only, and we're taking it to the masses. But next year they are going into Target and rolling it out at other mass retailers. We're keeping in tune with the fashion industry."