What happens when the fashion show runway serves as the first opportunity for retail shopping? It’s a brand new world for consumer-facing retailing. Or is it?
Today’s mobile-empowered consumer doesn’t want to wait to purchase fast-fashion items through traditional or online retail channels. In response, brands are cutting out the wait between the runway and the retail floor (or online portals) and this concept is resonating with consumers craving the next level of instant gratification.
Last year’s announcement by Mulberry that they would be showing in-season collections elicited a favorable reaction from consumers who no longer wanted to wait, which resulted in designers such as Burberry, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger also jumping on the bandwagon. Hence, the rise of the consumer-facing fashion show that plays to instant gratification of the market, versus adherence to what has now become an obsolete planning calendar. A calendar that was only causing delays and missed opportunities for retailers. These designers and others are taking advantage of consumer spontaneity — and it has the potential to result in more full-price sales, reorders and greater customer satisfaction.
Yet are consumer-facing shows really a novel concept? Or are brands harkening back to the way things used to be? If we look back through fashion history, we see that the “see-buy-wear” concept is nothing new. Rather, it represents a 360-degree return to the fashion shows of the early to mid-20th century.
As early as 1903, the Ehrlich Brothers Department Stores, which are credited with launching the concept of fashion shows in the United States, featured looks in their shows that were available for same-day purchase. By the Twenties, American shows were fixtures within department stores and hotels, enabling the everyday consumer to “See it, Buy it, Wear it.”
The fashion show format was irreversibly changed in 1943. In response to a lack of access to the French runways during World War II, Eleanor Lambert created “Fashion Press Week” and the concept of the American front-row fashion press seat was born. Fashion shows were now newsworthy events and the everyday consumer’s importance to the success of these shows diminished.
During the 1950s and 1960s, many American fashion companies would pay a fee to make line-for-line copies of the haute couture styles on French runways. These copies were manufactured in Fashion District factories and within weeks made it into the shopping bags of eager department store customers.
The rising importance of offshore production, starting in the late 1970s and growing rapidly in the 1980s, impacted production lead times and required the retooling of the fashion calendar. Instead of bringing trends to market quickly, manufacturers and retailers lagged a year or more behind the runways.
The desire for quicker access to trendy looks was inevitable, and starting in the late 1990’s, consumers responded favorably to the rise of fast fashion retailers. According to a 2015 report released by the Joint Economic Committee of the U.S. Congress, the apparel industry has the third highest reshoring growth rate within the manufacturing sector, which is partly fueled by the short lead times required by fast fashion.
Like most industry disrupters, fashion’s move to a “see-now-buy-now” model was not one that happened overnight. A series of gradual, and in some instances interrelated, changes ultimately led to the viability of, and the market’s interest in, consumer-facing fashion shows.
One catalyst was the 2004 launch of Facebook. It gave consumers a platform to connect with brands directly and voice their opinions. Today, three of the top 10 brands on Facebook are fashion-related companies and their combined number of fans exceeds 116 million. The consumer has also played a key role in driving fashion interests on major social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and YouTube.
Around 2006 we began to see individual fashion bloggers — such as Patricia Handschiegel, Susie Lau and Jennine Jacob — create their own audiences. Through their informal, personal commentary, these bloggers moved fashion from a season-based editorial calendar to a 24/7 frenzy. They provided up-close and personal access to fashion influencers, celebrities, and, most importantly, gave their followers a peek into what was trending on the fashion scene.
Numbering 80 million individuals in the U.S. alone, the Millennial customer, the largest generation of consumers ever, is the lead driver in fashion’s new model. This generation is focused on technology, collaboration with peers, rejection of traditional authority figures and “authenticity.”
When it comes to fashion, Millennials aren’t satisfied with being bystanders. They value experiences and want to be a part of the fashion process. Hence the success of crowdfunding, through sites including Kickstarter, Before the Label, and The Petite Shop. As a generation that has grown up with a “now” mentality, they welcome business models like Gilt, Rent the Runway and Gwynnie Bee because of their ease of use and immediacy. And, with the advent of 3-D printing, designers such as Iris van Herpen, Bradley Rothenberg and Nadir Gordon have already started to go from printer to runway.
The most impactful driver in all of this has been the technological advancements in mobile commerce and online payment systems. These enable consumers to shop anywhere, at any time and expect delivery within 24 hours. According to a Forrester Research report, mobile retail sales are expected to reach $142 billion in 2016, with fashion and luxury having the highest share of mobile transactions.
As this shift back to fashion show models of earlier days gains traction, the need to have an available stock of fashion show exclusives will necessitate a revamp of the industry’s current supply chain model. The supply chain will need to transition towards a customer-oriented model, with brands further developing two-way communication with their customers. This may be challenging, but there is also great opportunity to create fashion that is more personal and exciting to consumers — and ultimately more profitable for the industry.
Jacqueline M. Jenkins is the dean of graduate studies and Eda Sanchez-Persampieri is a professor at LIM College.