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What Luxury Retailers Are Thinking & How They’re Buying Amid the Return of Fashion Month

For buyers at major department stores and luxury retailers, September is typically a whirlwind month filled with parties, presentations and flights crisscrossing the globe to visit the major fashion capitals. Will 2021 mark a return to an action-packed front row and in-person buying? Executives told FN they certainly hope so.

“I’m thrilled about the return of in-person shows,” said Roopal Patel, SVP and fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue. “This period of virtual presentations and Zoom walkthroughs has really made me appreciate how lucky we are to be able to see the designers’ visions come to life in person.”

When FN began reporting this feature, the global vaccine rollout was making progress, leading designers and fashion houses to confidently move forward with in-person shows and presentations. However, the rapidly spreading Delta variant has introduced a now-all-too-familiar sense of uncertainty for fashion month organizers — and guests.

Most buyers told FN that Paris and Milan shows were planned stops on their itineraries, and many were attending the New York and London events as well. All of course contingent on the latest travel restrictions. Whatever shows they attend — whether in person or virtually — one thing is clear: The pandemic has permanently changed what stores are buying, how they make their choices and why.

The Glam Factor

Luxury retailers told FN that consumers have been clamoring this year for bright, optimistic fashion as pandemic restrictions have eased and gatherings both large and small have resumed.

“We have already seen an increase in demand for high-price-point, must-have pieces and a move away from the work-from-home aesthetic that is still prevalent in the rest of the world,” said Caterina Ercoli, buying director at Level Shoes based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

She cited Amina Muaddi, Mach & Mach, Aquazzura and Rene Caovilla among the footwear standouts at Level Shoes — brands that bring the bling and exude a sexy glamour that is a stark contrast to the lockdown aesthetic of slippers and sweats.

Carolyn Wright, VP of buying at Holt Renfrew in Canada has seen a similar aesthetic shift. “We’re really inspired by the exuberance and maximalist dressing being felt post-pandemic,” she said.

And Heather Gramston, head of womenswear at Browns, agreed: “This season, we feel a sense of optimism and looking forward to the future with most collections post-pandemic having emoted a sense of hopefulness and positivity.”

And as they plan their assortments for spring ’22, retailers are leaning heavily into that upbeat spirit. When asked about their top priorities, all of the buyers emphasized the hunt for “newness” and great design.

Helen David, who joined Kurt Geiger in June as chief merchant of luxury, explained that it all comes down to trusting your instincts. “If you are excited, your customers will be excited. It’s as simple as that,” she said. “You have to feel excited in the showroom the minute you see a collection. In my experience these are always the collections and styles which fly out as soon as they reach the stores.”

Merchandise selection also is increasingly influenced by the changing priorities of consumers, especially millennial and Gen Z shoppers, who tend to make purchases that align with their personal values.

“Sustainability and inclusion are getting more important and are always good to have,” said Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at Mytheresa. “[It’s] great if a brand is more conscious and working toward that direction.”

At Browns, Gramston said the buying team makes its decisions based around the Browns Conscious pillar, which factors in both its impact on the planet and its community. “We are constantly on the lookout for those designers pushing the boundaries, from sustainability to having a voice on topics such anti-racism, social inequality and mental health,” she said.

Dot-Com Dominates

Like every corner of the retail industry, luxury stores have also experienced the tidal shift toward digital commerce over the course of the past year and a half — a trend that they predict will stick around post-pandemic.

“Ease and efficiency will remain at the core of how customers will continue to shop,” said Joseph Tang, fashion director at Holt Renfrew. “Both our online and in-store channels have been adapting to the changing ways our customers shop, and we’re ensuring we continue to offer best-in-class service and extraordinary products, sustainably.”

As a digital native, luxury dot-com Ssense has a head start on some of the more traditional retailers, according to Federico Barassi, VP of menswear buying.

“We’ve been well-equipped to meet this increase in demand from consumers who previously had no desire to shop online or who wanted to be in physical boutiques but now feel comfortable ordering online thanks to the convenience it offers, like fast delivery, helpful customer service and the ease of shopping over 70,000 styles in one place,” said Barassi.

The key now, he explained, is to work closely with other departments such as logistics and planning in order to adapt — a task that’s particularly tough right now, in light of the global supply chain issues. “The fashion industry moves quickly and is about being at the front of the line,” Barassi said.

Ercoli added that the rise of online has inspired Level Shoes to rethink the selection it’s offering customers. “We are introducing new brands that have global reach to cater to this wider audience,” she said. “We will always have our local customer at the forefront of our mind, but we also need to adapt to resonate with this global consumer.”

Timing Is Everything

E-commerce has also inspired a more buy-now-wear-now mentality, according to Saks’ Patel, which presents new challenges for retailers who historically operated on a fixed seasonal schedule. “The fashion calendar has completely changed because of the pandemic,” she said. “It’s a completely new way of doing business; we’re buying when designers show their collections, rather than sticking to the traditional schedule.”

One consequence of these new shopping behaviors is a greater emphasis on “drops” in the luxury business. Off-season releases have been a hallmark of the athletic market for over a decade, but now high-end designers and retailers have embraced the tactic to create buzz and anticipation — not to mention the fact that it helps skirt any issues with delivery delays.

And one can’t overlook the power of TikTok and Instagram, which have helped turn trends like tie-dye and “cottagecore” into must-haves for customers of all ages.

“Having spent over a year looking at our screens, social media and influencers are more influential than ever,” said Kurt Geiger’s David. “The importance of recognizing this and buying into these key trends is the difference between selling out and being left with unwanted shoes.”

Overall, retailers are optimistic that better days are on the horizon for both consumers and the luxury market. “If we all go back to normal, we will definitely see an uplift in people spending and wanting to dress up to their best. I think everyone is looking forward to a fresh start with a positive approach and excitement,” said Hsu of Mytheresa.

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