Getting a Jump on Fall

To serve their customers in the long gap between the spring and fall deliveries, retailers are devoting increasing amounts of open-to-buy to pre-fall collections.

“I have a shopping mentality,” said Karl Lagerfeld. “The boredom of a shop where nothing is new for several months is horrible.”

Lagerfeld isn’t alone when it comes to shopping. Neither rain nor sleet nor hail can stop a fashion devotee from crossing the boutique threshold once, twice or more times a week to splurge on the newest designer merch.

To serve their customers in the long gap between the spring and fall deliveries, retailers are devoting increasing amounts of open-to-buy to pre-fall collections. In the process, the season has transformed from the commercial footnote to a company’s fall runway collection into a major fashion force that often accounts for up to 70 percent of its total fall business.

“Five years ago, pre-fall was a very small business of mostly classic pieces,” Caroline Brown, Giorgio Armani’s senior vice president, marketing and communications, noted. “But then the designer consumer became so trained in shopping early and steadily that the business grew significantly, driven by just that.”

Designers, for their part, are realizing pre-fall’s business potential and have started channeling more creativity into the collections. Lagerfeld, who added a luxury Atelier collection to Chanel’s pre-fall assortment in 2003, said that pre-collections must be as enticing as clothes made for the runway. “There is no commercial part anymore,” he said. “That doesn’t sell anymore.”

Oscar de la Renta has chosen for the past two years to unveil pre-fall at an intimate fashion show for editors and buyers at his Seventh Avenue showroom in December. “Showing a collection that stands on its own and delivering it sooner helps get the customer into stores, and it gives the merchandise more time to sell at full price,” said Alex Bolen, chief executive officer at Oscar de la Renta, where pre-fall bookings are up 15 percent from last year.

According to some, pre-fall’s growth was triggered by changing consumer habits. Where once fall purchases were made in August, educated consumers, aware of fall trends by going online within hours of the runway show, now tire of spring looks quickly. Come mid-May, they are ready for pre-fall — especially to secure early on the key looks to wear through fall.

This story first appeared in the January 23, 2006 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

“There is a particular kind of woman who, in her hurried and harried life, wants to shop early, get it out of the way and have it in her closet, ready to be worn,” said Michael Fink, senior fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue.

Pre-fall typically arrives on selling floors in early June and can stay there at full price as late as November, which makes it a boon to retailers who benefit from those better margins. “The sooner you deliver, the longer it

lasts in the store and the better the sell-through you have,” noted Sidney Toledano, ceo of Christian Dior, where pre-fall represents 70 percent of the entire fall season.

Retailers are also increasingly embracing pre-fall because it offers a smoother transition between spring and fall without relying on summer, which, at that point, has a much shorter shelf life and could quickly become a retail liability.

“You get the consumer accustomed to new trends in a forward-looking way rather than not flowing goods at all, or flowing more summer merchandise,” Ed Bucciarelli, president and ceo at Henri Bendel, said. “We try to buy it in

a wear-now way. The prints and colors may hint of fall, but the fabrics are often lighter.”

Linda Fargo, Bergdorf Goodman’s women’s fashion director, said pre-fall’s transitional nature is of particular appeal. “It tips you off on the direction of trends, and can also become a precursor to the designers’ fall collections,” she said. “It becomes a bit like a weather vane. It tells you which way the wind is blowing.”

Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière said a pre-collection should do three things: give a partial preview of the runway collection to come, introduce a fresh trend that will disappear by show time and supply “must-haves” from last season, a demand that could not be met in time for reorders. “It’s really complete. It’s the future, part of the past and also about the present moment,” he said.

Most designers don’t stage runway shows for pre-fall, and instead opt to present the collections to buyers and to the press in the more intimate environs of their showrooms. “It’s really nice to be able to make a collection and not have to create a whole [runway] show around it,” Ghesquière said. “It’s really about making clothes.”

For Michael Kors, pre-fall is more seasonless and item-driven. “In fall, the customer has more of a tendency to buy head-to-toe, because she saw it that way on the runway,” he said. “Pre-fall is about the delicious pieces…those that will persuade you to buy something when you shouldn’t be shopping.”

Dolce & Gabbana’s entire fall season, meanwhile, is threefold. The duo opens pre-fall in November; the main collection, in early February, and the runway collection, at the end of February. They respectively account for 30 percent, 50 percent and 20 percent of business in the U.S. “There is a very strong design integrity between the three steps because consumers aren’t looking for basics,” said Glenn McMahon, president of Dolce & Gabbana USA. “We’ve registered double-digit growth on pre-fall compared to a year ago.”

Valerie Hermann, president of Yves Saint Laurent, said its pre-fall now accounts for 60 percent of the overall fall-winter season. While pre-fall collections tend to be lighter on eveningwear than cruise, Hermann said YSL strives to seize on every wearing occasion, though knitwear remains a key category for pre-fall, as does washed silk.

Not everyone is as ardently supportive of the season, though. Donna Karan, who opened it this month, has long been a proponent of shifting the delivery cycle to have clothes delivered in the actual season they target. She added that, because pre-fall is so close to fall, it can be a distraction in a designer’s creative process. “I don’t like showing pre-fall because it’s a work in progress. It breaks the flow,” she said. “As a designer, every time you complete something, there is an energy depletion. I want to exhale, but you can’t because you do the process twice in such a short period of time.”

Luca Luca designer Luca Orlandi suggested moving the fall shows to January, so that designers could present pre-fall and fall, as well as couture where applicable, on one runway. “It would be one big collection,” Orlandi said. “The buyers would come and put 100 percent of their fall budgets into this point of view. We can then show spring at the end of July and have the whole month of August to sell it.”

With contributions from Miles Socha, Paris, and Alessandra Ilari, Milan