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How to Work With Buyers Right Now

Brands and buyers are turning to digital platforms to sell upcoming collections. But success will require a blend of new and old-fashioned strategies.
NuOrder's digital showroom | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Chantal Fernandez
BoF PROFESSIONAL

NEW YORK, United States — The Dutch cashmere brand Extreme Cashmere is betting consumers are going to want a bit of shine in their sweaters next spring. Founded by Saskia Dijkstra and Camille Serra in 2016, the label, repped by Rainbowwave's showroom in New York and counts on multi-brand retailers including Ssense, Amarees and Ikram to sell its soft separates, which will be infused with a bit of sparkly lurex for its Pre-Spring 2021 drop.

But with buyers across the world grounded for the time being due to the coronavirus pandemic, Extreme Cashmere’s team at Rainbowwave plans to walk buyers through its latest collection through video calls and a digital showroom.

While technology has enabled Extreme Cashmere to keep selling, communicating the dynamism of their wares will be trickier. The season’s new lurex cashmere fabrication doesn’t look the same in pictures as it does in person. “It didn’t translate online,” said Maria Lemos, founder and director of Rainbowwave sales and PR agency, which represents the brand.

So despite all the advances of modern technology, the brand and its showroom turned to a low-fi solution: mailing each buyer a belt made from its new material so they can see it for themselves, as well as a complete set of cashmere swatches.

It’s an expensive but necessary tactic to put their best foot forward with buyers, who are heading into a market season with shrunken budgets and a packed schedule of video conferencing calls to review collections that would have otherwise been evaluated in person in the major fashion capitals.

"A lot of the designers we work with have decided to skip the season," said Simon Lock, chairman and chief executive of Ordre, a virtual showroom company that specialises in 3D imagery. "But there is still a market out there for resort and cruise collections."

There is still a market out there for resort and cruise collections.

Ordre and NuOrder are just two of a large handful of digital wholesale and image platforms that help brands display and sell their wares virtually during regular market seasons, but will now take a much broader role in selling as the pandemic makes travel non-advisable. They will also underpin the upcoming digital fashion weeks hosted in London, Milan and Paris, during which brands will present alternatives to digital runway shows to try to keep excitement up with customers and also sell a seasonal narrative to retailers.

The June and July market won’t be an anomaly. Even though some local appointments will happen in the months to come, September is also expected to be mostly digital. That means personal relationships have never been more important.

“If it was just about the imagery, we would just email them a line sheet,” said Martin Bartle, an online retail consultant who works with Rainbowwave.

In order to find success in June and July, brands will need to do more than upload some images to one of the digital wholesale platforms on the market. They will need to court buyers on multiple mediums: with high-definition images, 360 degree videos, creative fashion films, video calls and through the mail.

Physical appointments aren't completely out of the question. Local buying appointments are expected to take place in Milan in July and potentially in Paris in September. That being said, digital tools are non-negotiable. Joor, the digital wholesale buying platform with the largest market share in the industry, has seen a 46 percent increase in buyer activity on its platform since the pandemic-related lockdowns began.

“Normally the digital transformation that would have taken three to four years is taking three to four months,” said Romain Blanco-Espuny, managing director of French digital wholesale platform Le New Black.

This season, buyers will spend a good amount of time adjusting to the shift, navigating the different platforms and new ways to evaluate what they are seeing.

Not being able to touch something is a very big challenge for us.

“Not being able to touch something is a very big challenge for us,” said Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at MyTheresa. “[Digital appointments] take a lot longer than an actual physical appointment… There are a lot of brands that offer 500 SKUs per season; they will have to tighten it a little bit.”

The industry’s digital wholesale platforms allow buyers to review and order collections online, with different bells and whistles as they fight for market share and influential partnerships with trade organisations and trade shows.

Joor and NuOrder are the industry’s most commonly used platforms in a market where the key players are differentiated by different technology offerings, regional penetration and retailer relationships. Ordre is known for its 360-degree technology, for example, which allows buyers to see imagery that rotates around the body of a model, and has a partnership with Joor. Le New Black is popular in the French and European market and works closely with Paris Fashion Week.

There is healthy competition between the different options, although one hasn’t emerged as the be-all, end-all solution. Joor, which is the most established of the lot with its longer history as a wholesale management platform, is aiming to dominate the market, which helps to explain its partnership with Ordre, a smaller, but more visually driven competitor. “[Brands] have to start thinking about getting on a more universal platform, that’s where the industry is going,” said Joor Chief Executive Kristin Savilia.

But which platform is that? To determine which is right for them, brands and their showrooms should review the main players and choose one and invest in building it out with visual and informational content, diverting the money they spent setting up appealing physical showrooms.

A brand should think about which platform will be easiest for its key retailers, as well as which is best for the category or offering — or for a group of showroom brands versus a single label. Nordstrom, for example, uses NuORder to process its digital wholesale orders, while Neiman Marcus Group and Shopbop use Joor. Paris Fashion Week has linked with Le New Black for its upcoming digital fashion shows, offering the service to emerging brands that are part of its Sphere showroom.

The digital platform is only as useful a tool or platform as a brand allows it to be. Lots of imagery is key: high-quality, multiple angles, as well as video for more visibility on the way a piece of clothing hangs on the body.

“We are planning a highly editorial and content-lead digital platform,” said Elena Troulakis, commercial director of Tomorrow London Ltd, which owns a showroom.

The visual imagery doesn’t necessarily require fancy cameras or lighting as long as the buyers can clearly see the colours and textures — a real depiction of the product, not a slick, edited one.

“The picture is always more picture-perfect than what you would have seen in real life,” said MyTheresa’s Hsu.

For buyers to see a collection or a designer label as more than a commodity, brands need to treat their showroom platforms like e-commerce sites and mix content and commerce.

“The storytelling of the brand is not only on the design and inspiration but the way it has been produced,” said Blanco-Espuny.

Articles about a brand’s sustainability initiatives or a designers’ inspirations for the season can make the difference for a buyer with limited budgets and trying to predict what will resonate with shoppers next year.

“Content is going to be king here — creating that kind of brand immersive experience,” said Olivia Skuza, co-founder of NuOrder.

Content is going to be king here — creating that kind of brand immersive experience.

If a brand is presenting a collection as part of a trade show or showroom, distinguishing tags and keywords can be a differentiator.

“Now retailers can search by saying, ‘I want to find vegan leather jackets,’ and if a brand has categorised their products that way, a buyer can now find gaps in their assortment,” said NuOrder’s other co-founder Heath Wells.

And yes, it's worth putting together an old-school fabric book or collection of swatches to send to buyers. The high-touch approach can be worthwhile, especially advantageous if a brand is introducing a new fabric or colourway.

Sending an entire collection of samples is another option. If a brand has a major business in a foreign country, Troulakis recommends sending a set to a local partner to allow regional buyers to also see it in person. (Of course, an extra set of samples can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to produce, which isn’t a viable option for many brands.)

“I think it is an example of the importance of thinking locally and not expecting that everybody will come to one or two places and buy anymore,” she said.

Ultimately when it comes to the toughest conversations — agreeing on when and how a challenged retailer will pay the brands who may be still waiting to be compensated for past orders — they cannot be replaced by any software.

“Discussing payments, that’s a very fragile issue and you’ve got to discuss it face-to-face [on video], and that needs to be navigated by the person who has the relationship,” said Rainbowwave’s Lemos.

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