Will Covid-19 Force A New Fashion Calendar?

With physical shows put on hold, fashion Weeks tilt toward coed, buy-now formats

By Miles Socha For Wwd 29/04/2020

Could see-now-buy-now and coed formats get a second wind in the international fashion calendar once the COVID-19 crisis eases?

It would appear so, with the British Fashion Council last week unveiling plans for four “gender-neutral” weeks in London, including purchasing options for consumers. For its first purely digital edition last month, Shanghai Fashion Week saw designers hawking current-season merchandise on Tmall alongside showcasing autumn 2020 collections.

And organizers of Milan’s fashion weeks have already indicated they will fold the June men’s shows into women’s fashion week in September, assuming that goes ahead as planned. Brands are free to present as they wish, with Ermenegildo Zegna the first to reveal plans for a “physidigital” presentation in July.

Paris has yet to unfurl its go-forward strategy for men’s fashion week in June amid so many uncertainties and moving parts.

Meanwhile, some suggest it might be better to first fix some of the industry’s longstanding ills — headlined by too-early deliveries and markdowns — and align retailers and brands before pushing the reset button on its show business aspects.

Saks Fifth Avenue took a step in that direction recently, vowing to shift merchandising to better align with customer preferences, which is for more focus on see-now-buy-now, and urging the entire industry to shift to later deliveries. That could put additional pressure on the international show calendar, since it would further widen the time lag between when products are revealed on the runway and when they hit the racks.

“The calendar has been broken for some time,” said luxury and retail consultant Robert Burke. “Everyone knew it was out of sync, but no one was willing to take a pause.”

The coronavirus crisis has forced a pause, throwing into question what fashion weeks might look like when large gatherings are no longer prohibited for safety reasons.

To wit: Saint Laurent told WWD it would drop out of Paris Fashion Week and set its own pace for showing collections for the duration of the year, favouring formats that are more intimate and closely aligned to the final customer.

According to sources, a few brands in Paris have started scouting locations for the September fashion week, while others are exploring in parallel physical and digital options, concerned that borders may remain shut for some time. Many question whether any in-person fashion shows will be possible in September, and expect mainly local attendance if they do have them.

“There will definitely be more of a consumer component to shows going forward. After you’ve opened the door, it’s hard to go back,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive officer of the British Fashion Council. “Our digital platform is a focus for June, and it will play an integral part of fashion weeks going forward.”

The BFC has explored ways to integrate consumers into its trade-focused fashion weeks via experiences, certain shows and events for high-spending clients.

“What we did learn over the last few years is that see-now-buy-now doesn’t work for everybody,” Rush said in an interview. “What I would say is in the current climate — by the time we get to June 12, stores will hopefully be starting to reopen. There’s definitely an opportunity to embrace the consumer and use platforms like fashion week to reengage the consumer audience in terms of the excitement that comes from fashion, creativity, and a bit of ‘behind-the-scenes.’ Consumers understand the business, and maybe feel more connected to it, and want to support the designers.”

Lv Xiaolei, vice secretary of Shanghai Fashion Week, said the rise of see-now-buy-now components springs from “changing consumer behaviour in the digital age.”

“While showing the best fashion in China, which is the core of Shanghai Fashion Week, we also need to keep China’s expanding fashion audience in mind,” she told WWD. “We encourage brands to be creative and provide multiple choices for consumers to express their identity. They have a strong desire for a quality lifestyle and they are not used to waiting.”

Screen shots of livestreaming from Private Policy, Shushu/Tong and 8on8 during Shanghai's online fashion week.

Tasha Liu, founder of Labelhood, a retailer and platform for emerging designers in Shanghai, agreed that in an age of Internet overload, people are more impatient, making see-now-buy-now options a vital way to reach consumers.

“When a piece of work catches your attention in a short period of time, it is the fastest way for you to get connected with this brand. And the transaction can be done immediately,” Liu said. “But I don’t think that a fashion show with so much time and creativity input should serve purely for selling. The future of fashion week must coexist with shows and shopping. Brands and designers need to think clearly about what purpose each function serves. The show will be purer and the purchase will be more direct.”

A pioneer and stalwart of the see-now-buy-now format, Tommy Hilfiger introduced his roving TommyNow fashion spectacles in 2016, partnering with model Gigi Hadid to unveil the first of four capsule collections for immediate purchasing. He went on to collaborate with Zendaya and Lewis Hamilton on subsequent shows in London, Paris, Shanghai and New York. Hadid shows had touched down in Milan, London, Los Angeles and New York.

According to the company, it’s all about being consumer-centric.

“When we became one of the first brands to switch to see-now, buy-now, it was because we were engaging with and listening to our consumer,” Hilfiger explained in an interview. “They didn’t — and still don’t — want to wait six months to buy product after they saw it all over social media during fashion week. Brands and retailers that have adapted to this reality — not just from a marketing perspective, but from a 360-degree operational perspective — are best positioned to identify and respond to consumers’ needs.”

Its spring 2020 event with Hamilton attracted 1500 guests to the Tate Modern in London while 500,000 people watched the livestream. It generated 29 million impressions.

According to Michael Scheiner, Hilfiger’s chief marketing officer, the advent of e-commerce, the explosion of social media, the rise of influencers, and new direct-to-consumer business models upended the “power dynamic” with consumers.

“Our industry has sometimes been slow to understand this shift: consumers are either going to get what they want from the brands they love, or are going to create it themselves,” he explained. “We’ve always had the perspective that we want to be part of leading this change with our consumer.”

Both men stopped short of saying what configuration the brand’s next show might take, and how the industry at large might reshape fashion weeks after the health crisis ebbs. But they hinted they might have a new ace up their sleeve.

“I do think there is an opportunity to reinvent the fashion calendar in a more consumer-centric way that will benefit everyone,” Scheiner said. “We are experimenting even more with new digital approaches that allow us to show up in new ways, times and locations.”

With his see-now-buy-now format, Hilfiger has participated in major fashion weeks and also staged events in less expected locations off-cycle. “But ultimately, we need to push this even further so that we’re staying relevant to where, when and how consumers want to experience fashion,” Hilfiger said. “Whatever we do next is going to be another step in our history of breaking conventions, doing the unexpected, and being determinedly optimistic about the future.”

The designer recalled that when he started his company 35 years ago, he asked consumers on the street what they were looking for in a fashion brand.

“We’ve continued to reinvent around our consumer as we’ve grown, and that’s never going to stop,” he said. “For me, the ideal fashion calendar will take the same approach: engaging the consumer and creating an overall experience that surprises and excites them.”

Ralph Lauren, who has staged see-now-buy-now events during New York Fashion Week, and cancelled an event that had been planned for late April, has yet to determine the way forward given the disruptions of the crisis, thought it remains committed to creating special brand experiences, a company spokeswoman said.

Tom Ford, who went see-now-buy-now for one season in 2017, did not respond to a request for comment.

Ralph Lauren RTW Fall 2019
Ralph Lauren RTW autumn 2019

According to the BFC’s Rush, the forced slowdown of the industry due to lockdowns could make see-now-buy-now more feasible.

“I’ve spoken to quite a lot of businesses, and they’re now having to push collections from one season into the next, reducing the number of collections they do and carrying through products that then don’t have to go on sale. And if you do that, you’ll always have elements that could be see-now-buy-now because there will be elements that are relevant to the customer, that aren’t seasonal and therefore should not be discounted,” she said.

Rush said ideally, there would be two main physical fashion weeks a year in the four main fashion capitals, in addition to the platforms in Asia.

“It’s important for buyers and the press to see different sorts of curations in the regions and see designers benchmarked against their peers so that they can make a call about what to buy,” she said. “All audiences are important. The trade is so important in creating the hype that then generates sales to the consumer. Once designer trends/hype gains traction, the consumer becomes important because they are the ones buying. So you have to engage the consumer as part of the conversation because, ultimately, we are all in the business to sell clothes.”

Meanwhile, Guram Gvasalia, cofounder of Vetements, is adamant that the see-now-buy-now format doesn’t work because of a complex production cycle. “Getting orders in, buying fabrics and trims, producing the collection, getting it first into your own warehouse, shipping to the stores and waiting for the stores to process the orders takes months,” he explained in an interview.

“There are two ways how see-now-buy-now could theoretically work. One way is to gamble and to pre-produce the entire collection prior to receiving any orders in hopes all will go as planned. However, in today’s economy, it would be not a smart move,” he said. “Another option is to have a secret showroom months in advance, where no pictures can be taken. The collection will be presented at a later stage, however this will totally kill buyers’ mojo and the shows will become merely a publicity stunt.”

He suggests no more than two collections a year with multiple delivery windows.

Vetements RTW Fall 2020
Vetements RTW autumn 2020

Since it was founded in 2013, Vetements has experimented with the timing of its shows, ultimately settling into men’s fashion week in Paris with coed displays, finding that timing ideal for efficient production and delivery. It also produces what it shows, but “doesn’t talk about the pieces” on its social channels, particularly Instagram, until they’re available for purchase, the executive explained.

In his view, the calendar conundrum pales next to rampant markdowns that have stoked demand for earlier deliveries in order to achieve some full-price selling. “The biggest poison of the industry are premature sales and constant midseason promotions. The goal of the industry should be to have winter sales starting in March, when winter is over, and summer sales in September, when summer is over. When this works out the industry will be fixed, and we will all live happily ever after,” he said.

The consultant Burke agreed it would be best to have the industry aligned on a new cadence of deliveries and markdowns — more closely aligned to consumer demand and weather patterns — before tinkering with the show calendar.

“Retail, online, direct-to-consumer all have to be aligned for this to work, that’s the key,” he said. “This has become a mandatory reset because the stores have been closed, and you’re not going to have fall (autumn) delivered until fall. There’s an opportunity, if everyone bands together, to not mark down so early.

“If the online retailers embrace it, there’s a real opportunity to be able to sell product in-season,” he added.

According to sources, another big European luxury brand is mulling the possibility of a see-now-buy-now showcase, timed with one of its later seasonal deliveries. It is understood it is not working in concert with fashion-week organizers, raising the spectre of an even more fragmented and diverse fashion calendar, at least in the interim.

“The brands are really going to call the shots, as opposed to the department stores calling the shots,” Burke stressed.

He also underscored how fashion shows, small showroom affairs for professionals only up until the mid-Nineties, have evolved into entertainment spectacles — while not straying far from their traditional timing in February/March and September/October for women’s wear.

Asked about possibly adjusting the timing of fashion weeks, Rush warned that any change would have a knock-on effect on fabric fairs and manufacturers and would be a huge shift for the industry’s calendar as a whole. She said the core of any argument with timing is this: How do you ensure that full-priced stock stays on the shop floor for as long as possible?

She agreed that the system is now so out of whack that stores are discounting coats before customers even decide they want one.

Returning from fashion after a long hiatus with AZfashion, a from-scratch venture with Compagnie Financière Richemont revealed last autumn, Alber Elbaz vowed to do things his way. It is understood his first project, aimed at wardrobe solutions for women, will be revealed later this year, depending on the pace of factory reopenings.

Yet he said it’s too early for him to say how he might reveal his designs, whether with a fashion show or some other format.

“We have to think and we have to dream and we have to use intuition. It’s the idea about thinking together,” Elbaz said. “I think it’s about being authentic, it’s about being individual, it’s about not compromising, it’s about being unique, and being original.”

Pressed for more specifics, he replied: “I cannot come with an answer today. Let me have more time to reflect. I want to be more of a doer than a talker.”

According to Hilfiger’s Scheiner, “This isn’t about fashion week any more. It’s about ensuring that everything we are putting in front of the consumer is relevant, accessible and engaging,” he said. “As we look more at our brand investments from this perspective, it’s clear that we don’t foresee a return to the more traditional fashion show calendar.”


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