The biggest story at London Fashion Week 2016 was away from the runway. Despite the catwalk shows being live-streamed on 60 giant screens around the UK, the revolution would not be televised. Because, behind the scenes, an idea was circulating. An idea so simple, so obvious, that it would make the way the fashion industry operates look immediately, laughably out of date.
The idea was this: align the runway and retail calendar. Instead of waiting six months to buy the clothes you’ve just seen on the catwalk, why not make them available to buy as soon as the show is over?
And — since you’re letting people buy ‘in season’ — why not name that collection for the month it’s shown, rather than having one Spring/Summer and one Autumn/Winter collection each year? So that’s what Burberry, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and others will be doing from September onwards.
‘See now, buy now’ is fashion’s Uber moment. It takes a clunky system, weighted entirely in favour of the industry, and puts the power into the hands of the consumers. In becoming ‘seasonless’, it acknowledges a global audience — that an Autumn/Winter collection in one hemisphere has no real meaning for someone experiencing high summer in another.
But, like any other tech-inspired revolution, there will be winners and losers.
Technology created the demand
The driving force behind this should come as no surprise. Burberry has been revitalised by embracing technological innovation over the past few years. From live-streaming catwalk shows to previewing collections on Snapchat, the label has also won fans by understanding that fashion week is no longer a closed-shop industry event, but a global consumer spectacle.
Word has it that Milan and Paris will resist the move, positioning themselves as the homes of luxury by continuing to show a season ahead. Those betting against ‘See now, buy now’ will hope it’s a step too far. But they will also be scrambling to catch up if it proves to introduce a new paradigm for the fashion industry.
Is fashion about to be disrupted? The Harvard Business Review’s definition of ‘disruptive’ technology has traditionally been used to describe the provision of cheaper alternatives at the bottom end of the market. Here, high fashion is learning from the high street retailers, building on the ‘fast fashion’ model of Zara, Uniqlo and H&M in the hope of beating them at their own game.
When asked by the BBC, “Is this technology disrupting fashion?” Burberry head Christopher Bailey replied, “This is technology enabling fashion.”
Whether this is what the customer really wants is a moot point, in a market that clamours for whatever it’s told to want. But if a subscriber to Net-a-Porter’s Porter magazine can have their purchases delivered within hours of ‘being inspired’, why should they have to wait five months to buy something they’ve fallen in love with on the catwalk?
For Topshop Unique’s Arcadia Group CEO Philip Green, the new fast-turnaround approach is a good thing for business and reflects the energy of the fashion world…
“The customers are buy now, wear now: they see it, they want to buy it. If we go and ask a customer in three months’ time do they remember what they saw on the catwalk they won’t even remember. I think it helps us because it’s what we do.”
Of course, this move is going to require a huge shift in the way collections are made and distributed. APC founder Jaen Touitou believes it’s doomed to fail within “one season, two seasons”. Details are certainly sketchy, but in making the announcement now, these brands are throwing their bag over the wall to force themselves to find a way over.
Again, Burberry’s Christopher Bailey borrows agile thinking from the tech world. He says the label will have to work closely with suppliers and wholesale buyers during the process of creating the collections. This collaborative approach will be based on sharing information and technology, and on facing unknown challenges as an extended, multi-disciplinary team.
Press must be part of the mix too. If the catwalk show is no longer treated as an industry preview event, journalists will need to join the discussion around new collections much earlier in the design and manufacturing process. The open doors and open conversations required to make this collaborative process work could feel alien to an industry based on secrecy and mystique.
The big questions
While those who embrace the shift face huge hurdles, will the risks be greater for those who refuse? One of the reasons Raf Simons cited for leaving Dior was the challenge of being truly inventive when designing a collection in just three weeks.
Speaking to System Magazine, he said,
“The problem is when you have only one design team and six collections, there is no more thinking time. And I don’t want to do collections where I’m not thinking.”
So, by giving the customer what they want more quickly, are we losing some of the creative magic that excites people in the first place? Or will a faster turnaround from catwalk to purchase encourage more freedom and originality?
How this changes the more commercial end of fashion will also be fascinating to watch. High street retailers are used to having six months to adapt high fashion collections into something more accessible and commercial. Not any more. Will removing a glimpse of the future mean less risk-taking and a lurch towards safer, commercial styles? Or, as Green suggests, is this just another fabulous part of the catwalk business?
The introduction of buying in-season will undoubtedly revolutionise the fashion industry. Exactly how remains to be seen. For now, let’s just enjoy it as the most ‘fashion’ concept ever. We’re being sold the immediacy of ‘See now, buy now’, six months before it even becomes available in September. Oh, the irony.