Reimagining luxury fashion with a sustainable, made-to-order approach can solve many problems in our industry and world.
Yesterday, I walked into ABC Carpet & Home to browse furniture for my new home. When I inquired about pricing on a slipcovered sofa straight off a Nancy Meyer’s set, I was warned that my custom color preference has a 12-week production lead time. “Perfect!” I exclaimed, and the salesperson looked relieved at my accommodating response.
Waiting a few months for an important purchase, locally handmade with the specifications and color that I want, feels fine to me. Most of us have purchased furniture, or maybe an engagement ring, this way. Why don’t we expect to wait when we purchase our clothing, shoes, and handbags?
There are endless reasons the modern consumer demands immediate gratification, but these are the few that stick with me.
Companies sell more STUFF when it’s readily available. Capitalism, pure + simple. It may not be exactly what we want, but we have been trained and socialized to become addicted to immediate results. How did this happen?
Luxury fashion shifted its production model from made-to-order to ready-to-wear in the 1940s. Prior to this shift, department stores functioned as showrooms, stocking samples from which you could place your order. Exactly as furniture showrooms do today.
In the 1980s + 1990s luxury fashion marketing boomed as brands began to showcase a lifestyle, visualized by the glamour on their runway, and translated in magazine campaigns and flagship stores. What they sold was aspirational for all and attainable for some — perhaps beginning with a purchase of fragrance, sunglasses, or denim.
During this time free trade agreements drove globalization in many industries and entirely shifted fashion brands from local country + regional markets to worldwide enterprises.
Enter, fast fashion. Founded in the 1960s but proliferated in the early aughts, these vertical retailers harnessed consumer demand for luxury and gave us cheap, on-trend satisfaction, nearly as fast as Style.com could upload the latest runway show images.
By knocking off runway trends before runway collections launched, fast fashion began competing with luxury brands on a trend and style level. By exploiting workers and the planet, they created clothing of reasonable, wearable quality, attractive even to luxury consumers, at low enough prices to justify a split-second purchase decision. Frequent purchases and reduced frequency of re-wear for each item, results in product that feel nearly disposable. Fast fashion is literal garbage. It clogs our closets and has zero resale value. It is piling up in mountainous landfills at home and abroad. The production practices are toxic and exploitative (even when it’s made in the USA) — it’s doing harm coming and going and we will be stuck with its lasting destruction for decades and centuries.
To compete, luxury groups, saddled with boards and shareholders demanding ever increasing returns and the continued growth they enjoyed in the 90s, essentially became fast fashion producers themselves. Cutting corners on materials and production quality, moving production out of Europe to countries with lower priced labor, opening more retail locations, and delivering heaps of ready-to-wear stock in multiple deliveries ranging from 4–20+ new collections each year.
Fast fashion rewired the consumer’s brain like an extremely addictive drug. We became addicted to getting exactly what we want when we want it, and that’s even before e-commerce entered the picture in a major way. In 2010 only 4% of retail sales were conducted online, today 21% of retail sales transact online. The internet plugged straight into our brain’s dopamine center, providing direct hits, shipped express, and often free, to our doorsteps.
Now, we’re addicted to having too much stuff. According to the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion, the average consumer buys 60 percent more pieces of clothing than 15 years ago. Each item is only kept for half as long. It doesn’t have to be this way, and it hasn’t always been this way.
If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that our brains are incredibly adaptable and resilient. Needs and wants have shifted. Gratitude for being healthy and alive in the midst of a deadly pandemic has rewired our desires.
At the recent Business of Fashion VOICES gathering, I was inspired by speaker Kai-Fu Lee of Sinovation Ventures who told a story of an entrepreneur in China who built a $2B soda drink company in three years by flipping the traditional consumer product demand and supply relationship on its head. Rather than producing a product and then marketing and selling it, he tests various marketing + selling strategies to develop a product that will sell the best and then produces the product to fit the specifications that will meet the high demand he created.
This year, I have come across other encouraging stories of consumer mindsets being reset toward buying less and willingness to wait. In August, ELLE UK profiled indie designers at the forefront of bespoke inclusive, contemporary fashion. Young designers (bless Gen Z, they give me HOPE) just starting out, have the flexibility that established designers may not. They can make their own rules, develop production practices that align with their values, and do not have existing customer expectations to overcome. The businesses profiled are small but indicate an important consumer behavior shift, a willingness to wait. Many made-to-order designers transact on Etsy, which saw 100% increase in sales volume in the first nine months of 2020.
If the made-to-order designers profiled in the ELLE UK article can make a profit selling a top between £50-£250 in a range of sizes up to 18 and beyond, then I encourage anyone selling a dress for $1000+ in NY or Europe to take inspiration from these young innovators, and a sincere look at production capabilities. It is no doubt easier to steer a dingy than the Titanic, but we should still try to steer clear of that iceberg, yeah?
Telfar and the now-legend of his “Bushwick Birkin” is another demand/supply rewiring and marketing success story of 2020. The continually sold out and waitlisted totes scaled beyond the fashion insider set to a broader demographic of consumer who is not a regular pre-order or waitlist style shopper.
The modern luxury fashion system is still mostly tied to runway shows and collections shown six months in advance. At the opposite end of the lead-time spectrum, we have fast fashion and super-fast fashion copying trends from the runway in days.
There is no shortage of fashion journalism lamenting the internet’s impact on the runway as a marketing vehicle and the internet as accomplice to fast fashion copycats. The internet changed the role of the runway show in the consumption timeline, as brands can no longer rely on a runway show to generate demand for sales on the collection exhibited on that runway. Runway shows may result in difficult to quantify brand hype, but by the time the actual clothes from the runway deliver to stores at least six months later, the demand to pay full price for those items never meets the supply of inventory produced. Nevertheless, those collections are produced, with vast quantities selling at markdown prices or discarded.
Show-now, buy-now runway cadence has been experimented with to varying degrees of success. It relies on taking big risks on inventory with designers pre-producing stock based on what they project will sell at full price. Again, resulting in waste.
Perhaps a hybrid model can work for some brands? One hybrid option could look like a show-now, buy-now runway timed with the launch of a small amount of stock in sure-bet styles, available for immediate purchase while offering made-to-order access for more elaborate runway styles to the brand’s private clients and wholesale accounts (multi-brand retailers).
Can the made-to-order timeline contract from six months to three? I imagine a 2021–2022 where customers start to plan trips or are invited to a wedding possibly three months out and work with their personal stylist or visit their favorite store to order something to be made in time for the occasion.
How can designers make a three-month lead time work in a sustainable way? Can existing patterns and deadstock, surplus, or upcycled fabrics be reimagined? How can these options be visualized, customized, and communicated to consumers? Where and how will they be available for purchase? Engaging personal stylists and smaller boutiques as made-to-order ambassadors may be a good place for a designer to start experimenting with this model. These partners may also be able to provide valuable customer demand insights to inform the development of the made-to-order offering.
Made-to-order options present next-level brand engagement and an opportunity to develop strong brand loyalty in a crowded marketplace. High-level personalized service and the bragging rights of wearing something uniquely yours, are very valuable to the highly engaged fashion client and should be monetized accordingly.
What can stores look like with less or zero stock? Many brick + mortar stores have closed or will soon. By some estimates, the US is over inventoried in physical retail space by 50%. With sales in physical retail stores down by 24% this Black Friday and traffic down 50%, the data confirms what we know to be true, we have created a supply chain with way TOO MUCH.
Experiential, physical retail can be reimagined to create an environment that facilitates high impact, personalized service. With less or zero take-home inventory, store staff must be highly engaged experts. They must embody the value of personal service, explain the specifics of the item’s eco + ethical production, engage in storytelling the fantasy of the brand, and provide “peek behind the curtain” access to collaborate with the designer, ultimately resulting in a unique, custom item to be cherished.
Modern, made-to-order or hybrid stock + custom store assortments can create retail success with fewer store locations, higher engagement, and higher value transactions.
Changing the way consumers spend and cutting off the addiction to immediate gratification is no small ask. Although, there is no better time for change than now.
This year has been a palate cleanser, resetting our expectations of what we want and need. The production disruption caused by the first lockdowns in March spurred a reduction of supply. Many designers drastically reduced production quantities for fall collections and many deliveries were delayed to be aligned with the actual season — whoo hoo! Customers adapted. We saw motivation to purchase at full price and fewer nonsense markdowns taking place immediately after delivery. Consumer behaviors also shifted towards shopping directly from the brands they want to support, shopping black-owned businesses or their local independent retailers.
The same practices that got us to a place of TOO MUCH will not be able to get us out. 2020 taught us all that we can change. It may not be easy, but it will be worth it. In 2021, brave business leaders + designers may choose to take a cue from luxury’s past and lead us all to a bright future.