Spring/Summer 2012 | The Season That Was

Chloe Raises the Roof at the Tuileries Tent in Paris | Photo: BoF

LONDON, United Kingdom — It was a fashion season of extreme weather. After the New York Fashion Week schedule was upended, first by an earthquake and then by the State of Emergency declaration that came courtesy of Hurricane Irene, an unprecedented heat wave in Paris threw buyers, editors and bloggers into a wardrobe tailspin.

The American editors were worst off, having packed for the European shows two weeks before Paris with no prior notice of the heat wave that was to come. After a few days of shows in impossibly hot venues, some of them resorted to ripping the sleeves off their outfits or just wearing their ‘airplane clothes.’

Brands tried to ease the pain. Fans were distributed at shows alongside champagne and much to everyone’s relief, Chloe arranged for the roof of the Tuileries tent to be removed for their show, letting in the sun and much welcome breeze. Meanwhile Net-a-Porter, always on top of a new market opportunity, delivered heat wave friendly clothes to editors caught without weather-appropriate attire.

But of course the real action was on the runway and in conversations between BoF and the good and the great of the global fashion tribe at a season filled with its fair share of events and parties.

Without further ado, it’s time to look back at Spring/Summer 2012, the season that was.

1. FASHION’S ENDLESS PLAYGROUND

Louis Vuitton Carrousel | Photo: BoF

At the opening of Marc Jacobs’ stunning show for Louis Vuitton on the last day of Paris Fashion Week, a large circular curtain was lifted to unveil models in dresses as light as feathers, perched coquettishly on white horses that sat atop a highly stylised carrousel. Those assembled gasped with audible pleasure and then erupted into spontaneous applause. But more than a visual delight alone, Mr. Jacobs’ magical set was a clear metaphor for an industry in constant motion, with its endless cycle of fashion shows, not to mention the musical chairs of creative directors moving from house to house.

This was the defining moment of the Spring/Summer 2012 collections, a season during which rumours continued to engulf Mr. Jacobs and other designers at the helm of major fashion houses, including Stefano Pilati, who seems safe — for now.

For others, the news was not so good. Immediately following the Vionnet show, it was announced that Rodolfo Paglialunga had been replaced. And just before Paris Fashion Week, Ungaro announced that the house and Giles Deacon had mutually agreed to part ways. Deacon was Ungaro’s fifth creative director in as many years and The Wall Street Journal reported at the end of September that Ungaro chief executive Jeffry Aronsson believes that “in-house talent can mine Ungaro’s heritage—bright colours, silk prints and sexy draped dresses—better than a high-profile designer from outside.”

But while some brands were severing ties with their creative directors, others were debuting new ones. Olivier Rousteing took the bow at the end of the Balmain show. There were also debuts from former Pringle designer Claire Waight Keller at Chloe and Manish Arora at Paco Rabanne — and, of course, the torrent of industry speculation about Galliano’s soon-to-be-announced replacement at Christian Dior.

2. BUZZ, EDGE AND SPORT COUTURE IN NEW YORK

Altuzarra prints and backpack detail | Photo: BoF

But fashion month begins in New York, which boasts more than 250 shows in a span of eight days, making it by far the busiest and buzziest fashion week of all. As one editor put it to me, “In New York we are great at picking up the leaves and throwing them up in the air and saying, ’It’s Fashion Week!’”

The unofficial kick-off for the Spring/Summer collections happens a couple of days into NY fashion week, with Fashion’s Night Out. Spearheaded by American Vogue, with individual events in almost every retail establishment across the city, it is a format that has been exported around the world. But though it has become a global phenomenon, the return on investment for brands and retailers remains in question. Most designers and retailers said it simply wasn’t worth the expenditure of time and resources, especially at one of the busiest moments in the fashion calendar. Barneys effectively sat this round out, eschewing the kind of elaborate in-store entertainment favoured by other retailers and issuing a statement that they were refocusing all efforts “on the shopping experience” and would donate ten percent of their Fashion’s Night Out sales to a fund for the National September 11 Memorial and Museum.

And with that, the New York shows were on and we entered a weekend of vibrant prints, inspired by places all around the world. It was a colourful vibe that New York designers seemed to have caught from London. But they gave it their own unique, New York spin with mesh fabrics and athletic details, making “sport couture” the buzzword on the lips of editors and buyers everywhere, from Joseph Altuzarra and Rag & Bone, to Alexander Wang, who has made athletic-inspired fashion part of his brand’s identity.

The week’s highlights came from power design duos Proenza Schouler and Rodarte, whose shows are now, deservedly, two of the most anticipated shows of New York Fashion Week. And both Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung took edgy steps forward from the red carpet and ladylike fare of their previous collections. These are some of the names amongst a healthy crop of promising young designers working in New York at the moment, pushing the boundaries of American fashion.

3. LONDON’S SHINING MOMENT

Giles Deacon swan hat, by Stephen Jones | Photo: BoF

It’s a shame that conflict over the global fashion calendar is putting London Fashion Week under threat just as the event really seems to be hitting its stride. This season, fashion stars in London shone brighter than ever, benefitting from the pulsating creativity of designers and digital print artists, who are largely based in the East London neighbourhoods of Hackney, Shoreditch and Dalston.

Of course, previous generations of young London designers were also praised for their creativity, but they were never able to translate this into commercial success. Garments were of poor quality and deliveries were often late. But that seems to be changing now. Indeed, Natalie Massenet, founder of Net-a-Porter told the Financial Times that “if people have been paying attention, they will see there is a new crop of extraordinary talent, which is young and dynamic and have learnt commercialism is not a dirty word.”

Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo told Suzy Menkes that although she was primarily in town to see Burberry and Tom Ford, it was the young talents who really excited her. “My camera is going and my notepad’s flying,” she said. “Between the prints and the quality, I am blown away.”

Not really ‘emerging’ designers anymore, Christopher Kane, Peter Pilotto, Jonathan Saunders, Giles Deacon and Erdem Moralioglu all put on very strong shows. Mary Katrantzou and Michael van der Ham both pushed their signature techniques forward. And the two new names in London that everyone was watching were JW Anderson (who put on both mens and womens shows within a span of five days) and Thomas Tait, a name familiar to long time readers of BoF. Cathy Horyn of The New York Times said Tait’s clothes were “imaginative and inspiring” — high praise from one of fashion’s most respected critics.

But will London’s recent successes be hijacked by the current scheduling complications? And if a sensible resolution isn’t found, will editors really choose to see independent designers in London over major advertisers in Milan? Watch this space.

4. THE RISE OF FASHION DIPLOMACY

Tods Light Installation at Italian Ambassador's residence in Paris | Photo: BoF

With all the bickering and back-and-forth between the fashion capitals, it somehow seems appropriate that national ambassadors, much better versed in the ins and outs of international diplomacy, are using their muscle to support young designers, senior editors, and famous national brands.

In Paris, the Italian ambassador invited the fashion glitterati to a special event for Tod’s, at which Chairman Diego Della Valle was present, to celebrate the launch of the brand’s Signature collection. Sir Peter Westmacott, the British ambassador to France, along with the prime minister’s wife Samantha Cameron, continued to show their support for London-based designers — Nicholas Kirkwood, Erdem Moralioglu, Roland Mouret, Antonio Berardi, Jonathan Saunders and Katie Hillier, to name a few — with a lavish event at the ambassador’s residence. And, Glenda Bailey was hosted by the American ambassador to France for a celebration of her book commemorating her ten year tenure at Harpers Bazaar USA.

5. MOUZAT AND MENKES GO VIRAL

Mark Holgate and Anna Wintour of American Vogue at Burberry Spring/Summer 2012 show | Photo: BoF

Fashion editors from two important newspapers flexed their editorial muscle this season, creating ripples throughout the fashion industry.

The season’s first viral moment came courtesy of Virginie Mouzat, fashion editor of Le Figaro, one of France’s most respected daily newspapers. Though her name is not widely known outside elite fashion circles, Mouzat’s scathing critique of Tom Ford’s private London presentation had everyone talking, even if only a select few were there to witness what Mouzat described as “a nightmare.”

When an English translation of Mouzat’s article was emailed from the American Vogue office in Paris to its senior editors in London and New York, it wasn’t long before the email was circulating throughout the global Conde Nast empire and, indeed, throughout the industry. Incredible chains of emails — from one front row name to the next, from one senior magazine editor to another, from one global brand executive to his colleagues — was a lesson in how closely tied this industry really is. Ms. Mouzat had clearly struck a chord amongst the fashion establishment, for whom email, not Twitter, is still the most powerful viral tool.

Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the IHT, set off her own viral frenzy, this time on Twitter, with the assistance of her colleague Jessica Michault. In her review of Raf Simons’ collection for Jil Sander in Milan, Ms. Menkes suggested that Mr. Simons was in talks to take over from Stefano Pilati at Yves Saint Laurent. When Michault tweeted the breaking news, which coincided with the Aquilano Rimondi show in Milan, attendees were reportedly glued to their iPhones and Blackberries, while debate quickly broke out across the social web about whether Suzy Menkes was actually saying Simons was going to YSL.

The next day, Yves Saint Laurent quelled the rumours in an official statement, which while firm, still seems to leave open the possibility that Mr. Simons, or someone else, could indeed design for YSLin the not-too-distant future. Will Suzy Menkes still be proven right? Time will tell.

6. PRE-TAIL GAINS MOMENTUM, BUT FACES OPERATIONAL ROADBLOCKS

Edgy Glamour at Jason Wu Spring/Summer 2012 | Photo: BoF

When Aslaug Magnusdottir and Lauren Santo Domingo launched their “pre-tail” start-up Moda Operandi (MO) last season, they must have known that the model would generate copycats, just as Gilt Groupe (itself inspired by Vente Privee) and Groupon were copied by hundreds of other similar businesses.

But as it turns out, Moda Operandi’s fast followers have not been other startups. Rather, it’s major media and retail brands who got into the pre-ordering game this season. Online industry bible Style.com debuted an “Instant Get” program for one-off products from six New York-based designers and venerable New York luxury retailer Bergdorf Goodman partnered with Jason Wu to offer pre-orders on selected items from his Spring/Summer 2012 collection. Sister company Neiman Marcus posted an exclusive pre-ordering opportunity for Donna Karan’s Spring 2012 collection, along with an interview between fashion director Ken Downing and Ms. Karan herself.

But fresh with a $10 million capital injection from New Enterprise Associates, a venture capital firm, the MO team had big plans of their own, announcing a partnership with Vogue.com just in time for fashion week, which directly linked the latest runway images to MO’s pre-order platform.

“We’ve experienced a steady rate of growth since our launch in February,” said Ms. Magnusdottir at the end of New York Fashion Week, “but the collaboration with Vogue has accelerated the rate of growth of both member acquisition and sales.” Indeed, Magnusdottir said that membership is expected to grow from 15,000 just after launch, a customer base built primarily on the personal networks of the founders, to an expected 100,000 members by the end of the year, driven by affiliations with Vogue.com and GOOP, the online media brand of Gwyneth Paltrow.

But despite the clear momentum, the model still faces a major roadblock that is out of the control of pre-tail players like MO: inefficiency in the fashion supply chain. As it stands, consumers still have to wait four to five months to receive most pre-ordered products. If pre-ordering is really going to provide instant gratification to consumers who are interested in buying from the runway, brands and retailers will ultimately need to deliver products more quickly than this. Burberry delivers its pre-ordered products within eight weeks, and Style.com’s ‘Instant Get’ products were due to be available within a few days of the 31 October launch.

Indeed, the broad success of the pre-ordering model rests on the ability of designers to compress delivery lead times. In response to this suggestion, Ms. Magnusdottir said she expected that supply chains would eventually be compressed over time, enabling MO to better match demand with product delivery.

Based on this season’s pre-commerce momentum, it can’t be long before other major fashion e-commerce players such as Net-a-Porter and Shopbop get in on the pre-ordering game. If the industry manages to sort out its supply chain issues, better aligning the operations and media cycles by delivering goods closer to the peak of consumer interest, could pre-commerce eventually just become plain old e-commerce?

Imran Amed is founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion