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See-now-buy…bye?

And then there were four. Of the five major brands that have beat the drum for see-now-buy-now within the last 12 to 18 months, one has drastically shifted course from the strategy in the last two weeks, specifically Tom Ford. That leaves Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry and Rebecca Minkoff as the main poster children for the movement. The industry at large was never wholly sold on the idea of see-now-buy-now, so how does Ford’s defection bode for it?

It depends on whom you ask.

Ford alone might not be enough to scare off the power brands that have embraced the concept, but there is a growing sense that the momentum that drove see-now-buy-now into the zeitgeist for the September 2016 shows has dwindled. For now, all of the remaining designers who have implemented see-now-buy-now fashion shows are planning to go forward with them, at least in the short term. That doesn’t mean there isn’t some degree of wait-and-see going on.

“Right now, it’s doing well,” said Ralph Lauren, who radically shifted his model beginning in September, staging a see-now-buy-now collection show even after he had already shown and produced a fall 2016 collection the previous February. Lauren noted that opting for immediacy drew new online retailer partners to pick up the collection. As for the most recent lineup shown in February, he said the reaction has been positive but it’s still early days, with only roughly six weeks of selling on which to base feedback.

“If you call me in two months, then I might say it slowed down; I don’t know,” said Lauren. “It’s working right now. If it doesn’t work, I won’t do it. I don’t think it’s written in blood.” Lauren does plan to stage a see-now-buy-now show in September.

Ralph Lauren on the Spring 2017 runway.

Ralph Lauren on the spring 2017 runway.  AP/REX/Shutterstock

Burberry was one of the earliest adapters of see-now-buy-now, shifting to a seasonless, twice-a-year show strategy in September 2016. The company plans to continue with the model, which is working well, although sales figures for the runway alone are never disclosed. Burberry confirmed that a number of items sold out online and in-store following both see-now-buy-now shows, including the military-style jackets from the September show, and the Bridle bag from the February one.

Christopher Bailey, chief creative and chief executive officer, has always taken a flexible position. “We don’t have all the answers and we’re working through this,” he said following the September show. “There are lots of things to learn, we’re going to take stock and look at it in a very pragmatic way.”

Two brands that are resolute on the subject are Tommy Hilfiger and Rebecca Minkoff. Both mounted grand-scale productions for their most recent fashion shows in Los Angeles, turning them into massive consumer events rife with programming, celebrities, influencers and retail partnerships, creating social media bonanzas in the process.

It’s fair to say that no one has invested in see-now-buy-now as an “experience” the way Hilfiger has. His version of it — fully branded and titled “Tommy Now” — began in September when he took over the South Street Sea Port in New York City for a fashion show/carnival called Tommy Pier, to which 1,000 consumers were invited. The scene escalated for February’s extravaganza, Tommyland, a music festival-themed event, including a concert by Fergie, that drew 2,000 consumers in addition to 1,000 other guests to Venice Beach, Calif.

Tommy Hilfiger RTW Spring 2017

Sales for Tommy Hilfiger following the Tommyland show rose more than 150 percent.  Matt Baron/BEI/Shutterstock

The results have been huge for Hilfiger. “I would say it’s been nothing short of incredibly successful and beyond our expectations,” said Hilfiger. “We think we’re really rewriting the rule book, at least for us.”

He has the data to back it up. Within 24 hours of Tommyland, sales on tommy.com increased by more than 150 percent versus September. There’s been double-digit year-over-year growth across the women’s business globally for the second season in a row. And following the February show, more than 50 percent of the traffic to tommy.com in North America and Europe came from first-time visitors for the brand.

“We’re even seeing a halo effect on sales numbers across all our divisions globally,” said Avery K. Baker, chief brand officer at Tommy Hilfiger. “It’s created an incredible amount of visibility and excitement in general in the brand from consumers around the world.”

Tommy isn’t the only key name in Tommyland. There’s another star pulling customers into the brand’s orbit, a big one: Gigi Hadid. The see-now-buy-now shows include Hilfiger Collection as well as the popular Tommy x Gigi capsule that Hilfiger codesigns with Hadid, his brand ambassador.

In terms of hot models and hot models as influencers, Hadid is “It” for the moment. Her only competition is her little sister Bella and Kendall Jenner. Hilfiger had an eye for her relatively early, securing Hadid as a brand ambassador in December 2015. Her profile has only grown, and he knows it.

“Gigi has been has been a big magnet,” said Hilfiger. “We’re certainly selling out of the Gigi collection first, but it has been beneficial to the entire brand and particularly our women’s business.”

But what happens when Hadid isn’t the hottest thing anymore, or more likely, her contract expires? The terms of Hilfiger and Hadid’s agreement weren’t disclosed, but no doubt the brand is thinking about how to extend it and how to move on when the time comes. For now, “We have a great relationship with her and it’s phenomenal to have the association,” said Hilfiger.

If she didn’t reach the Hilfiger stratosphere, Rebecca Minkoff was up there. She was one of the pioneers of see-now-buy-now, getting onboard with a consumer show in February 2016 and gradually scaling up in production. Her February show was a major endeavor, for which she took over an entire Los Angeles shopping center, The Grove, for a day. The actual runway show, which seated 500, was the finale to a day of programming that included a Nordstrom and Zella activewear-sponsored yoga class, manicures by Essie, hair and makeup services by Glamsquad, a Lauren Conrad pop-up, a question-and-answer session with Keke Palmer, and a Q&A between Minkoff and Clique Media Group cofounder Hillary Kerr. The entire event was open to the public.

Aimee Song Rebecca Minkoff L.A. runway show

Rebecca Minkoff and Aimee Song at the close of her L.A. runway show at The Grove.  Buckner/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

“We were thrilled with that experience,” said Uri Minkoff, the company’s cofounder and ceo. “The idea of releasing product at the right time in an experiential fashion with tremendous partnerships of other brands and properties and influencers — they really got an overwhelming amount of digital impressions, media, support and the resulting sales numbers. We’re just blown away by it. For us, the model is really working.”

There are significant differences between Ford, Lauren, and Burberry and Hilfiger and Minkoff, not least of which, the fact that the former three are traditional luxury brands, while Hilfiger and Minkoff cater to a contemporary customer. The contrast in audience is huge. Consider the guest list at Ford’s elegant, intimate, highly exclusive see-now-buy-now fashion show in September held at the former Four Seasons restaurant in New York. There may have been a handful of people who also attended Hilfiger’s event — mainly a few editors, Hadid and her fellow models.

Otherwise, the consumer who is drawn to a Coachella-esque fashion show on Venice Beach is probably not the same one shopping the Tom Ford collection rack. All parties are aware of this.

“Being in business for 35 years has been exciting for me,” said Hilfiger. “As the founder of the brand, my fear has always been to lose the youthful consumer. I’ve always been afraid of the brand aging. This allowed us to reengage with a youthful consumer, and I would say, reset our business.”

When Uri and Rebecca Minkoff decided to head to The Grove, there were several factors involved — weather-suitable for the clothes that were about to drop; the fact that California, and Los Angeles in particular, is Minkoff’s strongest point of e-commerce — but the location was also chosen for the people it would attract. “It comes back to, when you’re really looking at a consumer-related show, you’re looking at scale of audience, right?” said Uri. “How much audience can you reach that you can mobilize and that you can move? It could be that there’s a big, large spectacle. It could be a location. It could be the people that are involved. There needs to be some sort of an element of, how do you garner as much of the right type of audience as possible that’s going to convert?”

The thinking behind immediate fashion is that customers are tired of seeing images of collections on Instagram and online that are unavailable for six months. There’s no doubt there’s merit to this concept, but it’s hardly so simplistic and it varies up and down the fashion echelons. Ford himself said he still believes in the see-now-buy-now idea. “Doesn’t everyone want everything now?” he said. But there are systemic scheduling conflicts.

“The store shipping schedule doesn’t align with the fashion show schedule,” said Ford, noting that he kept his fall collection off the sales floor until the day after his show in September, insisting that his retail partners do the same, and lost a month of selling time as a result. The means didn’t justify the end. “We had merchandise sitting in stockrooms all over the world.”

Perhaps no one has been more vocal about his belief in see-now-buy-now than Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus, which is Ford’s top stockist in the U.S. Downing said the retailer experienced no downside to holding the see-now-buy-now collections until the runway shows had gone live. “We, as a retail organization, saw great success not only from the fall men’s and women’s collections that walked the runway,” said Downing. “We saw a halo effect with our beauty business — fragrance and in color and makeup. And because not everything was shipped that was shown on the runway and those goods continued to arrive in stores, it gave our sales associates impetus to reach out to the customer and bring them back into the store, so we saw great success from it.”

Downing said every brand that participated in see-now-buy-now — Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Burberry, an Alice + Olivia capsule, Rebecca Minkoff — saw positive results in store. He is not happy to hear of anyone backing away from the concept. “Technology isn’t slowing down, nor is the customer’s desire for immediate gratification,” he said. 
”The industry needs to catch up and wake up.”

Some houses have gotten into instant fashion on a smaller, more manageable level, such as Michael Kors. “I have consistently believed that for most of our collection customers, the current calendar of showing in advance works for their lifestyle and the majority of their shopping habits,” said Kors. “We have offered a limited group of products in limited quantities for the past three seasons and have found that it is an interesting addition to our retail mix that appeals to our most avid fashionista client. Each season we will continue to assess what kind of mix we think is most captivating for this client.”

For many of the smaller houses that dipped a toe into see-now-buy-now for spring, it was short-lived. Loewe had a few items available for spring, but didn’t revive it for fall. Paco Rabanne also participated in see-now-buy-now on an item basis for spring, but declined to comment when asked about its plans to continue it for fall. Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez of Proenza Schouler tested see-now-buy-now in February 2016, launching Early Edition, a capsule of eight runway looks and four versions of the Hava handbag, all produced in limited quantities. The experience didn’t yield the results they’d hoped for and it ended up being a one-season thing.

It’s difficult to put a finger on a single problem. If you don’t have a significant built-in audience and direct-to-consumer channels, it’s simply not worth it to conduct business in this way. There are supply-chain issues, scheduling buys before the shows, fending off the press. Uri Minkoff said he saw the transition as a two-year process of rethinking the business, and the company is about a year into it.

But there are other issues, too. Designing a collection and shelving it for six months before styling a show and revealing it to the public zaps creative spontaneity. There’s also a question about how much the luxury client cares about waiting for product.

“At the high luxury and luxury level, they don’t,” said Robert Burke, chairman and ceo of consultancy Robert Burke Associates. “They’re used to it and there’s a certain anticipation. I don’t think it’s nearly the issue that people thought it was going to be.” Burke pointed out that except for Burberry, the European houses were never interested in participating.

Camera della Moda president Carlo Capasa said, “Those who do have instant fashion, it’s just a small part. It’s not easy in terms of timing to produce the pieces and it is also risky, how much can you sell? Designers want to create desire and be influential. Instant fashion is more for brands that are more marketing- or product-oriented, or driven by merchandisers. But those that have the ambition to influence the future and work on research are not into it.”

To a large extent, when we’re talking about the brands for which see-now-buy-now is working, we’re no longer talking about a fashion show in the traditional sense. It’s a product launch and marketing extravaganza. If executing on a level such as Tommyland or Rebecca Minkoff-takes-The-Grove is essential to success, is it necessary to tether the events to a proper fashion week?

Hilfiger and Minkoff tiptoed off-calendar just slightly with their last events, both hauling to Los Angeles a few days ahead of New York Fashion Week. Hilfiger said he was open to taking his show to new locations, though he couldn’t disclose what the plan for next season is. Asked if he would consider going off-calendar altogether, he said, “We believe we could go off-calendar and see an incredible amount of success. But being on-calendar allows us to include all of the buyers and editors who are working on either the next season or working in fashion show mode at the time.”

Steven Kolb, the ceo and president of the CFDA, said the organization has been mulling the idea of a separate see-now-buy-now program for designers partaking in it to tack onto the end of New York Fashion Week. It’s just a seed of an idea now, and they still have to weigh the interest level. “We won’t know until we start to schedule September if [see-now-buy-now] is significantly diminished,” said Kolb. “We always imagine people are going to try things and it’s going to work for some and not for others.”

Regardless, there is one thing in all this that is working for Kolb: “For me, the big story is not so much see-now-buy-now, but that Tom Ford is showing at New York Fashion Week.”

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