The fast-fashion phenomenon can be traced to retailers like H&M

If see-now-buy-now means more power for the consumer, there is one group that stands to lose from an instant runway-to-store presentation: fast-fashion retailers.

This story first appeared in the October 12, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Chains like Zara (owned by Inditex), H&M, Asos and Forever 21 have long relied on the high-fashion catwalk to set the tone for the upcoming season, prompting the ire of luxury brands by churning out copies of their designs faster than they themselves can get the originals into stores.

Some in the fashion industry have used this as an argument for switching to an in-season model that leaves no time for copycat designs to creep into consumers’ wardrobes. But cutting out the traditional lag between runway presentations and collections’ availability for purchase is not guaranteed to solve the problem, analysts say.

“I’m not sure this will change the outlook for fast-fashion retailers much, as they operate at very different price points to the luxury brands and have a very different customer profile,” said Richard Chamberlain, managing director, general retail, at RBC Capital Markets.

He noted the ability to offer newness is an important factor, allowing Inditex to outperform H&M, for example. But Chamberlain said other issues were also at play, such as having a strong and more relevant product offer, rolling out e-commerce and improving service options, and increasing sales productivity.

Paul Thomas, senior consultant at Retail Remedy, a consulting firm, said it was too early to gauge the impact of see-now-buy-now because brands did not have a unified approach to the concept. But he similarly questioned whether it affected consumers at lower price points.

“The question is: How many people who are buying at the low end of fast fashion are also potentially buying at the top end?” said Thomas, a former retail sales director at Harrods.

“I know there’s been a change in tastes and a lot more mixtures of products these days. You’ll find someone with a Chanel handbag and then a pair of jeans from H&M, but there’s still going to be a customer who’s buying that fast fashion — so whether it be New Look or Primark or those sorts of people, or supermarkets of the U.K. — and that’s not going to be the same customer that’s buying from the Burberry catwalk,” he added.

Thomas predicted that purveyors of fast fashion would still take their cues from the runway, but they will have to do it sooner.

“I think the time lag will be the issue, so how quickly will that product hit their stores?” he said. “They have the opportunity to try to tighten up that time window, that lag, to make it quicker. That’s what they’re going to work on. How quick that can be, I’m not too sure.”

Those who manufacture closer to their customer base will naturally have an advantage. A case in point is U.K.-based fashion web site Boohoo.com, which makes more than 50 percent of its products in the U.K.

“We can go from sketch to consumer in four to six weeks by producing in the U.K.,” Carol Kane, Boohoo.com’s founder and chief executive officer, explained at the WWD Digital Forum in New York last month.

“We really have a crowdsourcing approach, so consumers decide what’s going to sell best. We have a very reactive buying team and sourcing model that allows us to scale up and get repeat orders into the business in a matter of weeks,” she added.

Andrew Hall, retail analyst at Verdict Retail, said companies like Boohoo.com and Inditex are already equipped to handle shorter lead times.

“I certainly think it’s a challenge for fast-fashion retailers and this is kind of uncharted territory, but I really think it offers more of a threat to more traditional clothing retailers — like Marks & Spencer, department stores, Next — who’ve got a much slower response time,” he said.

Smaller companies also risk losing out, he added. “For a lot of see-now-buy now, it’s more of an advertising and marketing ploy,” Hall said. “It’s really hard to compete when you’re first starting, so I think that’s a bit of a worry in the industry, that it might be a bit suffocating for up-and-coming talent.”

He noted that Topshop Unique, the British retailer’s higher-priced runway brand, offered pieces for sale immediately after its show during London Fashion Week on Sept. 18.

“These fast-fashion players can really highlight their own fashion credentials through just how fast they can react to it,” Hall argued. “See-now-buy-now really just enthuses the consumer base for clothing for wanting trends immediately, and that’s something they can accommodate for.”

Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode — French fashion’s governing body — does not believe the see-now-buy-now model can protect designer-driven brands from knock-offs.

He noted that moving to an in-season format would require having buyers and editors view collections under embargo. This would not eliminate the leak of images, as clothes circulate among showrooms, factories and magazines for photo shoots.

“Instead of us controlling our image, our image would be in the hands of pirates,” Toledano said earlier this year, noting that photos of collections would routinely leak out even before the era of the Internet.

Pascal Morand, the Fédération’s executive president, doubted the benefits of giving consumers the final say on which products make it into stores. “If you start questioning the fashion credentials of buyers and critics, and hand that power to consumers instead, it clearly and deliberately compromises creativity,” he said.

Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at Les Arts Décoratifs in Paris, noted that for the time being, see-now-buy-now appeared to be limited mainly to American and Western European brands, so that it was too early to make generalizations about the market as a whole.

“The fashion industry has always been an ongoing transformation in providing services to their clientele, and that’s one of the strengths of the industry: that it can transform itself and take into consideration what their clients need. Does the entire spectrum of fashion have to follow one single trend? I don’t think that today that’s clearly what we’re talking about,” she said.

“I think the brands that can do it and it makes sense to do it, will probably test it. I don’t have a crystal ball, so within a five-year period will that be the situation for everyone? I don’t know,” she added.

Golbin this year worked with H&M as the exclusive sponsor of Les Arts Décoratifs’ “Fashion Forward, Three Centuries of Fashion” exhibition. The Swedish retailer drew inspiration from the museum’s archives for its Conscious Exclusive line of red-carpet looks made from more sustainable materials.

“The fashion consumer in general has become more sophisticated so that the houses, the brands and the fast-fashion retailers have to also become more sophisticated with them,” she noted.

“I don’t think any of us today can sit and be comfortable in the model that we’re in. The industry is extremely reactive to cultural phenomena and it obviously is bringing in propositions. Will those propositions be what customers want, will they be commercially viable and will they be adopted much more coherently by everyone? Those are questions that remain to be answered,” Golbin concluded.

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