A leader is someone who helps improve the lives of other people or improve the system they live under.—Sam Houston
We are two days away from the start of New York Fashion Week. Stop and think about that for a minute. In two days, catwalks are going to be full of clothes largely designed not to be worn now, but next fall. At best, you’ll start seeing them in August. Then, by the time fashion weeks end in early October, those clothes start going on sale. How is anyone actually making any money in this silly game we call fashion?
That’s just it; a lot of companies are not making money and those few that are seem to be anomalies rather than leaders that others can follow. Consider the news from earlier this morning that the retailer Banana Republic had sales drop a whopping 17% in January compared to the same time last year. Gap and Old Navy also announced declines, but neither were as severe as Banana Republic. The fashion system is broken from beginning to end and that’s making some desperate to try anything in an attempt to fix what’s wrong.
Consider Russian-born designer Demna Gvasalia. If you’re not already familiar with that name, write it down and underscore it in red. Not only are he and his brother Guram the power behind the Vetements collective, but he was also recently named as creative director for Ballenciaga. We’re going to be seeing a lot of him, to be sure, but probably not where we expect. He announced last week that Vetements is going off-schedule and plans to start showing their collections in January and June instead. The concept behind the move is that this gives their clothes more time on the shelves before they start getting the mark-down treatment.
Gvasalia isn’t the only one trying things new. Burberry announced last week that they will consolidate their mens’ and womens’ lines in their September show and that customers can purchase pieces they like immediately after the show. Tom Ford joined Thakoon, Rebecca Minkoff, and Mathew Williamson in skipping the upcoming season entirely so that they can come back in September with their fall/winter collections and immediate purchase options. Hunter is abandoning the schedule completely and opting to show at music festivals.
Fashion industry magazine Business of Fashion published an opinion piece online yesterday that is a conversation between an editor, a designer, a blogger, a retailer, and a consultant. The article is interesting and you can read the full conversation here if you have the time. While the effort was earnest, however, I’m not sure the people involved are the ones who can truly transform the system. Perhaps had the editor been Condé Nast’s Anna Wintour, the designer been Raf Simmons, and the retailer was H&M CEO Karl-Johan Persson, there might have been a conversation that actually had a chance of changing the system. [Not to slight anyone, but including a blogger seems, to me, more of a courtesy as they are not truly in a position to directly impact processes within the system.]
What the group did, however, was identify problematic issues within the fashion system that most everyone agrees need to be changed. Solutions are debatable, of course, and there is no one-size fits all method that everyone can follow. Still, they make for good talking points so let’s consider what those areas of concern are:
- Fashion is moving too fast. JJ Martin of Wallpaper* said, “A lot of fashion houses today are being run like consumer packaged goods companies. There’s no difference between selling handbags and toothpaste.” Here is the reason that so many companies are having to fall back on accessories and perfumes in order to make money. The fashion system is moving too fast and, as a result, over producing. There are more clothes on store shelves at any given time than we can even begin to comprehend, let alone actually buy. Consumers are so inundated with wave after wave after wave of new clothing that they feel they can’t catch up. No matter what one buys, when it is replaced on the shelves the next day that new garment now feels out of style. The obvious solution: slow down and restock shelves a mere four times a year, not every week. Sounds simple, but it would mean retailers and department stores completely changing their business models.
- Show schedules are disconnected from buying schedules. This is the problem to which Tom Ford and others are reacting by moving their fall/winter lines to show in September rather than now. This is not an easy switch, though, and, as I’ve mentioned before, there are going to be some serious logistical issues to conquer in making this profound change to the system work. Where do buyers fit in? How is the supply chain converted? Does this change how shows are presented? This is definitely a pro-consumer move, but changes for those caught in the middle could make delivery almost impossible.
- Brands don’t understand how to do digital. Instagram. Twitter. Snapchat. Periscope. Online purchasing. There are a handful of brands that handing the digital aspect of fashion very well, but the majority are dumbfounded, trusting large portions of their fashion empires to 20-somethings doing inexplicable things with digital cameras and computers. There are still some brands that are not represented online at all, believe it or not. The digital takeover of all things consumer-based has been overwhelming for fashion brands and both creative directors and CEOs have huge gaps in their understanding of how digital can/should work for them. Consider how many brands still won’t stream their runway shows this season, despite the fact that it has a proven positive impact on sales. The challenge here is that convincing anyone to adopt something to which they are already resistant is nearly impossible. This deficit alone could spell doom for some long-standing brands.
- Creatives are overwhelmed and in crisis. The 2010 suicide of Alexander McQueen should have been a wake-up call for the entire fashion system. There is a limit to how much a creative mind can produce and, for the most part, we are exceeding that limit. Witness the recent exits of Raf Simmons and Alber Elgar from Dior and Lanvin respectively. Both were being asked to do too much in too short a time frame. They are not the only ones suffering under this impossible expectation. Look at how boring fashion has become. How many designers have little time to do more than re-work the label’s catalog rather than create anything genuinely new? Slowing down to only four collections a year would help, but fashion is going to lose more great minds if this doesn’t change quickly.
I remain convinced that one answer overlooked by the gigantic fashion system at large is to buy more from local designers and boutiques. Consumers can push a lot of positive change simply by altering their buying habits just a little bit. Start taking some of the cash out of Karl-Johan Persson’s hands and put it into the local economy through local makers. If only 10% of fashion consumers dropped department store shopping completely, the fashion system would immediately turn and take notice, supporting more local fashion rather than investing in seeing how impossibly large two or three players can get.
I also remain quite certain that putting designers in charge of their own houses and letting some brands die off is a good thing for fashion. This would help reduce some of the over-supply that is choking retail and would also support younger designers who, perhaps, might find even better ways to engage digitally. This could be an especially critical move as Millennials, who are not especially materialistic, take over as the lead shopping demographic.
Great change isn’t going to arrive by Thursday. I’ll still give you the blow-by-blow account on Pattern, and we will do our best to make it enjoyable. But if anything, now that we are talking about the problems in the fashion system, we’re likely to see them even more glaring than before. The road could get rocky. Hold on.