Sustainability, the fate of department stores, runway shows and our shifting shopping habits are perennial hot topics in the fashion industry. That’s why we gathered three experts in our radio studio at Midori House to gaze into fashion’s crystal ball and hammer out the big issues.
Our guests have contrasting backgrounds. Paula Gerbase, a Brazil-born, London-based fashion designer, was behind cult unisex label 1205, which closed in 2016; she also recently launched Gerbase, a brand offering women’s bespoke tailoring, jewellery and knitwear. In addition she’s the creative director of shoe-maker John Lobb.
Representing the buyers is Dean Cook. He previously worked in sales for Prada, Jil Sander and Versace and is now the menswear buying manager for Browns, the London retail institution that turns 50 next year and is opening a new flagship in Mayfair.
Adam Shapiro is our PR guru. The American was previously at Burberry and KCD, and is the founder of L52 Communications, a London agency whose clients include The Row, Bally and Dutch up-and-comer Wandler.
There has been a lot of discussion surrounding whether the traditional catwalk model will last. Paula, you did runway shows with 1205 – what do you think?
PAULA GERBASE: I started 1205 with a collection of 12 unisex, genderless pieces that got picked up in Japan and grew from there. When I started we didn’t do runway shows – I was very much against them. I just wanted to create clothing and my goal wasn’t to see it on vogue.com; I wanted to see it worn on the street. The Japanese are good at picking up brands without needing all the fireworks. It’s funny because I was based in London but we were Japan-centric. But when you start to sell to the West, other pressures come along. The way we judge success as an industry can be quite limiting: if you’re a brand and you don’t aspire to do shows there’s something wrong with you.
What convinced you to do them then?
PG: We got sponsorship from the BFC [British Fashion Council], specifically to do a show. It works for lots of brands but I think it also puts pressure on young businesses who could probably be using that money to, I don’t know, run their businesses. Because ultimately your goal is to have longevity. That said, the shows took us from being an underground brand to big retailers knocking on our door. All the department stores are suddenly interested in what you’re doing because you’re in this format that they understand. But I think also it draws a certain kind of customer that you don’t necessarily share values with.
Adam, you’re in the business of building brand awareness. Is a runway show still the best way to do that? adam shapiro: It’s not a one-size-fits-all mentality any more. For big brands, shows are critical. Because on top of the budget to do a special show they bring all their social-media might, all their press stuff, all their vip-dressing-influencer stuff. There are so many other elements of their communications strategy, which means that the show is one of the big peaks for them – but then it lives on for the rest of the season. Think about a really big recent show: the Versace womenswear show.
When Jennifer Lopez closed the spring/summer 2020 show in a replica of the famous Versace gown she wore to the Grammys in 2000…
AS: Not only are you getting huge attention at the time of the show, because of J-Lo, but you also have a conversation that builds for the rest of the season. But that is a mega-brand approach; they can afford to do something like that and they need to be seen, compared to their peers, as behaving in that sort of way. For a small or mid-level brand a show is a very different proposition. It depends on how much budget you have allocated, your creative process and your production timelines. All these things become important when you’re smaller because you have to allocate your dollars so that you get the most bang for your buck.
PG: But it’s not just about how you allocate your marketing budgets: it also comes down to values and what you want to say as a brand. The Versace example is interesting because I actually have no idea what that collection looked like. All I know is that J-Lo walked the finale and people were going crazy about it. But maybe it’s OK [that I don’t know about the collection] because it is getting attention to that brand at that moment.
Does the Versace example just highlight the fact that the goal of a fashion show now is to create a big Instagram moment?
DEAN COOK: Well, if J-Lo didn’t walk that catwalk, we wouldn’t be talking about Versace, would we? The razzmatazz has lifted the brand to another level.
AS: I do think there are younger designers for whom the show is genuinely a creative expression. And they use it as an opportunity to not only showcase the clothing but also build a universe.
DC: Do most young brands want to get to the runway?
AS: Many young brands would consider themselves a “runway brand” so they want to put on a show. But I work with other people that have zero interest in a runway show.
PG: But does that make them lesser than the runway brands?
AS: Not at all – it means they have a different approach to growing their business. A runway brand is growing its business through a much more niche fashion audience at the beginning, hoping to build coolness and exclusivity and have that filter out from there. Another brand might want a presentation, great digital content and a kick-ass social-media strategy. And maybe they have a stronger direct-to-consumer model versus a wholesale model. But I think the cleverer brands have something they’re working towards and use a runway show – or another format – as a means to get there.
PG: I think, as an industry, creativity and high-end means runway. And when we talk about not doing runway we talk about straight-to-consumer and more commercial strategies. I’m interested in expressing something that’s creative – but not a runway show. I’m interested in whether that’s actually more creative than always falling back on a runway show as the only form of presentation for fashion as a medium.
AS: I think there could be lots of interesting ways to present a collection that aren’t runway but ultimately there needs to be a commercial component to what you’re doing. Because if you’re going to survive and sell something you have to somehow disseminate the visuals of what you’ve created to a wider audience. So you need to think how can people buy it, where they buy it and what it looks like.
Paula, are you thinking of a format that could replace a runway show?
PG: I think about that all the time. I’m not saying I will never do a show but I’m asking, “Are there more interesting alternatives?” Maybe they are straight to consumer; maybe they are a press presentation that isn’t just people standing around. I don’t have the answer. But there must be ways that go beyond categorising “high-end” collections as being shown on runways, and “commercial” straight-to-consumer collections as being shown digitally. Because those boundaries are blurred. You know, the Versace moment was a digital moment…
AS: And let’s not discount the talent involved [with Versace]. I mean, from J-Lo’s perspective, she has a new movie to promote [Hustlers]. And, in the wake of its acquisition by Michael Kors, Versace wants to emphasise that the brand hasn’t changed – it’s still the Versace we know from the past. So it links together very cleverly from both sides. It’s a masterclass in collaboration.
PG: What does that have to do with fashion though?
AS: It has to do with commerce and awareness – I’m not sure it has much to do with creativity, necessarily.
PG: That’s what I find interesting. We talk about runways as being these moments of pure, unadulterated creativity but the show that we’re talking about from last season was a beautifully executed marketing exercise.
AS: The industry has changed so much. I mean, we can remember the McQueen shows, which were pure expressions of creativity. But it’s a very different world now because back then they didn’t have to sing digitally: they only had to engage the audience that was in the room and make them feel like they were part of something special. Now it has to translate digitally to a global audience too. The runway show has to do something different for today’s brands than when it could be a purely creative play.
Dean, as a buyer, how much attention do you pay to the runway shows?
DC: They’re super important for me because it’s what the consumer sees. A runway show is in all the magazines, on social media – everyone’s talking about it. Yes, I agree with Paula that it has become a bit of a circus but runways also give brands a chance to show what they’re all about. I think the runways are great.
PG: Another reason I couldn’t really justify runways shows in the end was the sustainability question. I have had arguments with friends who are producers. They’ve said, “Oh, but the benches are rented.” And I’ve said, “Yes but I know you binned that carpet.” Everyone wants beautiful printed invitations but then they throw them on the floor after the show. There are printed seating cards. There’s, I don’t know, icebergs being flown in. There’s such a huge amount of waste.
DC: I think we’re going to see a lot of change there though. Sustainability is the first thing that many brands are talking about now.
PG: I was quite frustrated last season because there was so much talk from brands about the importance of the environment. Meanwhile, look at the amount that is being produced – the fabric wastage, the shipping, the shows. It’s not enough to say it: the values need to be followed through.
DC: We have a whole sustainability department in the Farfetch office [Browns is owned by Farfetch] that’s looking at how sustainable brands are. If you’re a brand it’s about showing that you’re trying these things.
PG: But truly trying, rather than just talking about it.
AS: There’s no chance any brand can reach 100 per cent sustainability so it’s about doing the absolute best you can – within the means of your survival. Because it’s pointless to make all these moves if the brand is not going to stick around; sadly there has to be an element of the conversation that allows brands to be profitable.
Sustainability can feel like a buzzword.
AS: From a PR perspective it’s really cringey when you’re championing sustainability at the top of your press release. It needs to be a major pillar that underpins your business. But if it’s at the top of a press release it makes you question what the brand is up to.
It makes it seem like the selling point.
AS: And it shouldn’t be. It should be such a natural part of your day-to-day business that it doesn’t supersede anything else. But consumers can just rely on the fact that you’re doing the best you can with your supply chain. That’s the goal: for sustainability not to be such a unique thing that it sets a brand apart.
PG: I had an interesting online shopping experience recently. I spend a lot of time outside and there’s one outerwear brand at the forefront of talking about the environment: Patagonia. Their things are truly great quality. But I ordered a garment from their website and it arrived at my house in two layers of plastic. As a customer who felt like I shared the brand’s values, I found that shocking. That’s when I think about true values versus a marketing strategy to target millennial audiences.
There’s also this tension because the fashion industry is premised on selling lots of things, which is at odds with not creating waste.
AS: You have people saying, “OK, buy one fabulous thing that you’re going to wear forever.” That’s a slightly classist statement because there are people who can’t afford that one thing that will last forever. You have to engage the fast-fashion brands as well in terms of cleaning up their practices.
DC: But the fashion thing is not to have it last a lifetime. We’re doing a sneaker launch and then next week we’re telling you to buy another pair. We’re doing four drops a week. We’re telling you to buy as much as possible. It’s like anything: you want, you want, you want – you get. And then you get bored and you want something else.
PG: I actually don’t think “fast fashion” is a big ugly phrase. There’s space for all types of fashion but it’s about doing it with integrity. You can look at the way you manufacture things whether you’re at luxury or high-street level.
DC: The good thing is everyone is taking notice. I feel it’s come upon us very quickly. For me this is the biggest trend. Although I’ve noticed there are much more women’s than menswear brands that are engaging with sustainability.
PG: My worry is that it is a trend. That it goes away. That next season it will be something else.
DC: I don’t think it will.
There’s lots of chat now about Barneys and the future of department stores. Is this a concern?
DC: I don’t think you can put all department stores into the same category. Just look at Selfridges: it’s a hugely successful business.
AS: The American department stores are a specific thing unto themselves. There’s definitely some reckoning going on there. Here in London the department-store networks aren’t as large so they’ve managed to really focus on each store.
DC: If you think about our three biggest department stores [Selfridges, Harrods and Liberty], they’re so different from one another.
Whereas one of the criticisms levelled at Barneys was that it lost a point of view and became too generic.
AS: Totally. It didn’t feel like the unique place where you would go to find brands that you couldn’t find anywhere else. As an American transplant living in London, I think that the London department stores do a very good job of getting customers in and keeping them for a long time. At department stores in the States there’s less to keep you interested, by and large. Here you can spend the whole day in Selfridges, just like that.
Dean, what does a fashion shop need to do today to thrive?
DC: We sit around the table every week talking about this. For me the most important thing is product. Because why are you going to a boutique? You’re not going because it’s got a great staircase or a fantastic garden. You’re going to look at product – at things that are different from what you can get elsewhere. That other stuff is around creating an experience.
Everyone says shops need to create an ‘experience’. How important do you think that actually is and how do you deliver it? DC: Every three to four weeks at Browns East [Browns’ Shoreditch outpost] we change the store, from the entrance to the pop-up area to the full brand mix. And every three months the café changes.
PG: It sounds exhausting.
DC: It is but it means that every time you go in you’ll see something different. We have pop-up areas with exclusive launches, capsule collections and art installations. We have a running club that goes from the store, plus music and parties. It’s about engaging the community as well.
AS: It’s clever the way Browns is an international name but you also localise the store. Plenty of stores rely on tourists and I think that’s to their detriment. You need to have a natural relationship with your immediate surroundings – to have locals coming in to shop.
Do you worry that online shopping will kill physical retail?
PG: Online is the norm now. But online is for picking your uniform: I’ll get socks and another six T-shirts. I don’t need to have an experience buying sports socks. When you go into a store you want to feel something, whether it’s about having a relationship with the people there or touching the product. Some products, like ski boots or bespoke shoes, are hard to buy online – you have to try them. These are based on a long-lasting relationship between artisan and customer. I don’t think the human side of those relationships will ever go away; I think we’re craving them more. Also, if I want to discover, I don’t know, a new brand from Argentina, maybe I check their Instagram and see that they have a pop-up at Browns. And then there’s a way I can interact with them in a very direct and human way, which is quite modern really. Most people think the digital sphere has distanced people but actually, in some ways, it’s given us the opportunity – as brands – to be closer to a customer. That’s a great thing. Communication has become easier and we’re more accessible to one another. I find it interesting when a customer just sends me a DM [direct message on Instagram]. That direct feedback is really heartwarming. I think that human connection hasn’t been lost – it’s actually been highlighted.
This conversation was also recorded for On Design, monocle’s design-themed radio show. Tune in at monocle.com/radio/shows – or listen via iTunes, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts.