I am no business analyst, but I have just enough experience in the field to know that the current construct of business by high end fashion houses is fiscally ludicrous. The current practice: spend exorbitant amounts of money to host a party (of sorts) to showcase your creations live when the payoff is marginal at best.
At one time, important fashion industry people sat in a room and decided the aesthetic for future seasons. Colors, techniques, silhouettes, trends, staples – it was all decided for us. Much like that incredible lumpy blue sweater scene in The Devil Wears Prada.
And yes, the concept still does happen, but not in the same way. Decisions do not hinge only on runway shows, as that is not the only time buyers and the public have to see the pieces. Major buyers can now just as easily decide what they will carry based on static images, and visits to the fashion houses to see the pieces up close, and many now do.
In the age of internet and social media, as well as incredible photo/video technology, information spreads about collections almost instantly. Some looks go viral in a matter of hours. So the margins of profit directly or indirectly incurred from fashion shows themselves are getting narrower and narrower.
Think about it. The brand most likely already has celebrity ambassadors. And other non-ambassador stars are filmed on red carpets and publicized in street style edits wearing the brand’s pieces. So the notoriety that celebrities bring to the brand by attending the fashion show is minimal when compared to the other sources of celeb brand publicity.
One could argue that the fashion show allows viewers to gain a more dynamic understanding of the collection. Viewers can see how pieces look from all sides with details more apparent than a brand’s static photo shoot. And that’s completely true. How much this gains the brand in actual sales is questionable….but this could be solved with a video shoot of the collection, which is still considerably more cost effective.
Fashion houses face pressures like never before to protect their profits from the ever-growing fast fashion competition. There will always be high end buyers for top labels. Those buyers are not in question.
But there are two groups that fast fashion companies are pulling away from high end brands for potential sales – the upper class millennials, and the upper-middle class coveteurs. Both are being drawn to fast fashion brands for their inexpensive options that are starting to look closer and closer to the expensive originals. Young buyers are much savvier than in eras past thanks to instant comparison shopping online.
So if tweens, teens, and 20-somethings can buy chic looks without having to ask their parents for a few thousand for purchases they know will get scrutinized, they’re going to often choose the path of least resistance, especially if they look (almost) as good. If they have to ask for the money, these shoppers are going to pick and choose more closely what they’re willing to invest more in (and ask for) – usually handbags, shoes, and major identifiable pieces. Cheap chic is a concept many companies are jumping on, like Target, which recently paired with major fashion labels like Lily Pulitzer and Altuzarra to target millennial fashionistas who want a middle option between cheap or Chanel.
The coveteurs take a similar approach. They have high end taste and want the latest amazing pieces, but they don’t have endless amounts of discretionary funds. A top brand purchase is a splurge for this group, so their staples will be more moderately priced purchases. And now, if there is a gorgeous piece they absolutely have to have, it’s no longer just a choice of save, splurge, or buy a cheap knock-off. They now have many fast fashion brands creating similar pieces at significantly lower costs immediately after the high fashion original is showcased on the runway, thanks to the increasing competition between fast fashion brands to quickly create similar on-trend looks.
Is it right? Yes and no. Major fashion houses do the same thing – create their own version of a trend. But many fast fashion brands have taken the practice too far by literally knocking off a particular piece. The line is blurry depending on who you ask, but for me, that line is very clear. If a company creates the exact same item, trying to create the exact same look, they’re clearly attempting to steal intellectual property. That’s why there are so many legal cases right now for trademark infringement.
Unfortunately, the current self-imposed release schedules create ample opportunity for knockoff companies to steal and perfect the exact look before the original is even available. When designers are running a season behind, what is shown today on the runway is not available for months. But the world has seen it, and the fast fashion companies have detailed photos, and can now copy the item and make their version available before Yves Saint Laurent ever sells their first Cabas Chyc bag, or before Chanel ever sells their first quilted tote.
Further, fashion week is more like fashion month as models and industry professionals run a marathon across the globe from New York to London to Milan to Paris. Those are just a sampling, really of all the cities running fashion weeks. And each fashion week is jam packed with more and more designers each year. Plus, it’s not just A/W and S/S anymore…you have Pre-Fall, Resort, RTW, Couture, Bridal…It’s dizzying to watch, so I can’t imagine how difficult it is to maintain.
So with all of these factors weighing against fashion shows, why do major label companies still continue to spend so much money on them for so little gain? Well, a few fashion houses have decided to buck the trend. With so much competition, the idea of exclusivity is being replaced by direct targeting of the consumer. Have you been inside a Michael Kors shop lately? For all that is holy, his retail salespeople are covered in eau de commission desperation.
Tom Ford has canceled the New York Fashion Week show, adopting a see now, buy now model starting in September. Burberry recently announced that it will only have two seasonless annual fashion shows, and also plans to make its collections available immediately. In an interview with Business of Fashion, Proenza Schouler designer Jack McCollough explained why the design house is experimenting with only releasing photos of a small pre-season collection in May, coinciding with the collection’s release in stores. “The customer is watching these runway shows. By the time it ships six months later, it’s kind of old news to them.” So true.
The success of these early experiments will potentially determine the business models of the fashion industry, and the survival or demise of runway shows and fashion weeks. Is this a vision of the fashion future? Are we now standing at the precipice of a new era? Did the internet kill the fashion show (star)?
I must admit, I love fashion week. It is one thing I look forward to with great anticipation. The experience cannot be replaced, and it can be thrilling to see inventive concepts, beautiful creations, and absolute artistry on the runway for the first time. Yes, the images of those same pieces soon inundate social media, and you become very familiar with them.
But everyone remembers the runway show where they saw their first Piet Mondrian-esque color blocking technique. Or the resurgence of the nautical motif. Or the ombre effect. The very first time we experienced those looks coming down the runway, it was a wow moment. The concept was fresh, new, and it felt like a new relationship…exciting. No photo shoot can really replace that moment.
Selfishly, I hope that the runway show never really goes away. Perhaps a balance will be struck to incorporate faster fashion availability with the show schedules, and labels will make those looks immediately available after the runway show like Burberry. Still, it really doesn’t make financial sense to keep doing it. So perhaps this is the beginning of the end. Maybe one day, our grandchildren will be asking what Chanel and Dior runways were like. I certainly hope not.
See Part II here.