From The Issue: Buy, Buy, Baby By Anders Christian Madsen
“See now, buy now.” One of fashion’s more unfortunate monikers for a moment, it always reminds me of mail-order catalogues from the 1990s. “Pick’n’mix.” “Mix’n’match.” “Don’t look now.” “See no evil.” Sorry, I digress. SS17 was the season that “see now, buy now” came to town, taking the first step towards a new age of fashion consumption.
Topshop Unique, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and Tom Ford led the crusade, allowing customers to buy their collections straight off the runway, as opposed to five months after the shows. Among those of us there, it made for some confusion as to what season we were looking at, and it wasn’t much different for the people running them. “The first part of the collection was sold straight off the runway, and the second part dropped in the store two and a half months later,” explains Kate Phelan, global creative director of Topshop, on the phone to me in early December. “So what we’re looking at, in some sense is, what are we actually putting on the runway? Are we putting spring/summer and pre-fall on the runway in February? To be honest with you, it’s something we haven’t landed on a solution for yet. For the show next September, we need to be booking our fabrics this week.”
It’s a daunting task, even for a giant such as Topshop – and, as Phelan says, very much a work in progress. Unlike most of the industry, Topshop can afford to explore and experiment, and their product is perfect for the format. “We want to see how it works, but we never really realised how difficult it was going to be to be able to find the fabrics, decide on everything and do those wholesale appointments and all that production so far in advance,” she admits. It has, nonetheless, been a success, not least for Burberry, who had that collection inspired by Virginia Woolf’s Orlando flying off the shelves the day after the show. “From livestreams to ordering straight from the runway, to live social-media campaigns, this is the latest step in a creative process that will continue to evolve,” Burberry designer Christopher Bailey said in a statement about the changes we’re now all facing with this brave new relationship between fashion shows and consumption.
I tried my best not to let it, but the reality of “see now, buy now” did tickle my fancy. The day after the Burberry show, I found myself on their website perusing the £400 ruffled shirts I’d fallen in love with the night before, cursing the day I no longer had months before these season-specific pieces would arrive in stores to talk myself out of spending money on them.
I never bought the shirt, mainly for the fact that I was going to Milan the next day and it was much more expensive in euros. I did, however, start to think a lot about the “see now, buy now” creature and where it would leave my people and me, the fashion press. “At the Topshop Unique show, we’ve been exploring how we can make the runway show talk more directly to our customers, by livestreaming it or making the collection available to buy immediately from the catwalk,” Phelan tells me. “We had a great appetite at the venue, being able to shop it right after the show. But it will take time, I think, to get people to understand what the role of the runway is now. All designers on every level are looking at the calendar and trying to work out what we can do.”
It’s what caused a number of brands – Burberry, Bottega Veneta, Gucci, Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood – to merge their men’s and women’s shows, starting this year, and it’s what is currently questioning the role of the fashion presentation traditionally meant as a trade show for buyers and press. In an age of “see now, buy now”, where press coverage and subsequent buying appointments are made redundant, will shows simply be a moving look book for the public to shop from? For the fashion press, it could be a case of “see now, bye now”.
Here’s the predicament. I’m fairly honest with myself that I wanted that Burberry shirt not just because I, like so many dead pop stars before me, really enjoy a ruff’n’cuff number, but because the sensory experience of that Burberry show, with its procession of models marching to a Handel-like coronation soundtrack, performed live by a 21-piece orchestra, compelled me to consume. Going to the shows has turned me into an emotional shopper: the rule is, generally, that the more I cry runway-side, the more I want to buy. But a livestream can’t access those emotions, can it? I don’t know if I would have even noticed that Burberry shirt had I not physically been at the show. The next day I wrote a gushing review of the house’s “see now, buy now” success, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I was cheering on the start of the end of my life as a show-goer.
“I think if you are showing a season ahead, it’s really important to maintain press attendance,” Phelan says. “But if you’re only doing retail, then the only reason for press to support that show is to be part of the event – to see who’s on the front row and to be part of the energy and the theatre of a fashion show.” Where does that leave us, then? “The news press is still going to write about the show, but for the long-lead magazines it questions the relevance of seeing a collection you’re never going to shoot,” she says. That’s good news for those of us who write about the shows, less so for the visual side of the industry. In other words, in a future fashion landscape you may have to sing for your supper if you wish to attend fashion week. On the other hand, the shows provide all-important impressions for visual editors for the season to come, generating all-important visual press for the brands, who I presume will still be interested in inspiring coverage, “see now, buy now” shows or not.
“The thing I really like about going to the shows is to see the casting, hear the music, see what colour the runway is and what the lighting is like, and all those things are important to how we talk about fashion for the rest of the year,” Phelan concurs. For the general consumer, of course, none of this matters. Their attraction to a Burberry shirt is born out of advertising and affiliation: a beautiful fashion shoot, the right Instagram picture, or how good it looks on Eddie Redmayne.
If this is to continue, however, the fashion industry has to restructure itself altogether. That Burberry shirt will have to be shot by fashion titles months before it’s shown, those pictures need to be circulated on Instagram as soon as the show is over and someone has to pap Redmayne wearing it pretty much the day before. This would require collection previews months in advance – as indeed Burberry did this season – which would effectively defeat the point of stylists attending the shows, or for that matter, buyers whose stores would have already received their buys. Will shows just be for show, then? For celebrity attendance and the few critics left in the world?
“We’re already seeing designers showing men’s and women’s together in January, and a few designers taking to the runway-retail idea, and designers are going to use their catwalk to redefine what they want it to do for them,” Phelan says. “But there will still be designers who will use the catwalk solely to show new ideas and innovation like a brand tool – selling the dream, like a Gucci show. There’s a major role for shows to do that and keep the aspiration of what the designer luxury market should look like.”
Gucci is an excellent case study in the debate. Under Alessandro Michele, the brand’s shows have become theatrical exhibitions of the designer’s extraordinary craftsmanship and 360-degree vision for the house. Rather than dealing in trends and quick fixes, Michele’s Gucci moves slowly within a defined and hyper-referential aesthetic, which is slowly but surely creating a lifestyle and longevity for consumers to buy into, even if an embroidered hoodie is £3,000. Here, the show is a reflection of the investment Gucci’s garments stand for: an appreciation for the artisanal value of Michele’s work, and a big fat banner for the idea of slowing down the fashion system rather than speeding it up. The new Gucci is the antithesis of “see now, buy now”. When Michele announced the merger of his men’s and women’s shows last year, his statement couldn’t underline that view of fashion more clearly. “It seems only natural to me to present my men’s and women’s collections together. It’s the way I see the world today,” he said. “I believe it will give me the chance to move toward a different kind of approach to my storytelling.”
It once again outlines the ever-growing cleft splitting the industry: the increasing tension between fast and slow fashion, and the conflicting ways brands are responding to it. What everyone has in common is a heightened focus on the fashion show, which only seems to become more relevant as “see now, buy now” is introduced, as more designers are creating faraway show experiences where press and buyers can focus on one show rather than eight in a normal fashion-week day, and even the men’s market is starting to invest in pre-collection presentations.
“We’re entering a very different time of consumerism,” Phelan says. “Luxury in some shape or form is now accessible and affordable to many people, and the elitism of fashion has changed. Everybody is more knowledgeable of fashion now and that has changed the landscape dramatically. It has slightly forced us to not look at fashion in such an acute way, and that’s why the runway will become even more of an important point for crystallising the new innovation and ideas designers want to show.” As we know, the show must go on.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Illustration Stephen Doherty
Taken from Issue 58 of 10 Magazine ANGELS PLEASURE FLUID, on newsstands now…