LONDON, United Kingdom — One never knows exactly what to expect from fashion month. Which designers will soar higher, which will stumble, and which will seemingly rise from the ashes? Four weeks of shows, parties and extravaganzas finally came to an end last Wednesday, and the answers to many of these questions have now been revealed.
But of course fashion week isn't just about shows and parties, it is also the time of year when fashion editors, buyers, models, designers, stylists, bloggers, and photographers all travel together in a caravan-like four week trade conference. Not surprisingly then, fashion week is also the time of year when the most deals are done, relationships are born, and ideas are developed. At a time when the fashion industry is being radically reshaped by the forces of digital revolution, rapid globalisation and a post-recessionary economy, this biannual meeting of the fashion flock has become an even more important barometer of things to come.
Perhaps this is why our seasonal review has become a mainstay of BoF fashion week coverage. We take a step back and look at everything with a degree of distance, trying to understand what it all means. Over the last few weeks, I've been chatting with the good and great to get the inside scoop on the market drivers and trends that will shape the business of fashion in the months to come, and am happy to share them with you in this roundup of Spring/Summer 2011, the season that was.
1. THE RETURN OF OPTIMISM? FOR NOW.
It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since fashion month was upstaged by teetering Wall Street banks and the eventual demise of Lehman Brothers on 15 September 2008. The Spring/Summer 2011 season was by far the most optimistic since the heady days of 2007. As one seasoned industry observer said to me, “the money has returned” to luxury and fashion. Indeed, senior business leaders and fashion CEOs boasted of high double digit percentage gains in revenue, albeit over the dismal numbers of 2009.
But is all this optimism well-founded, and will it last? Even with significant growth in 2010, the luxury market is still not back where it was before the financial crisis. The economies in the traditional luxury markets of Europe, Japan and the US remain weak and fragile. It's only consumption in emerging markets like China, Brazil and India (or by citizens of these countries purchasing abroad) that is driving luxury market growth today. Indeed, we are at an inflection point in global economic history as power shifts away from the incumbents.
But over the longer term, the imbalanced nature of current global economic growth doesn't bode well. As fiscal austerity measures begin to take hold in Western economies — further strangling the already feeble economic growth of the so-called "jobless recovery" — the luxury market risks becoming more and more dependent on new markets. And, as The Economist reported this week, without "micro” structural reform in both developed and developing markets, current growth rates are unlikely to last.
Bottom line? There is no crystal ball, but there is still a good chance that 2011 will see the return of economic contraction in traditional luxury markets, growth will slow in emerging markets, and the decade to come will be long and hard. I hate to burst the bubble of optimism that was palpable this fashion week, but we are far from being out of the woods.
2. SEVENTIES GLAMOUR, GRAPHICS AND NEON COLOURS STORM THE RUNWAY
While the camel colours of Phoebe Philo’s new minimalism may have dominated the wardrobes in the front row, many designers were taking an altogether different point of view on the runway – including, to some extent, Ms. Philo herself, who for the first time injected colourful prints into her runway collection for Céline.
In New York, the standout show was Rodarte, where the Mulleavy sisters finally found that elusive commercial counterbalance to their undeniable creativity. Ohne Titel — another female design duo — delivered one of their strongest collections to date, while Preen’s collection of tailored daywear was super chic.
Marc Jacobs’ seventies revival was a fun, commercial romp and set the wheels in motion for a seventies revival all around. “This is our moment,” Bonnie Takhar, chief executive of Halston said to me when I visited her showroom in New York. “For some brands seventies glamour is a trend. But for Halston, it is central to our brand DNA.”
During another strong London Fashion Week, Mary Katrantzou’s surrealist interior prints elevated her signature aesthetic to a whole new level, while Peter Pilotto delivered a knockout collection of eminently wearable clothes which were still distinctive for their fabrics and construction. Richard Nicoll’s powerful evening show at the old Eurostar terminal is still firmly registered in my head, as are Christopher Kane’s amazing Yakuza prints and neon lace-cum-leather looks.
London Fashion Week wouldn’t be complete without a slew of fledgling designers looking to break into the big leagues. The best of these were David Koma, Felicity Brown, Emilio de la Morena, and Felipe Rojas Llanos, who made a sophisticated menswear debut at MAN by Fashion East. And as reported previously, we were amongst the very few to witness the promising debut of 23 year old Thomas Tait.
I missed Milan, but Prada and Jil Sander — again in tune with colour blocking and graphics — seemed to be the standouts. For me at least, and despite reports in WWD to the contrary, Paris felt flat. Except for the stunning Lanvin show and a new haute vision from Rick Owens, the most exciting new development in the city of lights was the fact that taxis now come with red lights that finally signal that they're available for hire.
Then again, I did miss the last day when Miu Miu looked particularly good, and Stefano Pilati pulled out a strong collection for YSL, which may have saved him his job at the venerable French house. Sarah Burton's debut for Alexander McQueen also looked impressive and in-tune with the McQueen DNA.
3. THE RISKS OF FASHION IMMEDIACY
I have often referred to Burberry as the world's first truly digital luxury brand, what with the phenomenal success of Art of the Trench, the innovative Burberry Acoustic initiative, trans-seasonal collections like "April Showers" and "Winter Storms" promoted via YouTube, and of course the pioneering live streamed shows which in recent seasons have featured shopable items, available for immediate order, with delivery in 6-8 weeks. Burberry has consistently been the fashion industry's undisputed digital powerhouse.
But there are inherent risks in being the constant innovator and first mover. During Burberry's latest fashion show, beamed live from London Fashion Week , several models tumbled to the ground from the towering heels they were asked to walk in. All of this was broadcast live to Burberry fans around the world. Of course, models fall at fashion shows fairly regularly, but in the past this would have been neatly edited out of the video that was later shown to consumers. This time, however, the unscripted moment was broadcast live around the world and will live in eternity online. A video of the finale fall posted by London's Telegraph newspaper has been viewed more than 600,000 times.
That said, the risk of consumers seeing models falling is relatively minor compared to the benefit of capturing the immediate excitement of a live event. But to make matters worse, the Burberry collection reviews from some of the most influential fashion critics were not positive, and not just because of the shoes. Said Sarah Mower, "The problem with direct selling of this kind is that it can cut out a designer’s ability to explore variety in a show, to experiment with a creative way forward rather than satisfy the need to make something that has to be ready to arrive at someone’s door in six weeks." Cathy Horyn, in her characteristically honest direct style went even further, saying "When I think of all the great collections that Mr. Bailey has done for Burberry, they’ve all been characterized by a sense of emotion that he was willing to put out there. It wasn’t all crass e-commerce."
It seems the greater problem is that Burberry is conflating a consumer event with a trade event. Critics and editors are looking for an overall message, creativity and perhaps inspiration for fashion editorials, while consumers are ultimately looking for things to buy. Trying to achieve both of these with one collection in one live event is challenging.
Unfortunately, Burberry declined to comment on their plans for fashion immediacy, and some of the other potential benefits accrued from such an approach.
Tom Ford took an entirely different tack altogether. Ford told WWD, "I don’t get the need for fashion immediacy. I think it’s bad." Ford debuted his first eponymous women's collection to an intimate (and super exclusive) crowd of 100 or so editors and buyers, all of whom were asked not to take photographs. Most editors complied and thus, in a typically genius stroke of Tom Ford PR, he managed to get everyone who wasn't present to pay attention to what he is doing for womenswear without showing them anything. Then again, thinking that he can totally prevent communication in the digital era is a stretch, even for Mr. Ford. No doubt, he will be fighting a losing battle against a digital tidal wave that is much more powerful than any brand or designer, even one who is as masterful a marketeer as Mr Ford.
Perhaps Gareth Pugh is onto something. He had a different take on the digital fashion show of the future. Rather than put on a traditional show, he chose to use a fashion film, which, as he explained to me over tea with his benefactor Michele Lamy, enabled him to more carefully control the image of his collection as it was beamed out live to the world. He was also able to provide Style.com and WWD runway images which were also carefully chosen and shot by his team in advance. This was the second time that Gareth employed this strategy, but for some reason the industry took much more notice this time around. Maybe it's a sign that we are finally ready for a new fashion show format altogether.
More and more, the challenge for fashion brands and designers will be to embrace our new digital reality, while also carefully managing its inherent risks.
4. MAINSTREAM FASHION EDITORS TAKE TO NEW MEDIA
Following the lead of Cathy Horyn who launched her must-read On the Runway blog back in January 2007 (the same month, incidentally, that BoF was founded), many other important editors have taken up tweeting and blogging with a new-found vigour.
The latest to enter the fray is the Financial Times fashion editor Vanessa Friedman , who launched Material World, a blog that "deals with the fashion/luxury industry from both a corporate and consumer point of view." Vanessa told me via email that the idea to start a fashion blog actually came from Robert Shrimsley, editor of ft.com. "I was thrilled," she said, "because there is a lot of fashion news that the FT was structurally unable to cover in its paper incarnation, but that absolutely merits a comment or observation." We'll be reading Vanessa's blog carefully, as it will no doubt address fashion business topics near and dear to us.
Amongst the twittering classes, no other editor has earned more followers than Hilary Alexander, fashion editor of the Daily Telegraph whose approach is simple: call it like she sees it. This results in a Twitter account with a real voice, something to which all professional tweeters should aspire. "If something happens you can tell people 'this has just happened,'" she told me as we waited for the Peter Pilotto show to start. "It's a good way of connecting with readers and getting them to explore the Telegraph website."
The one digital holdout thus far is Suzy Menkes, although she does have a Facebook fan page. Now that the standalone International Herald Tribune site is no longer, her reviews have been buried on the New York Times website. Perhaps they should give Suzy a blog to give her the visibility she deserves. God knows she already moves at Internet speed. Her show reviews are almost always the first to appear. It's really too bad they have made them so hard to find.
5. STYLE.COM VERSUS VOGUE.COM
Over the past decade, Style.com has established itself as the go-to destination for the fashion-obsessed. It is the website of record, especially because its show summaries are the first place many people look for images and snappy, intelligent reviews of the most important collections. Having built an archive over the past ten years, Style.com is now like an encyclopedia of fashion and an indispensable industry resource.
This season the website also stepped things up further, live-streaming select shows, pushing out more content, more quickly on its StyleFile blog, and getting its show photos and reviews up as they are ready, instead of waiting to put all the shows up at the same time the next day.
But Style.com also lost one of its very best critics when Sarah Mower — who has long been American Vogue’s eyes and ears in Europe — moved to Vogue.com, which was quietly launched in early September. Using a "less-is-more" approach, Vogue.com doesn’t review nearly as many shows as Style.com, but it regularly features contributions from senior Vogue editors like Hamish Bowles, Mark Holgate and Meredith Melling-Burke, meaning that the magazine speaks with the same voice, online and off, and has one editor-in-chief. This is a unified approach that more fashion magazines around the world should pay attention to. Personally, I have enjoyed the down-to-earth writing and large format candid party pictures, which aren’t as posed and perfect as the ones you find elsewhere, and therefore feel more authentic and fun.
It’s too bad, then, that the new Vogue.com site is clunky and hard to navigate. What's more, for those of us in countries which have local Vogue websites, we must type AmericanVogue.com in order to reach the site, which is fine, I guess. But even once we've done that, if we click on the Vogue.com logo in the top left hand corner to go to the home page, we actually end up at Vogue.co.uk or Vogue.fr or Vogue.in, depending on which country we're in. This needs to be fixed, pronto.
So what does the future hold for the two Condé Nast fashion websites? It's not entirely clear as yet. But Condé Nast would be wise to fund and support the growth of both of these sites, as they find their voice and niche in online fashion media. There is plenty of room for both of them, and they both have a role to play. Style.com may become more industry-facing, expanding its role as the an essential indutry tool while Vogue.com could carve out a consumer-facing point of view.
Imran Amed is Founder and Editor of The Business of Fashion