LONDON — All hail, the end consumer.
Tom Ford has become the latest designer to cancel his runway presentation this season in favor of one-on-one appointments with press and buyers as designers seek alternative ways of showcasing their collections in a bid to reach the increasingly demanding — and sophisticated — end customer.
On Thursday, the designer revealed plans to show his men’s and women’s collections in “small, intimate” presentations during New York Fashion Week on Feb. 18. He had originally planned to stage his first men’s runway show next month in London — where he usually does one-on-one appointments in January and June.
Ford — who has over the years experimented with a variety of formats, including the splashy runway show, the discreet showroom affair and, most recently, a fashion film featuring Lady Gaga directed by Nick Knight — said this season he wanted to focus on the detail, and the individual examining it.
“In previous seasons, I have presented the collections in my London showroom to the press in an informal format that allows me to speak with journalists while they view and touch the clothes. As we all know, the way in which we show clothes, not only to the press, but also to the consumer, is changing,” he said Thursday.
“Right now, I think that a certain fluidity is necessary in regards to how we communicate with the consumer. The most important thing to me with a presentation is that it communicates the message of the season and the point of view of the collection. Next season, it feels right to return to a format that is intimate and shows the detail of the clothes.”
Ford is the latest designer to eschew the runway in favor of a more exclusive gathering. Last week, one of London Fashion Week’s hot young stars — and a showman to the core — Thomas Tait said he was turning his back on the catwalk in favor of one-on-one presentations in Paris during fashion week.
The recipient of the inaugural LVMH Prize, the 28-year-old Tait most recently won the Emerging Womenswear designer accolade at the British Fashion Awards last month and he has an overarching need to talk through specific pieces in the collection.
Both the sensational aspect of the shows — and, crucially, their timing — are coming under increased scrutiny from designers and the industry at large, which is calling into question their fundamental purpose, which is to sell clothes to the consumer who increasingly has a buy-now-wear-now mentality and who wants to know why she’s forking out so much money for a certain piece.
Earlier this week the Council of Fashion Designers of America said it had retained Boston Consulting Group to conduct a study to define the future of fashion shows. BCG will survey industry experts to explore a possible shift to shows that are more closely aligned with retail deliveries. The idea would be to make the shows more consumer facing — rather than industry-focused — by presenting in-season collections that are already in the stores.
Ford and Tait aren’t the only ones taking action: Last week Hunter said it was leaving London Fashion Week as part of a new strategy to speak directly to its audience via music festivals and its own retail stores. The brand said it’s looking to “explore and amplify its authentic connection” to music festivals with multiple customer-facing moments planned globally for 2016.
The British Fashion Council, too, has been experimenting for a while on a hybrid solution to the designers’ dilemma. “In London we have had a consumer fashion week, London Fashion Weekend, for several years,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive officer of the BFC, referring to the days following the fashion shows when the public can tour the LFW showrooms and purchase samples directly from the brands.
“Over recent years there have been many conversations about how we blur lines between London Fashion Week and London Fashion Weekend, as designers increase consumer engagement in shows through social, live-streaming and, for a select few, the show experience,” she said. “There is no doubt in future seasons these lines will blur even more as designers opt to do in-season shows. However, we need to ensure those businesses that rely on platforms such as fashion weeks to reach new wholesale partners and media continue to have the opportunity to do so.”
Wendy Malem, director of the Centre for Fashion Enterprise in London, which helps young fashion talent build viable businesses, said the latest generation of designers is already looking beyond the catwalk to reach the end-consumer.
“Designers are having to find smarter ways to approach business now. They are actively engaged in social media and are strategically and personally networked and connected — aiming to build key personal and business relationships,” she said. “Even the smaller designer businesses need to internationalize fast, and digital connectivity is giving competitive advantage to these talented entrepreneurs, as sponsorship has dropped away and designers are having to look beyond the catwalk to express themselves and show their wares.”
A prime example of that new generation is Jonathan Anderson: The designer, who is also creative director of Loewe, has investors in LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, and has no plans to abandon the catwalk. He treasures the runway moment as a way of communicating both with the industry and the end consumer.
“For me, the runway is incredibly important, especially for social media,” he said. “During the show, you are getting 1,000 pictures from different angles, content that is being shared. It’s a good way to engage with your audience, and it also creates a deadline for your work.
“Both for J.W. Anderson and for Loewe, it allows you to offer a very unique experience, and the challenge we now face is translating that experience online and getting people excited and engaged.”