Luxury Fashion Disrupted

The world is changing quickly, and no one, not even high end fashion brands, is immune to those changes. The new era, what I’ve started to call the “second phase of disruption” is tied to two things: the ascendancy of Millennials into their highest spending years, and fast fashion retailers’ ability to bring products to market four times faster than their competitors.

For decades, “Fashion Week” has been the place where a designer’s new styles are debuted on the runway. Celebrities, the ultra-rich and retail buyers would attend, to get an overarching idea of where each designer was heading, and what the new “look” would be. After fashion week, retail buyers would place their purchase orders and five or six months later, products would appear.

In the meanwhile, the retail stores would design windows and store layouts to accentuate the look of the new designs. They’d all come together in a (hopefully) “fabulous” collection for high-end consumers to enjoy.

We’re all familiar with the rest of the cadence, I think. Within a year, similar products would appear in moderate priced “regular” lines. The designers would have already moved on, but the masses were wearing the once very cool stuff.

Certainly this model has been disrupted several times in the past fifty years. Diane Von Furstenberg brought her “little wrap dress” right to working women, and has become legend for affordable and comfortable fashion. Still, the model itself has continued along.

Not anymore. First reported in the Business of Fashion blog, Burberry, and now Tommy Hilfiger have revamped their runway and retail schedules. Going forward, Burberry’s men’s and women’s products will be combined into a single collection, and product will be available in retail stores (both Burberry and other doors) and online the day after the runway shows.

Tommy Hilfiger has taken a different approach to the same end. According to Business of Fashion, starting in September, the company’s runway show will be broadcast via Instagram and other media, and product will be instantly available for consumer purchase through its own online and retail channels.

This is just the beginning, but I see this change spreading across the entire luxury and upper mid-priced industry.

On the one hand, this change is all about cutting off fast fashion at the knees. Under the old calendar, all a Fast Fashion retailer needed to do was send a representative to the runway show, take a few photos, send photos to product designers, and produce a tweaked version of the product within its 3-6 week production cycle. Just like that, the best ideas would be available at a dramatically lower price point! Certainly, Forever 21, for one has been sued several times for what amounts to theft of intellectual property, but these suits are hard to win, and by sub-contracting production out to suppliers, the company maintains a certain plausible deniability that protects it from those lawsuits. Under the new system, at least the brands will have a fighting chance to get a leg up on the knock-offs.

On the other hand, this change is all about short-attention-span Millennials. Even those willing to spend money on “things” rather than experiences want those “things” quickly. Any designer who waits six months after introduction to bring his product to ready-to-wear locations is asking to be forgotten, supplanted by the next big thing, which will again be supplanted by the next big thing. There are no classics. There is only constant change. And constant change changes everything.

It is more than just a cosmetic make-over. It requires dramatic retooling of the companies’ supply chains. As Christopher Bailey, Burberry Chief Executive and Chief Creative Officer told Business of Fashion,

“We needed to build a much more agile and flexible supply chain. You normally design the full show, then you show the show, and then your supply chain starts to kick in. Now, we will be designing the show and, as we’re doing that, we will be passing things over immediately to our supply chain partners to say: let’s look at the lead times on this; how can we work with this factory to get this on the date that we need it? As we are starting to create the collection, we will have to commit to fabrics or trims or embroideries. It’s more of a partnership than a handover on one specific date.”

RSR’s research has consistently shown the best way to achieve faster speed to volume is via vendor/factory collaboration. And when those vendors are halfway around the world, some pretty sophisticated product development technology is required to create efficiencies.

Others have talked about the Zara supply chain model for more than a decade… produce product closer to the point of demand, control your destiny by using your own factories and you can cut more than a month out of the lifecycle. You can also react more quickly to changes in demand. Of course, as a brand gets larger and more globally dispersed, production adjacent to the point of demand becomes a tougher nut to solve, but Zara seems to be keeping up. Best practices developed over a decade still make Zara faster than most of its competitors.

The bottom line is that no one is escaping the need for speed. Retailers and their suppliers must find ways to create continuous buzz. To use an old fashioned term, they must find a way to be “sticky.” Life used to be easy. You built a concept and “blew it out.” Customers would follow. Now, a whole other mind set is required. Are you ready?