Retail to runway: what happens when clothes are sold direct from the catwalk?

In a want-it-have-it world, the six-month lag between the shows and the shops feels outdated. But are fashion houses ready for a See Now, Buy Now revolution in the way they work? Article written by  for The Guardian .

Two years ago, at a Democratic fundraiser in Seattle, President Obama spoke of “the sense that around the world the old order isn’t holding and we’re not quite yet to where we need to be in terms of a new order that’s based on a different set of principles”. To be clear, he was talking about Ukraine and Syria and Israel, not about fashion week. But as Coco Chanel so wisely remarked, fashion reflects the world we live in, and Obama’s words are as true of the current state of the fashion industry as they are of international relations. In fashion as in politics, the system is outmoded, the establishment is at breaking point, the mood is fractious and unrest is in the air.

This sounds a grandiose starting point from which to debate See Now, Buy Now, the trend to ditch fashion’s six-month lead time and synchronise catwalk shows with store deliveries. But See Now, Buy Now is a crucial tipping point, at which the impact of technology, globalisation and democratisation on the fashion industry is felt not just by buyers in the retail industry sense, but by buyers in the me-and-you-on-a-Saturday-afternoon sense.

On Monday evening, when Burberry stage their London fashion week catwalk show, it will break with a format that has held for more than half a century. This will not be a trailer for clothes that will go on sale six months later, but a starting gun for a collection designed to be bought, and worn, immediately. Paul Smith,Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger, among others, are adopting the same model.

Christopher Bailey, who as president and chief creative officer at Burberry is at the forefront of the change, calls See Now, Buy Now “an ongoing evolution”. The word evolution is interesting, because when the world is in a period of rapid change, Darwin’s process of natural selection goes into fast forward. Take the case of the peppered moth in the Industrial Revolution. At the beginning of the 19th century, the peppered moth was light with dark spots. When the atmosphere in London became filled with soot, the white trees became darker and the lighter coloured moths were more visible to birds. Within a few decades, the moths had evolved to become darker. In the same way, in our era of technological revolution, instant gratification has become the new normal and slow-moving fashion houses look suddenly vulnerable.

The messy and confusing phase the fashion industry finds itself in while See Now, Buy Now is in this experimental period need not concern us here. In the end, the success or failure of the concept will be determined not by whether it is convenient for those in the industry, but whether it delivers for the consumer. At first glance, this seems a no-brainer. You see a look you want on the catwalk, you can buy it straight away. Yay! Right? Except it’s a bit more complicated than that. The grand, sweeping narrative of fashion – the lyrical view, which says that we crave full skirts in times when we yearn for old-fashioned values, or that hemlines get higher when economic confidence goes up – has traditionally been a folktale woven together in the months after the catwalk season, and presented as a delicious, page-turning big reveal in magazines and shop windows at the moment those collections go on sale. If fashion is reduced to clicking-to-buy on a new pair of boots, will this romantic element be lost?

Not necessarily. The runaway success of the box set proves that storytelling can survive – even thrive – when an audience consume episodes at their own pace. Primetime slots no longer have the significance they once did, but TV is in a golden age nonetheless. The same could prove true of fashion and catwalk shows.

“I feel like the idea of seasonal trends is antiquated already,” says Imran Amed, founder of Business of Fashion. The two-season model, designed around “autumn/winter” and “spring/summer” as two opposite wardrobes is outmoded in an era of air conditioning, of mass-market long-haul travel, and of a global economy. “When we are designing a collection, we are not just creating it for people who live in one climate, one culture, or one way of thinking,” Bailey says. Or as Zach Duane, CEO of Victoria Beckham, puts it, “Whose autumn/winter are we talking about, anyway?”

The twice-yearly trend roundup is dead, and in its place has arrived an ongoing “digital campfire” where stories are shared, embellished, made into myth. Social media has been key to this – “The reader has got used to seeing new trends every single day,” says Lorraine Candy, Elle’s editor-in-chief – but the rising influence of menswear within fashion has had an impact, too. Womenswear and menswear are increasingly shown together on the catwalk, with the result that an industry that was once divided into a girls’ school and a boys’ school, and only met at parties, is now integrated. This has brought elements of menswear culture into mainstream fashion, and in particular a more drip-feed notion of trend. As Fiona Firth, buying director at Mr Porter, says, “Menswear is an evolution from one season to the next, so the trends follow suit, and do not change dramatically seasonally.”

See Now, Buy Now is “absolutely logical” for the huge brands who can afford to make a big noise with their shows, Duane says. “If you are spending millions of pounds promoting a collection, why on earth would you be doing that six months before it hits store, when you could drive desire at the moment it goes on sale?” But if those brands can utilise the new model to amplify their voice, will that be at the expense of smaller labels, whose point of view will get drowned out? And if fashion becomes more commercial at the expense of experimentation – is the consumer not, in the end, the loser? If catwalk collections are a direct showcase of, rather than a teaser for, the clothes that will go in store, then it seems logical that the catwalks will be more wearable. “I am the first to raise my hand and say I don’t want to watch a bunch of trenchcoats and T-shirts on the runway,” Amed says. “What’s the point? But smart brands will figure out a way to make the show interesting to the audience.” Candy sees a positive in catwalk shows becoming truer representations of the clothes on the shopfloor. “We always want to shoot things that will actually be in the shops, and in this system that can be a struggle. So actually, I think it’s quite a good thing.”

The most immediate impact of See Now, Buy Now on fashion will be on what you see rather than on what you buy. The details of timing are, in the big picture, less significant than the fact that the catwalk-as-trade-show is almost defunct; the modern catwalk show is an event for the wider fashion audience. This can be literal – as at Givenchy’s S/S 16 New York show, where 800 seats were reserved for the public – or virtual, as in the Chanel shows’ visual spectaculars which are instantly magnified through Instagram to reach an audience of millions. The model that triumphs will be the one that best pleases the global fashion audience. The industry is in upheaval, but the oldest adage in business still holds. The customer is always right.


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