By  on June 18, 2007

MILAN — Gucci’s decision to feature several men’s looks in its cruise ’08 runway show at Milk Studios in New York last week confirmed the luxury brand’s commitment to developing its men’s business. But more than that, it crystallized a significant and growing trend in men’s fashion: precollections.

Only a few months earlier, in January, Dolce & Gabbana gave a big nod to the vital November delivery when, for the first time, the designers sent out several pre-spring ’08 looks during their fall ’07 runway show in Milan—looks that debuted 10 months ahead of the time they are scheduled to appear in stores.

Once solely a women’s wear phenomenon, precollections over the past two years have caught on in the men’s market, growing in scale and in direct proportion to the male fashion consumer’s increasing tendency to shop more often. Retailers and fashion executives alike say more trips to the retail floor only heighten a consumer’s expectation to discover something that wasn’t there before.<

“Men also require a constant flow of fresh merchandise,” says Mark Lee, CEO of Gucci. “They have a desire to buy new, fresh products.”

As John Hooks, commercial and marketing director of Giorgio Armani, puts it, “Fashion is at one level about change and about new things replacing the old. People have started to demand a greater turnover of looks and styles and pieces to feed their appetites.”

Precollections, which are available in all of Armani’s lines, now account for 60 to 70 percent of sales each season, according to Hooks.

Blame it on Zara and other fast-fashion chains, along with globalization, warmer climates and a general push toward a high-velocity lifestyle. All those ingredients have sparked a revolutionary change in how men consume and designers produce.

“It’s not just a precollection anymore. It’s become a true and complete collection,” says Domenico Dolce. “These are collections filled with ideas. The ideas, however, have to be balanced and wearable.”

Dolce & Gabbana has been offering men’s pre-spring and pre-fall collections for the past three years, with remarkable results. Dolce tells DNR that more than 80 percent of sales each season are completed before the first guy strides down the runway. From suits to jeans, swim trunks to shoes, Dolce & Gabbana’s early collections are far more than just a reassortment of looks. “What we’re trying to do at this moment of change—where everything is changing, consumer habits and lifestyles—is closely observe the market to better confront it,” Dolce adds.

Listen to Dolce speak about the company’s five to six deliveries a year and you quickly understand that fall/winter and spring/summer are becoming outdated phrases.

Dolce & Gabbana has a “Last Summer” grouping that is delivered in June with pre-fall. Ermenegildo Zegna is testing in Asia “Winter 0,” which hits stores in late May and features year-round fabrics in a palette skewed toward more autumnal shades.

“The summer season is the longest selling season, and in order to create a longer fall season you have to deliver earlier,” says Gildo Zegna, CEO of Ermenegildo Zegna. “We all need to look at how to create a quicker supply chain and flow.”
Dolce & Gabbana, Giorgio Armani, Prada and Gucci—along with tailored clothing heavyweights like Zegna—have been pioneers in developing the right kind of production system to sustain such frequent and comprehensive deliveries.

Etro has worked over the past several years to augment its precollection, which now generates 30 percent of sales. Burberry recently overhauled its selling calendar, jumping from two men’s deliveries a year to five. The pre-spring ’08 season marks the second time Burberry is offering a men’s Prorsum precollection.

Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts says the new cycle enhances both Burberry stores and the brand’s wholesale partners. “The dynamic new strategy has additional supplied benefits, such as a smoother flow to our suppliers and our distribution center,” she notes.

Changing the selling schedule means much more than just minor rejiggering. It impacts everyone from designers—who are now expected to be creative more often—to manufacturers to textile makers to ancillary functions like merchandising, communications and, in the case of Gucci last week, runway productions.

“These precollections still require a certain level of sophistication,” says Tom Kalenderian, executive vice-president and GMM of men’s at Barneys New York. “Designers can’t just pull out a rack of clothes. It takes the same effort to make an effective presentation that is cohesive and consistent enough to articulate the brand.”

To that end, designers like Kean Etro are finding themselves passing more and more time in their design studios.

“Yes, it’s exhausting for the design office,” Etro says. “These collections must present new details and a new point of view. But they also allow the design team to focus on what our brand identity is, and simultaneously allow us to analyze what worked well in the preceding season.”

Merchants, long proponents of earlier deliveries, welcome the sea change with open arms and open wallets. They say the merchandise that arrives early is the merchandise that sells first—and, most important, nearly always at full-price.

“Precollections are essential,” says Barneys Kalenderian. “They help improve profitability and they are very good for business.”

Kalenderian notes that each season a greater portion of their budgets is earmarked for these early buys. Depending on vendor and category, retailers can spend from 30 to 60 percent of their seasonal budgets on precollections.

“When was the last time you heard a customer come in and ask, ‘What’s old?’” says Cody Kondo, senior vice-president and GMM of men’s at Saks Fifth Avenue. “They ask, ‘What’s new?’ To that goal, the notion of flow is important and the precollections indeed help.”

Newness, while essential, is just one factor in the precollection equation. For Neiman Marcus, which operates 65 percent of its stores in warm climates, precollections also help bridge the gap created by higher temperatures.
“Pre-spring delivery is extremely, extremely important for us,” says Russ Patrick, senior vice-president and GMM of men’s at Neiman Marcus and managing director of CUSP. “Pre-spring does not necessarily mean resort summer dressing. It’s more about seasonless fabrications.”

Indeed, precollections are no longer just shorts and swim trunks, and as a result they excite not only customers but sales associates as well. With novelty to promote, the associates—both at designer boutiques and in specialty stores—can do their job more effectively. “The reason so many designer houses have made precollections a priority is because they all have stores,” says Kalenderian. “Their problems are my problems: product flow.”

And that flow becomes more vigorous each season, which could create a potential tax on textile producers that already work with long lead times.

Both Pier Luigi Loro Piana and Paolo Zegna say that, at least for now, women’s wear poses the greater demand. But they maintain that it would be impossible for the textile industry to create four collections of equal size a year.

Some fashion executives also question the implications of continually increasing the number of collections per year. “I have my reservations about this trend,” says Armani’s Hooks. “I believe that fashion should be more timeless and more about elegant design that will endure.”

Design issues also concern Colby McWilliams, men’s fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “I find many precollections not very directional,” he says. “I think more design effort needs to go into them.”

Apparently McWilliams’ wish is being heard. Dolce & Gabbana is moving toward six focused collections that are smaller in size but equal in importance. “There’s been a total change in consumption habits,” says Dolce, adding that the company is now in position to deliver specific groupings of themed collections every two months.

Zegna is implementing a similar strategy based on six clearly defined collections a year. “We have to create a culture of delivering many collections with a different mix more times a year,” says Gildo Zegna.

And while Dolce wholeheartedly believes precollections drive business, he also appreciates the lessons they teach. “Stylistically, precollections allow us to grow as designers,” Dolce says. “When it comes time for runway we can take more risks and really explore a new world for men.”

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