For once, designers got the memo.
The one about the importance of seasonally appropriate fabrics that retailers from Denver to Dubai have been squawking about.
“It was the first time — maybe ever — that so many brands had gotten the message about transitional-weight fabrics,” said Neiman Marcus senior vice president and creative director Ken Downing, who’s been preaching about the virtues of lighter fabrics for years. “The customer isn’t responding to all of the heavy fall and winter clothes that are shipped to stores in August. Brands have seemingly come to the table understanding that weather patterns have changed. Customers are buying in-season, color stories and fabrics are much more transitional and see-now-buy-now.”
Pre-fall has become a big business; it’s the main revenue driver for some retailers, accounting for up to 75 percent of the annual spend. While there’s no doubt that pre-fall is important and lucrative, viewing and buying pre-fall isn’t fast or easy for retailers. Depending on the designer, the pre-fall season can start in November or December and continue through February. Unlike the fall and spring runway seasons, which have official beginnings and ends, the pre-fall calendar is more diffuse. Pricing and production time tables are issues retailers have to reconcile.
London retailer Browns, which was acquired by Farfetch and underwent a re-branding under its new chief executive officer, Holly Rogers, increased its budgets for its pre-fall 2017 to between 60 and 70 percent of its annual allocation.
“April and May deliveries are becoming serious business and more important than ever before,” women’s fashion director Laura Larbalestier. “We see pre-fall as a bridge between spring and fall.”
Jeffrey Kalinsky, executive vice president of designer merchandising at Nordstrom, said pre-fall may not be as sexy as fall and spring on the runway, but the solid meat-and-potatoes season represents 75 percent of the retailer’s business and budget allocation. “The runway is the icing on the cake, because it ships later,” he said. “We need goods early and we need a good flow throughout the season. The earlier things come, the better chance you have at full-price sell-through.”
For Coco Chan, head of women’s rtw and accessories at Stylebop.com, the pre-collections sometimes feel like a distillation of the message of the previous season, re-affirming dominant trends. This was especially true of pre-fall 2017, which provided many carryovers, including slip dresses, pantsuits, lingerie detailing and pleated skirts. “There were great iterations [of these trends] from Valentino and 3.1 Phillip Lim,” Chan said, adding that Gucci’s, influence was evident in many presentations. “In terms of fresh ideas, I loved the subtle use of gingham that popped up in unexpected guises and the Forties-inflected glamour that defined Fendi and Max Mara. It was strong and powerful and bodes for interesting things to come.
“Designers seemed keen on perfecting the greatest hits of the past few seasons by adding subtle tweaks that go a long way,” Chan said, referring to wardrobing pieces. “The attention to detail and refinement was quite evident.”
Most retailers said pre-collections aren’t just watered-down-but-necessary versions of fall and spring runways. “Pre-collections are also about how to reflect the DNA of a house while staying a bit more commercial,” said Le Bon Marché women’s fashion director Elodie Abrial. “The pieces have to have staying power as they arrive earlier on the floor. They need to be creative, but take fewer risks than the main collections. We’re targeting a local clientele. It’s important that they can find wearable pieces for every day.”
Abrial said pre-collections represent about 70 percent of the buy for the season. For the remaining 30 percent, she looks for stronger creative statements. “It’s about having the right balance,” she said, noting that Chloé channeled the Seventies with shades of terra cotta, rust and green. “There was a focus on flared pants and dresses. A play on necklines will also continue to be big next season.”
As the seemingly never-ending season wound down, retailers gave their assessments of the pre-fall collections.
Jennifer Sunwoo, executive vice president and general merchandise manager, women’s at Barneys New York, said purchasing behaviors are increasingly shifting toward see-now-buy-now. “The opportunity for pre-collection deliveries, from May through July and August, is in the flexibility of transitional wardrobing and offering pieces that are seasonally appropriate, such as summer tops and dresses, lightweight knitwear and open-toed shoes and sandals.
“We loved Sies Marjan, The Row, Balenciaga and Fendi, which all showed beautiful, novel pre-collections.”
Elevated streetwear, including a bevy of embellished bomber jackets, has been adapted for pre-fall, Sunwoo said.
“Pre-fall fashion and trends are almost like a main market,” said Roopal Patel, senior vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, noting that the sartorial lines between pre-fall, fall and resort have blurred. “As we move into this season, it’s about season-less clothing,” she said. “We saw two different schools of thought: a true [pre-fall] meant to wear in-season and we saw this shift to more traditional fall dressing.”
Fabrics once associated mainly with fall and winter are being manipulated for season-round use. “Velvet is the new suede,” said Patel. “It’s being treated as a lightweight fabric that you can wear in the springtime and all season. We’re seeing Victorian trends continue that started in spring, including long, tiered dresses, skirts and pearls. The idea of more is more and decadent dressing is in the air.” To that end, she name-checked Gucci, Erdem, Altuzarra and Chanel.
Anita Barr, fashion buying director at London’s Harvey Nichols, said it’s more about true summer. “Our pre-fall collections start arriving in May, so many collections are driven by summer-ready styles rather than autumnal pieces,” she said. “We saw a lot of tropical, jungle and animal prints that were translated into easy-to-wear silks and plissé skirts, from Valentino, Adam Lippes, Rag & Bone and Equipment. Breathable and lightweight cottons were seen in soft shirting at Proenza Schouler and Alice & Olivia.”
If a lot of designers have gotten on the bandwagon for pre-fall as a season for warm weather clothes, not everyone is there yet. “After all, [regarding] the conversation about see-now-buy-now and improved seasonal appropriateness, at the very least, as part of the solution to stimulate continually flagging demand, we were disappointed to see many true fall offerings for what should essentially be a transitional time,” said Linda Fargo, senior vice president, fashion office and store presentation, Bergdorf Goodman. “The collections we’re buying for now are slated to be delivered in May and June, just when actual summer hits in most parts of the world. There just weren’t enough offerings to address that fact.”
Fargo and her team “responded where we could by picking up on lighter weights; pops of color; florals; denim; khaki; stripes, summer velvets and satins as a way to address the issue and still provide newness.”
Kalinksy was looking for uniqueness and creativity — and he took it wherever he could find it.
“You see trends during pre-fall, but what’s really import to us is to buy into the individuality of each collection,” he said. “When you go to Chanel, Balenciaga and Gucci, you’re looking to address an individual trend across the collection. You’re looking for newness in each of collections and things that will resonate with customers.”
Antonia Giacinti, owner of Antonia in Milan, also said pre-fall collections can be tricky to merchandise.
“Since the period of presentation lasts for so long, sometimes we run the risk of buying the collections without a fil rouge, which is what provides an identity to our stores, marking them with a very precise image,” she said.
When dealing with a global clientele, pre-fall has to perform on many levels. “Pre-fall is a transitional season between the spring-summer and fall-winter shows, so it is incredibly important, as we’re buying for a global customer,” said Net-a-porter retail fashion director Lisa Aiken. “We deliver to 170 countries worldwide, so we have to cater to different women in various climates and our woman isn’t staying in one place, she is traveling around the world. Pre-fall collections allow us to provide her with the best edit, which she can easily adapt to any environment.”
As for the current season, Aiken is crushing on graphic prints and bold colors in autumnal hues. “We love how bohemia has transitioned into pre-fall through maxi lengths and loose silhouettes and fabrics,” she said. “Satin and velvet were hugely successful across ready-to-wear, accessories and shoes last season. We’re seeing that sustained in pre-fall collections through rich textures and embellishments. Shirting is being interpreted in unique ways. It’s going well beyond the basics into varied silhouettes. It’s about fluidity and elegance that offer the right touch of edginess.
Balenciaga continues to set the tone, while Gucci’s maximalist dialogue is still creating strong cult hits,” Aiken said, adding that the strongest collections focused on the “see-now-buy-now approach, which was seen at Missoni, Roksanda and Erdem. On the contemporary side, we’re major fans of Tibi, Ulla Johnson and Diane von Furstenberg.”
Suzanne Timmins, senior vice president and fashion director of Hudson’s Bay Co., echoed the challenge for retailers and designers to seasonally balance assortments, given the impact of climate change.
“How much see-now-buy-now merchandise do we buy versus true fall sportswear?” she said. “The pre-collections have traditionally given retailers a longer selling window on fall merchandise. Coats and cashmere, for example, experienced some of the strongest sell-throughs in July and early August, but when it’s 90 degrees in the shade, that becomes problematic. Consumers want instant gratification items they can wear immediately. That’s not to say that we’re looking for summer clothes in August; anyone can find that on the sales rack. The key is clothes in lightweight fabrications that easily transition when the weather turns.”
Aliza Neidich, cofounder of Reservoir in Los Angeles explained why pre-fall can be a tricky season for Angelinos. “September tends to be our hottest month of the year, so although the chunky knits we see at appointments can be supertempting, we need to remind ourselves that our customer doesn’t necessarily want to buy cashmere when it’s 97 [degrees] and sunny,” she said. “Layering is key to being comfortable here, so we’re happy to see a lot of that in presentations for pre-fall.”
Ath-leisure isn’t growing as a category, but rather, evolving from its performance-inspired beginnings, Neidich said, adding that items such as track pants are being blended into wardrobes and unexpectedly worn under a dress. “Gucci did this well for pre-fall,” she said. “Rag & Bone visibly has aspirations to produce clothing for the [current] season, which we were really happy about. Their materials are lighter and bombers with palm trees on them were a definite nod to summer while still welcoming early fall.
“We’re also continuing to see the velvet trend grow, as well as wide-legged or flared pants, and the reworked shirting that Hellessy and Monse do so well,” she said, adding, “and you can’t say ‘trend’ without mentioning the creeping, subversive, antiestablishment ethos of Vetements.”
Reached at the start of the pre-fall season in Paris, Marie de Reyniès, divisional merchandise manager for women’s wear at Printemps, could tell that there will be a feminine and sophisticated bent to designs. “There’s a lot of flou, dresses, embroidery and flower prints,” she said, adding that the direction is being confirmed by brands such as Burberry, Chloé, Balenciaga and Valentino. “Shirting is strong, with striped shirts across the collections, as is the flower theme, with floral patchworks or prints.”
Another issue is pricing. Designers are becoming more conscious of the fact that consumers are closely watching their budgets. “Brands are being very careful about their prices,” de Reynies said. “They’re looking to have a broad offer in terms of price proposal to make sure that everybody can find something — as are we when selecting. All of the markets are [trying] to keep in line with previous prices in order to be competitive. They’re even lowering prices when they can, because the customer is really looking at that.”
Pre-fall plays into consumers’ frugality, de Reynies said. “All of the brands are looking to show and deliver earlier because early delivery means there are business opportunities and brands do not want to miss out. The brands that have good delivery dates, and respect them, have a business opportunity.
De Reynies said with customers spending carefully and looking for investment pieces they can wear throughout the year, season-specific items such bathing suits have less appeal. Rather, shirting is popular for its ability to transcend seasons. “Whether it’s from Gucci, which is proposing shirting in silk, or Balenciaga, in striped poplin, it’s an item you can wear all year long,” she said. “Dresses are also very strong as they’re interesting pieces you can wear throughout the year.”
With a buying period that began before the holidays and continued through January, Browns’ Larbalestier took advantage of the extended showing period to focus on buying established, bigger labels prior to Christmas, and use January to discover new labels. She singled out streetwear as the most important trend of the season, with Demna Gvasalia’s Balenciaga leading the way.
“Streetwear is still a major influence for next season: sweatshirts, leggings, track jackets are all going to be key for pre-collections,” said Larbalestier. “Balenciaga offered a clever reinterpretation of the runway and we bought several hero pieces, which I predict will be sold out very soon.”
Tailoring in bright colors is another major pre-fall trend Browns will be pushing. British designers, including Osman, Mary Katrantzou and Roksanda, whose pre-collections are filled with transitional pieces, are among Browns’ bestsellers.
Larbalestier also applauded designers who embraced see-now-buy-now such as Mary Katrantzou and Preen by Thornton Bregazzi. “I like the idea and I really think it helps because it’s more immediate rather than having to wait months after seeing something you like,” she said.
Harvey Nichols’ Barr echoed the sentiment about see-now-buy-now pre-collections.
“This actually works really well for our customers, since new deliveries bring freshness and an element of surprise for consumers,” said Barr. “A great example of this is the Yeezy collection, which doesn’t follow the traditional seasonal deliveries, yet sells out instantly as soon as its hits the shop floor.”
Harvey Nichols is focusing on summer-ready, feminine silhouettes, said Barr, adding that Stella McCartney’s body-con knits and the exaggerated shoulders and embellished sleeves seen in the pre-fall collections of Preen, Erdem and Proenza Schouler were worth noting. “They all delivered really commercial collections that will translate brilliantly with our customer,” said Barr.
While continuity is key, Kirna Zabête founder and owner Beth Buccini made a fair point about buying distinctively. “The challenge is that there’s not much of a time gap between spring runway delivery and pre-fall delivery,” she said. “We have to make sure that we bring in pieces that stand out from the spring merchandise so that there isn’t too much overlap or similarity on the sales floor.”
That said, she’s pleased with the pre-fall collections she’s seen so far, including Gucci, Monse, Altuzarra and Marc Jacobs. and the trends that emerged such as a spotlight on trousers, blazers and knits, stripes, vibrant florals and novelty prints.
Few would argue that the pre-fall schedule is far from ideal and requires many retailers to be as peripatetic as their customers. “I’m traveling incessantly from show to show,” lamented Downing. “Brands are doing pre-collections all over the world to boost their image.”
“It would be wonderful if there were fewer trips to Europe,” Kalinsky said. “It’s hard and expensive, and it doesn’t really make sense that brands can’t get together and show during a condensed period of time. I don’t know what the hurdles there have been. Are [designers] just so insular that they do their own thing? Each fashion capital has its own time period for fall and spring collections, but it doesn’t work that way for pre-fall. This kind of international travel is expensive and exhausting.” Kalinsky, who is also the founder of Jeffrey New York and Jeffrey Atlanta, said, “Between men’s and women’s, my buyers at Jeffrey are doing nine trips per year.”
Stylebop’s Chan said the long pre-fall period contributes to the sense that designers are stuck in a holding pattern, raising questions about whether time constraints are impinging on creativity. While the long and rambling pre-fall period can feel a bit disjointed, Chan sometimes “prefers to hit the ground running with a clear focus and tackle the season in one sprint.”