Forget slip-dresses or “statement” puffer jackets: the biggest event in the fashion world this autumn is much more meaningful than mere hemlines. From September, Burberry’s fashion shows will present clothes, bags and shoes that are instantly “shoppable” (as the horrible term has it). What you’ll see – on both men and women, so no more gender segregated catwalks for Burberry – is what you can immediately get.
That this innovation, called “See Now Buy Now”, is regarded as radical is a measure of how old-fashioned the fashion world is. Fashion shows started as trade events for designers to present a new-season snapshot of their clothes on models – living mannequins – before an audience of retailers and editors. The six months between the clothes being shown and the clothes being sold allowed retailers to place their orders, fashion houses to commission manufacture then deliver to stores, and magazines to prepare and publish editorial coverage that would tantalise consumer desire. The six month lag explains why the models wear summer clothes in September and winter clothes in February.
Burberry thinks that model is outdated because its shows – like many others – have become mainstream entertainment. The catalyst for this disruption is the internet, specifically Instagram. Until recently you could judge the impact of a new fashion collection by the volume of applause generated by its audience at the finale. Now, that’s impossible: the sound of many hands clapping has been replaced by the silence of tapping as fashion show attendees scramble to post their pictures and comments online to Instagram’s 400m users. Fashion may have taken slowly to the internet, but the internet likes fashion. American Vogue magazine has 10m Instagram followers; its two favourite new-generation models, Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid, have 55m and 16m followers respectively.
Burberry’s switch is an attempt to monetise the instant transmission of its image. As Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief executive and designer-in-chief, says: “You can’t talk to a customer and say, ‘We’re really excited, we’re going to stimulate you and inspire you, but you can’t touch it or feel it for another six months.’” So the clothes at the autumn show will have been designed months before, and then manufactured during the summer – with the revolutionary consequence that the company’s Italian factories will be working throughout August.
The transformation Burberry is leading represents a change less dramatic than those the music, print or television industries have undergone. But within the business it is regarded as a fundamental redrawing of the life-cycle of fashion collections akin to Nature suddenly decreeing that salmon should spawn at the bottom of the river instead of the top of it.
It has divided the fashion world. Many labels – including Moschino and Versace – have already flirted with the concept by including instantly available “capsule” offerings within their main catwalk collections. Generally lower-priced items produced in limited number, these have tended to sell strongly: the practice has helped transform Moschino’s recent fortunes. Tom Ford has followed Burberry, as have several other smaller houses. Boston Consulting Group, when commissioned to analyse the issue for New York Fashion Week, recommended that every designer on the schedule make the switch too.
Chanel arranged its show in March to allow every guest a front-row seat, the better to Instagram its collection. Speaking a few days earlier, Chanel’s designer Karl Lagerfeld said of See Now Buy Now: “You cannot completely neglect this tendency. It’s a way to do things that have never been done before. Evolution cannot be ignored: if so, you end up in the cemetery or in the attic.”
And yet many see a contradiction between the notion of artisanal luxury (slow fashion) and Burberry’s straight-from-the-screen show proposal (fast fashion). See Now Buy Now, according to François-Henri Pinault, CEO of Kering, a luxury conglomerate, “negates the dream” of high-end fashion as a painstakingly crafted wearable art-form rather than a quick-hit, sugar-rush commodity. He added that waiting for the collections to be available “creates desire”. Paris’s syndicate of fashion designers – which represents houses including Dior, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Hermès and Balenciaga – has indicated that most of them are against the innovation too.
The true test will come in September at that Burberry show. If those who See really do Buy – and in greater volumes than under the current system – then there will doubtless be a rush to follow Bailey’s lead. If not, expect I Told You So to be the slogan of 2017.