Runways and Growing Pains

Picture this: you are a womenswear buyer for a department store. This month (February), you are traveling to visit each of your vendors’ showrooms to see their new fall collections. Your schedule is completely booked: at each appointment, you discuss business with the other buyers over light refreshments and then take your seat in a well-lit room. Right on schedule, the presentation begins. Models slowly circle through the audience, pausing every so often to showcase the details and features of the clothes they’re wearing. The designer talks about each piece – its construction, materials, and pricing – and takes you through the entire line one-by-one. During the show you take notes and decide which items will work best in your stores. About an hour later, the presentation concludes. You linger afterward to speak with the designer about the inspiration for the line, inspect some embroidery detail on a dress that you thought particularly eye-catching, and ultimately place your order. By Friday, you’re exhausted and ready to head back to your office. All in all, it was a successful week of fashion shows.

Wait a second. Something’s missing…

Where were the celebrities and the paparazzi and the bloggers?

Did you say the designer was there to talk to people?

Why did the show take so long?

Aren’t models supposed to walk fast?

If you’ve watched the spectacle that is fashion week, you know the setting I described above doesn’t exist – at least not anymore. Today, a twenty-minute show is considered too long and sometimes the collection itself isn’t even the focal point. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are pumped into this experience: never mind if the audience forgets what the product looked like (they all took pictures anyway) as long as they remember how the show made them feel. To round out the experience, the perfect mix of style icons and celebrities are sitting front row and the lighting, backdrop, and layout of the show were all orchestrated perfectly – especially for Instagram.

These days, fashion shows cater more to the audience online than the one physically present. Let’s be very clear on this point: brands don’t make money on fashion shows – no matter how many people attend. Between elaborate sets and prestigious venues, the shows themselves are no longer profitable. No matter – if it’s done right it will create serious hype for the brand. This is the goal: the buzz on social media. Fashion shows are major branding vehicles because they allow a designer to completely set the tone for the brand and control how its image is communicated to the consumer. Magazine ads are great, but the opportunity to add sound, light, and movement is invaluable. When this experience is translated digitally, it has the power to influence paying customers all over the world.

Shifting to this consumer focus has rendered the original fashion show obsolete. Social media revolutionized it into a marketing platform, giving brands limitless market reach and a powerful halo effect for their sales. Though much has changed, there is still a significant gap to be closed. Consumers are a vastly different audience from department store buyers, but the fashion show system was set up for the latter. Buyers understand lead time and production timeframes: after placing their orders, they know it will be another 4 to 6 months before they receive the product. Consumers aren’t conditioned to think the same way. We are used to retail, not wholesale: we see something we like, we buy it, and then we’re wearing within a week (if not the same day). The contrast between these two models presents a perplexing challenge for brands: how do you keep the customer excited about the new Fall line if they’re seeing it in February?

“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.”

-Tom Ford, WWD

Fast fashion has amplified this dilemma with its short lead times and constant influx of new product. These retailers have the capacity to take designs from the runway, reinterpret them at lower prices, and deliver them to the customer months before the designer is able to do so. By the time the original designs are on the market, we’ve been wearing knockoffs for months and we’re no longer interested in the real thing.

Designers, as you can imagine, have had about enough of this system. But what can they do inside such an established fashion cycle? The only option is to create a new normal.

In December, Rebecca Minkoff made the decision to show her Spring 2016 line at February fashion week (rather than her Fall 2016 line), presenting product that is either already in stores or will be available in a matter of weeks. Going forward, Burberry will show seasonless men’s and women’s collections twice a year, catering to their customers in climates all over the world. After the show, all collections will be immediately available online and in stores. Just last week, Tom Ford announced he’ll be showing his Fall 2016 line in September, not in February as originally planned.

“When you put these images in front of the customer six months in advance and they can’t get it, we’re actually irritating the customer by not servicing them.”

-Ken Downing, SVP Neiman Marcus, WWD

The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) is on board with the idea that change is necessary. In fact, they’ve recruited the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a study: what are the pros and cons of transforming the twice-yearly shows into consumer-facing rather than industry events? Diane von Furstenberg, chairman of the CFDA, noted “the only people who benefit [from the current system] are the people who copy it.” Clearly, we need a better solution.

While the idea of shopping the runway is thrilling, it also gives me pause. Is increased speed really what we need in an industry that’s already threatening to run right off the track? How do you consolidate production into a matter of weeks? How do you shift from demand-based production to a reliance on demand forecasts? Either you’ll be left with excess inventory and have to sell it at a discount, or you’ll need to place rush orders to keep up with demand. Can your supply chain support this kind of intensity? Can your designer?

Whether we keep the current system or transform it, there is a domino effect to consider. Stop-gap solutions won’t work in an industry that spreads across the globe: any fix proposed for the runway should be considered from several points of view. We can apply bandaids every time we find a new leak, or we can build a better system. If our decisions are solely driven by margin, by doing whatever is necessary to captivate consumers and drive sales, we won’t be thinking far enough ahead of the present to see where the next hole will appear.

Because regardless of when you show your Fall line – be it in February or in September – there is more fixing to be done in this industry. Let’s make sure the solutions we propose today aren’t poking more holes for us to fix further down the line.

2 thoughts on “Runways and Growing Pains

  1. Pingback: Fashion Weeks, Are They Really Relevant? | Emerging Designers Got E D G E

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