Examining the Future of New York Fashion Week

Change is upon us - we've seen it unfolding! Burberry got the ball rolling when it changed up its runway-to-retail model, revealing that it would offer instantly shoppable looks right off the runway. Vetements followed suit. Similar announcements seem to come each day now, including one that the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) has concluded its study undertaken with The Boston Consulting Group. With the goal of identifying the “status quo for our market, stimulating a dialogue in the American fashion industry and, and moving towards long-term solutions together," the results of the the six-week study are in. 

Timing has been tagged as the number one issue (likely because it is one of the easiest elements to pinpoint). As Bloomberg correctly notes, "Under the traditional fashion calendar, labels show off their clothes up to six months before shoppers can buy them. Spring clothes are shown in fall and fall clothes are shown in spring. This gap allows apparel buyers, who must plan ahead to stock their stores for the next season, to review the clothes in advance. Once a mere industry necessity, fashion events have become more of a spectacle in recent years. Fashion fans clamor to watch the live stream of Kendall Jenner strutting down the Marc Jacobs catwalk or see photos of the outfit Anna Wintour wore sitting front row at Ralph Lauren's show." 

The publication continues on to describe the current conundrum: "Shoppers began demanding immediacy. Fast fashion retailers such as Zara and H&M altered their expectations, taking styles from runways to stores a few weeks after they'd been unveiled. By the time the real designer items came out, they'd long lost their luster as the latest, trendiest item. The fashion calendar was too slow."

This is the conundrum the CFDA is aiming to fix, and good for them! As for how the study of the New York-based not-for-profit organization, which boasts a roster of designers including Marc Jacobs, Calvin Klein, Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, Rick Owens and Jack McCullough and Lazaro Hernandez of Provenza Schouler, among others, aims to fix anything is a bit unclear at this point, though. This is largely because the study, itself, proposes a number of suggestions - and arguably rather obvious ones, it seems - in lieu of calling attention to one or even two concrete, suggested paths. Instead, the CFDA uses the intel it gathered from 50 interviews with industry insiders (think: designers, buyers, etc.) and proposes many options (think: introduce See Now-Buy Now, stage a non-traditional runway show, etc.), noting that it is up to each individual brand to decide what works best for them.

As such, the CFDA does not identify, nor does it put its official seal of approval on, one specific new model, which will likely be problematic in terms of making any real progress in fixing anything. This is particularly significant as brands - especially the many, many emerging brands that make up the fashion industry in New York - likely do not know what works best for them. If they all knew, we wouldn't be in this mess. And since most young brands lack a CEO (most simply can't afford one at the early stage), they need guidance. Wasn't that what the CFDA study was supposed to accomplish? Regardless, here are some key takeaways from the study ... 

THREE KEY CHALLENGES IN THE CURRENT SYSTEM EMERGED CONSISTENTLY ACROSS THE INTERVIEWS

• Perceived “early” deliveries and markdowns [are] hurting full-price sales: The race to earlier deliveries and therefore markdowns is leading to merchandise at retail that is seen as increasingly out of sync with the physical season, while our consumers are looking to buy clothes closer to when they need it. This results in retailers and brands failing to capitalize on “see now, wear now” consumer trends as well as in-season clothes’ being on markdowns during relevant time / season, hurting full-price sales potential.

• A decreasing perception of newness: Technology and social media have rewired the fashion system as everyone knows it. Shows no longer just reach retail, industry insiders, and press. Images and livestreams from shows are accessible worldwide in real time, exposing consumers to designs months before they are available for purchase and providing sufficient time for so-called Fast Fashion brands to manufacture and deliver such trends. Even for industry segments and brands not directly challenged by Fast Fashion interpretations, this contributes to the ubiquity of trends and designs. As a result – as our interviewees saw it – trends and designs can seem out-of-date or stale by the time they reach stores, causing general consumer confusion and fatigue and ultimately hurting designer full-price retail.

• The danger of designer creative burnout: The confusion of the fashion cycle, coupled with the increased importance and complexity of pre-collections, leaves less time for the creative process and artisanship and puts immense pressure on critical design and creative talent. Our interviewees expressed a desire for a future system that creates more structural, predictable downtime for design and creative talent.

IN-SEASON RELEVANCY

‘In-season relevancy’ emerged as a recurring idea in the study, with various tactical configurations, including the following model: More intimate retail/press appointments or presentations 4-6 months before deliveries, with an option to then have in-season activations when collections are delivered to stores and available online for sale.

1. Keep retail and press appointments / presentations as the culmination of the design process to allow buyers to place orders and provide long-lead press with original content early enough, but make them more intimate and exclusive:

» Presentations will convey the creative tone and themes of a collection for the traditional fashion industry with a focus on the products, designer big ideas, and story-telling. Editors and buyers interviewed expressed they do not need all the ‘bells and whistles’ for these presentations.

» Designers will likely need to implement measures to control the amount of released images.

» The timing is aligned to allow for production and long-lead press placement, without compressing current manufacturing timelines.

2. Consider creating bi-annual, in-season consumer-relevant activations during or after New York Fashion Week around the main and pre-collections to be delivered to stores immediately and for the next several months:

»  It is up to designers and brands to decide if they want to re-allocate resources and budget to create in-season activations, and what format(s) would best t and serve their brand.

»  An “in-season event” does not have to be a traditional runway show, nor does it have to feature only “shoppable” looks. While the clothes are at the center, designers may choose to show an artistic or lifestyle interpretation of the collection.

»  Similarly, “consumer-relevant” does not have to mean having consumers as guests at the show. Examples could range from digital campaigns to small parties / events, to short films, to large-scale, high-production entertainment shows.

»  In-season activations do not necessarily need to happen during New York Fashion Week. Alternative locations and timing could be considered based on the brand. For example, Tom Ford brought his Fall 2015 runway show to Los Angeles on Oscars weekend.

»  Partnership — e.g., between designers / brands and retailers — or multi-brand models could be developed that would promote younger designers.

THINKING BEYOND FASHION SHOWS: SHIFTING THE DELIVERY DATES

Beyond New York Fashion Week and fashion shows, the majority of people interviewed highlighted the need to rethink the delivery cadence to better match the actual, physical season and boost full-price selling. To achieve the goal, retailers and brands need to engage in a targeted dialogue. Topics for discussion include:

• Designers thinking about the optimal cadence and content of deliveries, with the right balance between: seasonless items; “buy now, wear now” items; and products shipped in advance to create excitement, scarcity, and desire; 

• Retailers shifting their delivery calendars later; and

• The industry considering a more structural shift of New York retail appointments / showrooms.

* Read the study in its entirety  on the CFDA's website