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Where are we going?

Fashion today is percolating with equal parts anticipation and nerves. This industry supposedly based on change, but often quite blissfully cemented in its ways, has been shockingly slow in its embrace of technology. The current collection season has felt like something of a watershed, with countless houses trying fervently to catch up, and others wondering, as Anna Sui put it, “How did everybody get so hip so quickly?”

This story first appeared in the March 10, 2010 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

To that end, WWD posed to a cross section of the industry an initial one-question query: With many houses now live streaming directly to consumers, is it time to consider changing the shows to a retail schedule — show spring just in advance of the spring selling season and fall in advance of fall?

The question led to a broader exploration of issues about which many are passionate, and often unsettled — issues falling under that broadly arching umbrella, The Fashion System.

Some respondents stayed on new media point, while others veered off to parallel issues. Most agreed that the industry is staring wide eyed, and perhaps a little frightened, into the unknown. On the issue of retail-timed shows, one might have assumed an age divide, at least on the designer end. Not so. Many cited as stumbling blocks production requirements and long-lead press needs, as well as the belief that the goal of a show triggers heightened design bravado.

However, no less a powerhouse than Ralph Lauren is leading the charge in direct-to-consumer shows; December’s online Rugby event increased the collection’s business by a multiple of 10. “It’s not a matter of should we do it. We’ve done it,” Lauren said, noting that his next such effort will be for Lauren, on March 17.

Tommy Hilfiger sees two seasonal shows in his future: one for trade and one for consumers, the latter timed as the clothes hit the stores. “The small guys,” he said, “wouldn’t be able to afford it. But the larger, global brands would benefit.”

At the young end of the scope, Proenza Schouler’s Lazaro Hernandez noted that he and partner Jack McCollough see immediate postshow retailing as a “logical next step.” He said they are open to change and “pretty nimble. That’s why I’m not scared.”

Still, most people questioned found the notion of shows on a retail schedule impractical. Which is not to say hear-hear for the status quo. Burberry’s Angela Ahrendts called the current timing “terrific,” and Marc Jacobs also said he’s quite happy with the dates as they are. “That first season of change would be a nightmare,” he said, “just as it was in days of Helmut Lang.”

Others prefer that the shows move to any time other than when they are. Michael Kors and Pierre Rougier fall into the too-early camp, and think a slide-back of an undetermined number of weeks would help immeasurably. Conversely, there is considerable sentiment for earlier shows. Karl Lagerfeld suggests, “They should do the men and women together.” A number of retailers think on a similar track: Move the major shows up to where most of the business is, to the pre-fall and resort showings.

Yet the issue that triggered the most discourse was an old one: deliveries. Though few said it outright, the consensus is that maybe Donna Karan has had a point all along. Retailers still insist that early is better; it’s when women shop, but with an emphasis on “wear now.” Which seems another way of saying that July might not be the best time for a run on meaty wools. Calvin Klein’s Tom Murry noted that, due to the recession, consumers are shopping later and later, and that the buying patterns of stores and their consumers “are moving in opposite directions.”

As for Karan, she is not at all mellowed by years of lonely protest. “Pre-fall,” she said, “shouldn’t exist. I’m sorry. Wrong. Let’s start there. May is when summer starts.”

Here, various industry personalities weight in. Through next week, WWD.com will feature more in-depth conversations with some of the respondents.

Today’s subjects: Ralph Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld. >>

 

Ralph Lauren: We have been experimenting here in this company. With Rugby, business increased tenfold when we did the virtual show when the product was in the stores. It was amazing. We have been experimenting [elsewhere] — the iPhone, other things; David [Lauren] has worked on a lot of these projects. So, the concept of doing a show that goes right to the consumer, it’s not a matter of should we do it. We’ve done it. Now, Lauren is next. That’s going to be a whole show on March 17.

The issue is [the industry] has fashion shows that a lot of designers can’t afford; they spend a fortune. And there are designers that can afford it. But where do we get the biggest bang for our buck?…

My opinion has always been that the press doesn’t need the bells and whistles, they don’t need the celebrities, they don’t need any of that. I think it’s at retail where all that other stuff is important — how the show goes, what the music is, what’s happening, what’s hip, who are the celebrities, who’s wearing what, that comes at retail. It comes when the clothes go into the stores and the consumer is then saying, “Oh wow, I want to see what’s going on.”

For more on Ralph Lauren’s thoughts on the modern fashion stystem >>

Karl Lagerfeld: We are in the middle of change, like the movies changed. There will be a change from two dimensions to three dimensions, just as films went from silent to talking. This is a very interesting period. There is nothing you can do to prevent it. These are our times and if you start to fight against them, you are lost. You are a loser or a has-been…

That said, I don’t believe in selling luxury online because shopping is pleasant. E-commerce deprives people of the pleasure of shopping in beautiful shops. And, you know, fashion is not only what the clothes are made of: It’s the feeling of luxury where you shop, how you shop, the way parcels are beautifully wrapped. (Online) there are too many fakes, too many copies. Originals still have to be seen and touched. Because expensive clothes are not only about the look it’s also about the touch.

[Regarding the show calendar] They should do men and women together [in January and June]. The men, why they are so early? Men’s clothes are much easier to produce than women’s clothes. So why don’t they do it all together? That would be wonderful.

Giorgio Armani: I raised the question a few days before the Milan shows. It’s been a while now that retailers concentrate their orders on pre-collections, reserving the final touch of freshness to the trendier part of the collection. So the question I pose is whether or not it makes sense to put on the runway a collection of which 80 percent has already been bought, but that will arrive in the stores six months later?

The problems in changing are multiple because it would mean playing havoc with an entire system that was formed over the years, one that includes increasingly earlier delivery dates, to the point of having winter clothes in the windows at the end of June.

For monthly magazines, the process would be complicated because they would need to completely revise their timing. I think it would be possible to change things with the collaboration of everyone. The sector needs to face these issues. Since today many fashion houses own both their production facilities and their stores, I think it’s possible to do in the less traumatic manner and without the pretense that it will happen in six months.

Donna Karan: Pre-fall shouldn’t exist, I’m sorry. Wrong. Let’s start there. We’ve got to bring clothes into season….Pre-fall shouldn’t be called pre-fall; it should be summer. May is when summer starts. This is where the problem is…

My philosophy is that fall starts in August, and you don’t do markdowns until after Christmas, the way it used to be. Don’t go into the holiday season on sale. It’s the biggest disaster…

Now, resort hits the stores in October, November. I am canceling that. Bye bye. We [would now] ship a good percentage of fall in September, October, November.

Miuccia Prada: It’s all so crazy. It’s all wrong, but I’m not sure what the solution is. We probably should turn around what we show much faster because we care very much about our stores, and we try to put in as many new things as we can without exaggerating.

But then again, technically, we need some time between the show and when the clothes go into the stores. In our case, all the fabrics are exclusive, which means we need to test what I experiment [with]. Because we sell the collections primarily in our own stores, we can tweak the formula to best suit our needs. So I’m not sure if it makes any sense to change the dates.

For me personally, shows make a lot of sense because I would work less without them. I need that tension to really deliver something new. You really make an effort to do your best and to highlight your thoughts for the show.

As for live streaming, it’s many years that everyone sees everything immediately and there’s no going back. It’s part of the progress. Sometimes though, the invasion of privacy is terrifying.

Karen Katz, president and ceo, Neiman Marcus: [One] important thing about the shows, putting aside for a minute the seasonality and the timeliness of it — I think keeping people’s focus on fashion, just in general, is extremely important for the life of the business. Fashion is so accessible through the Internet now, through blogging, and all of that. I think that only serves to really help the business of fashion. And part of what we do is running the business of fashion, so the runway shows — yes, they’re directional, but I also view it as keeping in the forefront of people’s minds the topic of fashion. And so, the shows are really good for our industry.

Ron Frasch, president and chief merchandising officer, Saks Fifth Avenue: If you move the shows close to when the deliveries are, the press is going to be put into a position where they can’t respond because of their lead time, so I’m not sure that’s really valid. My sense is that it’s probably a couple of steps. Step one is enlivening the pre-collection communication and promotion to the consumers. The funny thing is that the woman who buys early today is the fashionista, more so than the more commercial shopper. So if the commercial [line] comes early and the fashion comes later, the fashionista isn’t getting what she wants early. My recommendation in a perfect world would be that the shows were timed to the early part of the season, the early part of the deliveries, which is when the true fashion customer is buying, and the September, October deliveries, when the runway deliveries now commence, would be more for the commercial part. Let’s call it 80 percent of the buys for the stores are early and 20 percent are during runway. It should be reversed.

Frida Giannini, Gucci: I think consumers today are [extremely] sophisticated. They absolutely recognize the seasonality of fashion. They enjoy the preview that the new technologies are allowing them to receive, but they certainly understand it in that context.

Stella McCartney: But the reality is that there is so much to do and, of course, our industry is going to change like every other industry. You can’t stand still in time. But the problem we have is that, at the end of the day, we create a product, and it takes a certain amount of time that you cannot avoid to make that product. So you’re always looking at a frustrating delay from what the consumer sees to when they get it — that’s just unavoidable. But there are definitely new and different ways of approaching it and different ways of playing with that, and that’s exciting. That’s one of the most exciting things about the industry at the moment.

Narciso Rodriguez: This topic spawned such a conversation [with] Kathy Kalesti, who handles sales, here in my office. She said to me, “If you were to change the shows, you could show spring now.” “No,” I said. Because what a designer felt six months ago isn’t what he’s going to put down the runway today.

A big company can produce a lot and pick and choose from a warehouse what they’re going to send down a runway when it’s showtime. What about young designers? What about smaller companies? Who can afford to do that? To take a chance like that on production? I had a friend who designed for a huge company that did that. It lost its luster. They had a great team of designers, who were not so into doing the show with clothing from three months ago.

 

Timing is a tough one. It’s the problem and the wonder of the Internet. All the magazines and papers have suffered because of it. Now I think it’s that moment of drawn-out revelation that’s everything changing around you, and you wonder what the next step should be. I don’t have the answer in my hand.

Marc Jacobs: You can’t slow down the world. You can’t. The Internet exists, and people’s desire for information exists and so it’s a big vicious thing, cycle, circle, whatever it’s called, what can you do? You can’t slow down progress, and this supposedly is progress. But I don’t really know how, you could possibly show something and ship it within time because there are still production patterns to be made. I don’t see how that could work, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. I just don’t know the answer on how it could.

Anna Sui: The show is my one shot at showcasing what it is I’m believing in for the season…

We’re looking into live streaming for next season. I mean, when I read it in Women’s Wear, I thought, “How did everybody get so hip so fast?”

Angela Ahrendts, chief executive officer, Burberry: We are a big, 1.2 billion sterling, which is nearly $2 billion, publicly traded brand that plays in 50 countries around the world. We have got to have a very pure message that comes out. The runway show is the pinnacle…

 

The consumer that you’re taking it to [via live streaming] is the early adopter. It’s not like the show is going out to the masses. It’s almost like you’re giving the high-net worth individual something to excite and entice them again.

Carla Sozzani, owner, Corso Como 10: I think spring should show in July. Rather than distancing the pre-collections and runway shows by four months as many houses do, why not just do one show [each season] as in the past and hold it between June and July?

Diane von Furstenberg: We are surfing the tsunami. We don’t have all the answers, for sure. The world is changing, and you have to adapt to it. But I don’t think we should emphasize [showing to consumers] in advance of the season. Which is why I love the idea of Fashion’s Night Out: It forces the designers to go down to their shops or to whichever stores to do things when the merchandise is in the store.

Ed Filipowski, president, KCD: This is the biggest dilemma: How do you find the balance between fashion purism and the new technology? I don’t think we’re anywhere near answering it, unless some genius comes out of the door and does something that changes everybody.

Alber Elbaz, Lanvin: There’s this feeling in fashion that everything has to be faster. We presented the pre-collection in New York for the first time this year, and it was all over the Internet right away. By the time we came back to Paris, it was old news, and so we didn’t do our usual presentation at the Crillon.

Patrizio di Marco, president and ceo, Gucci: Seeing the collections first-hand on the runway and in the showrooms immediately afterwards cannot be replaced by a virtual experience. Nor can all of the meetings that go on around fashion week, which are also another important aspect of these seasonal industry gatherings.

Jason Wu: I don’t think live streaming the show just to live stream the show necessarily benefits the company, and wouldn’t necessarily help it sell more clothes. But doing it as an online event with a retailer can be very beneficial.

Laura Mulleavy, Rodarte: I feel like the shows should be before the major holidays….When you’re working with mills in Italy, they take off the time and they’re closed and there’s no dialogue to be had about anything that’s coming in. If it comes in wrong at the beginning of January, then what do you do? You could get things done more efficiently if these two huge holidays weren’t standing in your way. But then you’d have to figure out what time frame.

Robert Duffy, president, Marc Jacobs: [Live streaming fall] doesn’t lessen interest in spring. We’re having a great spring season. People want things that are different. That’s what fashion is about — change. You know Marc. Every season it’s something different. That’s what he does; he’s an artist. He’s creating something, and it’s always evolving into something else and something else will stimulate him.

And the customers will respond. They want what they see on the runway. We had a spring collection that looked like birthday cakes, and then we had a fall show that was all beige and tonal and everything just looks purely luxurious and not frivolous at all. But it is the same person.

Lazaro Hernandez, Proenza Schouler: What’s the point of showing these clothes so early on and having them on Style.com and having them on the Internet and having them worn by celebrities and this whole thing so quickly, when you’re promoting a product that’s not even available to buy? That doesn’t make sense. If this entire machine was happening and these clothes were actually available to be bought at that moment, that would revolutionize things.

Marigay McKee, fashion and beauty director, Harrods: The virtual front-row seat that viewers receive feeds their unquenchable appetite for fashion. Technological developments mean designers are utilizing the Web to raise their profile and communicate directly to a massive audience.

Pierre Rougier, owner, PR Consulting: Shows are too early, there’s no question about it. I think everybody agrees, and everybody each season wonders why are the shows so early and no one can really figure out who decides that the shows are going to be so early. You pretty much show the fall-winter a month after you show the pre-collection. It’s crazy. Everybody says it’s the other one’s fault. If you ask the retailers, they’ll say it’s the press. If you ask the press, they’ll say it’s the retailers. If you ask the press or retailers, they’ll probably tell you it’s the designers. No one really knows. Maybe someone knows. That person or that group needs to come forward and say why the shows are so early.

Michael Kors: We are incredibly cognizant of the fact that you’ve got to have clothes that you can put on that day. The simple truth is no woman is interested in looking at a white linen suit in Chicago on Feb. 1. The same thing with pre-fall. I don’t understand these pre-fall collections that are full of bulletproof tweed and fox boleros and 30-ply sweaters. They look divine, but it’s May.

Kate Mulleavy, Rodarte:
I believe in change. It’s just that I think it can cause problems, possibly sacrificing craftsmanship, which is intrinsic to the business as a whole and is the cornerstone of luxury. You need to know that when you’re spending a certain amount of money, this is a very special product with the framework that makes it special.

Natalie Massenet, founder and chairman, Net-a-porter.com: We need to rejig the schedule in order to market products the consumer can buy now. Yes, the process will be painful, but we need to be showing the spring collections now….Buyers and the press have been privileged and blessed to be in this little club, but now the consumer is in the room with us, and everything has changed.

Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director, Neiman Marcus: We would actually welcome the idea of strong fashion imagery and that fashion message being closer to the selling period. I think the challenge is for the press — who are so hungry to deliver information earlier than competitive publications or get it earlier than what’s happening on the Internet. I mean, we as retailers would actually welcome the idea of the big message of the fashion shows happening closer to the selling time.

Tom Murry, ceo, Calvin Klein: It’s very difficult to either make money or keep from losing a lot of money in a collection business, so I think that [retail-timed shows] would be really difficult to pull off. The other point is that consumers are buying later and later and later, yet the pre-seasons are getting proportionately bigger and bigger and bigger.

Tommy Hilfiger: I think that we need both. We should have shows for the press and the buyers, early, as we do now. We should also have shows showing the consumer what is at retail, what it should look like on a person, how it’s accessorized, and romance it a bit. For a business like ours, it would be very beneficial.

Ed Burstell, buying director, Liberty: The importance of runway shows to retailers continues to decrease, but they aren’t dead yet! You can certainly tell if a collection is good by watching it online, but you cannot tell if it is a “landmark” collection — that magic does not yet come through on the screen.

Roland Mouret: I would love if my customers could see the show, and then go online and have it the next day. Today, it is all about serving the end customer….I think the magazines in general are missing something today — they’re not giving the customers worldwide an intimate, personal message about the clothes.

Wen Zhou, ceo, 3.1 Phillip Lim: Live streaming doesn’t [negatively] affect [current retail]. There’s direct-to-consumer marketing for news, but what’s in the stores now is what girls want now.

We don’t know how to project what to buy, how to produce — it takes four to six months to produce what we’re going to show. The best idea is to shift the shows later and shift the deliveries later to be more in season. [Last month] if you looked outside, it was a blizzard, but you couldn’t find a pair of gloves in the stores. Everyone in the industry recognizes the problem but no one is really addressing it on the bigger picture. We have to really look at the pros and cons of this and figure out how to change this.

Sarah Rutson, fashion director, Lane Crawford: We’re all in the market for five weeks, spending 25 percent of the budget on runway collections, and yet we shoot out just five days for 75 percent of the budget on pre-collections. Can someone explain that to me? Pre-collections need to become the circus, in January and June.

Thakoon Panichgul: Do I think that live streaming is going to become the norm? It feels like it’s already that. From seeing McQueen live stream last season, and then all of a sudden this season, 20 designers did it. It’s almost like everyone is already doing it and it feels kind of old already. It might become one of those things, like you need to do a look book, you need to live stream.

 

 

 

Stay tuned to WWD.com this week for more in-depth conversations with fashion designers and executives.

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