Fashion month has rolled around again, as it does every February/September, and once again I am contemplating the upcoming shows and presentations and how brands will navigate the month of Insta-frenzied reporting of the latest shows, street style and celebrity spotting.
Emails start hitting my inbox about upcoming shows and presentations, lookbook shoots where you can get behind the scenes access to and teasers of digital experiences that are set to break the traditional fashion presentation mould. There was a time when if you were a fashion designer, you had to have the means and industry contacts to have a traditional catwalk show, and the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds to finance it, or else present your collection behind closed doors in a showroom to industry insiders. No longer. With each season comes a new array of approaches to presenting and selling fashion, and these new ideas and business models are emerging from, well, emerging designers. Those nimble and small enough to adapt quickly and harness the power of technology are bringing together the presentation and immediate sale of their collection during the buzz of fashion month.
Sabinna s006 collection (AW18) is being presented digitally and sold immediately via Instastories during fashion month
What am I excited about as London Fashion Week approaches? What’s new? What will I remember from it as March rolls around? Some stand-out looks, sure, but fashion month is so noisy, with hundreds of shows, thousands of brands and millions of Insta-likes. How do designers differentiate themselves and make themselves heard, let alone remembered, once the product they sweated so hard to create and invested so much in, personally and financially, is available to buy (six months later)? This is the burning question – the answer to which stands between surviving and shutting up shop. You only need to look at the roster of emerging fashion talent that has been financially supported, promoted and awarded by the British Fashion Council over the past two decades under the NEWGEN scheme to see that only a handful of the hundreds supported are still in business today. Fashion is broken, but frustratingly, it still works (sort of).
I have spent the past hour talking to designer Sabinna Rachimova of womenswear fashion label Sabinna about her radical new approach to presenting and selling her fashion collections during New York and London Fashion Week. The London-based designer has tried the traditional options – catwalks, presentations – and a less traditional VR see now/buy now fashion presentation in conjunction with the Fashion Innovation Agency and Pictofit – which won her and the team a Decoded Fashion Futures ‘Beyond the Runway’ Award, acknowledging their initiative to think outside the confines of the traditional catwalk format. But how does an emerging designer, three years and in the business – at that critical point where many designers can no longer sustain their business and close down – achieve commercial success following the traditional business model? Well, it appears they don’t.
Reflecting on my own experience of running my label and presenting at London Fashion Week and selling at Paris Fashion Week I know the tens (or hundreds) of thousands of pounds of financial risk attached to following the traditional business model that most young designers follow. Like Sabinna, I chose non-traditional methods, but Sabinna has developed a completely unique approach this season, by launching a presentation and sales campaign on Instagram for the duration of New York and London Fashion Week. On the face of it, it sounds an obvious thing to do, but Sabinna has opted to work with 14 “influencers”, spanning the US and UK, and created 24 “looks” in her collection this season, giving all 14 the choice of look to reflect their personal style. Sabinna has struck a deal to pay each of them for delivering one post to their feed and one Instagram story on their designated day, in their chosen “look”. The styling and photography lies with the influencer and is a key element of them presenting the outfit in a way that resonates with their followers and presents Sabinna’s collection in a way that makes it easy to relate to and to imagine wearing. These are real girls of all shapes and sizes – so the context is commercial. Which is handy, because the looks are instantly shoppable, direct from their Insta-stories. Herein lies the clever aspect of this strategy.
Sabinna can see the engagement generated from each influencer, view feedback from their followers, collect data on which outfits and garments generated the most interest and a range of other indicators that add up to powerful insights from which she can shape her future collections. Of course this strategy requires investment upfront in production so that there is stock available to buy immediately, but Sabinna explains that this is simply redirected from budget otherwise spent on a traditional presentation format, which has no guarantee of generating sales and provides very little tangible feedback. As the campaign continues throughout New York Fashion Week Sabinna alerts me to a similar strategy being adopted by New York -based brand Mansur Gavriel, who are selling their previous collection (just delivered in store) via Insta Stories, whilst launching their new collection at NY Fashion Week – capitalising on the collective “Insta-buzz”. Their savvy approach to Instagram curation and marketing is well reported and has led to in-excess of 500,00o followers.
It is absolutely true that everyone at Fashion Week is living their experience through Instagram, even if they are sitting in the front row. Sabinna is smart enough to know that you can’t get people to put their phones away and stop staring at their screens, so why not present your collection directly, and make it instantly shoppable, on Instagram? You could scarcely find a bigger fashion-obsessed and hungry audience, and the power of working with influencers in two of the largest markets – the US and UK – makes total sense.
Emerging designers have traditionally struggled to expand their businesses on a global scale, but it’s easy to see that changing with e-commerce linked to social media. The best bit? It doesn’t cost a thing. To use Insta-stories with the swipe-up function, taking the swiper straight to the brand’s e-commerce site, is free – you just need 10,000 followers to access this function. And capturing and analysing the data generated? That’s free too, with the help of Google Analytics.
The key point to Sabinna’s adoption of this strategy is the vastly increased likelihood of her achieving profitability with this direct-to-consumer approach, both in terms of saving on inflated presentation costs and selling to customers without losing the retail margin of wholesaling. Instead of following the traditional business and presentation model, where her success would rely on her PR agency and her contacts being able to bring the ‘right people’ to her show or presentation and create the right buzz, her success lies firmly within her own hands and is limited only by her creativity and commercial strategy.
What of the notion of exclusivity? How do industry insiders – usually the first to see and critique the new season’s collections – view these non-traditional strategies that bypass them and deliver straight to the consumer? Will they partake? Early indications are that engaging press and buyers in this democratic manner is tough. Those familiar with the Bloggers vs Vogue Editors furore, which I was also asked to wade into here , will know that the fashion industry is reluctant to embrace bloggers and influencers, despite the fact that their relevance to consumers and power to sell product is undeniable and trumps that of the established glossy editors – circulation figures prove this.
So does the fact that industry insiders are not giving focus to collections presented in this non-traditional matter even matter? Materially, probably not. But psychologically, probably. Fashion Week has always been about who’s hot and who’s not – who is the next big thing – who is the one to watch? Who is considered credible? Who is intensely talented and creative and exciting? Who is everyone talking about? If by everyone you mean the consumer beyond the industry confines, it’s whoever wins the social media engagement race. And that race is happening on Instagram.
I am looking forward to the upcoming Steven Tai presentation which promises to deliver an immersive fashion showcase with LiveCGX Technology, in conjunction with ILMxLAB and the Fashion Innovation Agency, on 18th February. Stand by for news of how that is set to shape fashion presentations and the use of new technology as a presentation and sales tool.