Dries Van Noten’s “Forum” and “Rewiring Fashion,” two early-pandemic efforts to bring sweeping change to the fashion industry’s traditional approach to showing, delivering and discounting collections, are joining forces.
Today at VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, Van Noten and BoF’s Imran Amed — who facilitated the Rewiring Fashion sessions — announced that the two groups would merge their efforts to drive systemic change.
The two initiatives, formed at the height of the spring lockdowns via WhatsApp conversations and Zoom meetings, set out to reform the traditional industry calendar as the relationship between independent brands and their retail partners hit a tipping point.
Luxury fashion has long suffered from a suboptimal calendar, in part dictated by big department stores, which held tremendous power over smaller, wholesale-dependent designers.
The timing of collection deliveries was out of sync with seasonal weather patterns, meaning winter coats hit stores in summer and spring dresses arrive in the middle of winter. Major US retailers in particular had become over-reliant on frequent and early-season discounting, inadvertently training customers to expect perennial markdowns — a largely American issue that became a global concern with the rise of e-commerce.
Ultimately, this ate into profit margins for both brands and retailers, but neither side seemed to know how to break the cycle.
When the pandemic hit, independent designers found themselves in a precarious position. Retailers cancelled orders at the last-minute and delayed payments to designers by as much as six months, if they planned on paying them at all. Many faced insolvency.
“An entire generation of independent designers were in danger,” said Stefano Martinetto, chief executive of brand platform and distributor Tomorrow London, who joined Amed, Van Noten and designer Anya Hindmarch at VOICES. “All of the sudden there was no market for them.”
But instead of covering up their problems, as the fashion industry often tries to do to maintain a glamourous facade, designers, consultants and a handful of retailers joined together through Rewiring Fashion and the Forum to share information and brainstorm solutions.
“This was something new, something I’ve never seen before in fashion,” said Amed. “Openness was really the biggest change,” added Van Noten.
The primary aim of Van Noten’s forum was to shift the retail calendar — summer clothes should be sold during warm weather months, winter clothes in colder months — with the hopes of pushing back markdowns to the very end of the season. Rewiring Fashion dug deeper into the problem of fashion week, which was increasingly out of sync with consumer expectations.
“The consumer should be at the centre focus of everything we do,” Martinetto said.
Over the next several months, both groups worked to flesh out plans for real, constructive change. By May, they were announcing next steps.
“There was a power in coming together,” Hindmarch said, noting that she has since seen significant changes in the way retailers work with independent brands.
At the same time, bigger brands were taking more and more of their business direct, and multi-brand retailers were increasingly eager for creative independent labels to bring vitality to their shop floors and websites. While wholesale remains an important sales and marketing tool for independent brands, it is no longer the only way to sell clothes and communicate with customers — and that also gives designers an advantage.
“You can dictate a bit,” Hindmarch added, “It puts the power a little bit on the other foot.”
Systemic reform will take years to fully materialise. This autumn, while some retailers showed restraint when it came to discounting, others continued to slash prices long before Black Friday, the traditional start of seasonal markdowns in the US, where the problem is most severe. And despite taking fewer inventory bets this season, retailers continued to cancel orders last-minute, leaving some brands in a similar position to where they were this spring.
The Forum and Rewiring Fashion believe it will take a united industry to create real change, which is why the two groups — which already had many overlapping members — said they decided to join together. They plan on creating a realistic timetable of reforms that aim to allow designers to be more creative, but also run more sustainable businesses.
“The new factor is that people are talking to each other,” Van Noten said. “We’re sharing information.”