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The Consumer Shift: Tom Ford Joins In as Debate Rages

Tom Ford becomes the latest designer to throw his hat in the consumer ring

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“We have been living with a fashion calendar and system that is from another era.”

There is growing agreement with Tom Ford’s statement, which he made Friday as he added his name to the list of designers rushing to present consumer-friendly shows and seasonless fashion. But his decision — as well as that of brands such as Burberry, Rebecca Minkoff, Vetements and others — is already spawning major questions. Should ready-to-wear and luxury players follow the patterns of their fast-fashion rivals like Zara and H&M? What happens to the entire supply chain and support system of fashion if the clothes being shown are then sold immediately? Does the entire industry suddenly begin working on a two-month lead time rather than four to six months?

Most importantly, is there the danger that instead of a one-show system, the industry might spawn multiple ones — like some form of Sybil — as some designers show six months in advance, others in-season and some adopt a hybrid approach? Wouldn’t this just add to consumers’ confusion rather than alleviate it?

And the questions only increase by the day.

Ford tossed his hat in the consumer ring just hours after news broke that Burberry would, from September, stage season-less shows twice a year and combine men’s and women’s collections on the catwalk. Immediately after those shows, the clothes will be in stores worldwide so consumers can buy them.

Ford, who had originally planned to show his fall women’s and men’s wear collections during private appointments in New York on Feb. 18, will now present them in September, right before the clothes go into stores.

The designer, a showman to the core, had already alluded to the change over the past few months.

In September, he presented his spring 2016 collection with a virtual fashion show featuring Lady Gaga and directed by Nick Knight.

Late last year he revealed he was going to show his fall 2016 women’s wear and men’s wear collections in “small, intimate presentations” in New York, saying the way in which designers show clothes, not only to the press, but also to the consumer, is changing.

On Friday, he rounded out the thought.

“In a world that has become increasingly immediate, the current way of showing a collection four months before it is available to consumers is an antiquated idea and one that no longer makes sense,” Ford said.

“We spend an enormous amount of money and energy to stage an event that creates excitement too far in advance of when the collection is available to the consumer. Showing the collection as it arrives in stores will remedy this, and allow the excitement that is created by a show or event to drive sales and satisfy our customers’ increasing desire to have their clothes as they are ready to wear them.”

Steven Kolb, chief executive officer of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said the moves by Ford and Burberry underscore the validity of the CFDA’s study with Boston Consulting Group to evaluate the future of fashion shows in New York and if they should be transformed into consumer events featuring in-season collections that are in-store.

“It is a bold underline to the idea of a consumer show strategy, and given the influence of each brand, it speaks loudly to the new concept,” he told WWD. “We plan to share final results of our study in March and it will certainly reflect the thinking of Tom Ford, Burberry and so many others who support change.”

As reported, BCG is surveying industry experts to explore a possible shift to shows that are more closely aligned with retail deliveries, with the ultimate goal of stimulating full-price selling at a time when apparel sales continue to languish as consumers spend more of their money on restaurants and experiences over clothes.

Perhaps because of the BCG study, American designers generally declined comment Friday on the decisions of Burberry and Ford to change their show timings.

Luca Solca, managing director of equities and sector head of luxury goods at Exane BNP Paribas, noted after the Burberry news broke that runway shows had a more obvious business purpose when fashion brands were dependent on wholesale, especially for American department stores, who dispatched separate teams of buyers for men’s and women’s fashion weeks.

“Now most brands depend almost exclusively on their directly operated stores. Fashion shows have become a way to communicate to the media, and the same journalists cover both women’s wear and men’s wear. Hence it makes a lot of sense to combine the two, as you save money in the process and you can make a louder bang with your bucks,” he said. “Kudos to Burberry for being the first to recognize this fully and get to the ultimate consequence — combining the two shows into one.”

In a separate report, Barclays European Retail Equity team also applauded Burberry’s decision, although it did raise supply chain issues.

“The group has a very strong social media following and would expect good sales for immediate delivery coming from the runway shows. This does create some key difficulties — including the supply chain as the designs will have to be manufactured en masse prior to the shows and delivered to store including wholesale accounts and done so without details leaking.

“This seems a very commercial and sensible move in today’s society, where images and demand are created so widely on social media, but delivery is so far in the distance. It remains a controversial area for the industry, with Burberry breaking ranks first of the major global players, and it will be interesting to see how the fashion press responds. The shows are currently created for the fashion media and professional buyers, but are now live-streamed to the consumer. So having a better balance for all the participants of the show appears to make sense.”

Scott Tepper, fashion buying and merchandising director at Liberty, said Burberry’s chief creative and chief executive officer Christopher Bailey “has probably single-handedly” saved the fashion industry from itself.

“The cycle has to adapt or become increasing irrelevant; the customer has told us as clearly as possible they crave immediacy. They need deliveries of light clothes in summer and cold-weather clothes in winter, wherever they live. As they are bombarded with images and commentary of fashion six months before it’s available to them, the problem is hugely compounded by a pretty universal lack of interest. They’ve moved on,” he said.

“We will now finally start to see the sea change the industry desperately needs. All it ever takes is one or two strong visionaries to lead the way and the rest generally follow in the fashion world.”

Osman Yousefzada, who shows during London Fashion Week, said his most successful trunk shows are the ones where customers are able to walk away with product at the end. “The response is greater when you bring stock and a range of sizes,” he said. “That could be amplified. We would have to adjust and transition in bits, but the opportunities of doing consumer-facing shows are so much greater — and financially viable — for the designer. Shows would become more like events, and you could tie up with sponsors and get help with funding.”

Tomaso Trussardi, who helms the family-owned Italian company, also is fully in favor of getting as close as possible to the consumer. He said 35 percent of Trussardi’s retail sales come from flash collections. “We need them to refresh our sales points and we sell them immediately. People don’t want to have to wait anymore.”

His sister, creative director Gaia Trussardi, said “it would make more sense to show what is in the stores on the runway” and the new collections to wholesale buyers separately behind closed doors or by appointment. “We must have the courage to evolve,” she said, hinting at a future project, although she did not give any details.

Yet designers and executives in Europe stressed that while they are open to change, few are ready to go whole hog and shift the system to end consumers.

“I understand the rationale behind Burberry’s decision, considering their business model, the characteristics of their business and product assortments, and recent strategic decisions,” said Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode.

However, he noted that no designers that show in Paris have requested a shift to a consumer-facing format.

“Paris is about real creativity, real craftsmanship and, in terms of business model, we have shown we are able to build very powerful brands,” he said. “On the other side, that doesn’t mean we aren’t constantly monitoring, adjusting and evolving. When we all agree on a consensus, we’ll definitely see if any changes have to be made.”

Designers still reliant on the wholesale channel said they would stick with the current show system.

Gareth Pugh said earlier this week — even before Burberry’s announcement — that industry-focused shows won’t be going away anytime soon.

“I think that’s the thing with people who talk about fashion, who write about fashion, who watch fashion shows. There’s that great mentality around being invited to a show, and going, and being made to feel special. That mentality, I think, is very difficult to extinguish.

“Whenever we’ve done a film to replace the catwalk show, we’ve always had a presentation where we invite people to give them that feeling of being a little bit special,” he added.

Pugh’s principal investor, fellow designer Rick Owens, is on the same page.

“I think I’ll go on being an alternative for people who are OK with consuming more slowly,” said Owens, who shows during Paris Fashion Week. “I don’t think people really come to me for red-hot items that they have to have right away, so I’m not really qualified to judge.”

That said, Owens was not against shaking things up.

“I think experimentation and disturbing the status quo is always stimulating. There’s a world of enthusiastic and avid shopping that it makes sense to serve right away,” he said.

Karl Lagerfeld, too, said he’s not against changes to the fashion system “if the future goes in that direction. I’m not against it. But I would never do it the same way.”

For one, he’s no fan of the term season-less. “It’s like meaningless,” he said. “There can be collections you deliver immediately.”

But in Lagerfeld’s estimation, companies that produce complex garments and use special materials would need to “make two collections — one immediate, and one available in six months. It’s a way to do the future and the present. It’ll just mean a little more work, ha ha ha.”

Lagerfeld noted that delivering clothes several months after their unveiling is not necessarily a bad thing. “There’s also the excitement of waiting for something,” he said.

The London-based designer Alexander Lewis would agree. He said the future may well be about multiple business models, and ways of accessing the customer. “As a company, we’re focused on slowness. We like to offer a personal service there are lots of changes we make to client orders. At the end of the day, it all boils down to this ‘What is the best way to reach your client directly?’”

Christopher Raeburn, another independent London designer, said there needs to be a balance between satisfying the industry and the consumer. “The industry is moving faster and the immediacy cannot be sustainable long-term. I think it’s important to involve, understand and include your customers, but this needs to be done in a way that doesn’t destroy the industry’s creativity.”

Alice Temperley of Temperley London said, “Digital and social media have changed radically the world of fashion and influenced the way brands communicate with customers. Of course this sets new rules and new challenges. Potential customers can see the collections and they start wondering why they need to wait for months before they can actually buy. Press and buyers will need to adjust as well. However, I think the biggest impact would be on the supply chain. We can show the collections right before they go on sale, this is something we decided to do this year at London Fashion Weekend and I think it’s an interesting evolution for the fashion market. Fashion is dynamic and this is the next challenge and frontier of fashion.”

A spokesman for Dries Van Noten said it would not be feasible for the Antwerp-based company to switch to a consumer-facing format.

“As things stand, we need the lead time to make the garments in time for market,” he explained. “For a company of our size, product quality and offer, this would necessitate great collusion with our manufacturers. A pro is certainly that there would be less fatigue within the marketplace over the six months of images of garments that have not yet been distributed. A con might be that the manufacturers we depend on to produce our collections might have difficulty in dealing with the pace of production.”

To make any shift, he noted, “would require a way of having the orders placed without the distribution of images. At the moment, it is difficult to see how this might be done as successfully without conveying the overall image and atmosphere of the collection that a fashion show, under the current system, provides.”

Some European companies have already experimented with immediate deliveries.

“In February 2014, Moschino was the first brand to present a McDonald’s-themed capsule collection which hit our flagships, as well as a selected group of brick-and-mortar and online multibrand stores, a few hours after its debut on the catwalk. I support the research and development of new solutions, which, however, has to be accepted by the whole system,” said Massimo Ferretti, president of Aeffe, the Italian manufacturer that controls Moschino.

“On the other side, I don’t think it’s realistic that buyers and press continue to be ‘eternal travelers’ of fashion. Some changes are necessary — and of course online plays, and will keep playing, a more and more relevant role. But fashion shows are still fundamental as creative stimulus and communication tools,” he added.

The advent of more consumer-facing shows also impinges on the role of the press, which currently makes up the bulk of the audience at fashion shows.

Suzy Menkes, fashion editor for 19 international editions of Vogue online, stressed she’s not opposed to new formats and that the present system is far from ideal. That said, consumer-facing shows would represent a “game changer” for fashion critics, who “see fashion as something more than clothing for sale,” make a judgment on the artistic side, and put fashion in a broader context.

Menkes noted it’s curious how critics are still invited to couture shows — long a business-to-consumer showcase — and how the addition of celebrities at fashion shows has changed the dynamics of the runway.

Cathy Horyn, critic at large for The Cut at New York Magazine, echoed Lagerfeld’s point that delayed gratification shouldn’t be dismissed.

“If the industry follows Burberry’s see-it-buy-it model, I am kind of curious what happens to the notion of anticipation. That’s always been vital to fashion. Maybe that notion is already history, but I like to think not yet,” she said.

Yet Horyn said she was ready for anything.

“Taking the long view, fashion writers have been adjusting to changes in the industry for more than 100 years, roughly since the invention of the Marconi wireless. Every time there’s a technological leap — phone, telex, analogue, digital — reporters have had to retool their ground game.

“But the game is still about being able to recognize to the exceptional — exceptional talent, the meaningful undercurrent — amid the status quo and the blurry mass of brands. That’s a big enough challenge today, with or without the Burberry move, and it remains an individual effort,” she added.

The London-based designer Lewis said he believes the new buy-now, wear-now structure will impact the magazine business the most. “It raises the question of when do you put the clothes in the magazines? Or are brands going to rely more on dailies and weeklies? Or purely on digital?”

Rosanna Falconer, business director at Matthew Williamson, agreed that long-lead titles would suffer the most.

Williamson recently quit the runway altogether in favor of one-on-one showroom appointments, and buy-now, wear-now collections that drop regularly throughout the year.

“Our exclusive wholesale partner is Net-a-porter.com, who knows our consumer and brand so well that they are able to order well in advance. As for press, this new calendar obviously excludes certain editions of long-lead press. It is well suited to their online counterparts — short leads and bloggers,” she said.

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