For the consumers, the struggle is real. For the brands, it's a wasted opportunity.
CHALLENGING THE STATUS QUO
The existing fashion show calendar is a product of a pre-internet system that only catered for industry insiders — designers parade their wares for wholesale buyers to place their orders, and for media to curate their stories, all with the view of releasing the collection to the public several months later. Fall/winter collections are shown in January (men's shows) and February (women's shows) for delivery in July, while spring/summer is unveiled in June (men's shows) and September (women's show) for delivery in February the following year. That is, the fashion calendar is months ahead of the retail cycle. However, with the proliferation of digital technology, allowing end consumers to view the collection instantaneously on the runway; and the globalisation of fashion, with many luxury consumers living in different climatic patterns, the status quo is increasingly criticised as archaic and irrelevant.
In a game-changing move, both Burberry and Tom Ford have recently announced that, starting from September this year, they will combine their men's and women's collections into one catwalk and, critically, will make their collections fully available for purchase online and in-store immediately after the show. In short, it's all about instant gratification — from the runway straight to the retail floor.
FROM RUNWAY TO RETAIL: OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES
Christopher Bailey, chief executive and chief creative officer of Burberry, told Business of Fashion that he will be showing "seasonless" offerings instead of calling his collections spring/summer or autumn/winter: "It often felt slightly superficial to be talking about an autumn/winter collection, when it's 90 degrees in a third of the shops we're selling it in. We are a global company and the world is not one weather pattern."
For Tom Ford, it's about swapping the traditional fashion calendar seasons: He will show his fall/winter collection this September (instead of spring/summer) so as to match his runway show to the retail cycle. "Our customers today want a collection that is immediately available," said the designer in a statement. "We spend an enormous amount of money and energy to stage an event that creates excitement too far in advance of when the collection is available to the consumer. Showing the collection as it arrives in stores will remedy this, and allow the excitement that is created by a show or event to drive sales and satisfy our customers' increasing desire to have their clothes as they are ready to wear them."
It's a smart move that highlights the increasing power of the end consumer in directing the global fashion industry. "Where once we were dictated to by designers, buyers and editors, the advent of the online landscape has charged each individual with choosing their own look and with the technology for them to achieve it via e-commerce. Tom Ford and Burberry are merely reflecting this significant shift," notes Mitchell Oakley Smith, award-winning author and editor of Australian men's fashion title, Manuscript. "Of course, Burberry has dipped it's toes into this buy-it-now technology before, but that it's bringing the entire collection into line with it demonstrates just how powerful the consumer's voice is today."
But what are the ramifications of this move for the rest of the industry? Will it signal a sea change with other brands following suit?
Victor Michel, buyer for Singapore multi-label store Club 21, raises supply-side challenges: "Big luxury brands are not as responsive as fast fashion retailers like Zara or H&M, so buyers will still have to place their orders months before goods are scheduled to enter stores. In the case of Burberry, they can sync their runway to retail because their internal buyers have access to the collection as it's being designed by Christopher Bailey and his team. However, for external wholesale buyers like us, we won't be able to follow suit because we rely heavily on what is shown on the runway to inform our buy. If a show is beautiful, we know that we can bet on it by buying more. But if more brands adopt this runway-to-retail model, we will have to place orders before seeing the 'full vision' of the collection at the show. That's difficult."
If external buyers are invited to see the collections at the developmental stage, months before the show, it will mean that designers will have to commit to their designs. "But knowing designers, they are bound to change their minds," says Michel. "It's how they work. I remember when I was at Lanvin, and before one men's show, a few years ago, Alber Elbaz decided to shorten all the shorts. He had them all cut three hours before the show. How can the retail and production side follow this last minute change by the designer?"
If more brands adopt this runway-to-retail model, we will have to place orders before seeing the 'full vision' of the designer at the show. That's difficult — Victor Michel
And lest us forget the confidentiality issues — imagine inviting some 300 external buyers to preview a collection and then telling them to keep quiet for five months until the show? Move over WikiLeaks.
On the press side, print media — with its own fixed turnaround and printing schedules —shares similar concerns. "Frankly speaking, Burberry and Tom Ford are only breaking the fashion week cycle; they're not breaking the production cycle," says Jonathan Yee, Hong Kong-based publisher and fashion director of Manifesto. "The downside to this change is that fashion media and journalists won't be able to preview their collections in order to plan editorial line-ups in advance."
From a digital media point of view, it's a no brainer. Aligning runway to retail further reinforces the cogency and importance of what we are already doing: Daily runway reviews and analysis to keep our readers up-to-date and well-informed months before that same information hits newsstands. But Yee raises an interesting point on consumer spending behavior: "I think there will still be customers who prefer to see the all the season's apparel first, from all the different brands, before placing an order." So while Burberry and Tom Ford might be first to market, will shoppers hold off to see what other brands have to offer? Or is it a case of the early bird getting the worm? Judging from experience, I'm banking on the latter.
LESS IS MORE: CUTTING OUT PRE-COLLECTIONS
In a similar move to Burberry and Tom Ford, cult French brand Vêtements has also just announced that it will do away with pre-collections and consolidate its men's and women's shows into one runway come January 2017; two months ahead of its usual women's wear show in March. The result? Just two main collections per year, and delivering their clothes into store four months earlier than usual.
In addition to addressing the outdated fashion schedule, the change by Vêtements is also a stance against the current dizzying pace of fashion: "Designers are human beings who need to have some spare time to get rest and gather strength. Instead, designers are put under enormous pressure and insane schedules," said Guram Gvasalia, chief executive of Vêtements, in an exclusive conversation with Vogue.com. "The industrial machine sucks out their creativity, chews them up, and spits them out. Once a genius, the designer is left behind incapable of being creative. Reducing to two main collections will give designers enough time to revitalize."
The fashion industry has become a never-ending marathon with some designers churning out an exhausting eight to 14 collections per year. It makes the whole process for creative people simply impossible — Mira Duma
Miroslava Duma, digital investor and founder of Buro 24/7, concurs. "The fashion industry has become a never-ending marathon with some designers churning out an exhausting eight to 14 collections per year. It makes the whole process for creative people simply impossible," she says.
"What I foresee is Vêtements creating a comprehensive collection that will include both runway editorial pieces and more tran-seasonal items that can drop to the retail floor earlier," predicts Yee. "But I don't think this will be the trend. Most of the tier-one luxury brands will continue to produce pre-collections. Just think of the upcoming destination cruise 2017 shows: Gucci will be staging its resort collection at the Westminster Abbey in London, and Chanel will be staging theirs in Havana come May."
Indeed, a strong and voracious creative process is at the backbone of Chanel. While speaking to the maison's global fashion president, Bruno Pavlovsky, backstage at the haute couture show in Paris last month, he aptly noted: "At Chanel, we have eight collections a year: six collections for ready-to-wear and accessories, and two for haute couture. That's the way we keep the exclusivity. Every two months we have a new collection and novelties in the boutiques. That is part of our mechanism — to be able to offer this permanent renewal in the assortment, which is about fashion and the silhouette, but also a creative fashion statement offered by Mr Karl Lagerfeld."
However, not every brand has the cachet and covetability of The Kaiser at their disposal.
Too much of anything, even when we love it, is never good. Just as with sugar, if you give us less, we tend to want more — Mitchell Oakley Smith
The fashion industry is built on cultivating desire and repositioning it as a need — you need this bag to be accepted; you need this dress to feel powerful; you need this lipstick to be seductive — and then building in obsolescence, through a never-ending turnstile of shows, in order to offer up new goods. When does this conveyor belt of fashion transition from merely keeping up with consumer demand, to over supply? Surely one of the signs is when designers start leaving their posts due to an overbearing schedule. "It's the reason why great minds and talents, including the likes of Raf Simons, have left," says Duma. "The industry as a whole loses out as a result."
For Michel, showing less shows is definitely the way forward: "In my last buying trip to Europe, I met a few companies that wanted to concentrate their energy on two bigger collections with perhaps two delivery drops," he says. "Doing two shows a year gives them time to think and come up with more precise and interesting ideas for a collection."
Smith shares the same sentiment: "Too much of anything, even when we love it, is never good. Just as with sugar, if you give us less, we tend to want more, and I think the Vêtements shift in approach might catch on in the broader industry as a result." Hear, hear. But only time will tell.
Check back every Monday for another @MusingMutley column from Norman Tan, Editor-in-Chief of Buro 24/7 Singapore. For more columns from @MusingMutley, click here.