LONDON — The fashion bubble has burst — and it’s time to reboot.
That’s the consensus among industry executives who are pressing pause and looking at this time as an opportunity to re-evaluate and fix the flaws in an unrealistically fast-paced system.
They’re rethinking the wholesale model and the often detrimental payment terms imposed by retailers on brands; about putting an end to excessive gifting or unnecessary sample trafficking, and about defining a clear purpose that consumers can relate to. They want fewer, better-edited collections and less time spent on travel.
“Now is the time to sit down and look at the monster our industry has created,” said Maria Kastani, whose namesake business acts as an incubator for young companies, providing sales, branding and design consultancy services. “People have been under this impression that they need to shop constantly, wear all the latest items and never wear something twice. This created huge egos, a lot of anxiety, unkindness and a model that’s completely unsustainable.”
The solution? Change that comes from the top, with big retailers, luxury conglomerates and governing bodies working toward a future with fewer seasons, more co-ed shows and less pressure on brands to fulfill stores’ payment terms or sell-through guarantees.
“Every facet of our industry is currently affected, from brands to manufacturers and retailers who are all going into survival mode, trying to protect their own interests to stay afloat,” said Ida Petersson, men’s and women’s wear buying director at Browns. “We need to think bigger than ourselves at this stage. Browns has taken the decision to not cancel any orders for fall 2020, unless the brands themselves are looking to cancel. We are already pre-paying young designers for production, a decision we made a few years ago, as many were vulnerable with regards to cash flow. We continue to work with our accounts team to prioritize their payments where needed.”
Browns’ commitment to supporting young brands with upfront payments is exemplary and one to follow, say showroom owners who have been collectively trying to streamline processes and re-evaluate retail partnerships, too.
“Browns’ move helps designers flourish. It’s a clever, kind act that creates positivity. It also puts an end to the waiting time that sees designers not having funds to pay their manufacturers or buy fabrics for their next collections,” said Kastani, suggesting that the biggest window for payment should be capped at 30 days.
At the moment, many brands are facing consecutive order cancellations from retailers, without any compensation offered for fabrics already purchased, or requests to extend pending payments beyond the agreed 90-day window, putting brands’ cash flow into further jeopardy.
Retailers could still honor their payments and also suggest that orders are made for a later, October delivery.
“More than ever, retailers and brands need to work together to share the damage and the risk,” said Maria Lemos of the London showroom and public relations company Rainbowwave. “Communication through the crisis will be the key factor and wholesale partners will need to behave with moral conduct, honoring orders, discussing payment terms and protecting everyone’s cashflow. We need to make sure that smaller businesses are not taken advantage of,” said Lemos, suggesting that the fashion community needs to start “focusing on something bigger than the pay check” to come out of the crisis stronger.
“What will be beneficial post-this terrible crisis, is an understanding of who the real brand partners are within the wholesale network,” she added.
In the meantime, brick-and-mortar retailers are using the lockdown period as an opportunity to strengthen their online presence and to explore new business models, such as consignment and rental, that could prove fundamental in the future.
“The successful presentation of these kinds of new-gen retail models, alongside thoughtful new products both from established labels and independent brands and designers, is the blueprint we are excited to see evolve,” said Sebastian Manes, executive buying director at Selfridges, which has ongoing partnerships with the fashion rental service Hurr, and the luxury resale site Vestiaire Collective.
Downsizing the size of collections, the number of fashion weeks — and consequently the excess travel time — could be another positive outcome of the crisis. Do buyers really have to go to Milan and Paris for their designer appointments four times a year?
Kastani proposes going “back 20 or 30 years to where we first started: Two seasons and small, concise, very well-curated collections that cover our needs, as well as making us look beautiful. So it has to be a marriage of emotions with practical needs. But we don’t need 200 pieces per collection, we don’t need that many clothes,” said Kastani.
Browns’ Petersson added that sticking to co-ed shows would be another good way “to offset some of the travel.”
To that end, showrooms have also been working toward moving into the virtual realm and shifting some of their appointments online, as reported.
Giovanina Attie of the showroom Maison Pyramide, a Cairo-based business that represents emerging names from the Middle East and beyond, said the need for virtual showrooms has been building for awhile. With buyers’ overflowing schedules during Paris market, physical appointments were turning into “catchup and conversation meetings rather than a time to quantify orders” and there was always a need to follow up online later anyway.
Rainbowwave aims to build a virtual showroom for pre-spring 2021, normally shown in June, using platforms like Joor, a start-up that has been working toward “taking the antiquated and offline process of wholesale selling and buying and making it digital.”
The virtual showroom Ordre offers 360-degree zoom imagery, life-size interactive touch screens and ordering via the company’s app. Tomorrow, which operates physical, pop-up showrooms worldwide, quickly pivoted to virtual sales as soon as COVID-19 began sweeping through Europe.
Stefano Martinetto, who co-owns and runs Tomorrow, described the approach as “like QVC — but better. Think about a senior sales manager showing a collection on a 70-inch maxi-screen, with two cameras and a model — and talking for an hour with a buyer. They can be entertaining, and quite funny. At one point [in February] we were working full steam doing video showrooms in Milan and London,” he said.
Other brands in the contemporary, sportswear and mass spaces have embraced digital design and showroom selling technology wholeheartedly.
The teams at Tommy Hilfiger will begin designing its apparel collections entirely in 3-D starting with the spring 2022 season, while VF Corp. opened showrooms in London’s Soho, with a variety of digital features. Tall, vertical screens feature life-size avatar fit models that can stand, spin and move around, showing off their looks in three dimensions.
Petersson argues that there’s still a lot of work to be done on that end as virtual appointments take longer and couldn’t be as easy to set up for young designers who lack the funds to buy the technology: “I’m hoping there will be support from companies like Joor that will help these vulnerable businesses showcase to their best ability without the hefty fees.”
In that vein, p.r. agencies have also been starting to host virtual press days and shift their proposed communications strategies for brands to a more transparent — and kinder approach.
Rainbowwave’s first video press day was unveiled this month, highlighting key launches and new-season products for each brand in the form of a slideshow. “It’s a crucial tool, with more eyes on it. There is no limit to who can watch it and from where, while hosting a press day on one specific day and in one location is limiting,” said Bianca Fincham, a director of the company.
Agency L52, which represents brands like Kassl, Wandler, Etro, Bally and Khaite, is also hosting a press day this month via a dedicated Instagram account and slideshows of new-season lookbooks and products, inviting industry colleagues to like their favorite images as a way of collecting feedback. Karla Otto has also recently launched @karlaottopresents on Instagram, where its fall 2020 press day will take place on April 16.
The advent of virtual showrooms and press days could radically alter the role of the fashion p.r. agency.
“Face time is really important, but I think there’s sometimes too much of it and some meetings are unnecessary,” said Sophie Elliott, whose namesake boutique agency represents young names like Paris Texas and Misela Istanbul. She added that as brands look at cutting costs, it’s important for p.r.’s to reconsider their own overheads and how they are charging brands.
“There will always be a role for p.r., but I think a lot of brands might get rid of their [existing] p.r.’s and maybe hire digital people in-house. The way forward for me is to work with brands on projects. Designers don’t need to be constantly paying high retainers month-on-month, because different months are much busier and sometimes you might just need to work on one big collaboration that can be treated as a project,” said Elliott, who is also reconsidering the importance of sample trafficking.
“One, it costs so much; two it’s totally unsustainable, and half the time [the products you send] aren’t even used,” she said.
Fincham echoed her thoughts. “Sample trafficking is definitely something we will review, as it’s about efficiencies and it is incredibly expensive housing samples, software programs and the staff that is required to do it. Magazines will still shoot beautiful editorials and brands will still want to be included in these, but I think it will be about streamlining these.”
Alexandra van Houtte, founder of the fashion image search engine Tagwalk, argued that the whole system is clunky.
“The actual process of a stylist requesting a fashion show look to a p.r. is currently: Searching on Tagwalk, screen shot-ing the look, emailing the p.r., attaching the look, waiting for confirmation. There are way too many steps. It should be 100 percent digitalized and p.r’s should be spending more of their time pitching brands, meeting journalists, young talents, etc., rather than on bureaucracy.”
Fashion communications professionals, too, will be looking to make changes, adding a new vertical to their strategies for brands: Kindness. Indeed, they may look to pour as much effort into relationship-building, charitable initiatives and spiritual connection as they do into driving sales.
“We may just be entering a new era of kindness,” said Dominic McCarthy, a senior partner at the agency ANM, whose clients range from Ruinart to Coach to Coal Drops Yard in London. He added that apart from the “tried and tested” approach of operating strategically and tactically, it’s time to add spirituality to the mix, too. “[It’s about] communicating in a way that uplifts the human spirit.”
Elliott added: “Having more meaning and being purpose-led will be important because people need something to relate to now, they don’t want to see just a product without a personality or a human element behind it. Otherwise it feels a bit irrelevant or just thrown out there.”
Buyers say the shift in brand communications will mirror the inevitable shift in consumer attitudes. “People are wanting more visibility about what they are investing in. Ultimately longevity and a timeless appeal will be the most attractive elements no matter what part of your life it is for,” said Natalie Kingham, fashion and buying director at Matchesfashion.com. She pointed to the importance of slower manufacturing processes to preserve artisanal products.
For Laura Larbalestier, fashion director at Harvey Nichols, there might even be an opportunity for people to rediscover the art of dressing up post-crisis, but the constant demand for newness will finally slow down. “The need for constant newness will go away for some time, until brands and retailers can rebuild themselves. Purchases that are more about quality and longevity feel more sustainable and appropriate right now,” she said.
“We were already seeing a shift in customers pivoting toward spending more on lifestyle and home and I think this will continue to grow as people open up their homes to friends and family again,” added Petersson.
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