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Op-Ed | ‘Buy Now, Build Now’ is the Real Revolution

Brands must bring consumers into the buying process and build new production capabilities, so demand for new designs can be fulfilled in days, not months, argues Áslaug Magnúsdóttir.
Photo illustration: BoF
  • Aslaug Magnusdottir

NEW YORK, United States — When laying the foundations for what would become Moda Operandi, back in the summer of 2009, I believed the fashion system needed significant change. Runway collections had become instantaneously viewable online, but were still unavailable for immediate purchase. Meanwhile, "fast fashion" companies were knocking off and delivering the latest trends to consumers in a matter of weeks, long before pieces from actual designer collections arrived in shops, months later, by which point they were already yesterday's news. This made no sense.

Moda Operandi’s digital trunkshow model helped solve this problem. Brands could finally leverage expensive runway shows as direct-to-consumer shopping events. And the pre-order nature of the model gave brands immediate insight into what the consumer actually wanted to buy, helping to align supply and demand, lowering returns and unsold inventory.

The trunkshow model was also a godsend for cash-strapped emerging brands. Since they were able to secure a 50 percent upfront deposit from customers on any purchase, young brands could now better fund their production. And since Moda Operandi didn’t bear the cost of holding inventory, it could more liberally support emerging talent, helping new brands take flight. Dodo Bar Or’s brand was one of these fledgling brands I fell in love with during a business trip to Israel and presented as a trunkshow on Moda. Now, the brand has widespread international distribution and is fast becoming an industry favourite.

Finally, consumers loved the trunkshow model, too. They could pre-order any item from a brand’s full runway collection and secure it in their size (as long as the size was offered by the brand). No more disappointment at physical retail with a piece being out of stock or only available in limited sizes.

In short, Moda Operandi made the industry better by offering shoppers more options in more sizes while helping brands generate cash, gather intelligence and reduce returns.

However, I always believed this was only a first step towards helping make fashion a more efficient and lucrative industry. I believed that the next logical step and big win would be for brands to shorten their production and delivery lead times.

So during this past Autumn/Winter 2016 fashion month, I was a little surprised by all of the buzz about the industry moving towards a "see now, buy now" model. Burberry, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and others announced that they would align their runway and retail calendars to deliver instant gratification to consumers. Private showings for retailers (and select press) will allow stores to buy items in advance and then sell them the moment the models step off the runway.

It’s not that I do not understand where brands are going with this. “See now, buy now” empowers them to capture the excitement generated by their runway presentations and convert this into immediate sales. As soon as photos flood the Internet, shoppers can now flock to stores to buy these pieces. Moreover, “see now, buy now” helps brands thwart fast fashion retailers from scooping designs before brands can sell them. If shoppers can buy “real” items immediately at full price, they might be less inclined to wait a few weeks to buy a cheaper knock-off version. Brands should be commended for this effort to shorten the lead time between runway and retail.

However, “see now, buy now” is also an ironic step backwards.

It is a return to a pre-Internet system, where buyers and editors see collections before customers do. The only real difference is that the private presentations are moved back a few months, effectively ignoring any leverage the Internet has to offer.

Brands battling to prevent “leaks” of their designs from escaping into the world before they are physically available for purchase smells a lot like the music industry’s mistake of trying to stop advance copies of albums from showing up online before they arrived at physical retail. For the music industry, it became a losing battle: all it took was one leak somewhere, anywhere, and the genie was out of the bottle, everywhere. Eventually the music industry learned that the real win was not to fight the Internet, but to embrace it: to use it to make music purchases more accessible (buy online) and flexible (buy individual songs vs. entire albums).

By the same token, brands need to realise that the real revolution is not about trying to keep a tighter lid on new designs, so that the old system can carry on. It’s about building a new system with improved production processes so that demand for new designs can be fulfilled more quickly and efficiently — in a period of weeks, instead of months.

But “see now, buy now” doesn’t actually address any of this. It also keeps decision-making in the hands of professional buyers, who review collections behind closed doors and then decide for everyone what is to be sold, rather than leveraging the power of the Internet to consult consumers themselves. How is this progressive?

Here are a few of the key problems with “see now, buy now”:

1. A loss of creativity

There is a real risk with “see now, buy now” that creativity is hampered. If the runway stops being a showcase of raw creativity and instead primarily becomes a vehicle for sales, this will affect what a brand chooses to send down the runway, destroying the impulse to show artistic innovations lest they fail to translate commercially.

 2. Mis-alignment of supply and demand 

Before the Internet, shoppers had to rely on buyers at retail to make decisions for them. Whether or not a given piece was carried (and, if it was, in which sizes) was left entirely in the sometimes capricious hands of a buyer. There were few options for consumers to purchase pieces in a collection that weren’t picked up at retail.

So when the Internet matured and helped improve the fashion industry’s ability to match supply with demand, this was a big deal. Fashion websites, blogs and social media gave off signals on which items resonated most. Then Moda Operandi and other “pre-tailers” helped shoppers secure those pieces, confirming for brands which items were actual sellers. The retail buyer became increasingly disintermediated. Power was transferred to the hands of the people.

“See now, buy now” is a regression. Since stores choose what to buy before consumers see the product, it returns decision-making power to professional buyers. And as good as the best buyers are at picking fashion for the world, they can never be as good as the world picking fashion for itself. The result is higher overstocking, returns and waste, which ultimately also comes with an environmental cost. By contrast, fast fashion largely avoids this problem. By working with consumer-centric short production cycles, these companies wait to see what is popular and produce only items that are trending, meaning much less waste.

 3. Harder for emerging designers to compete

“See now, buy now” also makes it harder for emerging designers to compete. The model’s upfront inventory requirement paired with complete lack of visibility into consumer reaction means retailers are less willing to take chances on buying product from fledgling brands (an issue that the pre-order model addresses very effectively). And if a retailer requires consignment arrangements, margin guarantees or commitments to take back unsold merchandise, this adds more stress still to the brand. Finally, unlike the pre-order model, which collects funds in advance of production, “see now, buy now” requires brands to fund all production upfront — an insurmountable cash flow burden for some young companies that are just starting out.

Despite these issues, “see now, buy now” is sure to generate customer excitement and sales in the months ahead. Burberry, which has embraced the model, has long been successful at introducing new business concepts. I will not be surprised if Burberry and others find traction with this model, as they have with other groundbreaking moves.

However, my hope it that this model is merely a step towards a future where production and delivery times are shortened, so that “see now, buy now” becomes “buy now, build now,” empowering both physical and online retailers to take an order and fulfil it within weeks and eventually days, if not hours.

The "buy now, build now" model is already being proven by companies that are innovating with improved user interfaces and real-time manufacturing. For example, knitwear company Unmade (formerly Knyttan) and designer John Brevard's new customisation platform for jewellery, Thoscene, are both using new technologies to significantly increase production speed, where orders are produced 'just in time' and shipped immediately.

“Buy now, build now” would, of course, require designers to fundamentally rethink their overall production process. Not only would it necessitate the introduction of new technologies and processes, it would ask brands to do more frequent runs of smaller sets of merchandise that can be produced in faster cycles. These changes are non-trivial and take time to implement, as I learned with my failed luxury customisation company, Tinker Tailor. But these changes will ultimately make customers happier and businesses more efficient and environmentally-friendly.

However, a brand changing its production process is not enough. The entire system of how merchandise is ordered by retailers needs to change as well. And this will only take place if the industry as a whole embraces what I have always hoped Moda Operandi and Tinker Tailor have aimed to demonstrate: that democratising choice and availability is the future of the fashion industry. "See now, buy now" feels like a retreat into the past.

Áslaug Magnúsdóttir is the co-founder of Moda Operandi and Tinker Tailor.

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

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