Push and Pull - Luxury Fashion on the Move

Last year was a watershed period for luxury fashion. Many moved to cross the divide between the now fossilizing mores of yesterday and the liberalizing models of tomorrow. Today, they are still in deep, unknown waters

 By: Dimitria Vitanova

Posted on: May 10, 2016

“And yet it moves,” said Galileo Galilei about the Earth’s rotation around the sun more than three centuries ago. Today, the phrase chimes unwittingly in tune with haute couture, which in 2015 slipped into what bears the potential to be tectonic shifts. 

High fashion has for decades observed values, traditions and heritage, largely insolent to the speedy modernization, globalization and digitalization of the wider industry. Luxury flaunts inherent exclusivity and refinement that only true connoisseurs could appreciate and afford.  

Not any longer. With the boom of once cut-off markets like China, with the appetite for statement-making opulence gripping an ever-larger segment of the society, including millennials and the expanding middle class, haute couture is now adjusting to a novel, connected and dynamic reality. Although intensions to revamp have buzzed for years, only now major moves are commencing, with yet hazy repercussions.   

Rebecca MinkoffMoving Closer 
Amid a growing disenchantment with the traditional fashion calendar – exhibiting spring/summer collections in fall and fall/winter creations in spring, which yawns a six-month gap between garments’ catwalk debut and their arrival at stores – a bevy of high-end brands have moved their show and retail schedules closer. 

During this year’s New York Fashion Week, designer Rebecca Minkoff showed her 2016 spring/summer creations; and not the fall/winter 2016 collection, as custom dictates. Michael Kors offered fresh-off-the-runway garments, straight after his fall/winter 2016 show, while Tom Ford called his off in order to premiere it in-season, in September. 

Meanwhile, Tommy Hilfiger, will open its fashion shows for the public, which will be able to immediately purchase looks. Other brands are also cutting and sewing comparable actions, all measured against Mochino’s and Versace’s early experiments with instant availability of several capsule lines.    

Call it whatever you wish – “runway democratization,” “instant gratification,” “see-now/buy-now/wear-now.” Luxury brands are increasingly tearing up a fashion calendar that has run out of its time. In an age when collections migrate from the catwalk to Instagram in seconds, but trek to retailers in half a year, digital-savvy, over-indulged customers get tired with the garments rather quickly. Labels are now scrambling to beat that fatigue. And faster than their high-street counterparts, which have mastered the art of ripping off high-end styles, cost and time effectively. 

Tommy Hilfiger Models Backstage

Moving Together
Luxury fashion houses are not merely shifting the release of their men’s and women’s collections closer to selling times. They are moving them together, uniting them under a single show. It is not solely about instantaneity. It is about inclusivity, as well.     

This September, for example, Burberry will mesh its menswear and womenswear in one of two annual “seasonless” presentations – instead of the customary four, separate shows per year – that will simultaneously sweep runways and stores. As of next January, Vetements will similarly mix its gendered collections in a single Paris spectacle, a couple of months prior to the fall/winter Fashion Weeks of New York, Milan, Paris and London. Gucci and Tom Ford will follow suit. 

Burberry Fashion Show

While the runway-rack divide may now be infeasible, the men-women split, ironically, still makes quite of sense, even if some have advanced to efface it. “The two markets for men and women have demanded separate shows so far,” says Roasie Virq Ahluwalia, marketing director at Canali India. “Not every designer has collections for both men and women and hence traditionally they have been different showings for buyers in each category.”

For those Maisons that do boast both men’s and women’s sections, the idea of uniting them is not entirely revolutionary. It is a practicality some have sought for years. However, in a world still predominantly designated as men’s, fashion’s smudge of the masculine-feminine binary does feel pioneering and resounding; a sturdy undertone in the social crescendo on female corporate leadership, the gender pay gap and LGBT rights. 

Moving to and with You
Even if majority of luxury brands are for now preserving the orthodox fashion-show almanacs and keep their men’s and women’s presentations apart, one change they all seem to converge around is social media. Fealty to their conservative leeriness of any novelty – fads come and go, while brands’ carefully chiseled personality needs to endure – haute couture labels took ample time to join the likes of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. And even on them, many still remain rather passive in fully engaging customers online. 

Heidi Klum at Michael Kors show

According to a recent report by Brandwatch, “[Luxury fashion brands’] reluctance may have a lot to do with the culture of these brands — there's a heavy focus on quality, heritage, and in some ways, a certain level of exclusivity.”  

Those are yester news. If labels are only now crafting their digital presence, alongside their global e-commerce and m-commerce platforms – and many are still locked in that stage – they are rather late. What is up-to-the-minute is how maisons like Tiffany and Christian Louboutin seem to have realized that to honor their past, they need to look into the future. And the future is social.  

More than sleek snaps of products, hashtag campaigns and videos streamed directly from the catwalk, social-media platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat host the potential of parlaying into profitable, instantaneous and spontaneous sale conduits. The so-called “conversational commerce” – still in its nascence – promises to wed the pamper and intimacy of in-store luxury shopping to the speed and convenience of online purchasing. 

In a period when a slew of brands have shuttered boutiques due to slumping global sales, social media may be the balm to soothe wounds. The move from physical to virtual, nevertheless, poses a daunting task for many fashion houses. Ultimately, though, if done right, it would bring them closer to their greatest asset: customers. Labels are waking up to that peculiarity. 

Vetements models

All the recent changes – eschewing the conventional fashion calendar, uniting the men’s and women’s collection and embracing social media and its retail possibilities – spell a drastic alteration in brands’ long-churning but now-sputtering business models.  From when and how a garment is produced to where it is retailed, labels will need to leap over some hurdles before truly switching gears. 

The chains of change 
The five to six months that stretch between runways, showing the latest trends, and stores, actually carrying them, might be uneventful for customers. For brands, however, they teem with activity – from seeking the finest fabrics, which can account for up to 2/3 of the “collections’ retail lag,” to tweaking the final cuts. In an instant purchasing dynamic, however, the supply and production chains would need to drastically shrink in time. 

“I think labels that are more ready-to-wear and less couture are going to be able to adapt faster to this new trend,” says Ms Ahluwalia. 

How to do so, nevertheless, remains a throbbing issue even for smaller, quicker brands. Morand Pascal, executive president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, outlines a possible – albeit, imperfect – solution: use the same fabrics all the time, so the sourcing period is practically excised. “[You can] buy some basic cotton fabrics, like fast fashion brands [do],” he says, “[but] then the quality of the product is damaged.

“Then the question is: if you use the [see-now]/buy-now system, the product needs to be available through digital marketing. [And you] push the consumers to buy products that are available.” 

This is an assertion that reverberates with the trunk-show approach, elevated to the heights of luxury fashion by the likes of Moda Operandi. An online platform, it allows clients to purchase looks straight off the catwalk, but only delivers them when collections land at stores. It is a buy-now/wear-later model that may permit labels some initial headway to scale their production capabilities to the see-now/buy-now/wear-now proposition.    

Moda Operandi website screen shot

Go digital or go home
Regardless of when and how this proposition will solidify into a paradigm, digital is to play an integral part in the process. “Digital is a marvelous thing, that is ignored by many people,” says Mr Morand. “It is great; we do not have to be blind to it, but to appropriate it.” Its inclusion into brands’ business strategies has, for now, proven easier said than done. 

How online retail would impact labels’ physical venues has, for years, comprised a query that is still sprouting a bevy of conflicting responses. Digital has spelled the death of the boutique, has revived it through clever online-physical combinations and has turned it into a warehouse for items bought exclusively on the Net, time and again.  

With the ascend and proliferation of social media, however, this question has assumed new dimensions. It is no longer solely about e-commerce. Mobile retail and social engagement contour new frontiers. “Social media is the key factor that has changed the face of fashion,” Ms Ahluwalia says. 

“Everything is now instantly posted for millions of followers to watch across the globe. When this happens, it creates an instant desire to own the product. Designers cannot now afford to ignore this instant consuming population on social media.” 

But they also must not overlook what that ever-expanding, interaction-hungry horde of denizens would bode for brands’ exclusivity and creativity. 

Would the old-world values that have defined labels’ for generations crumble under millennials’ demand for a swift yet stuttered engagement? It is too early to say, but Ms Ahluwalia reminds, “In the end no one is king except the consumer. Retailers and designers will have to accept this and evolve to a system that satisfies the consumer's need for speed.”

Would fashion maisons unwittingly yet inevitably bury their identity under hundreds of Instagram snaps, parading their creations – once reserved for the select few – to the lay masses? “There is always a risk of losing exclusivity,” says Mr Morand. “But it is better to have a painting that [people] can see, rather than one [they] cannot.”

It appears 2015 posited more inquiries than it provided clear-cut blueprints for action. With luxury fashion continuing to nudge into an uncharted terrain, with every move revealing both possibilities and obstructions, one thing is certain, Mr Morand says. “We are just at the end of the beginning. It is just starting."

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