Driven by technology and customer demand, ‘see now, buy now’ will be the biggest shake-up the fashion world has seen since ready-to-wear hit the catwalk, says Carolyn Moore
September. The kids are back at school, autumn is in the air, pumpkin spice lattes are on the menu, and fashion fans are taking their virtual ringside seats for another round of global fashion weeks.
While celebrity stylists will spend the days and weeks after the shows scrabbling to bag the hottest runway pieces for their famous clients, two fashion darlings have positioned themselves ahead of the curve by stepping out in designs that haven’t even had their catwalk debuts yet.
In devoré velvet gowns with futuristic circuit board motifs, style queen Zoe Saldana and starlet Lily James have given red carpet aficionados their first glimpse at Burberry’s upcoming collection, and the brand have taken the equally unusual step of releasing a sneak peak at next season’s campaign.
Revealing Elizabethan-style ruffles inspired by the time travelling, gender fluid character in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, it has whet the appetites of fashionistas for a collection that could be the beginning of the end for fashion as we know it.
Whatever trends materialise on the catwalks of New York, London, Milan and Paris in the coming weeks, no show this season will be more closely watched than Burberry. As the rest of the fashion world falls in line with the traditional fashion calendar and shows spring/summer ‘17 collections, Burberry will unveil its first ‘see now, buy now’ range.
A ‘seasonless’ collection of women’s and menswear, it marks Burberry’s attempt to realign their offering with the way their customers shop, and target a global audience for whom, they believe, seasons are becoming increasingly irrelevant.
While that might not ring true for those of us living in climates with distinct seasonal weather patterns, most shoppers — from high street to high end — would agree that fashion has fallen drastically out of sync with the seasons it was designed to serve.
Whether that means shorts on sale in bitterly cold February, or rails groaning with wool coats as September sizzles, retail reports increasingly point to a consumer desire to ‘buy now, wear now’, a thirst Burberry hopes to quench by closing the traditional four-to-six month window between catwalk shows taking place and merchandise being available to buy.
When the curtain drops on their September show, Burberry’s shop windows and stock will change overnight, so customers can experience the instant gratification of immediately buying whatever caught their eye.
Having sent shockwaves through the industry in February when he announced this radically new approach, all eyes will be on London on September 19, as Burberry’s chief creative officer, Christopher Bailey, aims to kick start nothing short of a fashion revolution, in an attempt to steer the venerable British brand out of choppy financial waters.
Having already consolidated their three lines — Prorsum, London and Brit — into one definitive ‘Burberry’ range, the decision to present the men’s and womenswear collections together and make them available to buy immediately is the latest in a series of steps Burberry have taken to cater more effectively to an increasingly jaded luxury customer.
‘The changes we’re making will allow us to build a closer connection between the experience that we create with our runway shows and the moment when people can physically explore the collections for themselves,’ he told reporters in February.
‘Our shows have been evolving to close this gap for some time,’ he explained. ‘From live-streams, to ordering straight from the runway, to live social media campaigns, this is the latest step in a creative process that will continue to evolve.’ At a time when luxury labels are feeling the pinch of a devalued yuan and weakening sales in the Chinese market; when high-profile designers are playing musical chairs around Europe’s fashion houses and vocalising their dissatisfaction with a system that requires them to produce several collections per year, there is widespread acknowledgement in the industry that something needs to change.
Last December, chairman of the CFDA, Diane von Furstenberg, told Women’s Wear Daily “Designers, retailers, everybody is complaining about the shows.” With fashion week coverage now so intense that must-have items have lost their cachet by the time they reach stores; the high street churning out copies of designer looks before the originators can get them to market; and social media now the number one way for brands to reach customers, industry players will be watching closely to see if ‘see now, buy now, wear now’ is the way forward for fashion.
Courting the modern, social media savvy customer with his new strategy makes sense for Bailey, who placed Burberry at the forefront of technological advancements when he began live streaming their shows in 2009. Commonplace now, the move was hugely innovative at the time, blowing wide open a closed shop and brushing away the perceived mystique and exclusivity of the glamourous business of fashion.
Though the internet had already somewhat democratised the consumption of show coverage — with fashion fans able to devour entire collections in real time, rather than having to wait months for the curated take of the traditional fashion press — the live stream offered a front row seat to anyone who wanted it.
Suddenly, everyone with internet access and a passing interest in fashion could anoint themselves a critic, and the resulting boom in fashion blogs has led to a saturation of coverage that has become, not just exhaustive, but tedious.
Factor in red carpet fashion — an increasingly vital organism in the fashion ecosystem — with high-profile clothes-horses modelling stand out pieces within days or weeks of their catwalk debuts, and you have clothes that feel stale and over-exposed by the time they hit stores, and a fashion cycle that has already moved on to the next big thing.
‘In fashion we talk about “a moment”,’ Bailey told Women’s Wear Daily in February. “And I’ve always battled with that because the moment is when you’re showing it, but then you’ve got to say “is it the right moment five or six months down the line?”’ His decision to rewrite the rulebook to tackle this fashion ennui has been divisive. Within hours of Burberry’s announcement in February, Tom Ford cancelled his autumn/winter showing, scheduled to take place in New York the following week, moving it to September instead. “In a world that has become increasingly immediate, showing a collection four months before it’s available to customers no longer makes sense,” Ford said.
“We spend an enormous amount of money and energy to stage an event that creates excitement too far in advance of when the collection is available. Showing the collection as it arrives in stores will allow the excitement created by a show to drive sales and satisfy our customers’ desire to have their clothes as they are ready to wear them.” While the move makes sense for heavy hitters like Burberry and Ford, and established designers like Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Rebecca Minkoff, Thakoon, and Proenza Schouler — all of whom are dipping their toes into ‘see now, buy now’ waters — there are fears it could stifle creativity and disadvantage emerging designers, who lack the resources and manpower to produce stock upfront.
In Paris particularly, sceptics abound. APC designer Jean Touitou dismisses it as a ‘a trick for press’, giving it a season or two before brands ‘have a lot of leftover stock and switch to another idea’, while Dior CEO Sidney Toledano asked Reuters incredulously after their presentation, “How can a collection like the one you’ve just seen be delivered to the shops tomorrow?”
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the fashion pyramid, the high street will be watching just as anxiously to see if its supply of ready-made seasonal hits is about to be cut off at source.
For Zara, H&M, Topshop, and all our fast fashion favourites, that six-month window afforded ample time to ‘take inspiration’ from talented designers. Their entire way of working is now set to be disrupted, with the luxury market hoping to benefit from an influx of fashion addicts who can no longer get their hit on the high street.
Driven by technology and customer demand, if ‘see now, buy now’ is widely embraced it will be the biggest shake-up the fashion world has seen since ready-to-wear hit the catwalk, and Christopher Bailey has no fear about leading the charge.
‘Burberry was built on a creative, pioneering spirit,’ he says. ‘That’s what this is. It feels right for us, it’s an evolution.’
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