I don’t even think when I’m walking down the runway. I don’t really breathe either.—Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Pass out the brown paper bags. There are dozens of people in the fashion world who are currently hyperventilating. First came the news early this morning from Christopher Bailey that Burberry is cancelling its men’s presentation after this season. Instead, they will combine both men’s and women’s ready-to-wear into two seasonless shows per year, which will be called September and February, rather than Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter. Then, around 10:00 EST this morning, Tom Ford cancelled his NYFW show for this season. Instead, he will come back in September and show his fall/winter line then, in the fall, when people actually need it.
What both designers are doing is something that has been discussed heavily in fashion circles for the past six years or more: aligning the runway with retail. Both brands say they will offer runway items for sale immediately after the runway presentation. Rather than waiting six months for their favorite garments to hit the stores, customers will be able to purchase their favorite ensembles while they’re still fresh on their minds through the brand’s website.
Of course, this means some serious changes behind the scenes, starting with the supply chain. Traditionally, a designer creates the design, shows the design, waits for buyers to order the design (and request changes), and then send the design pattern to manufacturers. Obviously, that system cannot possibly work with an order-on-demand concept. Instead, designers and suppliers have to work together from the moment a design is sketched out. Decisions about fabrics and detailing have to be made further in advance and, once committed, are not easily changed. By the time the runway show comes around, what models are wearing is not a one-of-a-kind designer sample, but a finished product ready to be sold. Expect some challenges and delays as both the Burberry and Ford teams struggle to make this work. At the very least, I would expect some delays the first few seasons.
A second big difference is that this change dramatically changes the role of the department store buyer. Whereas the buyers have traditionally been able to request (or demand) changes in a garment before it hits the store shelves, this new off-the-runway concept does away with that option if stores want what is selling right now, and we know they all do. Stores that insist on holding out for changes will be behind the curve in offering designs that have already been available elsewhere. Does this mean buyers will be included in design conversations earlier in the process? That’s certainly possible, but then a designer has to made the decision which buyers to include and which to leave out. Too many cooks spoil the broth and too many opinions ruin a good design.
All of this comes as fast fashion has blurred seasonal lines and forced many designers into year-round designing with as many as eight different collections coming from major brands each year. Designers have been showing increasing signs of fatigue and the hectic schedule undoubtedly plays a role in why fashion has become increasingly boring. Who has time to think and be creative when there’s always another line that needs to go out NOW! By doing away with the antiquated season schedule, this puts designers back in control of what clothing is available when.
At the same time, the move acknowledges that modern runway shows are not the insider-only events they once were. Most major designers now stream their shows live, which allows potential customers to see what’s coming down the runway, fueling desires. Live-streamed shows are fantastic advertisements for the brands, but then shoppers forget what they liked by the time clothes actually hit stores, and often what they liked off the runway no longer exists in the same form. Buying off the runway is great for consumers and is likely to help bolster what have been some depressing sales numbers, especially for Burberry.
This is not so great, however, for department stores who may be beginning to feel a bit left out of the loop as the whole retail concept is beginning to feel more and more antiquated. Exactly how they will respond and how labels plan to address the issue remains to be seen.
Again, there are going to be plenty of bugs needing to be worked out, but should this experiment prove profitable for Ford and Burberry, be sure that many more designers are likely to follow suit. Department stores might do well to be concerned, but customers should be ready to celebrate.