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Op-Ed | Fashion Needs a New Rhythm

The biggest challenge for brands from distant markets is not their geography but the timing and pace of the global fashion system, argues Karen Walker.
Karen Walker 2016 campaign | Source: Karen Walker
By
  • Karen Walker

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — My brand chooses to be based far from the traditional fashion centres. Once upon a time, being thousands of kilometres from New York or London would have made it impossible for a brand to have a global presence. Now, it's seamless and virtually unnoticeable, because in the digital conversation and retail arena, no one cares or notices where you are. All that matters is the quality of the ideas and the conversation.

Wherever your business is located, the need for new ideas about the rhythm of the global fashion system couldn’t be greater than it is right now. Fashion may be about reinvention but you could equally well describe it as being about built-in obsolescence. If something’s in fashion then it follows that, some day, it will be out of fashion. Every fashion item comes with a use-by date. The industry thrives, survives and, arguably, dies because of this obsolescence.

The top end of fashion’s pyramid has responded to the rise of fast-fashion by emulating a similar model. Collections. Pre-collections. Pre-pre-collections. Every one of them has a use-by date. It’s confronting to see rail upon rail of sale being pushed out the door while, at the same time, the delivery truck’s pulling up with the next season, which — if we’re being really honest here— often isn’t that much different. Sometimes you can’t tell the new from the old, and yet, the industry demands more, more, more.

We’re constantly seeing evidence of the effect that the industry’s demands, timelines and sheer scale have had on the creatives who are burnt out, on the consumer who’s either overwhelmed or spoiled, and on the planet, which is groaning under the pressure of our over-consumption.

Recently, I’ve become more interested in wrestling the timeline back from the system: of challenging the time allowed to develop product, the time allowed for it to exist on the shop floor before the red marker comes out, and the time the customer allows it to live in their wardrobe.

In our eyewear and fine jewellery businesses, it’s normal for a product to be in development for 12 to 24 months and for the item to remain in the range, on the shop floor and — hopefully — on the customer’s most loved list for years at a stretch. Comparatively, ready-to-wear’s calendar is ruthless and the lifespan in-store and in-wardrobe is incredibly short. This is how our audience now consumes: they may have their favourite brands, but it’s not usually a head-to-toe experience. It’s edited and product-based.

So, if this is how the product is consumed, maybe it’s not necessary to have massive collections that tick every box in the range, that are obsolescent in the blink of an eye and are replaced before the leaves even change colour. Instead, it is about small collections of well-considered product that have a long gestation and an even longer life.

Furthermore, the question the entire industry has been holding up and examining is: why are show products not available to the end consumer for another six months after they've been presented? I believe that if the industry were starting from scratch, it would not invest in the whole fashion show model as it's traditionally been. At Karen Walker, there are no more shows for us as, these days, there are simply much better ways to engage with the industry and the customer.

The paradigms have shifted for the industry in terms of the way people consume and engage. When the paradigm shifts, everyone goes back to zero and builds from the ground up what’s right for them. Just because something has always been so doesn’t mean it should continue in that way. As brands, the control is in our hands, and each brand should work in a way that’s right for them.

Karen Walker is a New Zealand-based designer.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

VOICES is the where the global fashion community comes together to exchange ideas and opinions on the most important topics facing fashion today. To learn more about VOICES, BoF's new annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website.

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