Sabinna’s Pioneering “See Now Buy Now” Via Instagram Stories at Fashion Week

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. 

Fashion Influencers @camillasentuti, @_jemmawade and @mimosasmanhattan

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. 

Fashion Influencers @asliceopi, @saratoufali and @malloryonthemoon

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. 

Fashion Influencers Diipa Khosla and Dalal AlDoub and Blogger/Brand Ambassador Susie Lau

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.

Is the Fashion Critic Dead?

What is the place of the fashion critic in an increasingly democratic, social media-driven industry?  Are they obsolete?  The conversation between Susie Lau and Alexander Fury at the LV series 3 exhibition on Friday night made me ponder this very question.

IMG_5800Susie Lau in conversation with Alexander Fury at Louis Vuitton’s LV Series 3 Exhibition, London

If fashion is being captured and disseminated by the public, who are shaping their personal style according to online influencers (celebrities/bloggers) rather than looking to fashion critics for direction on what to buy, then what purpose do the critics serve? To propagate the agenda of the publication for which they write?  Do they influence buyers?  Consider a buyer seeing a blogger with half a million followers wearing an item of clothing or a fashion critic writing a favourable review about that item.  Which one would have a greater influence on the buyer, whose main aim is to purchase products and sell them to a social media-obsessed public?  Are they there for industry insiders to read what amount to peer reviews?

Marketing and PR have always been an important support mechanism for selling fashion products – I know this from experience selling my own collections to boutiques – but now online influencers appears to have transcended traditional marketing and PR strategies.  Traditional PR involved stylists and shopping editors calling in items to photograph and publish at the time the product came into store – i.e. six months after the product was initially presented at London Fashion Week, for example.  This has been totally usurped by immediate (and ideally sustained) social media promotion of product, although the lag until the product is available is a problem.  Selling fashion has become more about authentic portrayal/endorsement of products on social media than fashion critics and editors telling the public what to wear each season, months after the products have been shown.

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Poppy Delevingne’s Instagram 

It was interesting to see the level of engagement with Susie Lau after her conversation with Alexander Fury, which was broadcast on Twitter’s real time platform Periscope.  Alexander is a seasoned critic with an encyclopaedic knowledge of fashion history who writes for the well established and respected broadsheet, The Independent. Susie is an indie blogger who covers fashion from a personal perspective and illuminates the work of designers with a refreshingly thoughtful slant.  She is as much a supportive and grass-roots champion for emerging designers as she is a front row stalwart.  While Alexander dismissed ethical fashion as not important to designers because they are too busy and over-worked, Susie is a vocal campaigner for Fashion Revolution Day and has oversight of ethical advances being made within the industry, including supporting the recent launch of Katie Jones sustainable knitwear in Selfridges.

Considering the impact of social media, on Instagram Susie has considerably more followers than Alexander.  Any idea who people were queueing up to chat to afterwards and have a photo taken with?  This is by no means a slight on Alexander, simply a reflection of how the public engages with and consumes fashion in a digital, authenticity-driven age.  In mentioning Alexander and Susie’s position on ethical fashion I hope to illustrate that a fashion commentator with oversight of the industry as a whole and who explores fashion’s wider context is surely better placed to provide critique than one who does not, and perhaps that means the role of the fashion critic in today’s industry needs to expand.

Reading Alexander’s show reviews in the Independent last week I discovered he had written a critique on a show he didn’t attend – he used the online show images from which to form his opinion.  We can all access these images in a matter of minutes and in some cases in real time, so theoretically, any person can form an objective review of a fashion show.  I found this interesting because it throws the purpose of the fashion critic further into question, especially as we’re all increasingly taking on the role of curators of our own (and other people’s) style and members of the public have been invited to industry runway shows for the first time this season at Givenchy.

unnamedMembers of the public at the Givenchy show. Image: Business of Fashion

Conversation amongst my lecturing colleagues includes discussion of critics’ reviews and there’s a definite reverence for critics’ (including Alexander’s) opinion,  but to the fashion consuming public, who brands are putting more and more central to their marketing and PR strategies, is the era of the fashion critic dead?

Perhaps fashion critics need to evolve their reviews to include fashion’s impact and involvement with society, culture, technology and the environment, putting fashion in a broader, more accessible and arguably more interesting (and powerfully relevant) context?

Want to explore the debate further? >> Fashionista: Where Have all the Fashion Critics Gone?

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