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The need for speed

More and more brands are turning to pre-collections and short order to keep pace with shoppers’ desire for newness.

What do shoppers want? More clothes! When do they want them? Now! Well that appears to be the message heard across the fashion industry at the moment, as designers, brands and buyers push more and more fresh product to tempt shoppers to part with their precious pounds and pennies. The result is that the pace of our industry is rapidly speeding up – but are you keeping up?

No longer is the fashion cycle simply split into the traditional biannual spring and autumn time frames. Now there is a selection of pre-collection ranges, inter-seasonal drops and fast-reactive short-order offers alongside the usual collections, as customers become increasingly accustomed to, and demanding of, more regular injections of stock.

But what is most interesting is how the importance of these collections is rapidly increasing across the industry – from the luxurious heights of premium designers down to the need-it-now-pace of young fashion brands.

At the most premium level, the concept of pre-collections is nothing new. The top-end fashion houses such as Chanel, Dior and Givenchy have offered pre-spring and pre-autumn ranges for decades. Once called cruise and resort collections, they were aimed at the designer’s rich jet-setting clients who wanted trans-seasonal wardrobe updates for their annual holidays. But these collections have evolved to the point where more and more designers are choosing to present four collections a year – pre-spring, spring, pre-autumn and autumn.

In fact, the past few seasons have seen a noticeable increase in the number of designers launching these transitional collections. The growing momentum of this more frequent fashion calendar was recently highlighted with the news that the British Fashion Council will launch its first official pre-collection showcase this season to sit alongside the traditional spring and autumn fashion weeks, giving brands a more organised platform to reveal, and most importantly, sell their latest ranges to buyers. What is also interesting is that up-and-coming brands are now getting in on the act alongside the more established names with Peter Pilotto, Prabal Gurung, Altuzarra and House of Holland all debuting pre-collections in recent seasons. But why now?

“It was something the buyers requested from us,” says Henry Holland, the man behind House of Holland, which launched its first pre-spring collection for spring 12.

“Pre-collections are a much more commercially viable representation of a brand’s aesthetic. There isn’t the same level of pressure to showcase with a full catwalk show which helps from a budget perspective too,” he says. “We kicked ourselves for not doing it sooner!”

Besides having an opportunity to push more commercial pieces, Holland sees several other positives: “The message we were getting was that budgets were weighted increasingly heavily towards pre-collections and we realised we were missing an opportunity to get newness into the stores mid-season.”

As Holland notes, although the spectacle of the fashion capitals’ catwalk shows still steal the limelight twice a year, buyers tell Drapers that less and less of their budgets are actually being spent on the main spring and autumn ranges, and instead are being saved for the inter-seasonal ranges. “Pre-collections have become an important part of our buy and the split between pre and main collections now sits at 65/35, which shows clearly what a big business it is,” says Ruth Chapman, co-founder and chief executive of designer mini-chain Matches.

Chapman, who recently bought into 30 designers’ pre-collections including Roksanda Ilincic, Erdem and Carven, believes there are several benefits to designers launching pre-collections, which in turn benefit her from a buyer’s point of view. One key factor is delivery dates, meaning pre-collections drop into store earlier and will stay on rails straight through into the next season, often at full price.

“It delivers early, and increasingly our customers are looking for newness so the deliveries for pre-autumn that start arriving in Matches in June are very welcome – customers can shop this as a way to start buying into the autumn trends, for example, which sometimes includes great occasionwear which is equally important for July and August,” says Chapman. “Price also makes pre-collections compelling and can be up to 30% to 50% less than the main catwalk collection from the same designer. Interestingly, this means pre is becoming more important to our clients than runway.”

Luisa De Paula, buying and merchandising director of premium etailer, agrees, saying buying into pre-collections is a “no-brainer” for her. “They come in early and increase the probability of sell-through as you have longer to sell them. They refresh the offer as the customer tires of the season, giving them something new and exciting,” she says, underling Chapman’s point. “The main catwalk collections are a bit more extreme and expensive and don’t necessarily retail well and we are all here to sell product.”

This concept of more frequently refreshing the offer with pre-collections and blurring the lines between the seasons is, as Sue Evans, catwalks editor and retail analyst at trend forecasting website WGSN notes, all about driving sales. “Nowadays, customers want fresh product all year round, so designers are cashing in. Having four collections allows them to inject fresh product into stores more frequently,” she says. “Traditionally, you put a collection in-store at the start of the season and if people don’t like it then they won’t buy into it. Now, pre-collections are growing in popularity because they give designers a chance to tweak their product, rerun their best-sellers and boost sales.”

Outside bricks and mortar, this is particularly relevant online, with the success of online shopping helping to drive the increase in inter-seasonal collections. ‘New in’ product pages are some of the biggest drivers of sales online, but the problem is that if designers only release new product twice a year, then these web pages could quickly look stale, while pre-collections mean there is a more frequent stream of product.

It is worth noting that this is not exclusively a premium fashion phenomenon, but actually extends right across the industry. Brands are increasingly offering similar pre-collection options, which offer buyers a chance to update their stock. Damien Ladwa, country manager for the UK and Republic of Ireland at denim brand Lee, tells a similar story to the designers and buyers Drapers spoke to: “We were hearing that six months was a long time with no newness. Newness is the key factor.”

This has resulted in Lee offering additional pre-collections to its two traditional spring and autumn ranges: an injection range for transition from autumn to spring and an early preview collection of the autumn drop. This season the brand has expanded even further, offering a new pre-Christmas range for its premium Lee 101 range, all in an attempt to offer more choice to the customer: “With less footfall, we have to ensure we are giving more choice to the people that are shopping,” says Ladwa. “It also gives both brands and buyers a platform to evolve their product proposals, which is key to keeping the customer engaged.”

For some brands, the season is speeding up at an altogether faster rate, with the trend for short-order labels and in-season buying gathering pace. Sophie Harper, account and distribution manager at dedicated short-order sales agency Red Alert Fast Fashion, believes these reactive brands are successful because customers are much more aware of new styles and trends at a faster pace – whether they be catwalk or celebrity – because of social media, blogging, websites and weekly magazines, and they want to be able to buy them quicker: “No longer do we have to wait six months for a catwalk look to trickle onto the high street. The consumer is aware of this. The more demand there is for speed the more competitive the market becomes.”

Red Alert, which represents labels including Jarlo, Fever London, Rare and Marc B, launched as a small section of a larger company in 2009 but became a separate business in 2011 following the growing desire for more fashion more regularly – its lead times are between four to eight weeks. “The current financial climate has encouraged this as we’ve noticed buyers prefer to buy in-season to have a greater control over their budget and are able to jump onto trends and maximise their sales,” says Harper.

“Every month it seems the demand for speed becomes greater; new product is always requested so we look into ways of speeding up the process.”

This trend for quick-response clothing has been taken further. For instance, Australian women’s young fashion brand Finders Keepers reacts to trends so quickly it releases a newly designed collection every month, which can consist of up to 80 pieces at a time and arrives in-store in eight weeks. Stockists can buy as much or as little from each update as they wish, refreshing their offer every four weeks.

So from a simple system of two collections a year, the pace of the fashion seasons has sped up to the point that the traditional spring and autumn cycle is becoming less and less relevant.

The commercial and profitable elements of these inter-seasonal ranges mean they are becoming equally, if not more important, than the usual seasonal rhythm, and while they might not revolutionise your business, are you sure you’re not missing a trick? If it’s right for your brand, you should be doing it. If it’s right for your shop, you should be buying it. The traditional cycles are being redefined and if you’re not keeping up, at this rate you’ll be left behind.

As Henry Holland said, you’ll kick yourself for not getting involved sooner.   

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