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What’s Next for the Fashion System?

The radical overhaul proposed by independent designers last year never gained traction, but the pandemic has been a catalyst for individual brands to shift the way they market and deliver collections.
Models on the runway for Altuzarra a New York Fashion Week. JP Yim/Getty Images
Models on the runway for Altuzarra at New York Fashion Week. JP Yim/Getty Images (JP Yim)

Last spring, as fashion brands announced pandemic-driven furloughs and store closures, Saint Laurent released a dramatic statement. The Kering-owned luxury brand planned to “take control of its pace and reshape its schedule” by abandoning the calendar of runway shows that had formed a key part of the luxury fashion business model for decades. Freed from this system, the brand said it would create its collections “with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity.”

The decision made waves far beyond Paris and fuelled a debate that had been growing in the industry ever since the rise of globalisation and the mainstreaming of the internet triggered questions on whether it still made sense to present collections via traditional runway shows, bundled together in fashion weeks according to Eurocentric “seasons” months before they hit stores in an age when the runway, at least for the bigger brands that anchor major fashion weeks, had largely become a consumer marketing spectacle measured in Instagram engagement.

“Is this the end of fashion week as we know it?” asked a headline in the The Guardian.

As brands return to the runways this month in all the major fashion capitals, the answer to that question is a resounding “no.” Most brands have shelved the digital shows they adopted during lockdowns, which failed to attract nearly as much online interest as physical events, and returned to the traditional format and rhythm.

Even Saint Laurent is back on the schedule in Paris, where dozens of brands will stage traditional runway shows to present collections that most customers won’t be able to buy until next year. Stablemate Balenciaga is back on the Paris calendar, too. (Kering’s smaller Alexander McQueen label is skipping Paris, but staging a show in London a week later during Frieze). And if the group’s mega-brand Gucci skipped Milan fashion week this season, instead opting to launch an online concept store, designer Alessandro Michele has hinted that he is planning a “surprise” show in the near future.

So what happened?

While a few major brands did step away from the fashion calendar, it was largely smaller, wholesale-dependent brands that had the most to gain from challenging “the fashion system,” a term that encompasses the industry’s traditional methods of showing, delivering and discounting collections. Unsurprisingly, it was largely these brands that joined together to rally for change. And more often than not, they were more focused on overhauling the delivery and discounting cycle imposed by large department stores than shifting the timing and format of presentations.

A group of designers, spearheaded by Dries Van Noten and dubbed the Forum, proposed shifting deliveries of the Autumn/Winter and Spring/Summer collections forward to better align with real-world seasons (at least in the Northern Hemisphere) and cut out mid-season sales, which had steered many consumers away from buying at full price. A second group, Rewiring Fashion, facilitated by The Business of Fashion, also proposed changes to the delivery and discounting cycle, but went a step further, suggesting that the industry shift fashion weeks to January and June to allow designers to show closer to when collections hit stores.

One great thing that has come out of this is that there should be no rules.

But by the spring of 2021, it was clear that the designers were unable to agree on a new system, let alone drive adoption. Crucially, they say, they lacked the support of the industry’s largest brands, which have greater control over how they present their collections, when those collections arrive in stores and whether and when to discount them because they can more easily command an audience, sell more of their products through direct channels and have greater control over their supply chains.

“For them, [the system] is not broken,” said Milan-based menswear designer Neil Barrett, who participated in Rewiring Fashion.

Efforts to rein in mid-season discounting ran up against the realities of the market. Retailers have pulled back on discounts this year, partly due to supply chain challenges and an overall reduction in inventory. In May, when discounts were most widespread this year, the average reduction was 36 percent at US online multi-brand retailers, compared with 41 percent in May 2019, according to Edited. But there is little to stop brands and retailers from reintroducing deeper discounts.

While France limits most discounting to twice-annual soldes, retailers in the US and most other countries are free to slash prices whenever they want. Attempts by designers to coordinate their pricing strategies might have run up against antitrust laws and there would be nothing stopping brands from undercutting their competitors.

“It didn’t happen on an industry level because, honestly, a lot of these things cannot happen on the industry level, from a legal perspective,” said Shira Sue Carmi, chief executive of New York-based Altuzarra.

But the movement was not a failure, say some participants.

Simply getting smaller brands talking to each other for the first time, sharing advice and best practices was a win for many. Rewiring Fashion and Forum, which now have close to 100 participants, combined at the top of the year and continue to meet quarterly. And out of these conversations has come greater acceptance that brands can at least try and follow whatever strategy makes the most sense for them, and that deviating from the “rules” of the traditional system is no longer a sign of weakness.

“One great thing that has come out of this is that there should be no rules,” Barrett said. “Everybody agreed that there were too many rules previously imposed by convention and fashion councils.”

While radical, coordinated change failed to materialise, individual brands have begun to shift the way they sell and deliver collections. More have worked with stockists to deliver collections closer to when customers actually want to wear them. Brands that work with the platform Tomorrow London Ltd are increasingly delivering the bulk of their Autumn/Winter collections in September instead of July, said chief executive Stefano Martinetto, a participant in the Rewiring Fashion group.

Meanwhile, other designers like Jonathan Cohen and Altuzarra have pivoted to deliver collections to retailers six times a year instead of just four, allowing them to split the instalments in a way that aligns better with real-world seasons.

The practice of selling heavy winter coats at the peak of summer — often held up as the ultimate example of the industry’s excesses — is also on the wane. Since July, the number of new coats for sale in US multi-brand retailers has decreased by 16 percent, according to Edited.

It’s unclear how long this shift will last. Some fear the changes, though welcome, are merely a knock-on effect of pandemic-related production delays. “I hope [retailers] don’t go back to asking me for down jackets in the first week of June,” Martinetto said. “I don’t know what we are supposed to do with that.”

Altuzarra is now selling its collection to retailers in January and June, at the beginning of their buying periods, and months before the same pieces are presented to the public and press during the main womenswear weeks. The strategy of going to market before a runway show is not totally new — Dries Van Noten has been following that plan for several years — but it’s growing in popularity. It gives a brand like Altuzarra more time to produce and sell its collections, and its pieces have more time to attract customers before discounts hit. After the runway shows, the brand hosts a smaller market period for specialty boutiques and other retailers who may want to “top off” their prior orders.

The strategy to combine pre-collections with main season collections, but delivering them to retailers and customers in smaller batches, is growing in popularity. It allows brands to keep up with consumer desire for a constant stream of new products.

And if fashion week is back, its purpose is shifting, even for smaller brands. “The main seasons, September and March, become way more a marketing moment than they actually are a market moment [for selling to retailers],” said Martinetto.

For Altuzarra, the runway is the most effective way to communicate with customers, as well as retailers and press, said Carmi. The brand returned to New York Fashion Week in September with a show that cast A-list models like Gigi Hadid and Adut Akech.

“[It] has to do with movement of clothes, which has to do with storytelling,” said Carmi, “which has to do with creating a narrative that a fashion show is uniquely equipped to do.”

Related Articles:

Independent Brands Must Change Their Business Strategies

Dries Van Noten’s ‘Forum’ and ‘Rewiring Fashion’ Join Forces to Rebuild the Fashion System

Designers Lobby to ‘Fix’ the Fashion System. Will It Work?

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