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CFDA's Forum Debates the Fashion System

Diane von Furstenberg, Donna Karan and Anna Wintour weigh in at CFDA's town hall meeting.

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Donna Karan

Photo By Doug Goodman

NEW YORK — The fashion industry had a group therapy session Tuesday morning, thanks to the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

At a town hall meeting convened by the CFDA, designers, retailers and fashion journalists initially were meant to discuss the relevance of fashion shows and whether they should be targeted at consumers or the industry. But that topic rapidly got subsumed by a litany of complaints over the entire hyperactive fashion system.

Recession fallout; discount-driven shoppers; the disconnect between runway looks and in-store merchandise; ridiculously early deliveries; oversupplied stores; markdown madness; fashion shows’ potentially breakneck costs; the worldwide reach of runway coverage, and the seemingly endless number of seasons were among the thornier subjects discussed at the private gathering at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Despite those storm clouds overhead, CFDA president Diane von Furstenberg repeatedly emphasized the upside and offered ways to solidify a sunnier future for designers, retailers and the media.

“There is no way when you are in the middle of a tsunami that you can change absolutely everything,” von Furstenberg, all too familiar with how the economic crisis has taken its toll on the industry, told the crowd. “But one thing that we can do and that I would like to do is make New York Fashion Week the most dynamic fashion week in the world.”

Scores of CFDA members, including Donna Karan, Francisco Costa, Lazaro Hernandez and Betsey Johnson, as well as representatives from IMG Fashion, which produces Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week, listened attentively, but then piped up to air their concerns, as well as their hopes of building a stronger future for the industry once the economy rebounds from the global recession.

“I always like to look for the light at the end of the tunnel, and see how we can grow from there,” said von Furstenberg.

After brainstorming with retailers, designers and editors, she had come to the conclusion it was time to address the issues directly in an open forum. “Everyone had been too greedy, and everyone thought the party was forever,” von Furstenberg said. “We wanted more merchandise, and more of this and more of that, and expect 20 percent increases every month, and at some point it just became too much of everything. I realized that what we all have to do is reduce the offerings and create the demand.”

Upbeat as some attendees were, several aired concerns about the relevance of the shows, retailers’ rampant discounting, the need for full-priced sell-throughs and the timing of deliveries.

“We are in a crisis,” Karan said flat out. “There’s no question about it.”

Having been a proponent of selling and even showing clothes in season for the past 10 years, she lived up to her reputation of challenging the fashion cycle and the timeliness of the shows.

“We design for the consumer, and right now, I believe the consumer is completely confused,” Karan said, adding shoppers don’t know whether they were looking at a pre-season, a fall season, or another delivery. “We should truly focus on the problem and the solution. The consumer has been trained to buy on sale. The clothes in stores are not in season, so she is confused. Why should she go out and spend money early in the season, when in fact come September and October, when the season actually changes, the next season is there and it’s called resort? We are putting all the energy into something that the consumer isn’t really getting, because by then it’s on sale.”

 

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Calvin Klein Inc. president and chief executive officer Tom Murry said moving up delivery dates works against what’s going on in the economic environment. He noted that when he started in the business, sell-throughs were between 10 and 15 percent a week, compared with today’s rate of 1 or 2 percent. Oversupply in the U.S. is a contributing factor. Murry suggested getting deliveries more in line with Europe’s, which are closer to an as-needed basis and “that’s why they’re still making money and we aren’t.”

Elie Tahari said for the past two months, his company has shipped wear-now products instead of pre-fall and as a result, sell-throughs have doubled and tripled. “Business is actually great for us. We have changed things, so it’s about shipping clothes that you can buy and wear right away,” he said. “We are trying to do as much as we can do to stop this virus, as you said Diane, that is going on. Every day, there is a different sale going on in a store.”

Von Furstenberg said perhaps designers should be shipping less product more frequently to better accommodate retailers. She also urged attendees to talk to retailers, and to be honest and open with each other.

On another front, Anna Wintour, editor in chief of Vogue, suggested forming a committee that could potentially create ground rules on setting a start date for stores to discount merchandise. When an audience member challenged the legality of that idea, the Vogue editor said, “Well, is that something we can change? We have friends in the White House now.”

Connecting with consumers through a variety of innovative efforts is essential, said von Furstenberg, who singled out Fashion’s Night Out on Sept. 10 as a way to kick off this new mind-set. As reported, Vogue has teamed up with NYC & Company, the City of New York, the CFDA and retailers to stage an array of in-store events to entice shoppers. There will be similar events in cities worldwide.

Betsey Johnson ran with von Furstenberg’s idea of playing up the consumer angle during fashion week. “I would love to show at Madison Square Garden. I wish that fashion week for the public could be like Christmas. We could put green lights up — green and pink [representing money and breast cancer, respectively]. I could completely have my showroom open to the public. I could run around that week. I could celebrate in the stores. I could make it clear in my presentation that, ‘This is now,’ and ‘That’s coming.’”

Von Furstenberg encouraged constantly juggling trade demands and consumer needs when making business decisions. “When you dress celebrities, try not to always give things too early,” she said. “If it’s in the back of the mind, you have that kind of awareness and you will be more careful. What is important today, it’s not just to sell it in, but to sell it through.”

The CFDA has created an e-mail address at fashionweek@cfda.com to encourage designers, retailers and editors to send in their ideas, and it plans to form smaller committees to work on the ideas.

“I think that the media landscape changed so much in the last five to 10 years with the Internet, and with the international press,” said KCD president Ed Filipowski. “It’s probably a good time...for the industry to come together and look at how we need to adapt to how the landscape has changed.”

Proenza Schouler’s Hernandez noted there is a “disconnect between the press and the buyers,” and that the label’s shows mainly target the press. With the speed of the Internet, and blogs, he noted how runway clothes can often seem dated by the time they reach the consumer. He and McCollough are thinking about ways to avoid this problem.

Roopal Patel, women’s fashion accessory senior market editor at Neiman Marcus, said, “Right now, [with] the state that retail is in, every image that is on the Internet, every editorial credit helps to make a sale, whether it’s three months later or four months later.…If you can get into the stores, do a morning clinic, do a trunk show. Get to know your client. Get into the dressing room with them. Any little thing you do to help support that sale won’t go unnoticed and it will definitely come back to help your final business.”

She also suggested featuring a handful of pre-collection looks on the runway for designers who are putting more time and energy into that part of their business. “The consumer these days is much savvier than she has ever been,” Patel said. “Some are looking for a bargain and some are looking for the dream, and that’s what everyone’s runway show really provides right now…to help support that dream.”

 

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