It might work — but there are lots of issues to be solved.
That was the general reaction of European retailers and textile industry executives to the news that several major designers are switching their shows to be consumer-facing, led by Burberry and Tom Ford, even as the Council of Fashion Designers of America studies the idea.
The number of brands shifting their show cadence seems to grow daily. Vetements, which is to unveil a full men’s collection alongside its women’s fall range on March 3 in Paris, is to shift its co-ed parade to an earlier schedule starting in January 2017.
Guram Gvasalia, chief executive officer of Vetements and brother of its designer, Demna Gvasalia, said showing its main collections at the time of the men’s fall shows and women’s pre-fall buys would allow for much earlier deliveries, bolstering full-price sales for its 135 wholesale clients.
He noted that men have already been buying its designs, and he expects some women will adopt the men’s pieces. The clothes are to be labeled Vetements pour Hommes and Vetements pour Femmes.
As a second step, Gvasalia plans to switch seasons, ultimately parading spring collections in January and fall collections in June.
“In order to do it, a brand needs to pre-produce and do a limited edition of every single piece of the collection,” he said.
To facilitate the system, he noted retailers would be asked to do a “blind buy” to identify quantities of garments ahead of in-season order taking.
The executive, who believes in keeping supply below demand, is adamant that “if something goes on sale, it was overproduced” and that scarcity is an essential ingredient in the luxury market.
He noted that Vetements forges such close ties with its wholesale partners that it is already able to pre-estimate its sales within a small margin of error.
Meanwhile, Karl Lagerfeld and Chanel quietly showed a pre-fall range to buyers last Friday that is delivered in July.
Known internally as Act 1, the collection is never shown to the press, but exalted in a catalogue photographed by Lagerfeld, with 100,000 copies dispatched just ahead of its arrival in boutiques.
“So in fact, we do it already,” said Lagerfeld, nonplussed by Burberry’s and Ford’s recent moves. “We have four ready-to-wear collections on the runway, and two collections with a surprise effect.”
Lagerfeld occasionally shoots short movies or video clips around the Act 1 collections, with most communication done in the digital sphere and timed to deliveries.
Donatella Versace also pointed out that she was one of the pioneers of the show-now-buy-now shift with her Versus collection.
But while designers and some U.S. retailers — led by Ken Downing, fashion director and senior vice president of Neiman Marcus — are hopping onto the consumer bandwagon, others retailers, especially in Europe, aren’t totally convinced.
“Fashion is in a state of change at the moment,” said Roopal Patel, Saks Fifth Avenue’s fashion director. “Technology has definitely revolutionized how we are looking at the fashion system. Consumers having access to fashion in real-time are looking for that instant gratification and looking to shop collections immediately. The design community is looking at different ways to bring the consumer the fashion they want in real-time.”
Patel suggested that by providing consumers with “immediate gratification” they’re happier customers and potentially bigger-spending customers. “Anything we can do to bring the customer what she is looking for is always a win-win.”
“It’s going to be very interesting to see how this translates to department stores,” Patel added. She also noted that buyers are in the markets well before the fashion shows anyway, so the idea of having the clothes available to consumers immediately after the shows is not as disruptive as might be thought. “These days our buyers and our merchant teams are always out in the market, placing orders. But the interesting thing is going to be working with designers designing in real-time, and how it affects the shipping window.” The key, Patel suggested, is making it “a collaborative effort.”
Susan Davidson, ceo of Scoop, “Right now we are going to the fall shows. How great would it be if we were showing spring, everybody got excited and next week it’s in the stores. From retailers’ point of view, it’s fabulous, from a wholesaler’s or designer’s point of view it’s more challenging.” The reason is designers and wholesalers would need to know how much to manufacture and ship, ahead of the shows to the general public, Davidson pointed out, which would require working with retailers in advance, partnering closely with them. And if retailers know before the public showings, the designers would have to keep their collections under wraps for many weeks, so when they show their collections, it has an impact and isn’t old news, she pointed out.
“You need to know what your retail partners are going to buy, so you are not manufacturing your collection in the dark….With today’s consumer, there is, something to instant gratification. We probably will be heading to a much faster cycle, that’s why fast-fashion retailers have been successful,” Davidson said.
“Fashion shows are important for me. As a buyer, I like to understand what’s the designer concept, inspiration, message for his collection,” said Sarah Andelman, creative director and purchasing manager at Colette in Paris. “For the final consumer, I’m not sure if that’s so important. They will be more influenced by who’s wearing the collection, the fashion stories in some magazines, etc.
“I’m not against it. I know that with all the social networks, consumers want what they see immediately, like me,” said Andelman. “We don’t buy with a very strict protocol, we keep ourselves flexible for each brand. I just hope they can respect us the same way they treat their own distribution, or even better.”
Andrea Panconesi, owner of Luisa Via Roma, is skeptical, noting that fashion shows only influence customers who are passionate about fashion.
“I’m against the idea of consumer-facing shows. All this new flux doesn’t have any impact on our buying activity because we attend very few shows, just the ones influencing trends,” he said. “It’s getting more and more complicated for retailers since it’s now necessary to consider an enormous amount of information.”
Polat Uyal, chief merchandising officer at Beymen in Turkey, said he supports the idea of shifting shows closer to delivery “as by the time the show pieces hits the retail stores, with the expansion of social media, the items have already been seen everywhere, so it loses the ‘wow’ effect for the consumer and becomes less desirable.”
What’s more, some fast-fashion brands deliver runway-inspired looks much earlier than the designer brand itself, so the movement could reduce copying and increase creativity. However, he noted that, “unless the entire system supports the movement, it would definitely be more complicated for us.”
Scott Tepper, fashion buying and merchandising director at Liberty, said buyers will adapt to the changes, as they have for eons.
“It’s what we do. Logistically, of course, there will be dramas for both the brands and the retailers, however they would be vastly outweighed by the opportunities for us to immediately serve and communicate with our customers in more modern and realistic ways. The creative process designers go through to put together a show has a big impact on the final collection so everything about the process is meaningful,” he said.
Stephen Ayres, fashion director at Avenue32.com, agreed that consumers are increasingly impatient and want access to products sooner.
“As an industry we have to give the customer what they want, to a degree, but we also need to allow for the anticipation and hype of having to wait for something as well,” he said. “The collection and product still needs to feel special and gather the relevant excitement to encourage the consumer to part with their hard-earned cash. If we develop a cycle where the product comes to market too quickly, who’s to say they will spend more or just keep waiting for the next quick fix?”
Asked what they would see as an ideal fashion calendar, retailers had various suggestions — and warned that consumer-friendly shows could be a hurdle for smaller brands.
“Women’s brands should show with men’s wear or during men’s fashion week to have more time for the production of the collections,” suggested Luisa Via Roma’s Panconesi. “The lineups shown on the catwalk, which are those better representing the image of a brand, should be delivered to retailers and should be on sale before pre-collections, since they are more interesting for those small portion of customers passionate about fashion who want to buy in advance.”
Ayres also lobbed the co-ed idea.
“I believe it is time to shake up the system and I think showing men’s and ladies together could be a good first step, but the venues needed to house all the press and buyers for both collections and would need to be large, and could take away those intimate fashion moments of seeing a collection in an unexpected location,” he said. “Maybe a realistic way to look at it is that the pre-collection is for the consumer and the runway is for PR and marketing as well as a small percentage of high fashion, high net-worth individuals.
“Personally I do not have an issue with the current system,” he continued. “I think if there is a shift to consumer-facing shows, then the running order of each show needs to be decided at the point that the collection is presented to the buyer, which for production reasons will still need to be three to four months in advance as show pieces influence their final selections. This approach could prove problematic for young or small brands who already struggle to beat the manufacturing pecking order and maybe make them out of sync with the bigger brands.”
Beymen’s Uyal said, ideally, fashion shows should be timed closer to the delivery of collections. “And I believe some brands can do only online shows so that the calendar can be shorter than today. Then the rest may remain the same,” he said.
Tepper weighed in with more precise timing suggestions.
“Ideally, early September shows should coincide with the first really big hit of fall product. Capsules of newness would continue through the season; however, the fall full-price selling cycle should be September to February. March shows should coincide with the first major hit of spring goods, which should be held at full price until August,” he said.
Adding to the complexity of the debate, Danish fashion executives questioned whether a direct-to-consumer model might end up being more wasteful, and therefore less sustainable.
“For large companies like Burberry, it’s possible because they control their distribution, whereas most of the Scandinavian brands are wholesale-based — they have at least 50 percent of the business with multibrand stores, department stores and so on. They need to show to buyers and then produce. For them, keeping up with the production would be impossible,” said Eva Kruse, chief executive officer of Copenhagen Fashion Week.
Carlo Capasa, president of the Italian Chamber of Fashion, said, “It is legitimate for brands to each choose what is best for them but as a system we must work to understand and ask ourselves questions. As a system, it’s different, it’s more complex, in terms of the pipeline and also to protect creativity and new brands entering the market.”
He also questioned whether it would be really possible to sell to buyers the collections behind closed doors and in secret, given the times. He contended that “after one to three seasons, there would be a flattening” of the offer, which would be more about styling and less about design. Fashion, he said, is “not only about marketing, it’s aspirational.”
He said sometimes even famous designers when they present their first seasons for a brand may not be convincing and then take off with their second shows. “Sometimes it takes time for ideas and designs to sediment. Are we making this banal? Are we really helping fashion? And how do we help the younger generation ? Who would go see their collections if there is no runway or presentation?”
As for showing men’s and women’s wear together, he said “it’s not a bad idea but it’s already been done, as is the ready-to-buy. The market is faster than the system.”
Opening the shows to customers is more of a communication tool, which also has been done before. He cited Costume National’s show in Milan’s Piazza Duomo years ago. “I see it as positive to engage the city and we, as the Camera, are opening up digitally. That said, at the same time some shows are better kept more intimate.”
“Another worry is that [making the collections immediately available online and in store] would probably require fast delivery. Fast delivery and fast production are often challenged when it comes to sustainability and social issues,” Kruse added.
“I don’t see why it should go faster,” said Danish designer Henrik Vibskov. “You start producing stuff that you don’t know if you have sold. In a sustainability way of thinking, it’s pretty bad.”
Jennifer Cuvillier, Le Bon Marché’s group style director, praised the changes as “an exciting time in fashion. I think it’s impressive that this is a real movement, not the action of one brand only, and that there are some big names involved in this, as well. It’s true that everything goes around much faster today due to social media. We have observed a high level of frustration among clients when what they see on the runway arrives on the floor six months later. And then of course there is the question of seasonality: when the summer collection drops, it’s winter outside. So yes, I’m in favor of these changes.”
But Cuvillier noted that this would also require a reorganization of purchasing patterns. “For us as buyers the cardinal question is: how can we view what the brands retain for the runway before it appears there? We need to know which styles, silhouettes and patterns will end up on the catwalk before we place our orders, because in the end that’s what influences consumer spending in the store — in France a little less than in the United States, where clients come with the picture of a full look, but it’s getting more relevant here as well. So if we can view collections ahead of the fashion shows, in the showroom or by appointment, I have no objections.”
Sebastian Manes, buying and merchandising director at Selfridges, said retailers must embrace change and future-thinking practices to evolve and stay relevant.
“The schedule and opportunities are already constant, fluid and fast-moving. Appealing to a global consumer and engaging with consumers in the right way are a priority. This diversity of method from brands and designers will act to multiply our opportunities to engage. The speed at which the industry moves means there are sometimes logistic challenges — but these can always be overcome by collaboration. This step-change gives us all the opportunity to do and think differently.
“Our fashion customer is very engaged with the fashion industry and its seasonal calendar — we see digital, social and media coverage of fashion shows drive engagement. A customer comes to Selfridges to distill the collections and offer an original point of view — this is how we develop loyalty. A new system will work for some houses, but not for others. The most important aspect for me is that fashion weeks continue as a place where brave new ideas are shared and that any commercial opportunities, while hugely important to us all, do not overshadow the creative.”
Sarah Rutson, vice president of global buying at Net-a-porter, said the logistics could be worked out to accommodate everyone involved.
She said, ideally, buyers would view the collection with the schedule as it currently stands, in September and February, and place orders for the following season as they currently do. “Fashion brands would show those exact collections six weeks before they drop online or in store. Of course there are many logistics to work out with this system, but at least this would feed into the buy-now-wear-now that our customers are so hungry for,” she said.
She said that fashion shows should remain a priority for brands.
“They are incredibly important. They allow a brand to tell their seasonal story and communicate a vision on a consistent basis. They excite and ignite in the moment, but ultimately it is up to us as retailers to convert inspiration to acquisition. Retailers are storytellers, and the way we edit and interpret the season for our customers is just as influential, if not arguably more so, than the seasonal fashion show,” Rutson added. “The other consideration these days is street style which encircles the fashion calendar; influential personalities and what they wear/how they wear it are equally as important today. And this comes down to personal styling, not a head-to-toe runway look.”
She added that the one big hurdle is production: The need to cut production lead times is “critical” in translating the excitement that shows generate into real sales. “However, the reality is that lead times are still long so how realistic is this notion of a shortened production schedule? That’s the real question to address.”
Textile industry executives in Europe raised a similar issue.
Romain Lescroart, chairman of Sophie Hallette, the French lace specialist which supplies brands such as Valentino, Saint Laurent, Elie Saab and Erdem, said his aim is to stay flexible, whatever the brands decide.
“We have been working with our customers for decades. Fashion changes; it is a difficult time economically…We applaud the companies that do what’s needed to keep the market and the industry up and alive,” he said.
He noted, however, that “because our product is made on ancient looms with lots of handmade steps, there is only a certain volume that we can produce. We use traditional methods. [The lace] is made by humans, not by robots.”
In an ideal system, he said, “it would be wonderful if we could have two shows a year. But this is not going to happen. More seriously, this is not up to us. The market is driven by global demand.”
Nino Cerruti, the famed designer who is now ceo of the family operated textile mill Lanificio F.lli Cerruti, judged the switch to a “buy-now-wear-now” model “an interesting effort to try to solve the confusing system of overlapping collections and distribution [cycles]” currently in place.
“We cannot ignore that pre-collections, for instance, are taking the major part of sales today, while runway collections are becoming less important. But I’m afraid that by trying to solve the problem, the brands are opening the door to equally important problems. If they want to have the garments ready in such a short time, they will have to buy and produce the fabrics much sooner,” he said, adding that showing men’s and women’s at the same time would only add to the dilemma.
Cerruti also noted that the tighter deadlines would call for a certain manufacturing structure which not all mills have, but that he was not opposed to it. “It’s a complicated situation, but it’s worth the effort. There has been something in the air for a while. It was going to explode anyway. I think it’s good that some brands are trying to shock the system.”