written by Seth Friedermann
edited by Charles Beckwith
Where are we going, and what will it look like when we get there?
There are still a few major mysteries left in the future of the fashion industry that are the keys to understanding a progressive path forward. Two of the biggest “known unknowns,” to quote someone I intensely dislike, are… what is going to happen as digital magazines who review and feature specific designers also begin to sell clothes because of contracts with retailers or because they themselves become a direct retailer? The other question is, how does this strange new “salescape” impact the designers?
Can you be both retailer and objective journalist?
As the traditional revenue model of soliciting fashion designers for advertising in exchange for coverage and editorial space, (you kid yourself if you think it’s been otherwise) comes to an end, many magazines and sites have begun to directly sell clothes for designers, or have entered into partnership arrangements such as Vogue.com and Moda Operandi. As this occurs, can their consumers put any faith in anything these companies say on behalf of or against any fashion designers working today? As of right now, I can only see one way that any business that both reviews and sells products in the same industry can be taken seriously, and that is to be editorially transparent. What I propose is that editors and the writers who work for them openly and specifically explain why they are supporting X designer’s work, and why the don’t care for designer Y. We must begin to go out of the way to openly advocate specific viewpoints and support works of fashion that embody that viewpoint. There must be an effort to clearly indicate to our consumers that we aren’t supporting this designer only because she or he pays us to do so.
Moving on to the second issue, it must be immediately stated that the fashion industry is changing for all of us. Not just for designers and the media that covers them, but for the buyers as well. As the lines between media and retailers blur into non-existence, what will happen to the traditional role of a fashion buyer and the directors they work for?
The first bullet point is that the marketplace, despite appearing closed to many, may in fact be more open than it has ever been. The ability of a designer to have their garments and accessories purchased through a website and then drop-shipped directly to the consumer or client is a radically democratic alternative. As long as the contract with the e-retailer is fair, (and if it isn’t, the designer should walk away, because there’s plenty of competition), it allows for a direct injection of cash into their bank accounts. For those with a bit more to invest initially, there are now great turn-key e-commerce platforms which can easily attach to an existing website. Tie it all together with a little advertising and a strong smart social media campaign, and it can work quite well. We’ve already seen it working. Having a brilliant website or some kind of an online identity, is vital to the continued success of any label.
With all of the these self-retailing opportunities available in the new marketplace, what role remains for traditional buyers?
The answer is, perhaps surprisingly, that it essentially remains the same, for one incredibly compelling reason. There is still no more effective way to grow a fashion brand than by being bought by one of the large luxury retail chains and by the boutiques that have the coveted reputation of being taste makers. A serious fashion designer still needs to be selling their collections to Saks, Neiman Marcus, Holt Renfrew, Harvey Nichols, Nordstrom, etcetera, as well as to the key avant garde boutiques like Colette, Kirna Zabete, 10 Corso Como, Estnation, Opening Ceremony, and other hot spots where the savvy cast their eyes.
There are people running around now saying the online superstore will kill traditional fashion retail, but there is just no ebook equivalent for sweaters… yet. Even as online shopping takes its pound of flesh from the old bloated sectors of the brick and mortar retail market, we must recognize that delayed gratification is only satisfying to those who reach a certain level of emotional and spiritual maturity that most people never get to, and many women do not get the same rush of satisfying their gathering instinct clicking an icon and waiting for a ground shipment that they do when bringing home armloads of shopping bags. Most men, on the other hand, like the experience of putting out a tailored image. Men like having, not shopping. Online garment retail, particularly with detailed product reviews from a variety of independent sources, is huge for men. For women though, they want the process of going out and finding things and bringing them back.
Back to the designers and the wholesale buyers though, a good-sized order from a major retailer can still make their season, and most big designers depend on those orders year after year. Independent boutiques are more likely to buy unique pieces and small runs, but they tend not to buy one style number in a run in four sizes, it tends not to sell, so they buy groups of pieces from a collection, with the exception being outerwear (though sometimes in multiple colors). It’s those small wholesale buys that can not just help a new designer survive, but propel them to fame. Small risk-taking boutiques influence editors and even other buyers. The more exclusive experience that one receives from those boutiques and the unique, distinctive pieces they carry helps make those buyers the real tastemakers. So, even if fashion sites start adding retail components, they will likely never fully replace brick and mortar experience spaces in the garment business as we understand it. So, yes, designers still, and will most likely always will, need to travel the traditional road of getting key buyers to see their collections in person.
E-commerce, even if it’s on Vogue.com, is not the same as being carried by the best and brightest all over the world, and at the end of the day, if upper middle-class consumers are spending thousands of dollars on a high quality garment, they still want to touch it before they buy it.
Most key garment consumers like physically going shopping, and the role of fashion media is to help them know what to look for, not to tell them what to buy, even if we’re the ones selling it.