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The Most Influential Person in Fashion You've Never Heard Of -- What We Can Learn From Him

He owned the company where I got my first job, as a business analyst in the back office in Secaucus. The team represented the OG rainbow coalition – every nationality, gender, race, sexual preference, and neurological type (before we knew what any of that meant). The owner was Mohan Murjani, an Indian living in Hong Kong, whose father had built the largest apparel manufacturing business in China.

After graduating from Babson College, Mohan took over the family business. He marveled at the dominance of one article of clothing in western society – jeans. Mohan wondered why all jeans were cut for men and why there were designer clothes but no designer jeans. So Mohan invented a more fitted jean for women, introducing designer fashion to the world of jeans, and sold it for nearly 4x the price of a pair of Levis. He innovated in parallel, selling the first designer jean on tv under the brand name Gloria Vanderbilt, ushering in the age of celebrity advertising.

As often happens, Calvin Klein followed the innovator, and advertised it better, but Mohan did it first. I can thank him for the $240 Frame jeans in my closet. Mohan then asked this: If everyone in NY wears black, why are there no black denim jeans? After focus groups gave the idea a thumbs-up, Mohan then bought up the world supply of black denim and then launched the world’s first line of black denim jeans. You likely have some black denim in your closet, too. Stretch denim followed, along with just-in-time manufacturing.

Next, he asked why there were no American designers at mass price points. And he met a designer-who-wasn’t-a-designer, Tommy Hilfiger, and turned him into a multi-billion-dollar global brand, launching him with a billboard in Times Square.

Once Tommy was launched, he turned his attention to the next opportunity to capitalize on a quintessentially American icon – Coca-Cola -- and, with it, just-in-time demand ''Why should it take years for a designer to become a sensation?'' Mohan asked. ''Why should a line grow slowly when it can be big from the start?'' And in 1986, he launched Coca-Cola apparel in traditional retailers and through touch-screen computers in company-owned stores under a name that aged poorly, Fizazz. You can guess what happened next. After an initial pop, sales fell flat. Overextended, Mohan faced a financial crisis, and in 1988 he sold Tommy Hilfiger to a group of investors but retained the rights to Tommy Hilfiger in India.

The deal was prescient. A decade later, Mohan saw the emergence of the high-tech sector in India and the simultaneous rise of the middle class, and he launched a Tommy Hilfiger store in India. And while his jeans cost the average Indian worker 2 months' wages, they were a big hit. Recognizing the need for the proper venue to sell his clothes, Mohan then opened the first luxury shopping mall in India, the Galleria in Mumbai.

Fast forward to today. Mohan is now living in Phuket and still innovating. He recently launched The Vanderbilt Estate, a luxury 4-story estate on 12 acres in Phuket. Love it? Rent it.


EXPLOIT THE FLAW The real source of competitive advantage may be exploiting the flaw in established industry wisdom by asking questions no one else asks. What are the industry heuristics that everyone believes? And when you hear, “we can’t do that, we don’t have that, it can’t be done," ask yourself: "what are our constraints? Who would we be without them? What can we do to dismantle at least one barrier?” Why not designer jeans?

"CLASS TO MASS” – Modest-income consumers aspire to purchase luxury goods. How can luxury goods become more accessible to the mass audiences you serve? Trickle-down adoption is an innovation strategy that can apply to all consumer products, whether fashion, food, or technology.

A DIVERSE WORKFORCE OUTPERFORMS In Harvard Business Review’s study of venture-backed startups from 1990-2018, researchers found that teams in venture-backed businesses that shared the same ethnicity UNDER-performed diverse groups. A McKinsey study of over 1000 companies found that organizations in the top quartile for ethnic/cultural diversity among executives were 36% more likely to achieve above-average profitability. A diverse workforce of outsiders is not a “woke” philosophy but a strategic advantage.

"GO BIG OR GO HOME" Mohan lived that mantra of the dot-com era. Blessed with deep pockets from his family’s apparel empire, Mohan had unbounded ideas. He recognized the signaling power of a big spend and the compounding effect when it was deployed in an under-utilized media vehicle. That strategy of identifying underutilized media vehicles is still a good one, but "Go Big or Go Home" has a price you may not want to pay -- bankruptcy.

DO IT WELL THE FIRST TIME OR SOMEONE WILL DO IT BETTER. Mohan advertised fashion with celebrity endorsements, but Calvin did it better. Roger Enrico, CEO of PepsiCo and Mohan’s classmate from Babson, did it better still, transforming a Coco-Cola-wannabe into a food and beverage giant through celebrity endorsements, a strategy that Mohan pioneered.

HIRE AN OUTSIDER Mohan was an outsider his entire life. Challenges to the status quo often come from an outsider who can see what insiders can’t. Mohan saw what fashion insiders couldn’t see – how to capture the essence of America in a single brand, Tommy Hilfiger, and how to monetize the aspirations of a burgeoning middle class. Research conducted by Cattani & Ferriani and published in the excellent article in HBR, “How Outsiders Become Gamechangers," suggests that, outsider success occurs not just despite outsider status, but because of it.’

So hire outsiders, a diverse group, who may see what you can’t, who will ask questions you won’t. Experiment to know where to place your big bets. And if you insist on swinging big, have deep pockets. Then one day, you too will transform an industry.

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