The Broken Fashion Calendar

They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. And the fashion industry has a problem: The calendar is broken.

Grace Coddington admitted it in March. Julie Gilhart alluded to it in April. And Plum Sykes investigated further in this month’s Vogue, with commiseration from designers like Matthew Williamson and Tomas Maier.

Even when I worked in fashion, I struggled to understand the reasoning behind a system that kept designers “creating” at a relentless rate, so stores could fill their racks with winter sweaters come July, and bikinis shortly after Christmas.

I was trying to make sense of this at the end of last year, and called for backup. Enter Tomoko Ogura, who oversees the buyers of Barney’s Co-op, and Michelle Goad, a merchandiser for Marc Jacobs. When we had lunch the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the young women were recovering from buying and selling, respectively, the Pre-Fall 2010 collections. But on a personal level, Michelle was in the market for a new winter coat. She had stopped by Barney’s with high hopes, but all the good ones were gone in her size.

That’s because the wool and cashmere coats had been out since July, when the average temperature in New York hovers around 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tomoko said she understood her friend’s plight.

“No matter how much they want a winter coat,” she said of her customers, “they are not going to buy it three months ahead of time.”

But, because Barney’s follows the fashion industry’s general calendar, the designers Tomoko buys from ship her wool coats in July and swimsuits in January. She said she tries to give her customers a reasonable reprieve between the holidays and swimsuit season by pushing those designers to ship swimwear just a few weeks later. But in order for this to be effective, she said, designers would have to ship to all their stores later, not just Barney’s. Otherwise, a Diane von Furstenberg bikini may be in the window at Saks weeks before it hits Barney’s, and no one likes to appear behind the ball.

It’s like an arms race, with tropical printed triangle bikinis as weapons.

Image from Juergen H. Dam

And some of those designers deliver new styles as many as twelve times per year. Each of these deliveries falls into one of four seasons: Pre-Fall, Fall, Resort, and Spring. Michelle drew me a dizzying spreadsheet-like calendar, outlining when those “seasonal” collections are actually on the stores’ floors, which has absolutely no correlation with silly factors like the weather. Also on the calendar, is the ever-important markdown—putting items on sale to make room for new merchandise.

But if Michelle Goad, a Marc Jacobs merchandiser who can hand-draw this absurdist calendar from memory, can’t get it together to pick out her winter coat at summer’s end, who on earth can? (Apparently, Plum Sykes can, but let’s agree she’s an outlier.)

Tomoko’s colleague Julie Gilhart–Barney’s Fashion Director and industry bellwether–told Style.com the seasonal system has been abused. “Whatever we can do to slow it down,” she said, “I’m all for.”

Grace Coddington, Vogue’s Creative Director, sounded pretty fed up  when I saw her speak in March. “We’re trying to speed up all those poor designers so that they have fifteen collections a year,” she said. “And it’s stupid. I mean, how many dresses can you wear? And it makes them do it not so well, or they have a breakdown, or as just very very sadly happened, Alexander McQueen killed himself. And that’s part of that hysteria that breaks my heart.”

If that’s not a wake-up call, I’m not sure what is.

It seems some sort of armistice is in order, but what will it take, for designers and retailers to make a systemic change? And what would that look like? At Barney’s, it looks like more limited-edition pieces with interesting stories–think recycled, hand-made, one-of-a-kind. Remember my favorite winter scarf?

Inoue Brothers Scarves

Tomoko was the one who stocked Barney’s shelves with the Bolivian woven shawls. In fact, after seeing one wrapped around her neck that afternoon, I was driven to distraction with the memory of its rainbow-plaid panes. I called the Barney’s Co-op on Madison Avenue to ask if there were any left.

“No,” a young man told me. “That’s all we’re getting in terms of cold weather merchandise.” The next arrivals would be for Spring 2010. Meanwhile, outside, the first snowflakes of the season had just begun to fall.

So what can we do? Hazel Clark, a dean at Parsons, has explored the idea of slowing down the race, and resetting the fashion calendar to look more like a circle than a straight road.

“A cyclical approach would be to think of fashion and clothes ‘moving around’ a cycle,” she wrote in an email. “This could simply be bringing out clothes from the wardrobe to meet seasonal changes in weather e.g. last year’s warm winter coat – or cyclical ideas like re-making, sharing.”

I love those ideas, but I’m not sure the industry is ready for a fashion calendar that’s quite so revolutionary.

So here’s my proposal. How about a compact, whereby a powerful institution like the CFDA, or even Barney’s, gathers a group of designers in need of a break, and arranges for each of them to take a season off in organized rotation? Barney’s could guarantee to buy their remaining seasonal collections, and the designers’ participation in the program would get them–and fashion’s fast-forwarded production calendar–some good press. It’s sort of like our government paying farmers not to plant corn. Maybe a retreat for recovery and inspiration could even be part of the arrangement, compliments of Donna Karan’s Pure Peru.

And when we’re done doing that, we could do the same thing for journalists.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Broken Fashion Calendar

  1. Jenni, again you have written a very insightful piece. I would like to offer a different perspective from someone who is on the gerbil wheel. I think you have to take into account who or what are the most important factors in the fashion industry, and it’s not the designers. It’s not even the retailers. It is the manufacturers and the print media. Their lead times are the ones that have led to the calendar that we are living by. Let me explain my point of view. First, the manufacturing. When fashion’s manufacturing base shifted from New York to China this drastically shifted the landscape in many ways. Firstly once the onslaught of designers leaving smaller scale producers began it was indeed an arms race, but a race for production time. The busier the Chinese factories became the more advance notice they needed to book production time. The same with the mills. Factor in the shipping time of goods to and from and you are already at least 30-60 days ahead of where you would normally be. So as a result collections had to be finished much earlier than before. The manufacturing dynamic had another effect. Quantity. In order to get into these facilities and insure your pricing you had to give them larger orders which also meant that the retailers needed to be prepared to sell more. This is a distinct disadvantage for the up and coming designers as they get squeezed out at both ends. The second factor is the print media. We all know how important it is to appeal to the editors at the various magazines. Their lead times are three months out at a minimum. Now this does not play as important a part as the manufacturing but when you think of the rush to get samples made to photograph of a collection that is a year away from being in a store in order to get it to the editors on time it’s important. There is a tremendous amount of pressure to get your designs in the ever shrinking editorial pages before the next label does. In short the longer the lead times become for manufacturing and marketing the shorter the window designers have to fully conceptualize their collections. I think this is also corollary to the dearth of significant trends as collections become a modified version of the previous season more so than a new and fresh statement.

  2. Jamie,
    Thanks for your comment–a lot to think about there on the gerbil wheel! It’s interesting to think about the possibility of fashion media moving away from print, toward the web, as possibly offering designers some reprieve…
    Can I ask a favor, since I can see you’re not busy enough already? Could you leave your comments on the Huffington Post as well? I’d love to see if the readers there have more to add… http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jenni-avins/fashions-broken-calendar_b_551345.html#comments

    • Jenni, I left a condensed version at HuffPo. Also in an interesting way this ties back to your previous article on sustainability. My friend Neal Morris is on a Loeb Fellowship at Harvard. One of his professors has the mantra that density is the key to sustainability. I think that there is an analogy here. But it is a density of time as much as area. The more our time frames expand the quicker we have to react. It seems that the opposite would be true but it simply isn’t. The shorter your time frames (deadlines for lack of a better word) the less time you have to actually create.

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