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Fashion OPINION

How many CEOs does it take to change a lightbulb?

By Jackie Mallon

Mar 14, 2016

This is what went through my head when I first heard the Council of Fashion Designers of America had enlisted the help of Boston Consulting Group to deliver a “roadmap for the future” of their industry in crisis. The consultants compiled a 12-page study after having interviewed designers, retailers, executives, and editors to reach their conclusion. Which was? There was no definitive conclusion.

One of the most talked-about options they provided, the “in-season” model, involves shifting fashion shows to synch up with the delivery of merchandise into stores, as opposed to shows happening six months in advance of deliveries. It’s also referred to as the “see-now/buy-now” model––which, to my ear, has an air of “buy one, get one free” or “BOGO,” as it’s abbreviated here in the U.S.

However you call it, this option has been hurriedly employed by Tom Ford, Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger, as well as smaller labels like Thakoon and Rebecca Minkoff. Immediacy is a word much in vogue; Product fatigue a condition of the digital age shopper who doesn’t even have to own the clothes to be sick of them. While the move to provide climate-appropriate attire in stores at the right time of year is a reasonable one, the other main motivation for the CFDA’s investigation is the need to satisfy today’s customer who doesn’t want to wait six months to get her grasping mitts on pieces she and her friends have already seen on the internet, but who believes the merchandise should climb down off the catwalk and right into her closet. With a snap of her fingers, she wants it. Apparently, we must respond.

But the Europeans didn’t jump to the finger-snap. Italy’s La Camera della Moda president Carlo Capasa, valued “a spirit to create” over a drive “to satisfy a need.“ Members of France’s Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, which includes houses such as Margiela, Lanvin, Saint Laurent, unanimously voted against the see-now/buy-now option.

This resounding *“**Non!” *is refreshingly defiant. Europe provides a beacon of optimism because the Americans have missed the point entirely with their costly media exercise. It hasn’t been reported how much the CFDA paid to retain BCG’s services but to place trust in an external panel with no clue about the day-to-day operations of dozens of individual fashion businesses is a desperate, reactionary and reprehensible move completely out of step with where fashion needs to be going. Unfortunately it is typical of the American fashion industry which is not so much a cage as a gilded goldfish bowl, in which designers continue to swim in the same direction hoping the journey will look different every time. Words like implement, strategize, incentivize are dropped like fishfood into the bowl. Billion dollar bonuses are thrown about above it. The fish complete another circle unable to learn from the past or imagine a future. Their only view is the immediate.

A new strain of fast fashion

See-now/buy-now is essentially ushering in a new strain of fast fashion. The U.S. industry’s adoption of this model is a nod of approval to the status quo of the past forty-something years, to a middle-aged system that is at best, bloated and apathetic, at worst, heinously destructive and corrupted by greed. Not to put to fine a point on it, see-now/buy now is a laxative to aid the excretion of more crap into the world’s landfills.

After her see-now/buy-now experiment last season, U.S. designer Rebecca Minkoff said, "Just on the day of the show alone, we sold four times the amount of spring goods for that day to plan. That's one store, one day. It's already working. Same thing on the website. It's about traffic. What's encouraging is in one style, we only have one piece left, four days after the presentation."

Move over immediacy, it’s the return of exclusivity

Of course, small businesses must turn a profit to succeed. But perhaps it’s appropriate that a historic maison like, say, Christian Dior chooses not to follow the same formula as this lesser-known contemporary NYC-based brand. There used to be an aspirational element to fashion, built into its tiered price points that has become lost as manufacturers turn acrobatics to produce the unachievable: quality foreign labor from exhausted workers who earn poverty pay. It is time to divide the spotlight: move over immediacy, it’s the return of exclusivity. Because this campaign for an everything-now-democracy is bringing us down.

The fashion industry, which bears the stains of some of the worse human rights violations ever reported, and, second only to the agriculture industry, is responsible for wreaking unimaginable havoc on the earth’s resources, does not need to speed up, it needs to slow the blazes down. It doesn’t need to talk to corporate outsiders but listen to the human voice; the knowledge within.

After the consultants had delivered their findings, Diane Von Furstenburg, chairman of the CFDA, stepped forward to summarize thus: “The CFDA has to give designers the freedom to do what is right for them.”

Why did it take a team of suits to arrive at that?

Because it’s the culture of a soulless puppeteered industry. Ethics can really cramp shareholders’ style; moral stocktaking can shake stock prices and the immediacy of dollar signs is bowel-loosening.

So, just as it was a futile exercise to involve this team of outsiders, it’s equally pointless to appeal to those at the top.

Ralph Toledano, president of French fashion’s governing body, explained their decisive rejection of the idea, like this, “Our clientele is educated and informed on how the system works.”

Ah. Here in the U.S. the customer is the educator. But, at the moment, she is so high on the chemical fumes from her 5 dollar T-shirt she couldn’t pass a breathalyzer taste.

Craftsmanship over commerce

Toledano’s words reflect an appreciation of craftsmanship over commerce which, if adopted by U.S. companies, might even begin to reverse the decline in U.S .manufacturing (In 1960, 95 percent of American fashion was made in the U.S.; in 1990, it had dropped to 50 percent, today it stands at 2 percent) These figures, although funereal, seem to have taught us nothing.

Dries Van Noten is a designer whose collections evoke a profound emotional reaction among his legions of covetous fans. For Fall 2016, he celebrated the “beauty of decadence” and how a woman wears clothes as a “living work of art.” He adds, “We can use a little bit of that in this world.”

But can a work of art be produced on the spot? Would one have dared ask Lucien Freud to complete a portrait like he was taking a Polaroid? Along with Moschino, Prada, and some others, Van Noten reveals pieces of his collection to certain buyers approximately a month before the runway show. But when asked by Business of Fashion’s Tim Blanks if he would be tempted to adopt the American approach, he responded: “A fashion show is like the end point of a collection before I can start the next one...I need the reverb of the reactions to the collection to start really well the next one. So for me, doing a consumer fashion show is not really my cup of tea.”

Not my cup of tea. How quaint and archaic-sounding. But with the popularity of the slow food movement, rooftop allotments, and silky fine cloth spun from recycled water bottles, this quaint rings in tune with the times.

In contrast, Christopher Bailey, who began his career in the U.S. during the nineties before taking his talents to Burberry where he worked under American CEO Angela Ahrendts until 2014, and went on to become the first Chief Creative to concurrently hold the title of CEO, gushed, “From livestreams to ordering straight from the runway to live social media campaigns, this is the latest step in a creative process that will continue to evolve.”

Or devolve. Soon clothes will be falling off the backs of lorries and if we position ourselves at sharp corners, we can fill our shopping carts as they careen by.

Burberry, together with most of the US industry, is not examining the industry how it needs to be examined. Instead of combatting the evils of fast fashion, it is attempting to play it at its own game, getting into the ring and going ten rounds with it. It will be bloody, possibly fatal, and there will be a loser. But risk is the spur of big business. Is Wynn Las Vegas taking bets? And will any of us be around to see who wins?

TIme to take a stand

The U.S. industry’s position as a fashion leader has often been under question for its lack of creativity, but never for its ability to make money. Now it risks becoming so far out of touch with where fashion is going that it could usher in a divide not seen since the inter-war years when American manufacturers went to Paris to bring home couturiers’ grand ideas to produce less expensive versions to sell in department stores. Where Paris, purveyors of luxury and innovation led, the US, masters of repackaging and merchandising, followed.

The CFDA cited with confidence one conclusion in their 12-page infographics-filled document: The time is ripe for change.

European designers have historically been the arbiters of taste. This new American model is in extremely poor taste. It creates a chasm and we, the American consumer, must decide on which side we stand.

Because, here in the U.S., change is down to us. We have the power.

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.