As Burberry models wafted down the catwalk at London fashion week in outfits inspired by Virginia’s Woolf’s Orlando, it wasn’t the ornate drummer-boy jackets and ruff-collared shirts that stole the show.
The hottest runway trend was instant shopping, as the British brand turned its catwalk into a living and breathing shop window. Fans were suddenly able to buy the equestrian-inspired leopard-print bridle bags or shearling jackets that previously they could only have coveted on social media straightaway – albeit for price tags larger than the average monthly mortgage payment.
“I think this can be seen as significant in the sense that when Burberry said it was going to do this, it was essentially rewriting how things are done [in fashion] and the point of a traditional catwalk show,” says Graeme Moran, head of content at the fashion-industry bible Drapers.
“If you go back 100 years, catwalks used to be small, private events that brands put on to show buyers, and eventually the press and clients, what they were doing. It can be argued that the catwalk has now become a platform to speak to customers, rather than the industry,” he says.
Burberry – along with brands such as Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren, which also proffered their own shoppable runway collections at New York fashion week – is at the vanguard of what the fashion industry refers to as the “see now, buy now” model.
It might not sound like a phenomenon to most people, but this is not how the fashion industry has traditionally worked. There is normally a six-month time lag between catwalk shows and designer clothes arriving in department stores and boutiques around the world. The delay means that fashion editors are usually writing about next year’s shorts and sundresses just as the rest of us are digging out our winter coats.
This interregnum also enables nimble high-street chains to piggyback on emerging trends and get cheaper versions of standout styles into store.
The backdrop to all this has been the rise of digital media, which has turned runway shows into powerful consumer marketing events that brands cannot cash in on if products have not yet even been produced.
Burberry’s chief executive, Christopher Bailey, described the show as a “special moment” that was the “culmination of a series of important changes we made, designed to bring our collections closer to our customer.
“The changes we are making will allow us to build a closer connection between the experience that we create with our runway shows and the moment when people can physically explore the collections for themselves,” he said.
The usual fashion business cycle sees buyers examining new collections in the wake of the runway show and then placing their orders. But, this year, Burberry let important buyers and press view its new designs back in July, provided they agreed to keep its secrets. Rather than the world’s most beautiful women parading the key looks around the room, it is understood the industry’s power brokers studied mannequins on a rotating carousel in a showroom at its London headquarters.
“Our brand is about moving forward,” Bailey told the Financial Times after Monday’s show. “But we’re testing things out, seeing what we will be able to [do] better in future. We’ve had to look at every facet of the business, from the suppliers, factories, media, every level of the process, to see how it works. And we’ll learn from this and build from there.”
Despite its 160 years in fashion, Burberry has not resisted the encroachment of technology. It was one of the first luxury brands to embrace digital and social media, with a ground-breaking runway show streamed on Facebook, as well as YouTube and WeChat.
But it may be harder for smaller brands to follow Burberry’s lead. The FTSE 100 trenchcoat maker, which has a market value of around £6bn, is able to shake up its supply chain because it has a lot of control: the company owns a number of factories and has an extensive company-run store network.
By closing the time gap and effectively hanging price tags out on the runway, Burberry is primed to cash in on the latent sales potential within the social media buzz. But other brands may struggle to follow suit because of the upheaval involved, says Moran. “All the brands definitely can’t,” he explains. “I’d spoken to a number of people who said ‘I’d love to but it just doesn’t work for us’ and others who said ‘I wouldn’t want that to be how we worked’.
“Burberry is a global brand with a huge network of stores and its own e-commerce platform. A small-to-medium-sized brand working from a studio in east London can’t physically do it. Making people change the way they work is only something that brands of Burberry’s influence can do. Burberry has the power to say, ‘You’re not in charge any more’.”
Smaller brands have started to test out what this new faster fashion model can do for sales, with British designers Alice Temperley and Oliver Spencer using fledgling social media platform Vero to enable fans of their designs to purchase pieces from their recent fashion-week collections. Temperley, who is on the British Fashion Council advisory board, said the tactic had enabled the brand to get closer to its customers: “This is a dynamic industry and we need to embrace change.”
Vero’s chief executive, Ayman Hariri, says that rather than have an algorithm lobbing ads at its members, users have chosen to hear from brands they like in their news feeds, so companies are pushing on an open door.
“Whereas in the noughties the website was the method brands used to connect with their audience, today it is social networks and apps,” he says. “‘See now, buy now’ is a big step into the future and it will take time for brands to come to terms with it, as it requires a lot of investment ahead of time in order to have the stock ready. Time will tell how it shapes up.”
While the Burberry show had a romantic, ethereal quality in keeping with Woolf’s classic novel, the company’s dealings with investors are more down to earth amid tough market conditions. Last year, profits were down 10% as a result of flagging demand for luxury goods in markets such as China and Russia, and it is cutting costs to improve its financial performance.
The point of “see now, buy now” is ultimately to sell clothes and the City will be poring over its next set of figures to get a sense of how far this leap into the unknown has taken the brand.
“I think the jury is out on this model, even though the logic is sound,” says Lorna Hall, head of market intelligence, at trend forecaster WGSN. “Why wait six months to sell your products when you’ve just spent millions of pounds creating a big hullabaloo?”
Hall points out that the whole industry has not jumped on the bandwagon, with the major Italian and French labels yet to get involved. “Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger have a position because they are very digitally focused and that has pushed them further into this space than anybody else,” she explains. “I think it will be evolution, not revolution. Everyone will wait and see what kind of impact it has on Burberry’s sales.”
Moran confesses that the day after the Burberry show, he popped into a store to try on a shirt that caught his eye on the runway. “I had been hooked in by ‘see now, buy now’ and went in to try it on – and it was sold out. I had been sucked in and obviously a number of other people had been, too.”
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