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The disruption fashion needs is one that will cure the most depressing reality of the business

Disruption is a term lobbed around in business now more often than fashion declares something “the new black.” And the brow of a fresh new year is the time to guess which disruptive spaghetti will stick to the ceiling and which will peel off and join the Bitcoin graveyard.

Recent attempts in fashion include the collection of apps that attempted to triangulate body type or measurements to better show how the clothes of online shopping will fit. The technology has faltered because there hasn’t been much buy-in from the supply side of the equation, preventing thousands of brands, garments, sizes and their dimensions from being catalogued and indexed daily for wide appeal and maximum app use. Beauty and grooming sample boxes work for most, but these solutions don’t translate to clothing by nature of one size not fitting all. Behemoth brand Ralph Lauren just installed interactive fitting rooms (“integrated commerce”) from tech startup Oak Lab at its New York flagship on Fifth Avenue to enhance the in-store experience – but really, that’s still just a touchscreen that lists stock quantities with “may we suggest” upsell algorithms. You might as well be shopping from the couch at home with a tablet.

The disruption fashion needs right now – like, right now – is the one that will forever cure the most depressing and wasteful reality of the business, which is most evident in January: the sight of last season’s leftovers sagging on crammed sales racks. Thankfully, fashion has Tamara Mellon, cofounder of luxury shoe company Jimmy Choo. I spoke with Mellon as she was about to launch her eponymous and independent lifestyle fashion brand in 2013. At the time, she wanted to build a real business, free of the pressure of private-equity investors that had been her downfall at Choo, and to follow her own instincts and insights. Her daring philosophy? Buy now, wear now. She said plainly that the fashion system is broken, and the six-month discrepancy between the desire to buy and the ability to actually pick up the flashy new goods in stores was harming everybody, at every point on the supply chain from pattern drafter to consumer.

I admired that she would be moving to small, regular monthly deliveries, in season, with no major press previews because, until then, there’d been a lot of well-manicured hand-wringing but not much action.

Nathalie Atkinson.

photo: blue formal dresses

Donna Karan, the industry’s one-time queen of disruption who retired as chief designer of her fashion brand last year, introduced Seven Easy Pieces, the all-black, building-block wardrobe of interchangeable pieces that changed the way women thought about dressing (though all too briefly) back in 1985. Karan has said for years that public runway shows are detrimental to the fashion cycle (and the copycat cycle), but unlike Mellon, her company wasn’t brave or agile enough to lead by (risky) example. Thirty years after her innovation, the so-called innovation is that viewers of the Donna Karan SS16 collection on social media could direct-message their design picks to the brand’s team via Instagram to access exclusive content. That’s not bottom line stuff – that’s entertainment marketing.

There have been a few outliers making change. In 2000, Net-a– Porter was a force majeure that stuck a pin in brick-and-mortar luxury retail’s monopoly balloon, soon followed by digital shopping aggregators like ShopStyle, who punctured suggested retail pricing by scavenging a slew of retailers for information to offer users the best online price. But these have been too few, too poorly funded or too timid to take any size of financial risk on a new way of thinking about doing business.

“This season-relevant approach reduces the risk associated with the vagaries of forecasting fickle fashion trends months before they happen, reducing the potential for obsolete or unwanted inventory, and cutting the amount of items that need to be sold off-price,” Mellon wrote in her legal documents, making too much sense for her own good. “Cash flow is the biggest issue for any designer, regardless of advance or in-season sales: paying for the material and the labour that go into betting on Mellon filed for voluntary bankruptcy. But, undaunted, she’s restructuring, in order to take another go at a possible solution, with upscale but not luxury prices and a direct-toconsumer online, rather than traditional brick-and-mortar, retail sales model.

That’s encouraging in itself, and more so with news that Mellon’s stance seems to be catching on – Rebecca Minkoff plans to do direct to-consumer fashion shows next season, and will no longer present her next season collections six months ahead of time. Going the other route, London-based Canadian designer Thomas Tait will be skipping public display of press affection at London Fashion Week and doing private one-on-one appointments with press and buyers only. But one problem is that both the press and buyers are snap-happy groups – we’re all under pressure to post exclusive first looks, sneak peeks and humblebrag FOMO shots. Fashion’s social media genie will not fit back into the bottle.

There is one non-tech distruptive solution. It sounds crazy, but it just might work. There’s something people did before fashion shows were broadcast and indexed live that allowed everyone involved in making design, manufacturing and buying decisions along the way to be more mindful and in the moment as they wrote orders and planned editorial and trends. When it came to promotion, they did nothing. In order to do that today, more designer brands could take the dramatic step of not doing shows, and taking a page from the entertainment industry, put a moratorium on reviews by journalists ahead of collections’ premieres. In a word: embargo.

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