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The Immediacy Debate

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1FF082AB-4A30-4A09-AAA7-0B51852C076EIn this guest article, Centric Software explores the implications surrounding “see now, buy now” fashion, and what many brands now refer to as the “broken” fashion calendar. Centric explores the immediacy debate that has divided retailers, brands and manufacturers into those who can see the practical potential of immediacy, and those who fear it isn’t actually possible to achieve. Centric weighs up pros and cons, confident that this “see now, buy now” revolution can be supported by the correct tools. 

Right now, fashion is reinventing its future. World-renowned brands are challenging one of the planet’s hottest and most historic industries; what will “see now, buy now” mean?

In a market already shaken up by fast fashion, “see now, buy now” may not sound too dramatic to consumers, but its implications are enormous for the industry itself.  For brands with runway shows, the length of a typical collection cycle, including development, production, marketing, and distribution, has stayed more or less the same for more than a century.  And that same calendar has formed the foundations upon which much of the rest of fashion – commentary, trend analysis, media, marketing, production and consumer behavior – is constructed.

A growing number of brands have issued statements or taken actions condemning what they believe to be an antiquated go-to-market model.  They claim the four-to-six month delay from catwalk to commerce is artificial.  They believe the gap between the initial presentation of products and their availability allows competitors to steal their ideas.  They say sustaining consumer interest throughout that period is costly and ultimately impossible.

In essence, these companies – predominantly, but not exclusively, luxury brands – believe the fashion calendar is broken and made for a different world than the one we live in today.  And their solution is not to shave a few weeks off that traditional model, but to abandon it entirely, making whole collections or select pieces available to buy the moment the models’ heels strike the promenade.

This is a fundamental shift in fashion’s relationships with suppliers, media, and consumers, and opinions do not universally align on whether this shift is a good idea – or even a feasible one.  The public debate has split brands, retailers and manufacturers into two camps: those who see practical potential in immediacy, and those who fear it as either impossible to achieve, or antithetical to the very purpose of fashion.

Those in favor of a “see now, buy now” future argue that a new approach is necessary to win over consumers whose expectations have been irreversibly altered by on-demand models in other industries.

Intelligence seems to support this idea: analysts cite fashion’s decreasing share of consumers’ discretionary spend, contrasting it with proportional increases for “immediate gratification” industries like home entertainment, hospitality, and consumer technology [1].

Those against the concept of immediacy point to how unlike those other industries fashion really is.  None of them, they remind us, manage complexity to anywhere near the degree that fashion does.  And fashion is certainly unique in the diversity, seasonality, and sizing of its products, not to mention almost unparalleled in the sophistication and intricacy of its supply chains and retail channels.

They also suggest that immediacy advocates ignore the fact that fashion has been getting faster for more than a decade, often resulting in compromises.  They say the cracks of compressed lead times and quickening consumer demand are already beginning to show.

Runway Risks; Retail Rewards?

The century-old fashion calendar is being outed as an antique.  According to public statements from recognizable, high-end brands, the concept of showing products on the catwalk months before they reach consumers is a ceremonial relic.  An artifact of a different time, to be cast aside in favor of a more immediate model targeting a consumer base accustomed to instant gratification.

But abandoning the current calendar is not something to be done lightly.  There are clear and compelling reasons for its continued existence that go far beyond simple tradition.

For any brand that exhibits its products at one or more seasonal shows, the design, development, production and selling cycle for those products has historically been aligned extremely closely to the show event calendar.  These activities typically happen sequentially: products are designed and undergo preliminary development; they’re organized into collections, shown to media and buyers, and only then are they placed into production.

This means that, at the time they appear on runway models, these items of clothing would properly be called enhanced prototypes – not sellable products.  It’s only after the show, with commercial commitments secured, that the process of “productization” (or “normalization”) begins.  Those rough styles are made standards-compliant, fabrics and production capacity are confirmed with suppliers, labeling and packaging are printed, and the products are prepared for mass production in the requisite variations and sizes.

The coordination and sheer complexity of these processes are only compounded for organizations – including most luxury brands – that have multiple product categories.  Footwear, accessories, and cosmetics all require similar but subtly different approaches, and the duration of their development and production cycles can vary dramatically.  This is without considering the cycles of sports or outdoor lines, which are driven by innovations in performance fabrics as much as they are by stylistic concerns.

And just as pre-production and production are not usually aligned across different categories, go-to-market is rarely synchronized between channels either.  Direct retail, wholesale, e-commerce and other avenues compete for marketing attention, with little coordination between stock and street dates.

Even if catwalk shows have not historically been shopable is that more often than not there would have been nothing to buy.

So whether it remains restricted to high-end brands or extends further into the fabric of fashion, “see now, buy now” has the potential to completely transform the core foundations of design, development and distribution for companies that embrace the idea.

Model

How ready are these companies for this level of change?  While there are few direct parallels between fashion and other on-demand industries, there is no avoiding the specter of fast fashion, and no overestimating the impact it has had on consumer expectations.  By minimizing the wait between catwalk and sidewalk companies like H&M, Zara, and Forever21 have redefined what the average shopper expects in terms of price, refresh velocity and variety.

The pace of fashion in general has increased.  Three decades ago, high fashion operated on two shows per year; today that figure can be up to eight, with pre-collections and capsules added to the mix.  As a result of this mounting intensity, lead times for all product categories have already been squeezed, and the pressure on pre-production and production teams is more acute than ever.  The premium placed on time has already led to an exodus of creative staff from some traditional companies, and this high turnover is likely to continue as those same brands look to compress development and production cycles even further.

The task for any organization looking to implement a “see now, buy now” model will be balancing the rewards of immediate engagement, powerful publicity, and safer intellectual property against risks like these – genuine challenges to the fundamental ways their organizations operate.

Product quality, for instance, is one area in which high-end fashion brands are unaccustomed to compromising.

Similarly, in addition to the personnel risk of placing further stress on already stretched creative teams, a transition to commercially-led, shopable shows is likely to discourage some of the experimentation that defines high-end couture.  It will, in a word, impel brands to make safe choices at the risk of stifling inspiration.  And while high fashion is also known for embracing young designers, an industry-wide move towards immediacy – with inventory in place before a show can begin – runs the risk of alienating emerging names who cannot lean on buyers, the media, and suppliers the way established ones can.

Achieving the potential rewards of the immediate fashion model will demand exceptional intelligence, planning and agility from brands, retailers and manufacturers alike.

PLM and the Practicalities of Fashion Immediacy

A group of famous brands are voicing their dissatisfaction with the traditional runway to retail model.  They argue that the delay from catwalk to commercial availability allows copycats to steal their designs and fails to cater to the expectations of the on-demand generation.  Their aim – in many cases beginning with this year’s autumn / winter collections – is to have inventory available to purchase the moment new products are first seen by the public.

The brands pushing for change are big names with big voices, but while their message is clear, their methods of migrating from a multi-month period of production to immediate availability are murky.  Fashion as a whole is a special kind of organized chaos, with creative decisions often being made up until the moment the clothes are draped on models and the champagne poured.  Existing time pressures have already created an extremely precarious balance, with an entire industry built around the long-standing, symbiotic relationship between the runway calendar and the design, development and production cycle.

Catwalk

And while some companies have taken less risky steps, offering pre-orders at the time of shows rather than committing to materials, capacity and other costs up front, those who are advertising their intent to go the distance will have no choice other than to completely re-tool and redesign their processes.

Under the traditional model, the runway event represents a vital turning point.  Following the show, editorial feedback and commercial commitments are secured on paper, and rough styles designed to look good under the limelight then undergo a rigorous routine of “productization”, resulting in garments, footwear, and accessories ready for mass production.

Far from being artificial or unnecessary, the delay between exhibition and retail availability has been essential for delivering the trademark creativity and quality that defines high-end fashion.  And as a result, any attempt to break that cycle will come at a cost – one that the right technology can help to mitigate, but one that will demand a new level of organizational excellence to overcome.

Any brand seeking to make its products available to buy the first time they are publicly shown has two choices: compress pre-production, set a creative cut-off date and commit to productization in advance of their event; or operate pre-production and production processes in parallel.  Each of these has its downsides.

With design decisions traditionally still being made in the dressing rooms at the show, ceasing artistic input eight weeks or more in advance of the event is likely to have a negative impact on trend acuity and design integrity.  More than just compressing lead times, this approach cuts short the creative window.

The alternative, operating traditionally sequential processes in parallel, can allow creativity to flourish, but with the caveat that there will necessarily be a disconnect between what is shown on-stage and what is sold, potentially leading to a drop in perceived quality. The runway garments can be altered at the last moment; those in production will have an earlier cutoff.

Either way, the inescapable fact is that as soon as a brand stops actively designing its products, they begin to fall behind the times.  For high-end fashion, accustomed to leading rather than following, this may be a bitter pill to swallow.

And beyond the consumer-facing challenges will be a raft of operational ones.  Compressing pre-production from a couple of months to a couple of weeks is certainly possible, but delivering higher volumes of work in much tighter windows will require changes to the approval processes. Similarly, synchronizing parallel processes will raise the stakes of internal collaboration, requiring a different kind of discipline and coordination to keep product definitions consistent.

Without the right tools, these challenges will lead the industry and fashion houses towards chaos at a time when the watchword is “lean”.  And these are just at the first-party level; compressing lead times to this degree may be impossible under offshore sourcing arrangements, requiring mid-range businesses to move their supplier base from the Far East to Turkey, for example, in order to save the required weeks on logistics.

Add in the decision processes and commitments from buyers – who could now be asked to write orders without seeing so much as runway samples – and the potential for disruption is enormous.

Although the luxury industry, which sources predominantly from Europe, is in a better position, these are not small changes for a business of any size or scope to make.  Making complete collections or capsules ready to buy the moment they are shown is going to require significant shifts behind the scenes and, like much of modern fashion, brands and retailers will rely on technology to support the transition.

In a world changed by fast fashion, modern product lifecycle management (PLM) has already been shown to improve the productivity of every actor involved in the design, development, sourcing and production processes.  This can aid significantly in compressing lead times, and synchronizing delivery across different product categories.  The organizational benefits of PLM are also well documented; whilst compressing overall development time will reduce the duration of individual processes, a modern PLM solution can support the high-level orchestration of those processes, allowing them to be optimized, or to run in parallel to some degree.

In production planning, sourcing and execution, PLM enables faster, better decision making – a necessity for brands looking to embrace immediacy.  At the sales and marketing stage, technology is instrumental in ensuring that every product sold has full supporting information.  The ability for PLM to support the essential elements of immediacy is clear, but as with any technology-assisted change, the way those capabilities are used will vary considerably.

And make no mistake: this is no ordinary change.  While fashion has undergone transformations before – the introduction of ready to wear, the emergence of e-commerce – immediacy is its most dramatic shakeup in a century, and it’s unlikely that any single operating model will work across luxury, fast fashion, and the mass market.  The right tools to support the “see now, buy now” revolution exist, and we’re already helping our unmatched roster of high-end brands to prepare for an uncertain future in their own unique way.

Lydia Mageean Lydia Mageean has been part of the WhichPLM team for over six years now. She has a creative and media background, and is responsible for maintaining and updating our website content, liaising with advertisers, working on special projects like the Annual Review, and more.Joining mid-2013 as our Online Editor, she has since become WhichPLM’s Editor. In addition to taking on writing and interviewing responsibilities, Lydia has also become the primary point of contact for news, events, features and other aspects of our ever-growing online content library and tools.