Fashion Week

The real problem luxury brands aren't talking about

London Fashion Week - Burberry Spring 2016 Collection
Catwalking | Getty Images

Burberry. Tom Ford. Rebecca Minkoff. Misha Nonoo.

The list of designers becoming fed up with the tradition of showing their collections some five months before shoppers can hang them in their closet is growing.

It's easy to understand why.

After generating buzz as their styles sashay down the runway, by the time they hit the shelves at Bergdorf's or Saks, they're already old news. What's more, the lag time tips designers' hands to fast-fashion retailers including H&M, who are able to replicate the designs before the originals are brought to market.

But while the conversation is important to have — particularly as luxury apparel sales slow amid a weak global economy — experts say switching the timing of these shows only solves one part of the equation.

Though designers are likely to see an incremental sales lift from presenting shoppers with collections that are immediately available for purchase, they need to completely overhaul their supply chain to truly reshape the industry.

That means designing and developing their designs closer to the season, to better capitalize on colors and silhouettes that consumers want to wear. It also means figuring out how to get their looks into the hands of wholesale buyers (like department stores) ahead of the runway shows, so they can produce the designs that these retailers are interested in selling.

But perhaps most importantly, it would require a change in mindset across the entire industry — despite the fact that it's unlikely to take much bite out of fast fashion.

"I don't think it's really possible to compete with the fast-fashion retailers because of their business model," said Vincent Quan, an associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. "If you're a medium to luxury fashion designer, the intricacies of your product are inherently much more complex."

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Although designers have been questioning the role of fashion shows in a world of Instagram and fast fashion, the conversation has accelerated over the past few weeks.

Burberry — a brand that's traditionally been ahead of the curve regarding technology and other innovations — said last week that starting in September, it will cut the number of shows from four to two, and design "seasonless" collections that are immediately available for purchase. That same day, Ford canceled his New York Fashion Week plans, saying he would instead debut his fall collection in September.

Earlier this year, Nonoo said she would skip New York Fashion Week and rejoin the calendar with her fall collection in September. And last year, Minkoff said that instead of showing her fall looks come February, she would once again show her spring 2016 collection.

"We're still running on an outdated industry calendar, not yours," Minkoff wrote in a blog post in January. "So by the time you're able to buy these pieces, you're bored. That's a shame. And I don't blame you."

For Nonoo, the choice to show closer to need represents part of a bigger business strategy, the designer said. It follows her decision to debut her spring collection on Instagram in September — a tactic that was even more successful than the designer expected.

Nonoo admits she decided to make the collection available for preorder as an afterthought. But that month, her website experienced an 80 percent traffic boost over its highest-performing month to date (it didn't have e-commerce the prior September, rendering a year-over-year comparison impossible).

"We weren't thinking about it from the commercial aspect, which was silly of course. People really did preorder the collection," she said.

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Though a growing number of designers are pushing back against the traditional show calendar, it's a minuscule percentage compared with the total number of designers who show during fashion week. With some 15 or 20 labels showing their collections at the New York event each day — not to mention those that show in London, Milan or Paris during the following weeks — turning the ship at an industry level would require massive overhaul.

Michael Appel, founder of Appel Associates consulting firm, said the key to making such a change work is getting everyone in the industry on board. But with the luxury industry facing a slowdown — including real sales growth of personal luxury goods projected to rise just 1 to 2 percent for 2015, according to Bain — it makes sense to test the idea, Appel said.

It's something the Council of Fashion Designers of America is willing to examine. The industry trade organization recently retained the Boston Consulting Group to conduct a six-week study regarding the possibility of holding smaller presentations for buyers, and separate, larger productions for consumers, which more closely coincide with the season.

[Luxury designers] were never built this way. ... They were built for complexity. They were built for beauty. They were built for all of the finer things that take time.
Vincent Quan
associate professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology

A spokesman for the council said the organization could not comment on the study until the results are released in the next few weeks.

Sonia Lapinsky, a director in AlixPartners' retail practice, said what's lacking from the current conversation is that the winners won't be the ones who simply change their show dates. Instead, it will be the ones who completely overhaul their supply chains to design and develop their collections much closer to season, so they can look at social media and other cues to create products that consumers want.

What's more, by improving their ability to see and interpret data regarding what's selling, they can ship greater quantities of these popular products and drive incremental sales.

"That's the big shift that they're not consistently talking about yet," Lapinsky said. "Unless they do, we're not really going to see the impact that they hope to get."

But that's much easier said than done. In addition to overhauling the entire runway calendar, Appel said designers would likely have to hold meetings with buyers ahead of these consumer-facing shows, to get an indication of what looks the department stores want to purchase for their sales floors.

What's more, Quan said moving the show calendar wouldn't mitigate the ability for fast-fashion retailers to duplicate high-fashion designs.

Because Zara designs, produces and sells its own product, which is essentially a stripped-down version of what goes down the runway, it can get inventory on the floor in two to four weeks, Quan said. But the appeal of luxury goods, which take about 4½ months from the runway to selling floor, is built around handcrafted items with all the bells and whistles — meaning it's product that can't be rushed.

"[Luxury designers] were never built this way," Quan said. "They were built for complexity. They were built for beauty. They were built for all of the finer things that take time."