Fashion Week At A Crossroads: Why Designers Are Changing Up The Traditional Runway Show

Rebecca Minkoff Runway
Rebecca Minkoff spring '16 runway at New York Fashion Week
Rex Shutterstock.

UPDATED: It seems designers are taking fashion week into their own hands, rather than wait for a consensus. Today Burberry and Tom Ford, two heavy-hitters in the industry, announced sweeping changes to their fashion week presentations. Both brands said they’d be going direct-to-consumer, offering the fashions from the runway online immediately.

Burberry said it would start to show seasonless men’s and women’s collections starting in September, in a new push to get fashion that’s ready to be worn in the hands of the consumer faster.

Tom Ford, who had announced he was making changes to his fashion week schedule, cancelled his Feb. 18 show and said he’d present a fall collection in September.

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As fashion month kicks off in New York this week, a number of industry players are sending a serious message: The system needs a makeover.

In an era when shoppers view global fashion weeks in real time thanks to social media, brands and retailers face huge challenges in keeping consumers engaged — and willing to buy — when the product isn’t delivered to stores until months later.

“Fashion Week and the current model are in need of a complete and immediate overhaul,” said Ken Downing, SVP and fashion director of Neiman Marcus. “As an industry, we have been operating on a business model that was created over 40 years ago. Feeding the customer images six months ahead of product being available is creating fashion fatigue, even among the most enthusiastic fashion followers.”

The conundrum is part of a bigger conversation about the effectiveness of the traditional fashion calendar in the modern retail environment. “There’s been an industry wide blind eye to the irrationality of delivering product out of season and need,” said Linda Fargo, SVP of fashion and store presentation director at Bergdorf Goodman. “One can barely find a pair of boots in your size by the time it’s cold in January, or a pair of shorts in July. It’s high time we took a critical look at the system.”

Illustration by Josie Portillo

Laure Heriard Dubreuil, CEO and founder of Miami-based The Webster, said she’s noticed an increase in the number of consumers bringing in photos of styles they see on social media from fashion week. “It’s been challenging, as the consumer isn’t necessarily aware of the show versus delivery schedules and becomes disappointed when told their must-have item won’t be in stores for several months,” she said.

With the backing of key retailers, some designers are taking action. Rebecca Minkoff is retooling her New York Fashion Week show next Saturday, including presenting her spring ’16 collection again so it’s in season for the consumer.

First shown last September, the collection has been restyled and also has a few new pieces. Plus, a spring capsule collection has been added to keep the offering fresh. Buyers and press will still be invited to the label’s showroom to see the fall ’16 line. Retailers and press have even been given extra tickets so they can invite a few of their top shoppers to the event. Minkoff said the goal is an audience of around 40 percent customers.

“It was important to us to consider each ecosystem as it exists today [retailers, consumers and press]. We had to continue in a way that didn’t disrupt entire supply chains and lead times,” the designer said of her multipronged approach. “It’s a great benefit to retail and the media [to show in season] because everything comes out at once and looks fresh and exciting.”

Uri Minkoff, CEO of the company, said another reason the label plotted a new runway strategy was to get ahead of copycats and fast-fashion retailers that offer me-too styles. The old model, Minkoff said, allowed these stores to churn out similar product faster than the brand could deliver it.

“We’re the first ones in the deep end of the pool. We’re hoping that what we’re doing produces an overall framework” for others to play with, said Uri Minkoff.

The Minkoffs aren’t the only ones trying a new strategy to reach consumers in real time. After showing her spring collection on Instagram, emerging contemporary designer Misha Nonoo and her team decided to make the items available immediately for pre-order. Nonoo said her shoppers surprised her — instead of buying the pre-order collection, they gravitated to pieces that were similar and available immediately. It was an a-ha moment for the designer.

“Consumers are shopping differently today; they want to buy now and wear now,” said Nonoo. “Moving to a show that is in season will allow us to focus on serving the customer better, allowing her to always be part of the dialogue.”

Nonoo has canceled her fall ’17 presentation at New York Fashion Week. Instead, she said, she’s planning an in-season event for September.

 

While most brands haven’t altered their show schedules, many are making their runway presentations more consumer-friendly.

Last year, Givenchy opened its doors at New York Fashion Week to 800 consumers, while Rag & Bone paired up with Uber to help a few contest winners to make the trip to see the label’s presentation in Brooklyn, N.Y. Burberry was one of the first brands to livestream its Fashion Week presentations, and last month, growing label J.W. Anderson teamed up with dating site Grindr to stream the brand’s fall ’16 show in London.

Still, some wonder whether an in-season structure is a one-size-fits-all solution. Justin O’Shea, global fashion director of e-tailer MyTheresa.com, believes involving the consumer in Fashion Week “is good on a certain level. But luxury fashion needs to keep an exclusivity and mystery around it — otherwise, the thrill of being part of it will be lost.”

In any case, it will be challenging to get everyone on board with the same format. “There are no easy answers,” said Fargo. “And getting international consensus will be necessary and difficult. Every stakeholder is impacted differently by the proposed private-industry markets and in-season shows, making consensus a further challenge. The common thread is that we know the status quo is not an option.”

As the pressure builds, Fashion Week’s leaders are strategizing. The Council of Fashion Designers of America announced a study with Boston Consulting Group to determine next steps for the U.S. shows, which have recently had venue changes and added a men’s week.

The CFDA declined to comment for this story but the study is expected to wrap up sometime this month.

The British Fashion Council also aims to expand its focus by adding more consumer elements at London Fashion Week. But Caroline Rush, the CEO of the BFC, isn’t pushing for a huge shift in the show schedule — at least not yet.

“Designers often have to wait for feedback from buyers before putting a collection into production to avoid large amounts of surplus clothing. This may change in time, but at the moment, [the existing] Fashion Week structure remains important to those designers for this reason,” Rush said.

This year, London Fashion Weekend will be held in the days following the traditional London Fashion Week. Invited designers — including Emilia Wickstead, Mary Katrantzou, Holly Fulton and Temperley London — will get a day to show their collections on repeat to the public.

Mary Katrantzou Spring '16 Mary Katrantzou Spring ’16 Rex Shutterstcok.

Charlotte Olympia — who is holding her first show during London Fashion Week — and Nicholas Kirkwood are also participating in the weekend, giving talks about their labels.

It’s a move that Rush said is important to keep consumers and designers connected and conversing. “Opening the shows to a wider audience gives consumers the opportunity to see the clothes in action. It’s also a way for designers to engage … and receive firsthand feedback from the people who will be buying their clothes,” she said.

Mary Katrantzou said she’s excited to show her spring ’16 collection again to consumers and to include them in a show experience, especially since it will allow them to immediately purchase the pieces they love from the runway.

“Fashion shows have changed so much since I started my company,” said Katrantzou. “Many people in our industry are saying that collections should be shown to smaller groups of press and buyers and that shows should focus on the customer to coincide with product being available in stores. For me, nothing beats the adrenaline rush of working up to the deadline of your show, but I also love the fact that modern technology is allowing a certain democratization of our industry.”