In the age of Insta-access, fashion’s calendar lags behind today’s need-it-now shopper. AMY VERNER catches up with the industry mavericks who are attempting revolution. IN MID-MAY, AN INVITATION went out to a select group of Paris-based fashion experts for a round-table discussion hosted by the independent Belgian designer Jean-Paul Lespagnard at the Fondation Galeries Lafayette (the cultural arm of the mega department store). At the meeting, Lespagnard seemed excited—and understandably nervous—to reveal his idea. He planned to ready his spring 2015 collection early, at the end of June, to show buyers who come to Paris to place their resort orders. He would then present the collection during the main-season calendar in Paris, which runs from the end of September until early October. The kicker: the collection would be delivered to stores that very week, so consumers could purchase the pieces just days after the reviews and photos appeared in the press.
The customary practice is that a store receives the bulk of each season’s offering in January (for spring) and late July (for fall), with pre-collections arriving in November and June, respectively. By making his spring collection available in October, Lespagnard would be risking a certain staleness; imagine seeing the same dress on a store rack for six months.
Surprisingly, the person who expressed the most confidence in his plan was none other than Didier Grumbach, who, as the outgoing chairman of the Fédération Française de la Couture du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, as well as the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture (he retires this season), is as old-establishment as you get. One of the figureheads of French fashion, Grumbach co-founded Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche and worked on brand development for Givenchy, Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier and Issey Miyake. “I think you are going to succeed; it is a good time to do this,” he said. He cited Martin Margiela and Mugler as designers who ran into diffculty attempting similar strategies—but primarily because they’d done so decades before the advent of fast fashion and the instancy of social media began to influence the speed of the shopping cycle.
Indeed, this is among the most often recurring topics discussed within the industry. While the frustrations are long-held, they finally appear to have reached critical mass. In this new age of immediacy, the current shopping cycle feels helplessly démodé. As a consumer, you will probably agree that the fashion calendar is entirely out of whack. Wool coats appear in stores in July while lightweight clothes become an incongruous sight in the dead of winter. Add to that the instantaneous barrage of runway images posted on Twitter and Instagram by brands and bloggers alike, and next season’s clothes reach peak visibility months before they are available to buy. And here’s another consideration: highstreet labels can often turn out runway doppelgängers well before the designers’ wares hit the racks. From 2010, when Moda Operandi launched a platform allowing people to pre-order clothes following a runway show, to today’s evolution of shopping on Vogue’s Instagram feed, the opportunities to satiate our high-fashion appetites are more limitless than ever.
The difference now is that designers like Jeremy Scott, Stefano Pilati and Esteban Cortázar are, like Lespagnard, thinking innovatively and looking to what’s working (ahem, fast fashion) to produce new alternatives to shake up the status quo. Besides Lespagnard and his colleagues, the current view is that the system is unchangeable; Tamara Mellon, a Jimmy Choo co-founder and its chief creative officer until 2011, compares it to “trying to turn the Titanic.” I’ve had two fashion friends tell me that anything short of a decree from Anna Wintour would be useless in terms of resetting the calendar—and even then, the European fabric mills are likely too fixed in their spring-fall production processes to adapt.
Scott, for one, made his debut as creative director at Moschino last February with a capsule collection that riffed on McDonald’s packaging and was available immediately at select stores and online—cleverly redefining “fast fashion” on his own terms. Sarah Andelman, creative director of the ne plus ultra of Paris boutiques, Colette, told me the range (which included french fry iPhone cases and sweater- dresses emblazoned with the words “over 20 billion served”) sold out within days. The remainder of the collection—from comparatively classic ladylike suiting to a SpongeBob-inspired selection—hit stores as usual in July.
But if Scott’s tongue-in-chic test fed consumer and media appetites, Pilati’s debut at Agnona, the venerable Italian cashmere house that appointed him creative director in 2012, represented a less frenzied experiment. Upon presenting his first collection last September, he eschewed a runway show for an informal viewing and threw in a twist: the pieces on view were available to order immediately at a pop-up shop. Well aware that women would be buying spring while in the headspace of fall, he offered Agnona’s double-faced knits in both mohair and lighter cotton, and even showed “prototypes” that teased at future designs.
“I think that these are small steps,” says New York–based retail expert Robert Burke. “The bigger question is, when do all the retailers and designers take a leap of faith and produce or place their orders in season?” By staying status quo, he continues, stores continue to grapple with another one of the cycle’s systemic flaws. “The minute people need the clothes that are in stores is the minute they get marked down.”
Mellon likes to think she is disrupting the industry with her eponymous label’s “buy now, wear now” philosophy. Since its debut last year, Tamara Mellon (the brand) has made monthly deliveries of smaller capsules—akin to high-street regularity—that consist of sexy heels, signature second-skin “legging boots” and a complete range of feminine ready-to-wear. Like at any fine-food emporium, the offerings are always fresh. “Of course it’s a risk to change the cycle of an industry,which has been going for decades,” she says by phone from New York. “But for me, I knew the customer was there.” (Incidentally, the collection is still designed a year ahead—but shown to buyers and press much closer to drop date.)
Frequency matters, too. “When we did buy something 15 years ago and we waited, as customers, we didn’t see the shows, so to us it was fresh,” she says, pointing out that new collections would appear in magazines and stores simultaneously well after the limited-access runway presentations. Today, there is a significant lag between first glimpse and first wear. “Nobody wants to figure out what they’re going to wear in four months.”
According to Mellon, the initial reaction was gratitude. “Every single woman I spoke to said thank you. They said, ‘I can’t take it anymore … I only want to buy something when I feel like it.’” Getting the industry to follow along remains more challenging. Mellon said retailers acknowledge the cyclical flaws but remain stumped by the impossibility of large-scale change—from rejigging their financial planning to merchandising the stores so that all the brands follow the same season. “I completely understand their issues, which is why I’m trying to work with them to figure this out.”
Unsurprisingly, e-commerce has so far proven the most successful channel for Tamara Mellon, where the customer is accustomed to buying for instant wear. And if this motivates others, all the better: The more people who do it, the more strength there is in the strategy. Hopefully it will become normal.”
Those who opt to rethink fashion’s entrenched and seemingly outdated calendar must be prepared for resistance … or at least some confusion. When London-based designer Alexander Lewis decided to launch his namesake line in 2012, which combines masculine-feminine tailoring and contemporary knitwear, he analyzed the label landscape. Which is to say, he counted all the brands that show during the main spring and fall seasons—and realized he stood a better chance if he shifted his two collections to pre-spring and -fall. Translation: more time for design development and production. He also rationalized that buyers will spend up to 80 percent of their seasonal budget on pre-collections, which are in stores the longest and are less likely to get marked down.
“I do think I was the first person to really focus it this way,” says Lewis. “For the first couple seasons, I had to repeat nonstop that I was only doing pre-collections. It was a bit hard for people to understand that business model. But then some buyers would come in and say, ‘Oh my god, this is really genius.’” It was a good sign that Barneys New York and Saks Fifth Avenue both picked up his sophomore collection, with Net-a-Porter following suit with his resort 2014 line this November.
Then, just as his store buyers settled into his cycle, Lewis decided he would phase in spring and fall collections, mainly to increase his brand visibility and growth. But Lewis is adamant that pre-collections will drive his business and remain his point of differentiation. “The pre-collection is really the meat … It’s how I want to keep my company focused. What it will also do is shift the whole business. At some point, the benefit will come back to me in that I will be getting much more exposure in the shop before everyone else—if nobody else joins the party.”
Cortázar has now spent more than half his life creating clothes—under his own name but also for Emanuel Ungaro from 2007 to 2009. This past spring, the Colombian born American announced that he would be relaunching his Paris-based label independently from his most recent capsule collections for Net-a- Porter. Having experienced how quickly the site sells and delivers the latest designer goods, he saw an opportunity to return in a more relevant way: mainline collections that arrive in stores during the pre-collection delivery. “I need to be doing something that is speaking about the future and what I think the future of fashion will be … without necessarily being pretentious and saying I’m going to change the game,” he explained, underscoring that “it was not about letting everyone adapt to me.”
Like Lespagnard, Cortázar seems passionate about his strategy. When we spoke—a week before his sales appointments began—he said he would share the collection with a handful of editors to ensure a certain degree of editorial coverage in print; but really, his plan favours the buyers. “The editors are extremely important,but at the end of the day, the buyers are helping you run your business—especially when you’re relaunching.” Once the collection is ready for retail, he plans to stagger the deliveries—depending on the order size—to keep refreshing customer interest. He’s optimistic that early buyer support—the well-tailored, understated-chic collection has been picked up by Barneys New York, Joyce in Hong Kong and Holt Renfrew—will also help mitigate the inevitable industry pressure to adjust his plan or risk losing out on crucial media exposure. More intriguingly, he wonders whether this moment could prove a pivotal period of change much the same way industrial processes rapidly adapted to demand a century ago; which is to say, Cortázar’s fashion foresight extends well beyond next season.
“The way we now look back on the fashion industry in the 1910s might be the way people look at us in 100 years.”