how the shoppable runway is changing fashion

Why see-now, buy-now is ushering in a new, brilliant era for fashion.

by Jack Sunnucks
17 November 2016, 2:50pm

This season in New York we've seen a slew of shows where the garments on the runway were immediately available to buy immediately after - what one could call a 'shoppable runway,' if one were inclined to come up with snazzy sound bites. Whatever you call it, it's a thing. Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren took their whole collections online during their shows, while Michael Kors and Coach released a more limited selection. In London, Burberry - not content with just reducing its shows from four to two a year - offered 83 looks to buy right after the last exit. The impetus behind this is, of course, money, as it's no secret that the public isn't spending what it once did. But it's also a reaction to the times; people don't want to wait six months to buy something anymore. But what does this mean for brands and for the traditional gatekeepers of fashion - the press?

The rag trade used to be a cloistered industry, with fashion shows attended by a select crowd of press and buyers. To say 'no-longer' is an understatement - it's like this era never even happened. Designers, who could once look forward to one picture of their show on page three of a newspaper, or a raking over the coals in WWD, now have their shows streamed online to audiences of thousands, alongside the bazillions of pictures put on Instagram, the runway shots on every magazine's website, and the dissemination of which celebrities wore what on the front row. Of course, this is great for them - fashion week is a publicity-generating experience as well as a trade show. But it also adds up to just so much noise. If everyone's screaming at the same time it's impossible to make anything out. You might flick past a dress on Instagram, on the latest social media-to-runway model, and think 'oh that's nice,' but it's not the greatest enticement to buy. Perhaps selling direct from the runway is a way to own this noise and cancel out what you don't want to hear? Burberry in particular has had a rough financial year, and its new buying model is a great way to create excitement and deflect critique. The brand's Instagram also looks rather fantastic all of a sudden - and the 'shop the show' link in its bio has something of a ring to it.

Over-saturation is just one issue facing the fashion industry, though. And it leads directly to the next, that of speed. Millennials are a dreaded generation who no one can define apart from the fact that they're not old and aren't fans of waiting. You can get a car in five minutes, food in half an hour, anything you can imagine on Amazon overnight - not to mention the efficient joys of online shopping for actual clothes. In this context, waiting six months for clothes to hit stores after a show seems ridiculous and outdated. Never mind that they have to be, you know, made, hopefully from luxurious fabrics in Italy, not to mention the process of sampling. So the fact that brands are changing their production schedules is something that can be filed under 'very big news,' as it runs contrary to the cycle of anticipation and production that's been the MO of ready-to-wear since forever.

"The changes we are making will allow us to build a closer connection between the experience that we create with our runway shows and the moment when they can physically explore the collections for themselves," said Christopher Bailey, chief creative officer of Burberry, in a statement. These changes included making 83 of the looks shown, a total of 250 garments, available to buy on Burburry's website at the same time as the show - the brand had already teased some of the looks in an ad campaign starring model Jean Campbell and some pale, interesting looking boys. This aligns with the new Burberry calendar of having two shows a year in February and September, which combine both men's and women's offerings. How successful this radical overhaul will be, we shall see.

It worked in New York, at least for Tommy Hilfiger, which presented another of its spectacular shows in the form of a fairground around which Gigi Hadid lead a gang of models in a collection she'd helped design, which focused on military and nautical designs. A week later, many of the designs already sold out online, including some rather nice flared denim sailor pants and a hat as seen on Gigi's Instagram. "TOMMYNOW is the ultimate expression of my brand philosophy, and the show I have always wanted to present," said Mr. Hilfiger, striking a democratic note. The Hilfiger brand has always been more about the people than its NYFW counterparts, with a pair of jeans setting you back $175. At Ralph Lauren it's a different story, however. Mr. Lauren might have said "From the beginning, I've always designed with you in mind," but that 'you' is the sort of person who can afford a fabulous deep blue velvet coat for $5,190. "You are changing the way you live and the way you want to shop, and we are changing with you," he continued. Frankly, this seems admirable and thoroughly American.

Elsewhere, Coach and Michael Kors both offered a selection of runway items to buy after their shows, meaning that New York's four biggest shows were all testing the waters of the ocean that is shoppable runway (kudos to Mr. Lauren for jumping in head first). Not to mention Tom Ford, who, if not the biggest commercial force to be reckoned with, is at least one of the most influential designers of the past 20 years. Of course he presented an insatiably glamorous shoppable experience, and his collection was available to buy online the next morning. Ford is a maverick and a brilliant businessman in addition to being a lauded designer, and his inclusion in the group gives it added critical heft. Notably however, Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler - the conceptual titans of the New York scene - have opted out. Jacobs in particular is famous for working up right until the clothes hit the runway, furiously ditching anything that doesn't work, so it seems like this model might not work for him. In the CFDA's exhaustive yet inconclusive report this spring about how the fashion system might be fixed, the organization declared something along the lines of "do what you want and let's see where it lands."

There are risks. Obviously, one is that there might be great long racks of unsold clothes. "To make straight to retail happen, sometimes we have to buy blind - like with Moschino - so the first time we see the product is at the show, and then when it hits the shop floor," says Ruth Hickman, womenswear buyer at Matches. "We don't know the clothes will sell, but it's worth the risk more often than not, and we wouldn't encourage brands to consider the process unless it's a format that works for them." This is key - none of the brands who've adopted this format would've bet the house if they didn't think it was going to go brilliantly. Also, those taking this direction tend to be exceptionally engaged in social media, and thus the wants and needs of their clients - a total upside of the digital age. Another upside would be happier designers, which of course is great. More time freed up to actually design, a management who believe their designs will sell, a time of calm after the show when they're not tied up in selling.

We do however need to consider the role of the press, the traditional intermediaries between houses and the public. Do houses need magazines when you're communicating directly with clients? Well, a lot actually. Magazines, websites, assorted fashion personalities all are needed to create excitement and dialogue around your collection, even if it's before it goes on show rather than after. Brands have been inviting editors and buyers to preview collections for ages now, so there's still a measure of opinion, it's just before rather than after. Perhaps this makes more sense in fact, than showing and being slated - it seems a more holistic approach.

Fashion week has allegedly been 'dead', 'over', or 'in need of a complete overhaul' for a while, yet evidently it's in rude health, and gets more column inches than ever. And in Milan and Paris, things continue ever the same. Thus far, LVMH and Kering groups, along with behemoth independents such as Prada and Versace, have declined the new business model. Francois-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering SA, owners of Gucci and Saint Laurent amongst others, said that the see-now, buy-now model "negates the dream of luxury," reiterating that the six month waiting period created anticipation and desire for their products.

Pinault has reason to be in bullish spirits; Gucci has just reported its strongest revenue growth in three years. This was due not to a shake up in the consumer model, but due to the designs of new creative director Alessandro Michele, whose work is adored by the fashion press and supported by rather brilliant adverts shot by Glen Luchford. Michele's vision is perhaps the extreme opposite of straight off the runway. It's whimsical, and perverse, and romantic, and initially made retailers rather nervous - maybe it was all the boys in blouses and berets. Gucci soon found however that it was commercial catnip, with Michele favoring a heavily accessorized look that created all sorts of retail opportunities, as well as revitalizing the flagging loafer business and making the once staid shoe a must have. It's led, perhaps not directly, to an array of brand shakeups, from Valentino's Maria Grazia Chiuri being tapped to lead Christian Dior as the house's first ever female creative director, to Miu Miu choosing a new aesthetic for its shows and advertising, to Donatella Versace's stellar new Instagram presence (not to mention her dog's).

This is a golden age for fashion, one in which uncertainty is breeding innovation and creativity, both on the business and design fronts. Profits are rising and falling on both sides of the Atlantic, as they ever have, tossed between declining tourism and great bursts of creativity. It's interesting that New York - the city which invented sportswear as high fashion, thus essentially reinventing what luxury meant - is once again leading the charge in business innovation. Again, it's democratic - listening to the needs of the consumer, adjusting accordingly. In Europe, meanwhile, it's the opposite, buoyed by the heritage of couture and innovation through design. Rather than a relatable, all American girl in a campaign, it's an alien beauty swathed in something strange. It's untouchable, and arcane, but you still want to buy into it too.

It's so tempting to see this as a grand battle, between new and old worlds, social media and exclusivity, tradition and experimentation. And perhaps it is - when it comes to sales, and thus money, competition is fierce, especially in the economic climate of today. If the brands who've adopted a straight off the runway approach make a lot of money, others will follow in droves. One hopes they will; it's exciting to think of a new seasonal model driving business, freeing up designers' time, and contributing to their happiness and creativity, and leading to a new era of fashion publishing, in which the build up to the show is just as important as the aftermath. As Hickman muses, "There's so much fluidity around format and timelines at the moment, we think things will continue to change, to a point where a multi-faceted, multi-disciplinary approach, one that's different for different brands, will be the industry standard. A move away from the rigidity and pressure of a classic fashion week structure will benefit designers and retailers." The press too. Editors and journalists will now have even more to write about, a greater wealth of clothes to shoot, and even more shows to go to, with less rules. Sounds brilliant to be honest. And if it's hard to keep up, maybe invest in some straight from the runway sailor pants, available right now - all the better for the stormy seas of fashion.


Text Jack Sunnucks

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