Technology has been disrupting the retail industry for more than a decade. First, by making it easier for shops to get online by significantly expanded their reach and opened up the possibility of out-competing larger, legacy brands. SaaS and cloud-based e-commerce technology enabled this.
Of course, e-commerce technology hasn’t been the only retail disruption. Social and mobile commerce, portable POS systems like those produced by Square, one-touch payment options like those offered by Paypal and Amazon, free shipping as a marketing expense, and a massive shift in consumer shopping habits due to frequent industry innovations all come to mind as sweeping trends to which all retailers have had to adjust.
The Intersection of Fashion and Tech
Perhaps the retailers challenged most by these changes have been those in the fashion industry. The fashion world is typically the leader in the early adoption of new technologies. In fact, technology companies like Apple and Google have for the past few years both partnered with fashion houses on new technology releases and cherry-picked executives from fashion houses that they deem cutting-edge on wearable tech.
This makes sense. There’s a lot of money to be done in the wearable technology industry, for one. Plus, fashion shows are a great place to test out ideas. After all, at these events you earn press, hear criticism, edit and mass produce the items for consumers. This makes fashion houses and technology companies ideal partners in product releases: the fashion house launches a line, and earns respect as an early adopter of little available technology (reinforcing the exclusivity of the brand), and the technology company gets to market to luxury consumers, likely those who will shell out a pretty penny for the newest gadget.
And this strategy has worked, but there are one massive disruption and a subsequent challenge now facing fashion brands: if you use technology to increase your audience size and make your brand relevant to a growing number of tech-savvy consumers, you need to be able to sell to them.
The big disruptor here is easily recognisable but cumbersome in practice for brands to execute: real-time access.
Instant Access Expectations Challenge the Industry
TV, music and even publications have all already undergone the disruption caused by the internet’s ability to bring consumers information and entertainment immediately. Out of this disruption came the concept of streaming, and companies like Netflix, Hulu and Spotify. These platforms remove the barrier of entry formerly required for the individual channel, allowing mass users to offset the cost of streaming services. In publishing, platforms like Twitter and Reddit have become hotbeds of journalist activity –– with reporters relying on real-time information to guide their stories.
“I think the speed at which the fashion industry is going is fundamentally what we expect of fashion today, as ultimately, this is the way the world works,” said Jonathan Anderson, creative director and founder of J.W. Anderson, in an interview with WWD. “It is about the chase against boredom. We have to adapt to the speed like we have had to adjust to other media. I think it is a sign of the times, and it is not just fashion experiencing that; music, film and art are all experiencing this thing where we need to keep up with the pace of the world.”
Indeed, fashion is now facing a similar need to adapt. For instance, fashion shows used to be exclusive. Young designers-to-be would consistently make headlines for sneaking into shows. These days, those most interested in fashion would just start blogging instead. After all, if you’re able to grow your audience, brands will pay you to attend –– no sneaking necessary.
Truth be told, though, no one sneaks in anymore. There is simply no need to. Fashion shows are no longer exclusive. In fact, some fashion critics no longer even go to the international shows. Instead, they watch the event from their home office, streaming it on their computer and getting detail shots immediately uploaded to the cloud from photographers on the ground.
These changes have all been years in the making, but for an industry that has traditionally thrived on exclusivity as value, popularity can be intimidating.
“I agree [that fashion is overheated],” said Anna Sui, designer for the Anna Sui line and winner of a Geoffrey Beene Lifetime Achievement Award. “But I don’t know what we can do at this point because it’s where we’re at right now. It’s not just fashion; it’s everything. It’s the movie industry, the music industry; it’s sporting. Everything has gotten to this point and celebrity, too. It’s all so immediate, all so in your face, you can’t calm it down anymore. I was at dinner the other night and somebody was looking at their phone and it was like, ‘breaking news!’ And it was like, what Kardashian did what. That’s just kind of how it is now. You used to have to wait for that monthly magazine or tabloid to tell you who was sleeping with who, and now it’s just on your face. That’s what’s happened with fashion, too. It’s just different. It’s the new now. I don’t think you can really do anything except adapt. That’s what we’re all trying to do.”
The Next Generation of Fashion Houses
The Chanels of the world are finally opening online storefronts. Most luxury brands can now be found on marketplaces like Net-a-Porter, or even Amazon Fashion, where you can buy an Elie Tahari dress if you have a Prime membership.
But consumers are pushing fashion even further. Just getting online isn’t enough, and designers feel the pressure. This is why in 2015 the Council of Fashion Designers of America retained Boston Consulting Group to evaluate the future of fashion shows in New York. After all, exclusivity is gone. More people than ever want to watch. The shows are no longer just events — they are extensions of branded experiences.
The results of the Boston Consulting Group are expected to hit the market soon, but not before Autumn/Winter 2016 lines are presented in New York, London, Paris and Milan. Early indications, however, suggest that consumers want immediate access to clothes presented during shows –– an accomplishment not yet earned by any one fashion brand.
“BCG will survey industry experts to explore a possible shift to shows that are more closely aligned with retail deliveries, with the ultimate goal of stimulating full-price selling at a time when fashion apparel sales continue to languish as consumers spend more of their money on restaurants and experiences over clothes,” wrote the WWD staff.
This makes sense. Today’s consumers are millennials, and they have been the spurring force behind all other industry moves toward streaming and instant access. Fashion, in their eyes, is no different.
The opinion of designers and fashion houses, though, varies. Fast fashion has cut into their margins. Fashion shows present trends for consumers up to six months out. At the fall shows, for instance, dresses and flowery fabrics often hit the runway. Consumers won’t be looking to buy those items, though, until well after the throes of winter. By then, fast fashion brands like Zara and Forever 21 have already recreated the look, hired influencers to wear it and priced it at an unreasonably cheap rate. Now, anyone can be fashion-forward –– leaving the actual fashion houses coming up with the trends almost entirely out of the revenue equation.
“Fashion is by definition a reflection of what is going on in the world,” said Diane von Furstenberg in an interview with WWD. “We live in a moment of total disruption as our tools change and the speed increases. Everyone is surfing a tsunami, trying to understand how to deal with waves of so much information, so many images. As always when in periods of change, clarity and quality become imperative.”
Yes, change is obviously needed in the industry if high-end fashion brands want to survive the quickly changing consumer shopping expectations. Linda Fargo, senior vice president fashion and store presentation director at Bergdorf Goodman, knows this well, telling WWD:
“We should all start with the customer at the centre of our collective process. We’ve lost sight of that. We give her shearling coats in June when she’s just starting to think about shorts. We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to create excitement and buzz for beautiful products and brand image with runway shows, allowing fast retail to copy it within weeks, while it takes us five months to get deliveries to her. By then, she’s tired of it because it’s been seen in too many posts and images. If you described the fashion cycle from a marketing, seasonality, desire/fulfilment perspective to anyone with any common sense, they would look at you like you were crazy.
“Clearly, retail could use every advantage at its disposal right now, and sometimes challenging times are exactly the motivation we need to hit the reset button. There would be a big uncomfortable ripple effect of changing the age-old status quo of the show cycle and cadence, but the lives of fashion industry denizens are predicated on change. We will adapt. I see it as a win-win for the business and consumer alike.”
Change, Creativity and Consumerism
The pace of fashion design is being forced to change. Modern consumers want immediate access to new collections, ideally, at price points, they can afford. This is why so many designers have partnered with brands like Target to bring custom collections to a more price-savvy consumer group. Some high-end brands see this move as diluting exclusivity. Other brands see it as simply embracing the future.
Either way, all brands are feeling the pressure of what is next: simultaneous collection launches, with the items instantly available for purchase online. A few brands, even, have already begun testing the concept on their digital properties.
“Fashion is about change and evolution. I love the immediacy of life today and how the doors of fashion are opening up so everyone can feel part of a global tribe,” said Donatella Versace. “We started with a revolution at Versus Versace, transforming it into a ‘see-now, buy-now, wear-now’ brand. It has been the most extraordinary success, finding a whole new audience who lives their lives online. For my most recent women’s wear collection, we put the sequined leopard-print Palazzo backpacks in some key Versace flagships and e-commerce, because I wanted our customers to get a taste of the catwalk right now. Why should they wait till next season? I believe rules are there to be broken.”
With NYFW kicking off, retailers would be wise to keep an eye on how designers and luxury brands will be telling their story to their now vast audience. We are watching an entire industry pivot and restructure their business strategies for success to earn the loyalty of the modern consumer. And, what the fashion industry does typically trickle its way down into the various niches of other retail sectors as well. The strategies used at NYFW this week may soon be ones you are implementing in a year.
“With the pace, the consumer is changing, we are not talking down the road,” said John Varvatos, founder and designer of luxury men’s lifestyle brand of the same name. “The future is now.”
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