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The future of fashion: Less ‘unnecessary product’, ‘less waste in fabric’

Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, designer Dries Van Noten, and Lane Crawford president Andrew Keith are among fashion’s most vocal advocates calling for the industry to slow down, produce less, and be more transparent in pricing.

The future of fashion: Less ‘unnecessary product’, ‘less waste in fabric’

In May, Paris-based designer Dries Van Noten led a coalition of fashion industry professionals calling for a readjustment to the retail calendar. (Photo: Dries Van Noten)

One Monday afternoon in May, in a sunbathed studio in Rome, Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele announced via a virtual press conference that the Italian label planned to reduce its yearly show schedule from five – three for women’s, two for men’s – to two. The brand has already cancelled its spring/summer show in September.

“I don’t think we have enough time to listen to ourselves,” Michele said, intermittently waving a black fan. “We should not start over in the same way, breathless, because it has been too difficult.”

Alessandro Michele. (Photo: Gucci)

The hope, a spokesperson wrote in a follow-up email, is to produce fewer, more focused collections with a “greater emphasis on longevity”.

The brand’s Pre-fall and Cruise collections, which refresh the stores with new merchandise over the winter holidays and the summer, will be eliminated, although Gucci may still produce one-offs, such as collaborations or capsule collections for Chinese New Year.

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The scheme still leaves Gucci with plenty of wriggle room to produce lots of stuff. But the move towards less – to show less, to produce less – is significant coming from a brand that has championed, both aesthetically and financially, “more is more”.

Since the appointment of Michele and chief executive Marco Bizzarri in 2015, Gucci’s revenues have grown from €3.5 billion in 2014 (S$5.5 billion) to €9.6 billion, making it one of the world’s highest-grossing luxury brands.

“I hope other brands will follow [our example],” Michele said.

“We should not start over in the same way, breathless, because it has been too difficult.” – Alessandro Michele

Others are certainly considering it. In recent weeks, as stores and factories have closed, and major US retailers such as Neiman Marcus and JC Penney have filed for bankruptcy, members of the fashion industry have gathered, via video conference, to propose a reset of how they produce, show and sell collections.

One coalition, led by designer Dries Van Noten, Lane Crawford president Andrew Keith and Altuzarra chief executive Shira Sue Carmi, published a letter in May calling for a readjustment to the retail calendar, so that collections are sold in alignment with the seasons, and discounted only at the end. The group also proposed the industry cut down on “unnecessary product” and travel.

A few days before Gucci’s press conference, I spoke with Van Noten, a Paris-based designer whose label is part of the Spanish fragrance group Puig, and Keith, of the Hong Kong-based luxury retailer Lane Crawford, on Zoom to discuss why they think the industry is in need of an overhaul.

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FT: Over the past decade, designers have dramatically increased the volume and frequency of new goods via “drops” and collaborations. Are we going to see those go away?

KEITH: There is very much a place for new, exciting products. We need to stimulate customers, to get products in front of them at the right time, to be more agile within the season. [That could mean] smaller drops or special products for customers in particular regions. We need to get retail back into a position where it is not relying on discounts as the sole lever [to get customers to buy]. We need to get customers inspired again.

VAN NOTEN: It’s also about respect. It’s not respectful for the customer who buys a winter coat in September to see that the moment it gets wintery, [the coat is discounted] 50 per cent. The customer who has a really strong love for fashion has felt manipulated. The luxury market has looked too much to fast fashion and the high street.

"It’s not respectful for the customer who buys a winter coat in September to see that the moment it gets wintery, [the coat is discounted] 50 per cent.” – Dries Van Noten

FT: If designers want to sell more at full-price, do you think prices also need to be lowered?

KEITH: One of the issues that we have had is that pricing has not necessarily been consistent [across categories], and there is an opportunity to be more transparent. The pricing has to reflect the craftsmanship and the humanity and creativity that’s gone into producing it. Going on sale at the end of the season enables people who wouldn’t necessarily be able to buy at full price to have access to the products, and it should be like that. It’s about a balance. I’m not sure a blanket approach to reducing pricing is necessarily the way to go.

FT: Do fashion weeks and fashion shows also need a rethink?

VAN NOTEN: There’s not going to be a [women’s] show in September, we don’t have the budget, it’s not right to spend so much money on a show when maybe only 50-100 people can attend [because of social distancing guidelines]. Of course I’m going to miss it. I want to go back to that system, but in a more sustainable way, because now we realise we can do much better. It’s going to be really exciting what we can do digitally; maybe in the future it will be a combination of both.

KEITH: The life of the buyer has been pretty horrendous, we’re constantly on the road, travelling 150-200 days a year. There is definitely an opportunity for us to do more digitally. [However,] if you’re selling [a collection] to a buyer using Zoom or FaceTime, there’s going to have to be a combination of [physical] fabric swatches that will make the experience richer.

“The pricing has to reflect the craftsmanship and the humanity and creativity that’s gone into producing it.” – Andrew Keith

FT: One way to cut down on travel would be to combine the women’s and men’s fashion weeks.

VAN NOTEN: For me it would be very difficult. When we show, we get a lot of responses, positive, negative – we learn from it. We also get commercial input. Combining men’s and women’s fashion weeks would also be technically difficult because we couldn’t have all the clients at the same time. The pre-collections are far less efficient; every brand is selling at their own time, and buyers have to fly five times a season up and down Europe and America to see collections. Maybe something has to be done there.

FT: Your letter called for “less unnecessary product” and “less waste in fabric and inventory”. Dries, are there products that you have made that you would not make again, because you find them unnecessary?

VAN NOTEN: Of course. We need to make clothes that are really us, and that we believe in. There is a lot of surplus we could easily remove from collection without sacrifice. The [next] collection will be smaller, simply because we do not have the ability to do [more] financially.

“We need to make clothes that are really us, and that we believe in. There is a lot of surplus we could easily remove from collection without sacrifice.” – Dries Van Noten

KEITH: As China opens up and customers are coming back to stores, there is a change in how people are buying. Customers are looking for pieces that will be in their wardrobes for a while. That’s going to affect how we edit [our assortment]. There isn’t space for average or medium products.

FT: You’ve published the letter. How do you turn the proposal into action?

VAN NOTEN: We can hope. We can’t force. We aren’t going to be the fashion police. It’s not an easy year, and next year is also not going to be easy for anybody. All we can do is suggest, and we can start with our own business. Maybe we can start to create a new normal.

“Customers are looking for pieces that will be in their wardrobes for a while. That’s going to affect how we edit [our assortment].” – Andrew Keith

By Lauren Indvik © 2020 The Financial Times

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