By guest author Christina Binkley from Vogue Business
As momentum builds away from fashion weeks with Michael Kors the latest departure, the response from retailers and trade bodies is mixed.
When Michael Kors announced he is stepping away from traditional fashion weeks this week, the American designer took a side in a growing debate over how and when fashion collections should arrive in public.
Kors said he will produce two collections each year, dropping his resort and cruise seasons, and show on his own schedule, putting his Spring/Summer 2021 collection on a runway in late October or early November rather than during New York Fashion Week in early September. Similarly, Saint Laurent has said it will show outside of the main Paris fashion calendar. Chloé representatives have been discussing a two-season year with retailers lately, though a spokesman says the label has made no official decision on the matter.
These choices by influential labels worry fashion-week organisers and others who believe it’s beneficial to gather an entire industry of store buyers, editors, sales people and designers in one city to digest proposals for a season’s looks. Carlo Capasa, the president and CEO of Italy’s national fashion chamber, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, said recently, “It’s important to have one time for shows rather than brands showing when and where they want.”
Organisers of the major fashion weeks are holding out hopes that the seasonal show calendar will return in non-digital form once coronavirus concerns recede, but some brands and retailers are beginning to see more benefit in stepping away from organised scheduling. Covid-19 is causing the industry to question traditions that have hogtied it to awkward design and production calendars, positioned product in stores out-of-season and have helped alienate its ultimate consumers.
“I think this is just brilliant, what’s going on,” says Holli Rogers, chief executive of Browns Fashion and chief brand officer of Farfetch. “I’m going to get in trouble (but) I do think, controversially, we would be better off without fashion weeks.”
From stores’ perspective, spacing out the arrival of new fashions from big labels will reduce the feast-or-famine nature of deliveries, which inundates consumers with new looks at the same moment, then leaves those shoppers with little newness until the next season’s arrivals. That’s particularly a problem for small labels that struggle for attention amid all the noise of a new season. Among the victims of the brutal economy, despite the wealth of its backer, Nancy Marks, the promising New York label Sies Marjan shut down abruptly this week.
Pressure to produce more off-season led to the creation of resort, cruise and so-called pre-collections. But this in turn contributed to such severe overproduction that 30 per cent of new apparel ends up destroyed or landfilled. It has also contributed to a severe cycle of discounting as stores clear out inventory every few weeks with such regularity that consumers have learned to feel foolish for paying full price for fashions.
Seasonless dressing isn’t just a design concept, it’s also potentially a manufacturing and delivery strategy following the individual brands rather than industry dictum. Kors noted in his announcement that his spring/summer and autumn/winter collections will be delivered incrementally to stores around the year at times when people will want to shop and wear them.
“If you stagger it, by virtue of that you will have this flow of goods constantly,” says an enthusiastic Rogers.
This highlights an essential problem with the industry’s traditional scheduling: just when the latest collections arrive on store racks, consumers are inundated with images of future collections. The sheer quantity of fashion information in those moments raises an issue that the psychologist Barry Schwartz wrote about in his 2004 book (and later Ted Talk), The Paradox of Choice. Presented with too many options, and therefore a multitude of decisions to make, consumers get anxious, shut down and don’t buy anything at all.
It also isn’t nice to tease people with things they can’t obtain. For years covering collections, I’ve fielded requests from consumers — often from their executive assistants — asking where they can buy looks they just saw on the runway. They are generally perplexed to learn they’re not available and might never be. Imagine Apple putting its new iPhone in stores the same week that the company announces the snazzy goodies coming on next-year’s iPhone.
The real pioneers of the decentralised fashion calendar are streetwear brands. Without bothering with fashion-week runways, they have kept new products as mundane as hoodies under wraps until they are “dropped” in stores or online to generate buzz. Excitement is hyped when photos of the next sneaker model leak in advance, and prices are held high by the promise that supply will sell out quickly. The success of this scarcity-driven marketing strategy can be measured on resale sites like StockX and Sotheby’s.
At the Camera Moda, Carlo Capasa recognises all these issues, which he has experienced not just leading the industry body but as the former chief executive of Costume National, the fashion label he co-founded with his brother, Ennio Capasa — which they stepped away from in 2016.
“For me, the biggest issue is to do less production. To be more connected to the real seasons. Trying to sell goods at the proper price,” Capasa says. “When you cut prices, somebody is suffering. The weakest part of the chain is paying the price. Often, it’s the workers who must take wage cuts.”
Moreover, he points out that many new e-commerce sites are evaluated by investors on their revenues rather than profits — an incentive structure that encourages them to buy more goods to boost sales. “This is perverse,” Capasa says.
By wedding the industry to traditional fashion weeks, Capasa said he is hoping that brands and retailers will realign themselves by agreeing — somehow without triggering many countries’ antitrust laws — to produce less and hold off on discounting until the end of the season. That system works mainly in countries, like France, that legislate when sales can take place. It’s hard to imagine telling Neiman Marcus executives that they can’t discount goods when they see fit.
Kors revealed another telling detail about his new strategy. He will sell his collection to retailers prior to when he reveals it publicly. Dries Van Noten has been doing this for years — holding a vast showroom for retailers in Milan a week or so prior to showing a more edited collection on the runway during Paris Fashion Week. For Kors, showing weeks or months later, the move means his collections will be publicised closer to the moment when consumers can buy them, and at a time when social media channels are not overburdened with rival collections.
At Browns, Rogers says it is too early to know how the retailer will respond to the new strategies that brands are trying out to survive 2020. Browns has made a point of not cancelling any orders, seeing it as a move to support fashion labels it carries. Rogers likes the new approaches she is seeing so far.
“Two seasons a year instead of four — I really like that from a perspective of sustainability,” Rogers says. “It pushes the value of what we sell. The space we sit in is luxury. It should have a longer shelf life.”
Key takeaway: Fashion show organisers are more wedded to the traditional calendar, but brands and retailers see a more profitable and sustainable future elsewhere.