Redefinition or ruination: fashion's identity crisis

Is the new 'see now, buy now' business model recently adopted by Burberry an ingenious solution, or a sure-fire route to fashion's decline?

A new business model storming the runways and blurring boundaries between digital and physical retail experiences has been deemed by some as a trailblazing attempt by fashion brand Burberry to modernise and reshape the fashion industry as we know it. Some are not so sure, believing this model will simply lead fashion to an inevitable existential crisis.

Consumer appetites and the number of copycat brands have become accelerated over the years, which may have led to this industry-wide panic. To an outsider it may look as though fashion houses are unsure whether they need to find a sustainable, yet traditional, solution or whether they should be creative and adapt to survive within the ever-expanding digital age.

The British Fashion Council want to explore the peripheries of fashion and push the boundaries of tradition, but in doing so are they instead causing the decline of an industry that has worked so well for over a century with this tradition? Is adopting a new business model just a quick-fix solution, which will turn away steady business from the people that have been so loyal to its values for many years to come?

Will other fashion houses follow this business model?

Picture – Creative Commons

In what will be a 'season-less' collection, Burberry will combine men's and women's wear on the runway using a 'see now, buy now’ business model, meaning that consumers will be able to purchase these collections straight off the runway. The shift in model means that customers can buy these readily available collections online instantly instead of waiting six months for the catwalk designs to hit the stores.

Fashion shows will now be shown twice a year, within the semi-annual show calendar framework. It will see the end of the Burberry’s spring/summer, autumn/winter collections starting the next fashion season in September. This could either have a devastating impact on an industry which is so renowned for its customs, or could conclusively breathe a bit of life into an institution which may have become a little dry and will provide the innovative answer it really needs.

Colin McDowell, legendary fashion journalist, says, "Great fashion names like Burberry must find a way of keeping the quality that has made them famous whilst introducing almost instant delivery.

"It's a very hard act to pull off because at the speed needed to make this work there is (a) no way of knowing in advance what the consumer will want and (b) no way back if the company miscalculates that need."

He explains that Christopher Bailey, CEO of Burberry, has refined a selling approach which has been around for a while, since it was discovered that customers want fashion when they see it in a magazine, shortly after the fashion show. The fashion show was once the major way of selling clothes, but Colin says it is now just a publicity device to generate a hype around the brand.

Picture – Creative Commons

Kate Hillard, 20, fashion model is taking the 'if it ain't broke, don’t fix it’ approach to the new business proposition, believing that fashion should remain within the confinements of tradition.

She says, "I think fashion definitely needs to remain traditional. The fashion industry is unique and classy in the way that it works and personally I feel that by adopting a new business model fashion will lose a large audience.

“People are always wanting to see new trends, so why take that away?" she asks.

Burberry is fundamentally going against the wishes of members of the Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture – the regulating commission which determines the haute couture eligibility of fashion houses. The members have voted against any changes because they feel the need to protect fashion's principles of its production and promotion cycles. In subverting this tradition preserving status-quo, Burberry has become a force of modernisation, leading other fashion brands to incorporate small changes to test out the idea.

Taking inspiration from Burberry and employing this strategic shift which aims to align the catwalk with retail, Tom Ford is a perfect example of a fashion brand that has also recently adopted the 'see now, buy now, wear now' model. Announcing that the current model is an, "antiquated idea," Tom Ford will be using this business strategy, where men’s and women’s collections will be readily available after the fashion show in September.

The Tom Ford 2015/2016 fashion show

It remains unclear what knock-on effect this will have, not only within the system itself, but also externally on consumers and advertisers. Kate thinks that being able to purchase collections straight off the catwalk will take away the excitement of the wait for new styles and trends. She argues that a six-month wait instils a sense of desire within the buyer, so what happens when this is taken away?

She says, "I feel that it is a lazy move on Burberry's behalf, and could also be an attack on high street retailers to stop them from bringing the runway to the high street. This would mean a delay in fast fashion public trends, which is not what the fashion industry is about."

High street retailers such as H&M and other brands rely on taking inspiration from high fashion and copying their clothing in order to provide consumers with lower priced items.

Topshop owner Philip Green says, “It's a challenging market. So we've got to be faster, quicker, newer.”

Colin McDowell argues, "It could mean that the high street must produce quick and even cheaper rip offs at great speed to be in shops within a month of the last shows.

"That could mean even more appalling sweatshops situations where speed joins cost considerations to pull down the manufacturing standards and increase the exploitation of workers in an industry which already has grubby hands," he adds hoping that this fast pace will actually modify the traditional fashion show.

For the majority of the population, high street stores are the only affordable option. Will this business model mean the end of fast fashion?

Kate states, “I don't think high street stores will suffer with keeping business going, but perhaps could mean they would need to obtain more designers, leading to a price increase.

“If the fashion industry follows Burberry with this new business model, its decorum will decrease massively and fashion will lose the essence it currently has in society," she adds.

In future Burberry fashion shows, men's and women's wear will be combined

Image – Flickr

Many people such as Karl Lagerfeld, creative director at Chanel, perceive the industry to be in a state of turmoil and are opposed to the change.

Karl Lagerfeld says, "It's a mess."

He argues the extra time between the fashion show and selling means the collection can be made beautiful. Altering this tradition would mean the “end of everything” to Lagerfeld. People believe that maintaining the principles, which are what have made the fashion world so infamously superior, is paramount to maintaining its integrity.

Colin McDowell says, “Karl Lagerfeld is right, but I find his statement amusing as he has been one of the architects of the mess.”

He explains that by working for Chanel, Lagerfeld has been able to create large-scale productions, but Colin says, “By doing so, he has alienated (or even bored) customers.”

Karl Lagerfeld believes something needs to be done to save the industry

Image – Creative Commons

Perhaps hypothetical digital disruption is to blame for forcing fashion into thinking that it needs to adapt to survive. It is not just an industry event anymore; fashion is available on so many different platforms and fashion show audiences have changed completely which could possibly render the traditions of the original business model ill-suited for purpose.

The music industry has grappled with digital disruption in recent years and has found ways to overcome and survive alongside it. Has the creative director at Burberry, Christopher Bailey, foreseen a coming disruption to the fashion industry and is merely acclimatising to come out on top, rather than be left gasping for air?

Colin McDowell states that Christopher Bailey has been taking a youthful approach to design and production and has found out that, "The more 'drops' in a store, the more people will come in to regularly check what is new on the rails."

Kate Hillard believes that the fashion industry does not need to worry about being unsettled by digital disturbance because the institution is so creative and innovative meaning there will always be a need for it.

"I don't think that it is fashion’s turn for digital disruption. Fashion is obviously a more aesthetic and tactile business than music, but fashion is constantly moving and evolving," she states.

As fashion has evidently reached a state where an exciting change would be beneficial, a need for a creative solution is certainly palpable, but for some it seems as though Bailey is not taking it in the right direction. Causing more friction than intrigue in the outside world, Christopher Bailey is definitely on to something but it is unsure whether his modernising idea is the right fit for fashion just yet.