These days the fashion press that still bothers writing about fashion is filled with two types of articles. It’s either opinion pieces decrying the broken fashion system, or news about individual designers taking change into their own hands.
Some of the woes befalling the fashion systems, according to the “broken fashion system” articles, is that the stores demand deliveries too soon and put them on sale too soon, and that the fast fashion system produces knockoffs at far cheaper prices and put them in stores before the real stuff hits the racks. Supposedly, the latter necessitates the former, but designers don’t like to be rushed, and the additional stress put on them is the other reason for the fashion system being broken. We have fall clothes filling the racks in the summer, and summer clothes in the winter. Everyone shops on sale.
Designers like Burberry, Tom Ford, and Vetements have now decided to shift calendar and deliver the goodies right after their “seasonless” shows. Supposedly, this will combat the fast fashion copy cats and satisfy those rabid fashion fanatics who want the stuff now and have an attention span of a snail because their lives revolve around their Instagram accounts.
To put this as diplomatically as I can, this is all a bunch of bullshit. The only real problem from the ones described above is that fashion is delivered too soon and gives people few reasons to buy the clothes they don’t need. But, the bigger problems are that there is too much bad fashion and that fashion is too expensive.
First, for anyone who survived the Antarctic weekend in New York during the fashion week (which only proves, again, that god hates fashion), the idea of seasonless fashion is largely nonsense. Most markets that are located in the Northern hemisphere will still demand heavier clothes in the winter and lighter clothes in the summer. I don’t see this changing and some designers who were showing summery frocks on the New York runway this week got more raised eyebrows than critical acclaim for their forward thinking.
Second, the threat of fast fashion copycats and knock-off artists to the designer fashion industry is mostly a myth that has already been debunked, but no one seems to listen. In the video linked in the previous sentence, none other than Tom Ford says that his consumer and the fast fashion consumer exist in different universes. In other words, the Park Avenue woman is not going to go to H&M to buy a Gucci knockoff, because she can afford the real thing and she wants the real thing for its tag and its quality alike.
Furthermore, according to China Daily, half of the luxury fashion today is bought by Chinese consumers. Most of these are still aspirational consumers, and I know how an aspirational consumer works, because I, being an immigrant, have experienced it firsthand. Believe me when I say this – they want the real thing as soon as they have the money for it. Yes, they may wait for sales, yes they may hunt on eBay and YOOX, but they want the real thing. Knockoffs are for those who cannot afford the real thing, plain and simple. I don’t know exactly why so blindingly obvious a thing is hard to comprehend for the luxury executives, though I have an idea.
The luxury conglomerates produce fashion but they operate by the same diktats as any other conglomerate – they are slaves to the logic of capitalism that dictates constant expansion and continuously growing profits. To them, everyone is a potential consumer, everyone is one market, and everyone is a competitor. No wonder they foam at the mouth when they see H&M opening 300 stores a year and Zara making more money than them. Obviously, there are some exceptions to the scenario outlined above, but by and large it is true.
The most obvious solution for driving more customers to high-end fashion is lowering its insane prices. This past weekend I was browsing the spring issue of T-magazine, where plenty of outerwear and some dresses hovered in the $10,000 mark. Need I say more?
The luxury conglomerates are now biting its own tail by offering luxury attainable only to few and hoping that the rest, driven by a sense of entitlement will buy into the brand by purchasing sunglasses and perfume. But they also want to move clothes and bags. Perhaps it’s time they picked one or the other.
Some designers have figured out that today the brand is more important than anything. We have seen this with Dolce & Gabbana and Marc Jacobs discontinuing its diffusion lines and rolling everything under the same brand. Why make those people buying cheaper stuff think they are still second-grade consumer not good enough for the main line? Those are the ones who may actually defect to fast fashion, feeling they are not truly able to buy into the high fashion club. Michael Kors has outmaneuvered them all by offering $400 designer bags to the housewives and suburban teenagers. Do they know fashion? No. But do they feel fashionable? You bet.
But, back to my point – designer clothing is too expensive. Prices need to come down. Designer fashion, whether it is willing to acknowledge or not, depends on the middle class. The rich cannot sustain large companies, only small ones. And right now the middle class is squarely priced out of designer fashion. In not so distant past a pair of designer shoes cost $350 on average. It was expensive for a typical middle class person, but it was not in the realm of fantasy. Today, one can hardly find a pair of shoes under a thousand dollars. $1,500 is more like it. Ten years ago an IT bag cost around a thousand dollars. Today, it costs $2,500 on average. These prices far outpace inflation. To an intelligent consumer this looks somewhere between preposterous and insulting.
The luxury industry counters that the costs of labor and materials have been skyrocketing, but what’s really been skyrocketing are their profits and a number of fashion companies going public. So, please, stop fooling us. A quick breakdown of a retail price of an item works like this – retail captures most of the profit margin, than wholesale (designers themselves), then comes labor to make the goods, and squarely on the bottom are material makers.
The retail markups have grown, too. On average a retail markup is now times 2.6-2.8 from the retail price, and 3.2 is not unheard of. No wonder most people find themselves priced out.
The other major problem with fashion is that there is too much of it. There are too many designers, putting out too much blandness. Nothing reminds you better of this fact than witnessing the dispiriting procession of unmemorable, interchangeable stuff at both the men’s and women’s fashion weeks in New York.
And in New York we have the new, self-appointed emperor who has no clothes – Kanye West. That the “fashion” he puts out is laughable is beside the point. The more pernicious thing is that he is sucking all the oxygen out of the room, by diverting the attention of the press from real designers. And real designers are already few and far between in New York. Both Cathy Horyn and Robin Givhan have pointed this out in their recent coverage.
Givhan rightfully said that maybe the problem with fashion is not the lag between show and delivery but that it’s full of unexciting clothes that people would not want to wear regardless of whether they could have it tomorrow or six months from now. “…All the questions designers have been asking have centered around logistics — how to show their clothes, when to show them. There’s been little conversation about the clothes themselves. Film lovers are willing to wait for the release of a movie after being teased with a dynamic trailer. Why won’t fashion consumers wait for a garment that has been teased with a breathtaking runway show? Isn’t something extraordinary worth waiting for?” Givhan wrote. It is, indeed. But, in the absence of stunning clothes one has to resort to window-dressing just like one has to overseason a bland dish. Cathy Horyn, for one, was not fooled. “Yesterday’s round of New York Fashion Week shows rated top honors for absurdity, with rare moments of sanity,” she wrote in her roundup.
So, what are we to do? Here are a few suggestions.
1) Fix the delivery schedule not by speeding it up but by slowing it down.
There is no reason to deliver summer clothes in January and winter clothes in July. This change has been driven by the big American department stores whose math is that the more time a garment spends on the selling floor, the better chance of it selling at full price. The logic is sound, but it would be better to simply deliver later and start the sale season later. And smaller designers, who are often more creative than the big ones, will thank you. In many countries in Europe sales season is regulated by the government. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.
2) Lower your prices.
The prices have gotten out of hand and the middle class is now squarely priced out of designer fashion. You can change this. One solution is to lower markups. Hopefully, the volume sold at full price will make up for it. Also, retailers and designers can stop thinking purely in percentage terms – that’s how we end up with $6,000 leather jackets. Mark up high-end items in real money terms instead. A recent NYT article pointed out the mistake of thinking in percentage terms instead of real ones.
3) Stop forever chasing a bigger market share and concentrate on your existing customers.
Too often I see designers who have created a hardcore following disregard their fans in favor of chasing new ones, or by consistently lowering quality and raising prices. It is disdainful to think that those fans will continue coming back to you no matter what. They are not stupid.
4) Do good work
This cannot get much simpler and much more complicated. But the hard truth is that there is too much fashion now. There are too many designers, and not too many new ideas. Some of them will have to go. Don’t blame people for not buying boring fashion that’s now being paraded on New York’s catwalks.
I will leave you with one last thought. For the longest time fashion has been dictated from top down. Designers were demi-gods that have told the plebs what to wear. But fashion consumers have agency, now more than ever. Keep that in mind.