When COVID hit our industry last spring, we engaged in a lot of soul-searching. Many fashion and luxury leaders reframed the disaster as a chance for meaningful change. Hundreds signed on to Dries Van Noten’s #rewiringfashion manifesto, the CFDA and BFC released a joint advisement for the health and future of the industry, and high-visibility players like Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele poetically called for a ‘seasonless’ future, one where fashion would once more live in harmony with the natural world. Production/overstock problems brewing for a decade or more imploded in their dysfunctionality, and mainstream market demand lined up with sustainability ideals. We had arrived at a rare inflection point where ‘changing the way we’ve always done things’ from a moral perspective was also making perfect business sense.
The call for ‘seasonless fashion’ seeks to address the chronic overstock issues both crippling the industry and injuring the environment. It focuses on three major, interrelated areas of change: a decisive shift to demand-led production, a reduction in assortment complexity and number of SKUs, and a commitment to minimize discounting and instead optimize volume/pricing ratios for full-price sell-through. In practice, it breaks down to the following tactics:
Revise the fashion calendar. Trade in the ever-escalating number of buying seasons for a simplified two-season schedule. Studies show consumers increasingly value quality over quantity, and seek to invest in longer-lasting evergreen items. Relaxing the demands of a five-to-eight season calendar provides room for artistry and creativity to feed this consumer demand. Additionally, a two-season model significantly reduces brands’ and buyers’ carbon footprint as well as production and travel expenses. And rethinking fashion shows, in ways like holding men’s and women’s shows simultaneously and/or shifting to gender neutral collections, further curbs waste--as does holding events in a limited number of world capitals and relying more on virtual presentations and hybrid formats, even as live events once more become possible. Furthermore, showing, stocking, and selling collections closer to when they actually coincide with consumer need--i.e., selling sweaters in fall instead of summer--helps reduce knockoffs, increase full-price sell-through and minimize glut. A number of fashion and luxury brands--such as YSL, Off-White, Tory Burch and Mugler--have started adopting parts of this new approach. The calendar may not reflect the ideal yet, but the trend is in motion.
Operate by ‘less is more.’ In order to maximize full-price sell through, brands and retailers can rely on proprietary and partner granular data to hone in on the direction of consumer demand. Plan towards this as much as possible--with as much flexibility and continuous updating as manageable. Brands can shift towards shorter production cycles, value resilience over cost, and goal towards the ideal of one-to-one manufacturing--relying on analytics to simplify SKU’s down to the items and colors that consumers really want. To optimize where, how, and what to sell--and fine-tune the price-to-volume ratio--retailers can consider operating with multi-season inventory and sales management plans that draw on granular data-based assessments of past and present consumer behavior. Such approaches can significantly lengthen the full-price lifetime of collections. To a similar end, brands and retailers can further experiment with pre-orders and just-in-time production models, and can test products ahead of time with consumers--a technique forward-thinking ecommerce platforms have used to further maximize full-price sales as well as predict future behaviors and plan assortments accordingly.
Such leaner, data-based management will benefit all tiers of the industry. Coach, Victoria Beckham and Nike have used such methods to simplify their assortments. Even fast fashion can find a place in a ‘less is more’ approach with highly data-based and targeted selection of which trends to reproduce, and a multi-season approach to planning (and repurposing) inventory.
Increase the life of fashion. Keeping products out of landfills may require some reframing of traditional profit models. But circularity aligns with consumer priorities and the drive for quality over quantity, and can even expand into new revenue sources. For example, Stella McCartney and Gucci have incentivized secondhand purchase of their products through partnerships with The Real Real. Other brands have created proprietary resale marketplaces. And Madewell, Eileen Fisher and a growing number of companies take back retired pieces in exchange for incentivized pricing on new items, while incorporating the used clothing into upcycling initiatives or even repurposing them outside of the industry. Additionally, longevity can come from design: an increasing emphasis on timeless and even genderless collections helps put the brakes on consumption and extends the lifespan of pieces, whether with their original owners or in resale.
Make sustainability accessible. In fashion’s current conundrum, nearly 70% of consumers want brands to use sustainable materials and promote sustainable business models--but only a third of them will pay more to support this. Innovation can help with part of the issue: rethinking and reconfiguring processes with new technologies and sustainably-aligned KPI’s can yield affordable and ethical solutions--especially as innovations scale. But for companies to invest, prices to fall, and sustainability to become truly mainstream, consumers will have to modify expectations and behaviors to meet brands halfway--buying less but buying better in a manner more in line with their expressed values.
Fashion is both a business and an art. It is one thing to call for a sweeping reset at a time of deep crisis, and another to fight the pull of entrenched practices once recovery begins. But the ‘seasonless initiative’ not only still makes sense -- it is the only road we can take to create a healthy ecosystem from both a financial and ethical point of view. Change is happening, more gradually than the revolution we may have expected last spring, but step-by-step reinvention is underway. It is up to all of us to reinforce it on a grassroots level in our practices and partnerships, and make this best future mainstream.
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