MILAN — Rethinking is the new black.
Designers have had time to stop, think and reconsider the fashion system, its treadmill pace and unwritten codes during the lockdown caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Now that the world is slowing reawakening, and while uncertainties continue to loom, they are trying to find their own North Star — and what better time could there be to rewrite the rules and feel free to upturn the status quo?
Giorgio Armani is urging fashion to slow down and to realign collections with seasons in stores; Dries Van Noten has spearheaded a petition for a more sensible and sustainable fashion calendar; Saint Laurent’s Anthony Vaccarello has decided to drop out of Paris Fashion Week and set the brand’s own pace for showing collections for the duration of the year and another Kering-owned brand, Gucci, is trimming the number of shows to two a year as creative director Alessandro Michele challenges the fashion industry’s vocabulary and opts for “bringing oxygen” to his creativity. One consequence is that the label will not be ready to show in September during Milan Fashion Week.
While the latter decision will impact the city’s show week, Carlo Capasa, president of Italy’s Camera della Moda, told WWD on Tuesday that Michele’s new path “is stimulating, especially because he has declared his respect for the system.”
Capasa praised Gucci for being key in the Italian pipeline and Michele’s stature as a designer, and admitted that in fashion “there are moments when the mood changes” and that these new times are necessarily reflected by “our great designers’ desire to experiment.”
Michele’s choice, continued Capasa, “is in line with Giorgio Armani saying we need to give more value to the things we do.” Italy’s unique pipeline, enhanced by the fashion weeks, “must absolutely be preserved.” Italian products must be sold at full price, as excessive discounting lessens their value, has a negative impact on sustainability and penalizes the retail and wholesale channels.
“The seasonless choice can perfectly fit” with two fashion weeks a year, but at the same time Capasa gave a shout-out to brands that specialize in either men’s or women’s wear. “This is also freedom, respecting the differences.”
Capasa also revealed that the Camera della Moda has decided to opt for a seasonless Milan Digital Fashion Week in July, which will simply be called the July issue and not characterized as spring-summer 2021. Michele has said that Gucci will participate in the event and Capasa was obviously pleased by the decision. “This is a time when it’s legitimate to experiment on different fronts to respond to challenges that are absolutely exceptional. Accordingly, brands are given the utmost freedom. It will be nice to see how everyone will want to be present at this first digital July issue.”
He said that MFW in September will also likely see a mix of physical and digital formats.
Luca Solca, senior research analyst, global luxury goods for Sanford C. Bernstein Ltd., said Gucci’s decision to avoid defining a collection in relation to the season “is very wise and timely given the current conditions.”
Given the uncertainties, depending on whether there could be new outbreaks of the pandemic and, as a consequence, a new lockdown, Gucci’s “new approach allows to reduce the risk of obsolescence. This is a first practical question of high importance.”
Also, Solca concurred with Michele, saying that “the name we gave to collections made less and less sense: fall and winter sold in the summer, spring and summer sold in the winter,” not to mention the pre-collections which determined “an increasing fragmentation.”
“In truth, this way to think of the collections maybe made sense when the big American department stores were the pivot of the global fashion system. But today?” These same department stores, the ones that are still in business and not fraught by financial troubles, “carry very little weight. What matters now is to continue to be able to create traffic in the multibrand boutiques and to generate buzz in social media. And I think that from this point of view Alessandro Michele’s proposal is very intelligent and in line with the times.”
Alessandro Maria Ferreri, chief executive officer and owner of The Style Gate consulting firm, was of the same mind. “Seasons don’t correspond to the use of the customer nor to the climate. The existing business models date back to the Fifties, when U.S. department stores needed new collections after Thanksgiving and Black Friday and then in the Eighties, catering to the likes of Isetan or Takashimaya in Japan, buyers wanted new clothes after Golden Week and the cherry blossom.”
Now, companies have been looking at other markets, such as China; the power of some of the biggest American department stores has waned while that of the online channel has been growing, and brands increasingly operate their own stores worldwide, so that customers can buy whatever and whenever they want. The system before “was toxic,” said Ferreri, “so we can take advantage of this moment to change it and be in sync with the seasons,” foregoing discounts, “which ruin the collections.”
“In an ideal world,” he said, “a brand should be able to split the calendar and deliver collections every two or three months, we could name them one, two, three and so on,” he said with a chuckle, downplaying the importance of naming them. “This way, they would never be old and they would never be discounted. Clearly they would need to be sold six months ahead so that producers have time to manufacture them and buyers can allocate their budgets.”
Ferreri observed that designers are fighting their battles, also depending on the size of their business, but they share the need to be creative. Michele can call the collections whatever he wishes, but the commercial side will continue as it is, contended Ferreri. But the designer needs to have the time to be creative, just as a writer wants to take the time to write his book. “Just as a Picasso painting is not thrown away because it’s old, why should a fashion design be discarded after one or two seasons? The product is an expression of the creative soul, just as it is for an artist.”
The changes that are taking place emphasize how companies are “transforming the industry on behalf of the customers, rethinking creativity and the value proposition, not only content but the architecture of the offer and the calendar,” said Bain & Co. partner Federica Levato. “Now is the time to put the customer at the center and many brands are rethinking how to be more effective with the final customer, re-establishing the true seasonal calendar.”
Levato said that the expected return to a focus on domestic and local spending as global tourism is at a standstill for now will have an impact and that these changes would be “more in line with the zeitgeist.” Asked if the COVID-19 pandemic is responsible for these shifts, Levato said “the rethinking is long due. The pandemic triggered the profound rethinking but we don’t think it created new trends, but accelerated them. This is a call to action for brands to make choices.”
“I think we all knew that change had to happen. However, no one was prepared or potentially had the time to sit down and reflect on what the much needed change should look like,” said Ida Petersson, Browns women’s wear and men’s wear buying director. “I’m really pleased to see a brand with such an important reach as Gucci indicate a slowdown and I hope that this shows other brands that it’s OK and will ultimately allow for the whole cycle to readjust. The one concern I have is that if everyone walks to the beat of their own drum, there is a risk that the travel for buyers and the carbon footprint could increase. It could potentially mean that our trips are spread out across the year rather than being confined to specific buying periods.”
Marianne Romestain, chief merchandising and buying officer at Galeries Lafayette, said that as a wholesaler, the store is “therefore totally aligned with the brands in the necessity to constantly rethink fashion, whether it concerns fashion shows, showrooms or change of seasonality in collection implementation and selling. While this does have an effect on the rhythm of the wholesale seasonal calendar, we believe that our stores have to adapt and constantly innovate ourselves so we can better understand and serve the customers’ expectations.”
At Rinascente, “we are observing and curious about the creative world in this phase,” said Federica Montelli, head of fashion at the Italian department store. Montelli fully agrees with slowing down the industry’s pace, which is no longer sustainable, “also for the repercussions at the environmental level and in terms of overconsumption. But in particular, it contrasts with the true disruptive creativity that we expect from a brand of Gucci’s caliber.”
Montelli admitted the different timing of the brands’ presentations is “a challenge,” and while realizing that the “continuous” fashion weeks’ system could not go on as before, a shared and scheduled calendar allows to “see products and live experiences in a short time frame, sharing opinions and information with industry peers.” A more “heterogeneous calendar could on the one hand strengthen a designer’s message” and make it “better targeted,” but on the other hand a brand could be weakened if it is not strong enough, she opined. “What I am sure of, is that for a long time we expected a real disruption in the fashion system, and I imagine these are only the first steps of a bigger change that we still can’t really identify.”