Focus on Fashion: How the industry is shaking up to beat lookalikes to the shop floor

19 September 2016, London

At the time of going to print, London Fashion Week is in full swing. This is off the back of the Spring/Summer 2017 New York shows and the forerunner to the Milan & Paris shows.

This is show season, when fashion editors and buyers spend four weeks living out of their suitcases while they jump from fashion capital to fashion capital.

Once understated and perfunctory affairs where buyers and selected press would gather in a small salon to see the collections, the shows have become more and more extravagant, each with an A-list front row to beat the next and with social media – lots and lots of social media. It is social media which has become a double edged sword for the fashion houses. On the one hand it has been embraced warmly by (most) luxury fashion houses, who use it to tweet, post, regram and snapchat photos of their collections, celebrities wearing their products and advertising campaigns. On the other hand, it has made them more vulnerable than ever to copying.

Traditionally the collections are shown approximately six months in advance of hitting the shop floor. This means that the Spring/Summer collections are shown in September and the Autumn/Winter collections are shown in February/March, resulting in  a disconnect between the speed at which consumers can see the collections (within minutes or even instantaneously via live streaming) and the speed at which they can actually buy the collections, an average six month wait. In an age where consumers are used to having everything ‘instantly’ this model is becoming increasingly out of sync with the modern consumer.

The problem has also been that ‘inspired by’ products (or sometimes even clear copies) often make it to shop floors on the high street much quicker than six months, sometimes within a matter of weeks.

There has been some debate as to how much damage this actually causes original designers. Would a customer who pays £50 for a pair of shoes really be in a position to spend £500 on a pair? This argument is offering increasingly less comfort. A customer who routinely spends £500 on a pair of shoes may well spend £50 on a pair of similar shoes if they could have them straightaway and be on trend instantly. Also some customers may well splurge on an expensive item and then be happy to complete their wardrobe with high street fashion that looks like the real thing.

In response to the problems caused by this time lag between the shows and the looks hitting the shop floors, the fashion industry is seeing a radical shake-up of its normal rhythm. Burberry, who have led the way over the past decade with their use of social media and online retail are, somewhat predictably, also leading the way here too and will now sell their clothes direct from the catwalk. They will not be alone in this as others, such as Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren, have also adopted the same ‘see-now-buy-now’ model, thereby reducing this time lag and with it, the window of opportunity for copyists. Other designers, such as Victoria Beckham, allow customers to ‘pre-order’ items from their shows, thereby allowing customers to order ‘instantly’ without disrupting normal production timelines.

Of course, not all fashion houses have the resources to replicate the see-now-buy-now model. The reason for the six month lead time is for the designers to take orders and fulfil them. Unlike the normal high street model of ‘stack ’em high, sell them cheap’, high fashion is produced in much smaller quantities to a higher standard and therefore the production time and costs are significantly greater.

It is yet to be seen how these changes by some high end designers will affect the fashion industry more generally and indeed what effect it will have on the desirability or volume of ‘inspired by’ products on the high street. It is inevitable that the high street will continue to be led by the styles and themes found on the catwalks. This is, after all, what the customer expects and provided the designers’ IP rights (most notably design rights and copyright) are respected, there is nothing untoward about that. Customers who can afford to wear the ‘real thing’ will be happy as they can purchase (and wear) the products instantly.  The losers in the shake-up will likely be the smaller fashion houses who do not have the resources to sell ‘straight from the catwalk’ on a see-now-buy-now basis. However, only time will tell how this will change the industry at large.

Originally published in DesignWrites 9th Edition.