Tag Archives: vogue

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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Grace Coddington and André Leon Talley: The Need (?) for Speed

Waiting for André Leon Talley in my rainboots, I tweeted last week, sitting at Barnes & Noble where the VOGUE editor-at-large was scheduled to appear with Creative Director Grace Coddington.

André Leon Talley, photo by Heather R. Gregg

Incidentally, en route to the bookstore from Condé Nast, the two creatives were discussing Twitter and Facebook’s ubiquity. Upon arrival, they shared some of their thoughts on the fast flow of media and fashion during a discussion with The September Issue director RJ Cutler.

“I have a Facebook and a Twitter, I’m told,” said the fiery-haired Ms. Coddington. I got out my phone to tweet that but then stopped, realizing I wanted to listen to what she would say next.

Grace Coddington, photo by Heather R. Gregg

“It doesn’t help me in fashion very much. I don’t work that way, and I’m a little old to start working that way now,” said Coddington. “If you do something fast, which is what all those things make you do, because you’re spending your whole time reading and then it’s out of date in ten minutes or something, I don’t think that’s good for fashion. We’re trying to speed up all those poor designers so that they have fifteen collections a year 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. It breaks my heart.”

Alexander McQueen gown, image from The Metropolitan Museum

At the end of the discussion, the final audience member allowed a question promised she would try to be fast, and then came out with this, seemingly in a single breath:

“You mentioned that you don’t interact much with the Internet and I can understand and that, and I agree with what you said, Grace, about the quality does suffer, with the democratization—but at the same time I think that a lot of people are here and know about the movie through those same channels and I am someone from the generation that does interact with that, but I choose not to. I don’t Tweet; I don’t have a Facebook page and that’s very rare. I may be one of the last people. So, what I would ask you is, do you think it’s something of a fair trade-off, maybe something’s lost but something’s gained: more people know about your industry and I know that you all came to it kind of aspirationally, but it seems that’s not enough for people anymore and they want like that interaction and a lot of designers I noticed are just doing shows online now as opposed to just doing the large runway productions, and that may be a financial decision but at the same time it gives people greater access. Okay, so do you think that there is any value in that, and that it is a fair trade-off?”

“Yeah, I think it’s a fair trade-off.” Grace replied. “I have to say, after that very long question, yeah, that’s maybe good that you’re not twittering or something.”

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A Man and His Tweed

The night before Fashion Week began, I read an article in which the Financial Times’ style editor lamented the lack of a common lexicon when it comes to sustainability in style. She asked a variety of designers for their definitions and, of course, they varied greatly. Incidentally, the first show Dossier assigned me to cover was John Patrick Organic, a collection one might presume to be made of entirely organic fabrics. But one might be presumptuous. 

There were, indeed, some pieces, like the turtleneck on the left, made from fabrics that were, well, conventionally organic. But the most interesting fabric was not organic–at least, not according to the federal regulation. My favorite pieces in the collection–high-waisted shorts and trousers and a riding jacket with peaked shoulders were made of something called Harris Tweed. 

Just as John Patrick was beginning to tell me about it, a rather distinguished looking continental type strode into the show, donning  a great deal of tweed himself. John Patrick, flitting between photo opps and interviews, looked relieved to hand me off to an authority, and so I was introduced to Mr. Alan L. Bain, the Director of Harris Tweed Textiles:

Mr. Bain told me all about the Act of Parliament that protects the name of Harris Tweed, 100% sheep’s wool that must be spun, dyed and handwoven (at home!) by the islanders of the Outer Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. Each bolt is stamped with a Maltese cross and orb, the stamp of Harris Tweed–a coat of arms that John Patrick, incidentally, integrated into the arm of a coat:

It’s beautiful stuff, full of multi-colored flecks–the result of tossing together different colored skeins of dyed wool before spinning the yarns. 

“It’s like baking a cake,” Mr. Bain said. “You have a recipe of different percents of colors.” (I was partial to an orchid pink shade used in a pair of high-waisted shorts.) It’s a recipe the Scots have been using since the 1800s, for a natural, bio-degradable, and, dare I say, beautiful fabric. But my guess would be that it isn’t cheap, which might be why Harris Tweeds’ production is down to one quarter of what it was 15 years ago (400,000 meters per year vs. 1,600,000 in 1995). The Act of Parliament was taken up by Prince Charles and the wool lords (not to be confused with war lords–we’re not talking about Blood Tweed) to protect the traditional techniques of farming and fabric production. The girls from Vogue arrived while I was chatting with Mr. Bain. They loved the tweeds. J Crew has apparently taken up the fabric as well. 

“But is it organic?” I asked Mr. Bain. Well, not exactly. Not the dyes, he said. There is one gent on the island, said Mr. Bain, doing organic, but they just didn’t have the demand yet. So, here’s a strictly defined fabric made of natural fibers using a 200-year old method that’s keeping a few Scottish farmers in business. It’s been in a slump, but might make a comeback if the right designers create demand. 

So while it may seem a little dodgy to use the word “organic” as a brand name for a line in which all the fabrics are not organic in the strictest sense, it also seems it wouldn’t make sense to throw out the baby with the bath water. I agree with the Financial Times’ editor, that the fashion industry needs to set some solid, scientifically definable standards of sustainability to adhere to. But I also think we need to leave a little room for interpretation and let it develop, well, organically, to leave a little room in designers’ lexicons for fabrics like Harris Tweed.

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