Will the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced a rethink of so many industry habits, ultimately spawn an era of slower fashion with fewer seasonal collections, deliveries suited to the weather — and fewer markdowns?
Plenty of designers and fashion executives would certainly cheer those changes.
“To be honest with you, I like the idea of having a slower pace in terms of seasonality — of having in the windows cashmere in winter and swimwear in summer,” said Donatella Versace, chief creative officer of Versace. “This will give us that time to research and create things that have that something more and special that I am sure will be needed to make people say: I want it!
“Considering that all of us — I mean us designers — have been complaining about the pace of fashion, about the unsustainable speed that the delivery calendar had us keep, this is for sure a chance to rethink a lot of things, including seasonality,” she added.
Rick Owens is of a similar mind, with a caveat.
“I suppose there’s room for everything. You can satisfy a voracious customer who needs immediate gratification and will blithely turn to someone else who is quicker and cheaper, or you can make a connection with someone un-rushed who can respect waiting for an order,” he mused. “In an ideal world, you have a choice.”
Owens has called himself a purveyor of slow fashion in terms of his personal aesthetic. “But to have the luxury to develop that slow aesthetic takes a certain amount of volume. It’s a delicate balance,” he cautioned. “I am not aware of any company that can offer a satisfying assortment of exquisite things without having a dependable commercial motor to carry that off.”
According to Versace, “season-less fashion or a slower fashion model are both viable options. I guess all of us will do what we feel is right for our own brand.”
Observers agreed that the COVID-19 pandemic, which has thrown production and deliveries into disarray like never before, could be the impetus to return fashion to a more realistic delivery cadence, and one less hinged on seasons, and rushed ones at that.
“I strongly believe the calendar should be aligned to the actual seasonal consumer needs,” asserted Maximiliano Nicolelli, managing director of Milan-based Hydra Advisory, adding that “the current calendar does not work as it is not aligned to the current season and consequently penalizes the profitability of the whole chain due to heavy and long-lasting sales.”
His advice? “From a practical standpoint, I believe a more season-less approach will make sense moving forward. This is due not only to climate change but also considering new consumer preferences,” he said, adding that “discount periods should be shorter in order maintain the excitement, leave space to new arrivals and improve margins.”
According to Guram Gvasalia, cofounder of Vetements, slow fashion is the “only option” once the crisis yields.
“Anything you restart doing in life, you need to start slowly, whether it’s riding a bike again after many years or going back to the gym after a long break,” he said. “The main challenge for the brands will be creating high-quality, fairly priced, season-less product that can stay relevant for a longer period of time.”
Forecasting “catastrophic” economic consequences from the COVID-19 pandemic, Gvasalia noted that unemployment will mount and disposable incomes will substantially shrink.
“If previously the question was what to buy — a new phone or a new pair of sneakers — now more and more people will think whether to buy anything at all. Each purchase will become an investment. The seasonal ever-changing stuff will lose its appeal. The fast fashion will go out of fashion,” he predicted.
Massimo Giorgetti, founder and creative director of MSGM, said the crisis has magnified how physical stores, e-commerce businesses and wholesalers are not aligned.
“I believe that adapting to the schedules imposed by the American department stores with their demand of pre-collections and at the same time reacting to the aggressive early sales of online stores, we made the whole system unhealthy,” he said.
The Italian designer recalled a visit to his new London store in January 2019 during a snow flurry — quite the contrast to the summery, nautical resort collection displayed inside.
“I felt it was really out of place. I really have the impression that we were all aware of this, but we were not brave enough to take action,” he lamented. “I also believe that e-commerce’s early sales are destroying the system. In March, they start doing 15, 20 percent markdowns, which is not sustainable in the long term.”
Most observers predict that the proliferation of collections seen in recent years cannot be sustained.
“Before the turmoil of COVID-19, brands were delivering five or more collections, working on special capsules and collaborations while fighting to deliver new collections as early as possible to make sure that the stores had continuous novelty on the shop floor,” said Marina Piano, a communications consultant based in Italy. “I think this will change in the near future for sure, but might affect also delivery schedules in the longer term. Consumer behavior will change. We will need more value for money and this might be a more in-season and long-lasting product. There will be a return to value and artisanship.”
While fast-fashion giants H&M and Inditex certainly sped up the fashion system, top luxury brands also ramped up seasonal collections. Chanel’s longtime creative director Karl Lagerfeld, who died last year, had added to his own workload and cranked out six ready-to-wear collections a year, four with dedicated runway shows, convinced the brand’s global boutique network needed fresh merchandise every two months.
Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS, told WWD the brand was reorganizing its schedule of deliveries in the short term, although the longer-term consequences of the COVID-19 disruption on the delivery calendar were not yet clear.
“It’s too early to say how it will evolve. We will be attentive to the way in which our customers’ wishes may change,” the executive said. “In the short term, we have reviewed our plans for merchandising and delivering the collections in our network of Chanel boutiques: concretely, the spring-summer 2020 ready-to-wear collections will remain in stores for longer, and the so-called Métiers d’Art collection, normally delivered in May, will arrive instead in early July.”
Meanwhile, the fall-winter 2020/21 pre-collection presented to Chanel store buyers in early February will be delivered from mid-July until September, he added.
The health crisis forced Chanel to cancel its planned cruise show, originally scheduled to take place in Capri on May 7, and will also scupper its haute couture show in July, given the cancellation of Paris Couture Week. “We are looking at alternative ways to present them to our clients and the press,” Pavlovsky said.
In interviews, designers and executives hammered home the need to make fewer and smaller collections, and sell as much of them as possible at full price.
“Do customers really need to be buying spring clothes in January? Is it really fair to the market in general for stores to go into markdown mode as early as we have been?” asked Pierre Mahéo, founder and creative director of Officine Générale in Paris. “I think this is the moment for us to reconsider and recalibrate on the rhythm, and deliveries in general.”
Giorgetti and others predicted collections will be smaller in the future.
“There is this myth that if you do larger collections you have more chances to please your clients and be successful in more markets. I’m not sure this is true anymore,” he said. “The goal should be to do smaller collections with a bigger value given by materials and craftsmanship.”
Michele Norsa, industrial partner of Italian fund FSI and vice chairman of Missoni, predicted there will be a simplification of the offer.
“I don’t think the pre- and main collections will be combined, but I imagine that the size of the collections will be reduced because the problem will be that everyone will have enormous stocks of merchandise,” he said. “But luxury brands must not lower their prices or the quality, and that will be the main differentiating element.”
Giorgetti advocates steering away from summer-winter distinctions. “I really believe that between 50 and 60 percent of each collection needs to be season-less. In our case, in each collection we already have denim, poplin and fleece which we sell all year-round,” he said.
Well before the COVID-19 outbreak, the fashion industry was coming under pressure from sustainability advocates eager to dam up a flood of collections, capsules and drops.
According to Nicolelli, luxury firms are as guilty of over-production as fast-fashion chains. While luxury’s robust growth has been fueled largely by emerging markets, particularly China, they also “democratized their brands by offering countless entry price items and thus becoming more affordable. This has created more demand and consequently this demand has been satisfied by luxury brands producing more.”
He recommended that fast-fashion brands consider “producing less and in a more sustainable manner in order to generate less toxic stock, while luxury brands could opt to go back to the original formula where luxury was about value and not about volume.”
Retail consultant Robert Burke characterized the coronavirus crisis as “an involuntary opportunity to reset the buttons for fashion deliveries and relook at our calendar in general.”
Brands have struggled with the demands of department stores that urged earlier and bigger deliveries, imposed difficult sell-through terms and requested “exclusives for exclusives sake,” according to Burke, who highlighted that exclusive designs for a particular retailer are not always the “best” and most saleable products.
Burke noted that most European luxury brands rely on the accessories business, and the best ones have learned to exalt and animate designs that last for years, not months. In an interview, he said he expects this strategy will increasingly be applied to ready-to-wear, pointing to the enduring success of classic-driven brands like Brunello Cucinelli and Loro Piana.
He also forecasts a better balance between pre-collections, hinged to evergreen styles, and runway deliveries, weighted to pizzazz.
According to Gvasalia, “two collections a year with strategic multiple deliveries is more than enough.”
What’s more important, though, is reining in early discounts, he stressed.
“Putting winter collections on sale in October is mental, and this is what needs to be changed,” he argued. “The industry needs to start being honest to itself. What is the reason to have collections with hundreds of looks on a runway, when at the end of the day, it arrives in the stores a few weeks before the sales and have little to zero chance to be sold at full price?
“Retailers need to start respecting each other and stop the price and promotional wars,” he continued. “Especially at this moment of crisis, all the major multibrand retailers — like countries — should sign a treaty and agree on moving the next sales and any promotional activities at least by the same amount of time that everyone is staying under the lockdown.”
Stefano Martinetto, cofounder and chief executive officer of Tomorrow London Ltd., the fashion business investor and accelerator, also urged the industry to seize the moment and fix the “derelict” system of discounts.
“If the big retailers collectively extend the lives of the spring-summer 2020 season until July, like it used to be, and realign the seasons to the weather, this will allow them to accept deliveries from smaller companies and brands which will likely be late on their deliveries,” he suggested. “They’ve spent the money to produce spring-summer 2020, to produce fashion shows, pre-collections and now the autumn-winter collections. Their order books are down. They’re struggling to collect deposits. Their cash flow is crunched. And now they’re going to have late deliveries. It’s a moment in which the system needs to change.”
Burke couldn’t agree more that the markdown cycle must end: “We all knew it was out of sync, we could see that, but because there was another season right behind it, we were kind of on this treadmill that wouldn’t stop. Well, now the treadmill has stopped and we have to regroup.”
In the near term, the industry seems poised to flood the market with merchandise amid tepid demand for fashion.
According to Nicolelli, many brands plan to deliver fall 2020 collections to retailers, regardless of production delays, to mitigate the negative financial results of 2020, with spring offerings trapped in shuttered stores and weak online demand for fashions.
“This will clearly cause additional damage as it will further overstock retailers and force them to apply aggressive discounts,” Nicolelli warned. “It will only extend the problem. Moreover, if wholesale-driven brands do that, such actions will carry on with the problem to next year and impact their 2021 balance sheet as spring-summer 2021 buying will be clearly penalized by retailers full of stock.”
He recommended brands reduce their fall 2020 offerings, “to then get back to normal, hopefully with spring-summer 2021 depending on the duration of the outbreak. If not, getting business back to normal by the fall-winter 2021 sales campaign.”
Burke projected that brands, not retailers, will take the lead in the post-crisis world, in terms of deliveries, seasons and markdowns. “The bigger brands were already leaning to being more flexible and creative with [deliveries to] their own stores, and being able to be a little more nimble is the takeaway here,” he said. “The brands often know how to run retail better than the department stores,” the impetus for more concession configurations, or leased departments, in U.S. department stores.
“In the current situation of global lockdown and unclear future, another fashion week is not what anyone needs,” Gvasalia said. “When the crisis is over and we know when we can show the next collection, then it will be possible to decide by what means will it happen.
“It is a huge tragedy what is happening in the world,” he said. “At the moment it doesn’t seem right to be doing a show even in September. You don’t go dancing after a funeral.”