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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Is the see-now buy-now (SNBN) fashion model proving a success?

The see-now buy-now model has had just over a year to find its feet. We talk to industry insiders about its fate

Burberry autumn winter 2017 runway show. Courtesy Burberry
Burberry autumn winter 2017 runway show. Courtesy Burberry

When see-now buy-now (SNBN) first surfaced in 2015, it was hailed as a breakthrough for the fashion industry. A brand new way of doing business, SNBN offered customers the opportunity to view a fashion show and buy the pieces the same day.

It felt like a logical response to runway shows opening their doors to bloggers and celebrities, and to shows being uploaded, in real time, onto social media channels. It gave designers an alternative to the standard business model of showing their collections months before they became available in stores.

By cutting that time lag, SNBN offered a direct connection to a new, more demanding consumer. For the Insta-generation, it offered instant gratification, breathing life into a system seemingly out of step with modern life. Brushing away the cobwebs, it dismissed the middlemen – magazines, fashion editors and stylists– and reached out directly to the clients instead. Liked it on the runway? Get it now.

“In term of factors that have supported the expansion of SNBN, I think they are the proliferation and democratisation of the internet,” says Sass Brown, founding dean of the Dubai Institute of Design and Innovation (Didi). “The associated growth of social media and the huge increase in the importance of bloggers and influencers, all of whom work with immediacy as content.

“The minute you court bloggers and influencers by putting them front and centre at your runway show, you are sharing your collection with the world – an impatient world that doesn’t want to wait six months to be able to purchase what they just saw. We live in a culture of immediacy that will have long since moved onto the next thing if you show them what’s coming in six months’ time.”

This system also provides brands with an element of control over the cheap rip-offs that litter every high street stores. Traditionally, high-end brands have stood helpless against the waves of cheap look-a-likes that have been churned out by high-street brands in a matter of weeks, hogtied by a system that necessitated a delay of four to six months between a fashion show reveal and pieces becoming available for purchase.

SNBN garnered a lot of attention in the United States, which is a relatively young fashion market. Labels like Tom Ford, Thakoon, Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger were quick to embrace it, while Burberry, Moschino and Versus Versace also expressed their excitement. Earlier this year, Donatella Versace shared her passion for the idea with us: “The internet and social media have changed everything. The old systems are collapsing. For many people, they find it terrifying. They want everything in fashion to stay the same, as if smartphones had never been invented. I am the opposite. I cannot remember a time when fashion has been as exciting as it is today.”

Seemingly simple on paper, in reality, switching to SNBN requires a total overhaul of design, manufacturing and delivery timelines. Relying on long supply chains – often using small, artisanal factories across several countries – high-end companies are often locked into inflexible schedules that are booked years in advance.

To get around this stumbling block, some brands had to forgo one entire fashion season to allow teams and factories to catch up. Burberry and Thakoon both had to miss their February show slots last year, to allow teams and timetables to re-adjust. With a turnover of £2.5 billion (Dh12.1b) last year, a company like Burberry can certainly afford to ride out one full season of lost sales, but clearly, such a gap would have greater consequences for smaller brands. Prior to the launch of this concept last year, we asked Burberry’s chief creative officer and president, ­Christopher Bailey, what prompted the move. “It was a bit of everything,” Bailey explained. “A gut feeling, a logical response to what the audience now wants, a reaction to a shift.”

Burberry autumn winter 2017 runway show. Courtesy Burberry
Burberry autumn winter 2017 runway show. Courtesy Burberry

The brand new era of SNBN was put into to play last September, when collections were shown, and as promised, made available in stores the very same day. However, fast forward a year, and the picture is already looking a little different. Despite announcing a switch, declaring that “the current way of showing a collection four months before it is available to customers is an antiquated idea, and one that no longer makes sense”, Tom Ford lasted just two seasons before reverting back. Citing stagnant sales as the reason, it seems the house could not get timings right. Even after a post-show shopping frenzy, sales were lower than previous seasons that offered long lead times on products. Set against enormous restructuring costs, it seemed the sums did not add up for Ford.

When Thakoon announced it was switching to “real-time” SNBN it was with the support of investor Bright Fame Fashions. Like Burberry, it deliberately missed its February show slot last year, and withdrew from placements in US departments stores beforehand, to ensure a smoother roll-out. It also dropped the standard full runway show, instead opting to use its new stand-alone store in New York to drip-feed smaller capsule collections to customers.

However, just six months later, the plan has all but fallen apart. Faced with disappointing sales and a lukewarm reception, Bright Fame Fashion has been quoted as saying “the business model is ahead of the current retail environment”.

However, not everything is doom and gloom. Despite facing the same exorbitant restructuring costs, Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren are all resolutely sticking with the new model, and if anything, are picking up speed. In London last month, Burberry delivered its third SNBN collection and it is proving a hit with customers. The first collection saw traffic to Burberry.com leap to over 15 million online hits, while prompting a surge in sales of new season outerwear. Aligning the runway show with the dismal British weather is proving to be a savvy move.

American brand Ralph Lauren was an early adopter of the concept, spurred on by then- chief executive Stefan Larsson. Keen to update the label, Larsson was the driving force behind the switch; however, he unexpectedly quit in February this year, throwing the industry into a guessing game of whether Lauren would stick with SNBN or not. Far from stumbling, however, Ralph Lauren has just upped its game.

For its most recent show in New York, surrounded by labels showing spring/summer 2018, Ralph Lauren himself took the unexpected move of decamping his autumn/winter 2017 show upstate, bussing the press and buyers to his personal garage, which houses his private collection of classic cars.

Perhaps slightly at odds with an SNBN model that seeks to be more – not less – accessible, it was an undeniably smart move. Faced with the confusion of two seasons simultaneously jostling for space and attention, Lauren opted to simply remove his audience to an environment where he was in control. Once on site, the audience watched models such as Presley Gerber, Bella and brother Anwar Hadid, Kendall Jenner and Victoria Secret angel Romee Strijd stride around priceless vintage cars. Although strictly invite only, prior to the event, Ralph Lauren HQ ran a fast-paced 24-hour online campaign, whipping up interest with hourly tantalising peeks of what was going on behind the scenes.

Ralph Lauren autumn winter 2017 runway show. Courtesy Ralph Lauren
Ralph Lauren autumn winter 2017 runway show. Courtesy Ralph Lauren

Likewise, Tommy Hilfiger is proving comfortable with SNBN. Once at risk of feeling outdated, the label embarked on a bold rethink that has resulted in a dramatic rise in fortunes.

The switch generated a 900 per cent increase in traffic to its website in the first 48 hours after the collection

was shown.

Louis Vuitton, meanwhile, opted for a scaled down SNBN for its resort collection this year, when it offered a selection of bags for sale, fresh off the runway. Alexander Wang used a reverse version of SNBN by imposing a media blackout on its resort 2017 collection, banning any communication until the pieces arrived in store in November. And, most recently, new label Mansur Gavriel chose to launch its womenswear collection immediately, presenting an autumn/winter show in September in New York.

Despite its successes, however, not everyone is convinced about this model. Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion at Chanel, shared his view on SNBN with us earlier in the year. “To be honest, I am talking with a lot of customers, and I have never heard: ‘We want to go faster’. People are buying what they see in the boutiques and they feel comfortable with that. They can view the new collection and they have time to think.” He continued: “At Chanel, because of the level of the product, and the level of sophistication, if we say we will do SNBN, it will not be serious. For us, it is simply impossible.”

With two now seemingly contradictory schools of thought running parallel to one another, what does this mean for fashion as a whole? Is this the start of a schism that will get wider? Or will one system fail, forcing everyone into one camp?

It is too early to tell? The jury is still out on whether this concept can be dubbed a success, or just an experiment. However, what it does show, is a willingness within the industry to listen to new ideas and new approaches.

Didi’s Brown sums it up: “The pro of SNBN is a more direct and immediate connection between designer and purchaser/wearer. The con is I think it promotes disposability. Purchasing is done on a whim; it’s no longer a considered purchase that you have to contemplate and consider, and hence why I think it works well for the high street, and less well for luxury brands.

“I don’t envisage that all collections will be shown for immediate purchase. I think we will see much more diversity of how collections are shown, when they are shown, what they show and to who they show it, and that is a beautiful thing. I think the variety and means of expression will allow brands to carve out their niche, their way of differentiating themselves from their competition, and there won’t be a single means to remain relevant.”

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