By  on March 21, 2007

Only weeks since designers showed their fall collections, runway trends are turning up in better collections even faster than usual.

The better customer is catching up to the designer and contemporary customer in the race to trends. The reasons are simple: fashion from the shows is broadcast in real time on the Internet and is getting more and more attention from mainstream television, in addition to weekly celebrity-driven magazines as well as general interest newspapers. And, of course, there are the stores that specialize in fast-fashion.

"Forget the 'trickle down' time from runway to the store," said consultant Robin Lewis. "It's Niagara Falls."

All of it adds up to increased awareness and knowledge.

"You have the fashionista, who is ready instantly, and then you have the mainstream fashion person, for whom it depends on how quickly the trend is promoted," said consultant Emanuel Weintraub. "In the last eight or nine years, there has been a lot more placement of fashion in magazines and on fashion TV so that the mainstream customer is becoming more knowledgeable."

Catherine Sadler, president of New York marketing firm Catherine Sadler Group, said the better customer demands fashion far faster than many years ago when Sadler worked at Ann Taylor.

"There would be a full-year lag between when something showed on the runway and when it was on our customer, but I think that has significantly changed with celebrity watching," Sadler said. "All consumers today seem to watch what is going on the runway in a more alert way than ever before. The consumer in general is more savvy, which has escalated the trickle-down effect in general, and has caused brands to have to respond in a much faster way."

The new breed of fast-fashion specialty stores are "forcing our hands to be much faster and speedier," said Ellen Dawson, executive vice president of the better knit vendor August Silk.

"The lag time to better is getting shorter and shorter," Dawson said. "Even a year and a half ago, I would say better is a season off, but now it's not about season to season, it's about delivery to delivery. The better missy customer is getting just as savvy as the younger customer."Customer cross-shopping between the better department of traditional department stores and stores like Hennes & Mauritz and Zara, which have built their reputations on their quick knockoffs, has put pressure on department store vendors to keep pace, said Kathy Bradley-Riley, senior merchant at The Doneger Group, a New York-based buying and consulting firm.

"Retailers are looking for it to be a quicker, fashion-right product that trends very quickly that you can be in and out of, so a lot of it comes from domestic, California-based people because they get it on the line faster," Bradley-Riley said. "A good part of the fashion speed-to-market thinking is knit top oriented, because there are domestic people doing it."

A domestic resource specializing in knits, Only Nine can ship in four to six weeks and considers its fast turn time on trends as a competitive advantage, said president Jamie Gorman. "Once it's on the runway and it is a trend we feel can translate to the young better missy market, it's on our line," Gorman said. "If it's hot in contemporary, we have it in our line in more understandable bodies."

Gorman looks more to contemporary than to the designer market for inspiration, but notes differences in the contemporary and better customer: "The contemporary customer is looking on the runway, while the better customer is looking in the magazines. The contemporary customer is in the store a lot more, whereas the better customer may make what she buys last a little longer. The better market is also a very buy-now-wear-now market."

Only Nine has learned to walk the timeline between putting trend product out too early for the mainstream customer to accept it and too late so that the customer is over the trend by the time it hits. "We had the leggings out in all of our stores last summer," Gorman said. "But it didn't sell last summer in better, even though it was the rage on the street."

Although the better customer's eye may need longer to grow accustomed to a trend before she feels comfortable wearing it, there is still a right time that vendors and retailers alike must hit. And entry is not the only timing factor better vendors must consider. "The most important thing for us as a company is to consistently chase the trends — and then stay on them," Gorman said. "A lot of people jump off the bandwagon before the customer has had time to process the trend and purchase it."Not all trends have the same pick-up rate in the better market. Things that flatter a more mature body, for example, are more likely to catch on for the better misses' customer.

"The better department store customer is behind the contemporary customer as far as trend acceptance, her interpretation of the trend is different and what kind of trends she embraces is different," Bradley-Riley said. "For example, the straight leg jeans took her a while to get used to, while she readily accepted wider silhouettes and longer tops. "

For fall, Bradley-Riley predicted the better customer will be quick to accept switching shape, layering, plaids, sweater coats, the wider leg trouser, trapeze cuts and feminine tops with men's wear suiting. "We thought a lot that came down from the runway was very interpretable and understandable," she added.

Amy Taub Kahn, president of Rousso Apparel Group, which includes better brands like GarfieldMarks and MiFresia, expects better customers will embrace the fall's return of color, dresses, slouchy sweaters, and "fabulous coats, especially the newer longer lengths," Kahn said, adding, "I think two trends she will have issues accepting are the 'very' skinny pants and jodhpurs."

Warren Donner, president of WD-NY, a trend-chasing better business, said while the better customer accepts some trends almost immediately (like jumpers, cropped jackets, chunky sweaters and skinny pants for fall), some looks still take six months to a year. WD-NY posted a billboard last spring with its kimono sleeve look, and Donner said the customer is just now buying it in mass for spring. The WD-NY customer has also finally embraced the skinny jean, after about nine months on the floor.

"It just depends on what the item is," Donner said. "We modify the trends to take into account the ultimate consumer. I take what is in the higher level and translate it in length and width and fabric."

For example, WD-NY is modifying the cropped swing jacket — a look he thinks the best customer will adopt quickly — by making it a little longer and starting it in a basic cloth rather than novelty fabric. The wide-leg pants, to which Donner predicts more resistance, he is making less dramatic with narrower measurements than seen on the runways."You have to be careful with trends," Donner said. "You still can't give her too much too fast."

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