What is the future of fashion? More importantly what happens when you put a few titans of the industry together to discuss this topic? I attended an event at Samsung 837 in conjunction with the CFDA (they have formed a partnership) on Wednesday night that sought to address what impact technology has had and will continue to have on fashion. Zach Overton, VP/GM of Samsung introduced the panel of speakers including moderator Vanessa Friedman, fashion director of The New York Times; Designer Tory Burch; Alex Bolen, CEO of Oscar de la Renta; and Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
|Audience at event|
Ms. Friedman opened the remarks by quoting Donatella Versace: “The entire fashion system is about to fall apart and be remade.” As you may have guessed, not everyone agreed with that pronouncement indicating that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach regarding this subject. “I don’t think it’s broken. It just requires some adjustment but we have made no changes,” said Bolen. He did allude to being inspired by Tom Ford’s movie clip(“it was an aha moment”) which introduced Ford’s latest collection. By contrast, Burch says that her company is making a lot of changes focusing on her customer through all digital platforms, e-commerce, as well as in-store. “It’s up to us to figure out how to personalize their visit, to know what they’ve bought in the past,” she said. Kolb mentioned that the CFDA had hired consultants, editors, designers, retailers etc. to figure out how to proceed. “I don’t see it as a challenge, I see it as an opportunity to adapt,” he added.
|Post panel cocktail party|
After Friedman demanded a show of hands from the crowd over whether it’s preferable to buy a winter coat in July or in November (yes, November won handily) there was the requisite discussion of whether clothing should be shown six months out or as a “buy now, wear now” in-season model. This, too presented a conundrum. “Designers say retailers want the merchandise early while retailers say it’s the designers,” Kolb said. Burch mentioned that she has “stores (184) in all climates, so it’s a bit of a problem. A global company has to take that into consideration.” Bolen said “I don’t see a scenario where we don’t show clothes six months out. It would be an inventory nightmare and a supply chain nightmare.” Ms. Friedman inquired how they dealt with a recent Oscar gown from an upcoming and not yet available spring collection, yet was worn by Tony winning actress Renee Elise Goldsberry. Bolen says that Goldsberry easily fit the sample size and that stores that got calls for it were instructed to take orders.
The problem of fast fashion copyists was discussed including whether it was possible to embargo images from upcoming collections. Bolen admitted that would be “tough now with screens” such as live streaming, Instagram and social media in general. Later in the program he surprisingly praised brands such as H&M, (whose windows he noticed featuring a type of Broiderie Anglaise) and Zara adding that “competition makes us better and helps us stay sharp.”
Bolen also thinks that there are currently too many stores in the world (Oscar de la Renta only has 15 but I assume that he was alluding to department and specialty stores which carry the brand as well). We’ve got to figure out a way to tease” referring to new product being only slightly visible a la Tom Ford’s video approach. Burch says they are making “less product but making each piece more meaningful.” She thinks there is a glut of “stuff” out there and on Instagram which may overwhelm the customer. Bolen agrees that their job as designers is to “increase demand, decrease supply.”
As for how the shows and fashion week should be managed, Steven Kolb said that when the CFDA bought the Fashion Calendar from Ruth Finley they trimmed it down from about 300 shows to about 200 on the “official calendar.” He recommends that younger designers eschew shows, opting for presentations instead. “Editors and buyers love presentations and we are encouraging younger designers to do that.”
|Stylist June Ambrose busy taking selfies|
The question of whether new media replaces old media (the example Friedman gave was of Jason Wu who put his campaign on Instagram rather than pay for advertising) was also addressed. Bolen referenced the budgetary effectiveness. “He had the cost of making the pictures, the distribution was nothing.” Burch said: “All these (IG, Snapchat, Twitter and Facebook) platforms helped build our company.” She also referenced the need for story telling that comes from the company’s DNA and from having an “authentic voice.” “Our customer is the most important part of our business. They built it,” she added. Friedman asked “If you have the ability to speak directly to the customer do you need me at all?” Both Burch and Bolen agreed that journalists with a voice espousing fashion criticism are important.
Does the customer want newness in product or is Gucci’s CEO Marco Bizzarri correct in saying “If you listen to your customer you will never do anything new.” Bolen and Burch both disagreed with that admittedly out of context statement but added that it is a balancing act. “It’s the constant tension between merchandising and design to make it commercial but to have a backbone,” said Burch. Bolen said “An important part of our job is to entertain. The familiar is not entertaining.”
Shows such as the CFDA’s Fashion Fund and other industry programming were touched on. Some panelists were fine with the documentary process such as Kolb who said that “the show forces designers to get out of their comfort zones.” He made the distinction that Fashion Fund was already an industry event however they were just allowing TV cameras to film the process unlike, a reality TV show such as Project Runway which creates a show for the cameras. Interestingly, Bolen says that he would welcome such a documentary of his company “despite the sausage-making aspect” whereas Burch is more private: “It’s a very personal journey with your team” she says of the designing process.
Everyone was asked to give three predictions for the future. Bolen basically thought his company would continue business as usual, Kolb mentioned more brands selling direct to consumers, a change in the wholesale model and seasonless fabrics. Burch likes the concept of personalization as well as new technology that allows DNA from cows being used to grow seamless leather. She also thinks there’ll be a change in Intellectual Property. Perhaps to assuage Ms. Friedman’s anxiety about not being needed anymore, everyone predicted that she will still be writing for The New York Times.
A few audience member asked questions including one regarding whether there was fear of competition from startups such as Rent The Runway Unlimited and The Real Real (Burch thinks they’re great examples of entrepreneurship and platforms for the future. Bolen was nonplussed: “The world has seen rental before,” Kolb mentioned the emotion and nostalgia involved in the ownership of certain pieces of clothing, prompting Friedman to respond “that’s why people are so bad at cleaning out their closets.” That and remembering how much you paid for an item and how little (or never) worn it is — or is that just me?
Someone asked about trends that must die. Steven Kolb hates ripped jeans (“I don’t like when my staff wears them”), Burch is not a fan of fake nails, while Friedman hates the word “Athleisure.” I remember about a year ago reading a column of hers which asked readers to supply a substitute word. “We call it coming and going” Burch offered. “That’s three words,” Friedman retorted. And speaking of coming and going and the number three, the VIP guests (those with gold wristbands who were seated in the pit rather than standing on the upper tiers) were invited to the 3rd floor terrace for a cocktail reception showcasing the winning designers of the 2016 CFDA Platform 3 Emerging Designers for the upcoming third season of Men’s Fashion Week.