In Part 1 of ‘How Fashion Works’ I covered the oddities of pricing. What happens in-between a designer having an initial idea and a final product ending up on the rails of a shop is, in many more respects, even more mysterious. Let’s examine this journey chronologically.
Fashion is all about combining creativity with commerce, so designers who want to be successful have little choice but to abide by the framework set by the fashion system: every six months they must show to store buyers and the press a collection of clothes intended to be sold approximately six months later. So in summer the spring/summer collection for the following year is presented, and likewise in winter next year’s fall/winter collection is shown (in the fashion world, summer clothes start to arrive in the shops in January, and winter ones in June). Many designers and fashion houses produce more than the minimum two collections annually, be they additional haute couture collections, pre-fall and resort lines or special ‘capsule’ ranges. Such time pressure on output is rare in other creative industries, and recently there has been increased discussion about whether it is detrimental (see the John Galliano case) and should be rethought.
For now, though, let’s continue to focus on the system as it stands. Within these constraints, a designer will start to create his or her collection. Some designers, like the aforementioned Galliano, take grand tours of the world finding influences from continent to continent, while others like Margaret Howell can get inspired from something as simple as a piece of fabric, or as seemingly abstract as a modernist chair. There are two interesting things to note at this stage of the process. The first is that fashion trends are no coincidence. Designers do not possess telepathic powers which tell them that chartreuse will be the colour of the season because everyone else is doing it, nor do they consult one other on a scale sufficient to generate trends reliably. Rather, they rely on trend briefings, which trend forecasting firms sell. These firms produce lists of things which they think will be ‘on trend’ for the following season, based on their observations of current music, film, art, street style and the like. If enough designers subscribe to them, they usually become self-fulfilling prophecies. A bit like the economy, it’s really a game of expectations, and acting upon them. In a sense this compromises creative integrity, but the commercial element comes into play: unless a designer has a particularly strong, individual aesthetic, or a towering reputation, falling more or less in line with the general direction of the season is vital to ensure press coverage (think of all those ‘trend round up’ pages in magazines and on blogs) and strong sales.
Some designers will go so far as to modify their collections at the last minute to include things that other labels, which showed before them in the scheduled fashion weeks, presented. This leads to the second interesting point about the design stage, namely how self-referential fashion is. To put it bluntly, designers get ‘inspired’ by the work of other designers all the time, on occasion reproducing things almost verbatim from previous collections created by someone else: those ultra-covetable Chloé ‘Susan’ boots from a few years back? Gianni Versace did almost identical ones for men in the 1980s. The thing is, what would probably be called plagiarism in other creative industries is not just ubiquitous in the fashion world, but is almost an integral part of it. Ultimately there is only so much you can do with clothes, at least if you want them to be vaguely wearable and sellable. There are, of course, different degrees of copying, with some designers like Alexander Wang attracting criticism on occasion for lifting too many ideas from other creators, or not putting a sufficiently different spin on them. The Christian Louboutin / YSL lawsuit over red soles on shoes demonstrates that the symbiotic relationship does sometimes break down. Entertaining tales of varying reliability abound about designers asking their seamstresses to reproduce identically vintage or thrift store finds, or even sending pieces which they did not create themselves down the runway, with the labels bearing other names picked out.
While high-fashion designers reference the work of other high-fashion designers all the time with few people seeming to mind, mass market brands taking inspiration from high-end labels seems to be more contentious. With their fast manufacturing and efficient, vertically-integrated supply chains, high street retailers like Zara and H&M can have new products on their shop floors globally in under a month, making them ideally placed to bring designer styles from the runway to consumers extremely quickly, and at an accessible price point to boot. As before, there is a sliding scale of ‘inspiration,’ and what is acceptable can be argued about at great length, against the backdrop of all sorts of other questions like whether high-street knock-offs compromise the exclusivity of high-end labels, or whether they’re fair cop given the altitudinal prices charged by luxury brands. Occasionally there will be a high-profile lawsuit with a fashion designer demanding compensation from a mass market retailer for copyright infringement, but generally the system seems to exist in some kind of equilibrium. One story maintains that luxury fashion brands make good money ‘licensing’ their designs to mass market retailers (effectively agreeing to let them rip-off their pieces in exchange for ‘so we won’t sue you’ payment), but I have been unable to verify this, and it seems more likely that the ‘filter down’ system exists as it does because challenging it would be so difficult.
But back to the designer’s studio for now. With inspiration found, the designer will create the collection in sample sizes (which are small, and do little to further the greater acceptance of ‘real’ bodies in fashion). Some designers, like Azzedine Alaïa are very ‘hands on,’ working almost like sculptors, creating clothes directly around models’ bodies or mannequins. Others, like Karl Lagerfeld, produce elaborate sketches, before working with pattern cutters and seamstresses to realise the actual garments, making constant amends and alterations along the way. Some, like Victoria Beckham, take a more distant approach, explaining their concepts to people who duly make them happen. Muses, stylists and fashion editors (often in contentious, highly-paid ‘consulting’ roles) are often involved in the process too, right up until models are strapped into the clothes and accessories and pushed down the runway in front of the assembled press, buyers, celebrities and, increasingly, the hundreds of thousands of fashion fans watching online via live video streams.
I’m going to cover the world of PR and marketing in another post, so for now let’s focus on the runway to shop floor part of the story. A few days after the fashion show or presentation, store buyers will view the collection close up, before submitting their orders. Large brands which are based in the fashion capitals where the shows take place, such as Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, have their own dedicated showrooms and sales staff, while smaller labels will simply hire a space, or sometimes hand over the entire wholesale process to a third party agency, which charges a commission. The buyers from the biggest and most influential stockists tend to get priority treatment in the showrooms, from longer time slots to superior refreshments than are offered to the buyers from small, regional boutiques. It’s not just retailers that buy wholesale: some private clients, Middle Eastern royalty in particular, buy on such a scale that brands allow them to purchase directly from their showrooms at wholesale prices. In the showroom, the buyers don’t just choose from the collection which was shown on the runway: most big brands also offer ‘classic’ or ‘continuity’ pieces each season (which tend to be basics, from jeans to white shirts) which aren’t deemed interesting enough to be put in the show, but are nonetheless extremely important from a commercial perspective (sometimes they have lower price points too, and are manufactured in less ‘preferable’ countries). A sales representative from a big fashion house recently told me that non-runway pieces account for well over half of their total sales, with the fashion shows acting mostly to generate a buzz around the brand.
Store buyers are traditionally reluctant to select the most outlandish outfits shown on the runway anyway, but as fashion becomes increasingly popular as a phenomenon, largely thanks to the internet, a growing number of consumers no longer want to rely on buyers to pre-edit what they can purchase from a collection. The website Moda Operandi is accommodating this by allowing customers to pre-order exactly what they want to buy from the runway shows, effectively cutting out the store buyer. For the most part, though, there is still a considerable void between what you see on the runway and what you will be able to buy six months later. A fair number of garments never make it to the shops, perhaps because no store buyers chose them, or because they turned out to be too expensive or difficult to produce in quantity, while others are sold only in ‘watered down’ or simplified versions. It can be a frustrating experience for consumers, not least because magazines usually photograph the samples from the show, and they will duly list various shops as the stockists for them, with no regard to whether any shops will actually stock the items. In one of the first spreads of the December issue of Wallpaper* a Raf Simons piece is listed as being available at LN-CC, a store which doesn’t even sell the label. The success of websites like Net-a-Porter lies partly in the fact that everything which is featured editorially can be purchased at the click of a mouse.
Sometimes a brand or retailer will deliberately restrict the availability of certain pieces, cooking up all sorts of stories about ‘waiting lists’ to generate hype and reinforce the notion of exclusivity – regardless of whether the product is actually short in supply, or even if it will ever be made available. If you want a Hermès ‘Birkin’ bag you famously can’t just enter the shop and buy one (unless you are a ‘VIP’), but must instead go through the rigmarole of putting your name down on a list and waiting with fingers crossed for the hallowed phone call from the sales assistant, weeks or possibly months later. Louis Vuitton restricts the number of items each customer may purchase within a certain timeframe, not least to prevent resale businesses from cropping up, encouraged by the considerable price differences between LV products in different countries (they are notably more expensive in Asia than in Europe). This is the reason why, outside the flagship on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, it is not uncommon to be stopped by a Far Eastern tourist, proffering you his credit card and begging you to go inside and buy something for him. This is not a scam – in fact, the police in Paris have had to crack down on criminals taking advantage of these tourists, desperate for more than their quota branded luxury, who agree to help, take their credit cards and run.
Once the store buyers have made their selection, the products are shipped to the stores within a specified delivery window. Loro Piana, the Italian cashmere specialist, is so particular about the conditions in which its products must travel it does not entrust any third party couriers with the shipping. This approach is extreme, but if the goods are not delivered to the stores in a timely manner or if they fail quality control, they will be returned to the vendor for a refund (this is written in to nearly all store buying contracts. Sometimes retailers even reserve the right to return unsold stock at the end of the season for a refund, which can be very taxing on smaller brands). Stores do have to be vigilant, though, because less scrupulous designers will make negative changes to the pieces after the buyers selected them in the showroom, for instance manufacturing them with cheaper fabrics in a bid to cut costs. And retailers argue that they should be able to share the risk of unsold stock with the brands, by including return-for-refund clauses in their contracts, particularly when the label is seen as a risky investment, perhaps because it is new or up-and-coming.
The production of high-fashion clothes and luxury goods is a mixed area. Some brands, like the shoemaker John Lobb, are meticulous about craftsmanship and quality, while others (particularly ‘trendier’ brands with no heritage background to live up to) are much less concerned about quality, despite charging the same premium prices. Made in Italy, France, the UK, USA or Japan is usually preferable, with made in ‘2nd tier’ European countries (Portugal, Turkey, etc) better than ‘made in China,’ normally associated with mass-market fashion and fake luxury goods. Of course there’s no outright rule saying that something made in China will be inferior quality to something made in Europe, but ultimately the ‘Made in’ is as much part of the label as the brand name is (something which Franco Moschino parodied with his ‘maid in Italy’ designs), and above a certain price point consumers have expectations about provenance. Many people are surprised to learn that legitimate Mulberry bags and Givenchy clothes are made in China, as both firms maintain production facilities there. Some brands are alleged to produce items in the Far East, before shipping them to Europe for rudimentary finishing touches (the addition of a button, say) so a loophole can be exploited and a desirable ‘Made in Italy’ label attached, without the higher costs associated with European production.
Production leftovers can be a headache for brands. If a factory is contracted to make 100 bags, they will typically be sent enough materials to make, say, 110 bags to cover for any production errors. If no errors are made, though, the factory can produce more bags than the designer ordered, leaving a surplus which can end up being sold illicitly through non-official distribution channels, potentially compromising the brand’s highly-cultivated exclusive image. This is different from fake luxury goods, which do not come from the same factories as the real ones, and are said to fund organised crime. If a brand wants to produce something which is technically difficult to develop or produce, like fragrances or eyewear, a license agreement with a specialised firm is usually signed. Luxottica, for example, makes the sunglasses for Chanel, Prada, Ralph Lauren and others. As licensed products tend to be lower in price and more widely distributed than the ‘core’ brand goods, they can be damaging to brand image if they are used too widely, or are not controlled sufficiently by the parent brand (witness Gucci’s tawdry period in the 1980s). They are, however, extremely lucrative, which is why an exclusive brand like Prada will turn a blind eye to its fragrances being sold in provincial branches of Boots the chemist.
Finally, once the goods reach the shop they are visually merchandised on the shop floor (or photographed for online stores), before customers flock to buy them (in theory, at least). One of the reasons why staff in high-end boutiques can be so disinterested when you walk in, is that a significant proportion of business in selling high-fashion comes from regular or ‘VIP’ clients, who use personal shoppers and will often have a selection of goods sent to their homes to browse at their leisure. The sorts of people who drop £10,000 on an outfit on whim rarely just walk into the shop unannounced. Matches in London maintains a gracious townhouse for serving important clients in private, separate from their shops. Another shopping secret is that surprisingly few people pay full price for designer goods, considering the myriad special offers that retailers run for frequent customers, discounts for the press, special promotions for holders of certain American Express cards, and even the scope for light haggling. As the mark-ups are so large in fashion, retailers can afford to be a bit more flexible, which is no bad thing considering that most high-fashion has a shelf life of well under six months. Stock which can’t be shifted in the end of season sales is sometimes destroyed by brands (to protect their image), or it is sold on to discounters, like Century 21 in New York. Hermès holds its sales in hired function rooms, not in its own stores, to protect brand exclusivity. Since the financial crisis, selling old season fashion has become more lucrative, and brands have started to embrace it as an extra revenue stream rather than regarding it as a necessary evil. Websites like The Outnet and Gilt have pioneered ways to sell old season stock without impacting negatively on brand image, the former by presenting it in a glossy editorial way, and the latter by restricting sales to members and keeping them very short in duration. As with everything in fashion, though, change is unerringly constant: flash sale retailers like Gilt are threatened by shrinking product inventories.
Part 1 of ‘How Fashion Works’ is HERE.
Part 3 coming soon… stay tuned.