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Brave new world: the future of fashion week

Burberry womenswear february 2016 show 003

On the eve of the spring 17 womenswear catwalk season and London Fashion Week, Drapers takes a look at the evolving form and function of the event, and the industry-shifting changes that will come into play this September

The schedule, format and function of fashion weeks has remained much the same for many years, but the spring 17 season will be one of disrupted traditions and change.

Catwalk shows have conventionally acted as an early showcase of new collections for buyers and press, with the clothes arriving in stores six months later. This is the strategy most brands followed and fashion week remained a private, closed event. The digital revolution changed that.

The internet, smartphones and social media threw open fashion week’s doors to an ever-growing number of engaged consumers around the world. Livestreaming catwalk shows came first, but now interactive instant Instagram content and Snapchat previews are the norm, transforming fashion week into as much of a trade show as a social media-focused consumer-facing event.

While access to shows may have changed, fashion’s “see now, buy later” strategy has not. The negative issue now is that the buzz, interest and appetite for new product that is massively heightened during fashion week is all but wasted as no product is actually purchasable for several months.

For spring 17, however, some brands are disrupting this system with bold new strategies. Earlier this year, Burberry led the way with the announcement that it will reinvent the schedule, format and function of its catwalk collections. Going forward, new ranges will be seasonless and renamed February and September, the months they drop into store, rather than spring and autumn. Men’s and women’s wear will be shown together as one complete range, following the same themes and inspirations.

The most radical change, however, is Burberry’s move from a “see now, buy later” approach to a new straight-to-consumer format. This will see its catwalk and retail schedules aligned so the new collection will go from the catwalk to store rails the moment the fashion week show is over. Buyers will now make their edits earlier, without an official catwalk show and under embargo, and product will arrive in wholesale stockists’ stores at the same time.

Burberry womenswear february 2016 show 001

Burberry womenswear february 2016 show 001

Burberry autumn 16

Shortly after Burberry’s announcement, brands including Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger announced they would follow the same new strategy. It will be interesting to see not only the success of this, but also the impact and influence it has on changing the industry as a whole.

“New formats of showing is an evolution,” says Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council and organiser of London Fashion Week. “There is still a need for a fashion system that helps brands and designers reach audiences collectively but there is little argument that those audiences are expanding beyond trade, and businesses need to adapt. We are very proud that [chief creative and chief executive officer] Christopher Bailey and the team at Burberry are as innovative in their business strategy as their product development.”

While the new straight-to-consumer system might work for global power brands like Burberry, is it the right fit – or even possible – for every brand? It raises a host of problems, including supply chain, production and rescheduling of buying patterns, particularly for smaller businesses. “For brands that own their own retail channels this does make sense and for those who still sell predominantly through a wholesale channel it is infinitely more challenging,” says Rush.

Lulu Kennedy, founder of talent incubator Fashion East, which supports emerging designers at London Fashion Week, says she’s “not a fan” of the straight-to-consumer format but can see some advantages of the system working for emerging brands. “With straight-to-consumer, new labels don’t have to wait for buyers to watch them for a few seasons before picking them up. They can start selling to their customers, which is great if they already have a following,” she says. On the other hand, “brands have to guess what’s going to be a bestseller [and] buy inventory, which requires capital.”

Sibl men fw16 0471

Sibl men fw16 0471

Sibling autumn 16

“Consumer-facing shows are great for bigger companies and, to be honest, why not if you have the structure to do it?” adds Cozette McCreery, co-founder of the brand Sibling London. “The consumer appears, more and more, to want things now. But we’d have to rethink our whole set-up.”

Sibling might not be able to adapt to the straight-to-consumer approach right away but it did follow in the footsteps of Burberry and brands like Gucci and Vivienne Westwood, by combining its menswear and womenswear collections and catwalk shows into one.

“We were doing four to five collections a year. Our factories struggled with our sampling and production schedules. Who were we trying to keep up with? We decided we had to make the change, to be brave enough, as some have suggested, to say: ‘Enough. This model feels outdated and, more importantly, doesn’t work for us’,” she says.

Unlike Burberry, which has chosen to unveil its women’s and men’s wear collections during the women’s showcase at London Fashion Week this September, Sibling opted to show its combined range at London Collections Men earlier this year in June.

“That decision was pushed via feedback from stores and buyers, all of whom are working more closely with the pre-collections schedule,” says McCreery. “We sell earlier, deliver earlier and therefore give the product more time on the shop floor or webpage to sell before hitting discount.”

‘Brands, whether on a global scale like Burberry or in the early stages of their businesses, no longer have to adhere to the traditional rules of the fashion industry’

For London designer Nasir Mazhar, and his eponymous label, there was more disruption. He made to the decision to scrap wholesale altogether, focusing on selling directly to his customers and using fashion week as a platform to speak directly to them. In this sense, he is bypassing the buyers and turning his fashion week shows into a completely consumer-facing exercise.

“Many younger brands are seeing a direct-to-consumer route as one that will give some stability and profitability. Businesses like Nasir have a strong fan following who buy into the brand. Giving that audience access to the show, or access to unique product through the website or pop-up shops and collaborations further encourages brand loyalty,” says Rush.

“In reality, many businesses still want to work with top-tier multibrand retailers. One of the unfortunate consequences of this economic climate is that, although retailers want to work with young brands, they are expecting these very young businesses to take on much more of the financial risk and many aren’t in the position to do that, which is making them think differently about their business models,” she adds.

As the industry prepares for the spring 17 catwalk season, this will be a time of changes and firsts – and will quickly reveal whether the straight-to-consumer strategy boosts sales. What is also clear is that more and more brands, whether on a global scale like Burberry or in the early stages of their businesses, no longer have to adhere to the traditional rules of the fashion industry. Successful brands will shape their business models and show, sell and drop product when best suits them, their stockists and, more importantly, their consumers.

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