The bag in question is a small, beautifully made satchel with a red and green python flap, juxtaposed against gold sequins, green leather and the familiar Burberry check. Private banker Serene Chua is telling us how she came to be the first person in Singapore to own this accessory in April: “These bags had come straight off the runway in the UK. This was one of nine beautiful patchwork bags I previewed at the Burberry store, and I immediately took a liking to it. They sold it to me after much persuasion.”
Wait a second – much persuasion? We’re a little confused; did Chua not just say she had immediately liked the bag? Why, we ask, did she need to be persuaded to buy it? With a laugh, she clarifies: “I meant that I had to persuade Burberry to sell it to me as it was not for sale at that time, being a runway piece.”
Talk about a bright spot for retail. Despite the constant stream of recent news articles bemoaning falling luxury sales, Chua is proof that customers – even in this sluggish economic climate – are more than willing to spend when products are sufficiently enticing. In this case, “sufficiently enticing” refers not only to the bag’s aesthetic, but also to the fact that it was “super special” and “straight off the runway”, as its owner enthuses.
STRAIGHT OFF THE RUNWAY
Chua might belong to a top-tier minority, but as a consumer in the trend-driven world of fashion, she is hardly alone in her desire to be among the first to carry a new bag or sport a look practically fresh off a designer’s sketchpad. That’s why Burberry, along with a handful of other labels including Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger, recently adopted a system that has come to be known as “see now, buy now”. While most of the brands participating in the major women’s fashion weeks this September and October presented collections for Spring 2017, labels like Burberry showcased clothing and accessories that were in stores and ready for purchase.
This new system gives precedence to an irrefutable fact: Thanks to digital technology, the fashion show has far outgrown its trade-centred roots to become a consumer event as well. Once upon a time, fashion shows existed to give journalists and fashion buyers a preview of collections for the next season, while the six months between showing and selling gave these industry insiders time to prepare stories for print publications, or to order and receive stock.
No longer. The explosive growth of social-media platforms such as Instagram and Facebook has allowed fashion brands to directly reach huge numbers of consumers – and few events off er as much PR mileage than a fashion show, with its attendant glitz and glamour. In a digital fact sheet released last June, Burberry noted that it had been livestreaming its shows since 2010, and revealed that its runway shows on Youtube had been viewed more than 7.5 million times. Even converting a fraction of these views – and the hype following each show – into actual sales would not be insignificant.
Mind you, it’s not just fashion-mad millennials who are keeping up with these brands on social media. Affluent customers like Chua, as well as her fellow Burberry VIP customer, Sammi Lim, follow these brands on Instagram and regularly check in on their websites. Lim, a director for investment properties at CBRE, purchased a military-inspired jacket from Burberry’s most recent September collection during a special VIP preview here, just a day after the brand’s London show. Lim shares: “In an era where trends and styles are updated constantly, it is satisfying to be able to own an item you see immediately.”
NOT SO FAST
Immediate results following the recent “see now, buy now” shows seem to show that playing to consumers’ yen for instant gratification is paying off . Fashion-industry website The Business of Fashion reported spikes in the sales of these early-adopter brands after their shows. Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus Group International president Joshua Schulman told the site that the company had its “largest Tom Ford day of the year, following his New York show”.
But it is early days yet. This radical rethinking of the traditional fashion system has thrown up its own set of challenges. One of them is managing inventory: Many designs seen on the runway are not actually produced, with only commercially viable ones – as measured by interest from store buyers or even Internet buzz – eventually produced for sale. Producing all the designs in a collection for sale is a risk only the biggest companies can afford.
While Burberry, Tom Ford and Ralph Lauren declined to comment for this story, other luxury brand players that have not jumped on the “see now, buy now” bandwagon take issue with the system’s sped-up approach – or, at least, prefer to take a more measured approach for now.
Speaking to The Peak, Carlo Alberto Beretta – former Bottega Veneta CEO who was recently promoted to chief client and marketing officer of Bottega Veneta’s parent company Kering – says: “I don’t believe that the show-now-buy-now approach is correct for an absolute-luxury brand, because I think that the fashion show is a place to present your product to the press and to customers. And then you need to produce your product. Our products are handmade and handcrafted. We need time to produce our products, and our customers know this very well.”
Loewe CEO Lisa Montague has similar views. During an interview with us earlier this year, Montague noted that even though the Spanish label has made a small selection of products available for sale shortly after its shows – an approach also adopted by several other fashion brands – it will not be implementing a full show-to-shop system.
She said: “When you have very high design content, the process takes longer. By definition, luxury takes time. When you rush it, there is a danger that you have to compromise on some things. Being instantaneous in dropping products into stores is not practical for a company like ours, which takes more time to create things.”
A NEW EQUILIBRIUM
At the moment, the jury is still out on whether the move towards a consumer-oriented fashion calendar will prove successful. It remains to be seen if the immediate rise in sales and/or interest can be sustained for the rest of the Fall/Winter 2016/17 season (and beyond). What is clear is that the fashion industry will see more disruptions before it settles into a new equilibrium.
Tjin Lee, CEO of the Mercury Group, which organises Singapore Fashion Week (SFW), believes that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. This year’s edition of SFW incorporated a “see now, buy now” element, allowing shoppers to buy certain showcased collections at department store Tangs and e-tailer Zalora. Speaking to us before SFW, Lee said: “Our industry is in fl ux. There is no right or wrong; only what works for the fashion designers and brands as businesses. Some labels, like Exhibit, Nida Shay and Chi Chi Von Tang, will show collections you can order right away. Instead of going seasonal, Ong Shunmugam is launching a cheongsam collection for Chinese New Year that (founder Priscilla Shunmugam) aims to make available in stores a week after the show.”
Another industry insider who believes that a mix of systems will drive the fashion industry in future is Mark Lee, president of the Textile and Fashion Federation of Singapore and CEO of apparel manufacturing company Sing Lun Holdings. While accessible fashion brands might partially adopt the “see now, buy now” system to “promote new or exclusive products as part of their e-commerce strategy”, he suggests, “scarcity is still the best policy” for ultra-luxe labels. He adds that the “perception of exclusivity” will become increasingly vital for high-end products, emphasising the importance of customisation – perhaps enabled by virtual reality.
For some customers, however, nothing less than the best of both worlds – exclusivity and immediacy – will do. After years of getting his suits made to measure at brands such as Tom Ford, Rajiv Ranjan, director at R Square Investments, now turns to his tailors here and in London for bespoke suits. He says: “I stopped buying from some brands because I can be paying $10,000 for a suit, and yet I can’t slant the pockets because it’s against brand guidelines. They also take too long – three months is the shortest time they need. My tailor here can find similar cloth, and get something to me in a few days, for a fraction of the price. I’d be willing to pay more if a brand can get it done for me in the same time – but they can’t.”
Does he not see a certain allure in delayed gratification, to receive an object of desire after a period of waiting? The answer comes swiftly: “No. Absolutely not. It irritates me.”