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Burberry Aligns Runway and Retail Calendar in Game-Changing Shift

In a radical rethink of the fashion calendar, Burberry will combine its men’s and women’s shows together in two annual runway events, with ‘seasonless’ collections available to buy immediately after the shows. In an exclusive, in-depth conversation, Christopher Bailey explains the logic behind this game-changing move.
The finale of Burberry's womenswear Spring/Summer 2016 show | Source: Burberry
By
  • Imran Amed,
  • Kate Abnett

LONDON, United Kingdom — As discussions heat up around the 'broken' fashion system and brands seek new ways of presenting their collections to better align their runway shows — a powerful driver of consumer demand — with retail drops, BoF can reveal that British megabrand Burberry is completely shifting the way it produces, presents and sells its collections.

Starting this September, Burberry will combine the presentation of its men’s and women’s offerings, packaging them together as one unified collection to be shown twice a year at major runway events during London Fashion Week. (The brand will no longer stage two annual menswear shows at London Collections: Men, but will retain a presence at the event.)

While Burberry’s men’s and women’s collections have long followed the same creative theme — and recent seasons have seen female models appearing in the brand’s menswear shows and vice versa — the brand will, for the first time, be presenting its offering as one, holistic collection. Immediately after the shows, the full collection of men's and women’s looks will be available to buy both online and in-store, supported by digital and print advertising campaigns, which will launch as soon as the show ends.

The new collections will be “seasonless” and branded “February” and “September” rather than Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter, nomenclature conceived with an eye towards global consumers who live in non-Western markets with different climatic patterns.

The decision follows the company’s move to unify its Prorsum, London and Brit lines under a single brand umbrella, known simply as ‘Burberry.’ In October, hurt by weak sales in Asia, Burberry forecast declining profit for the second year in a row and announced plans to trim discretionary costs, like travel, by £20 million this financial year.

But most importantly, Burberry’s new strategy addresses a long-standing problem with the traditional fashion calendar, a legacy of a pre-Internet era in which fashion shows were conceived as closed industry events for press and wholesale buyers to preview collections months before clothing was available for purchase in stores. In recent years, the rise of digital media has put tremendous pressure on this model, as runway shows — now instantly shareable on the internet — have morphed into powerful consumer marketing events, leaving brands ill-equipped to convert buzz into sales for collections that have yet to be produced.

Burberry has been taking steps to close the gap between runway and retail for some time, sharing its shows online and allowing shoppers to buy select items straight from the runway. But fully aligning the brand’s runway and retail cycles is a major step forward — with significant implications for the company's production and supply chain, as well as its communications strategy — and marks what may be the beginning of a sea change in the fashion industry.

"The BFC executive board has been talking for some time about fashion shows better connecting to consumers and being a direct driver for retail sales," said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council. "Burberry is a truly innovative brand and this strategic move shows brilliant leadership from Christopher Bailey and his team in driving this agenda forward. A number of British brands will move to a similar model over the next few seasons."

In an exclusive, in-depth conversation, Burberry's chief executive and chief creative officer Christopher Bailey talks to BoF’s Imran Amed about the logic behind the brand’s new model.

Imran Amed: Overall, what is the motivation for these changes — and why now?

Christopher Bailey: In 2010, we did a livestream of the show. It was a meaningful decision to get closer to the customer and a broader audience, because we were doing these spectacles of shows, but it was feeling very insular.

I remember saying, this show has historically been shown to essentially an industry audience of press, media, buyers and people that we collaborate with. We are opening it up to an audience who just do not, and should not, have to think about our industry’s ways and approaches and timings. You can’t force a different audience to understand something that is designed as an industry event.

All the things we’ve been doing since then have been steps to get closer to an audience that loves fashion, loves the energy of fashion, the music, the spectacle, the people. It just feels like a natural next step.

But, you know, it takes time. You’ve got to work things through. This obviously will have a big impact on our supply chain, but in terms of the design and the creative process, it’s actually less radical than it might seem. Really, the squeeze is on our supply chain. That’s taken a lot of careful consideration and thought.

IA: Let’s talk about the supply chain. This requires all sorts of changes in how you operate internally, with regard to ordering fabrics, predicting demand and manufacturing in advance. How have you worked that out?

CB: We needed to build a much more agile and flexible supply chain. You normally design the full show, then you show the show, and then your supply chain starts to kick in. Now, we will be designing the show and, as we're doing that, we will be passing things over immediately to our supply chain partners to say: let's look at the lead times on this; how can we work with this factory to get this on the date that we need it? As we are starting to create the collection, we will have to commit to fabrics or trims or embroideries. It's more of a partnership than a handover on one specific date.

You're creating all this energy around something, and then you close the doors and say, 'Forget about it now because it won't be in the stores for five or six months.'

It’s important to say, we do not have the answers to everything. We are going to be learning as we go and rapidly evolving to make sure we execute this in the way that it needs to be executed.

There's just something that innately feels wrong when we're talking about creating a moment in fashion: you do the show in September and it feels really right for that moment, but then you have to wait for five or six months until it's in the store. Was it that moment, or was it the moment at the show that felt really right?

You create a lot of energy when you do the shows, and the broader these have become — whether it’s livestreaming, instagramming, or showing online — you’re creating all this energy around something, and then you close the doors and say, ‘Forget about it now because it won’t be in the stores for five or six months.’ And then you’ve got to create that energy again.

The reality is that, today, we’re bombarded with images, film and music. To try to recreate the energy that you created five or six months ago, you’ve got to just question how relevant it is.

IA: You’re also going to pull up the release of ad campaigns, which would usually come out later, to the time of the show. How are you going to manage that in terms of shooting in advance? And how will you prevent leaks and maintain the element of surprise on the runway?

CB: Again, this is not something that we've done before and it's not something where we can follow a best practice. We're in a very fortunate position where the majority of our creative is done with the internal team — we've basically got a design studio here where we do film, photography, animation.

With an ad campaign, it’s no different. Nobody sees those images. Let’s say the show is in February. We’ll shoot the campaign in March or April with Mario Testino, but no one sees those images until July anyway.

When you break it all down, it's just a shift in your supply chain — that's the crunch.

When you break it all down, it’s just a shift in your supply chain — that’s the crunch — but in terms of the other stuff, you’re doing it all anyway, just at a slightly different time.

IA: The other impact, as we think about the ripple effects throughout the activities of a company like Burberry, is on buyers. How will that work with your internal buying system, but also with external wholesale accounts?

CB: With our own retail stores and online, that's exactly the way we work anyway: the buyers come in as we're doing the collection, they look at it and start to form a buy, and we build that together. That won't change.

The big change will be our wholesale partners. There, we will just have to work in a collaborative relationship, saying, ‘Guys, we have to trust you. This stuff will be embargoed for a while, but we want you to come in and see it, feel it, try it on.’

It gives us the opportunity to build things alongside the show collection that are more exclusive for specific stores, or create special packages and say to a wholesale partner: the show is on 20 September, let’s do a special event for your important customers, so that they come to the show or we livestream it to your store and they can try it on and shop the collection immediately.

IA: When you say “immediately” after the show happens, how quickly are we talking?

CB: Instantly. Bear with us — we've never done this before — but the objective is we will have the show at 2 o'clock on Tuesday afternoon, and by the time the show's finished, we will have set up our retail stores to reflect the show.

IA: Observers of Burberry shows for the past few years would have noticed that the men’s shows, which came first, always gave a hint as to what was going to be in the women’s shows. It seemed as if they were designed together already. But why do you want to show them together?

CB: As I'm going through the process of creating a collection, I have a spirit in mind — I don't really ever think in terms of what's specific to a gender.

We’ve shown men with the women’s collection, and the last year we’ve been putting women in the men’s collections. It feels like it’s a natural evolution. You’re able to create more of a story when you get your men’s and women’s collections together, because it reflects one mood and one season.

We often have women buying the men’s coats and some of the men’s pieces. Everything just feels a little bit more blurred, rather than having things in little boxes.

IA: Did the idea of saving costs and resources play a role in the decision to merge the collections? It’s no secret that companies like Burberry are looking to tighten their belts.

CB: It definitely did not start from there. We will run through the costing process to see if it will actually cost less money — in the end, we still have to do a men's collection and women's collection, so in terms of the product it will certainly not be any less expensive.

In terms of all the things around the show — from the show space and the lights and the music — yes, there will definitely be some kind of a saving, but it’s difficult to quantify now. We’re looking into whether we will need a bigger show space, if we’ve got the men’s and women’s show in one space.

The objective wasn’t a cost-saving initiative, but I will be delighted if there is a cost saving. Responsibly, looking at this, we have to make sure there is some kind of a saving.

IA: You’ve also decided to label collections as “seasonless” and not refer to Autumn/Winter or Spring/Summer. What was the rationale behind that, and how does that change how you build a collection?

CB: I'm trying to look at everything in the spirit of what it is, rather than what we have defined it as through our industry.

I hope that what we'll be able to do is create a moment that feels relevant when the customer actually sees it.

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.

Last summer, we had these very soft, lightweight silk dresses — but then we also had big peacoats and overcoats and we were labelling it the Spring/Summer show. That felt pretty stupid — holding up a cashmere peacoat and calling it the Spring/Summer collection. It’s just being a little bit more pragmatic.

IA: This is the latest in a series of major changes at Burberry. Last year, you consolidated Prorsum, London and Brit into one main brand. It feels like Burberry is in the midst of a massive reinvention in terms of the way the company operates. How does this fit into everything else that’s happening at Burberry at the moment?

CB: We are basically making sure that we've got a point of view that reflects the way that people live today and the different audiences that engage with the brand — whether they're interested in the music side, whether it's fashion, whether it's the social stuff that we do.

When we built Prorsum, London and Brit, it was very specific. Brit was the casual element; London was more formal, what you might wear to work; and Prorsum was much more fashion in its attitude. I’m just not sure that’s how we live our lives anymore: today, those lines are much more blurred and people mix them up much more.

There have been many steps to this. We didn’t decide to do these changes from one day to the next. From livestreaming, to runway made-to-order, or something I call “Tweetwalk” where we launched the collection on Twitter, it’s been an evolutionary development.

But this is certainly a big step for us, because it is absolutely shifting the way that we work. I hope that what we’ll be able to do is create a moment that feels relevant when the customer actually sees it, rather than telling him or her they’ve got to wait until five or six months after we’ve excited them.

You can read more on the broken fashion system in BoF’s limited-edition print issue, 'The New World Order,' out Monday and available on shop.businessoffashion.com. Click here to pre-order your issue now. 

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