Now You Can Buy Burberry Stuff Straight Off the Runway
Today, in London, the fashion house Burberry sends its newest collection down the runway. Immediately afterward, any shopper with access to a browser (and a few thousand bucks) will be able to purchase what she’s just seen. Which is neat, if you’re the kind of person who obsesses about clothes—because six months used to sit between you, runway shows, and the mannequins in your local department store.
This is the “see-now, buy-now” model, and it—more than any silhouette, textile, or oblique cultural reference—is the reigning innovation of the 2016 fashion season. Ralph Lauren staged his New York Fashion Week show outside his Madison Avenue store, which turned out to be fully stocked with the day’s runway designs. Tom Ford made his new collection available in his stores, department stores like Bergdorf Goodman, and online. And now Burberry, which announced the plan in February, is equally on trend.
See-now, buy-now upends the business of fashion in more ways than one. Traditionally, fashion brands designed their collections according to reports from trend forecasters and the availability of materials from collaborating textile mills. Models would trot those collections down a runway, in front of an audience of buyers and editors who acted like a focus group. Consumers, in turn, learned from the buyers and editors which fashions were in, and which were out. Six months later, the consecrated pieces would show up in stores and on newsstands.
Well, forget all that. Now some fashion houses are offering customers what they want as soon as they possibly can.
If that sounds good, thank the fashion bloggers. “All of a sudden the brands are realizing, we don’t have to wait for an editor to anoint this item as a best-seller,” says Shawn Grain Carter, a business management professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Bloggers show designs right away, stoking an appetite to purchase immediately. And brands don’t exactly mind. “If they can whet consumers’ appetites and get them to buy now, that’s brilliant. The key is to manufacture quickly enough.”
But without the fashion industry’s take on a given collection, brands have fewer informed ideas about what might sell. Preparing for an onslaught of orders without any period of critique or reflection means that Burberry could wind up with a massive overstock of some pieces, and a Birkin bag-like waiting list for others.
If you’re a national chain store like H&M or Zara, that’s a risk you can afford to take. These and other so-called fast-fashion companies have succeeded in large part due to their nimble supply chains. A streamlined manufacturing process allows them to imitate the designs of larger, more expensive fashion houses at much lower prices. And their turnaround is quick; fast-fashion brands sometimes release their derivative designs before the originals have even hit the market.
That’s why getting rid of the six-month waiting period is in Burberry’s best interests. But it’s not without its challenges. The company’s vaguely Victorian and Napoleonic collection includes pieces like a military-style jacket bedecked with intricately woven thread and silver buttons. These designs cost a lot to make; manufacturing them ahead of time—even in a limited run, to slake the thirst of early adopters—is a pricey gamble.
Still, it’s not a total crapshoot. A decade ago, when Angela Ahrendts was still the company’s CEO (she’s now designing Apple’s retail), she and current CEO Christopher Bailey said that Burberry was a digital luxury company. Then they launched crowdsourced ad campaigns, aired its runway show live online, and embraced platforms like Snapchat, Periscope, and Instagram. Today, before Burberry’s show even kicked off, fans could view renderings and materials of the new pieces through Facebook Messenger.
These digital initiatives work a lot like the editors and buyers of old, driving demand by engaging with consumers. Carter says that engagement, combined with increasingly sophisticated predictive analytics, helps explain the success of campaigns like Burberry’s. “To have that information at your fingertips, that’s what transformed the industry.” Get enough data from your fans, and maybe you don’t need six months of opinions from industry insiders. It’s not the most popular business model (the direct-to-stores trend has drawn harsh criticism this past week), but it’s certainly innovative—a fact that should win it points in a trendsetting industry like fashion.
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