Are People Actually Seeing Now and Buying Now?

From Tommy to Tom Ford, a look at how the shift to shoppable runway shows is working.
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Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry. Photos: Imaxtree

Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Burberry. Photos: Imaxtree

The biggest topic of conversation among New York Fashion Week show-goers, aside from the weather ("Ugh, it's so hot!" exclaimed those wearing Vetements hoodies in 93-degree heat), was "see now, buy now." We even have the jackets to prove it. And while this September was not the first season designers experimented with showing in-season merchandise, we've seen more of them do it than ever before — in both New York and London — to varying degrees, including Rebecca Minkoff, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Michael Kors, Alexander Wang x Adidas, Burberry, Club Monaco, Ralph Lauren, Thakoon, Opening Ceremony and Topshop. Confused yet?

The point of "see now, buy now," of course, is to sell clothes and, as suggested by the repeated use of the word “now” in this phrase, to create a sense of urgency that inspires shoppers to buy those clothes immediately. So did they?

While the sales numbers aren't in yet, this season gave us some pretty clear insight into what works and what doesn't when it comes to compelling customers to buy what they see on the runway right away. The first, and perhaps biggest, case study was the over-the-top Tommy x Gigi event at the South Street Seaport on the first Friday of NYFW, when the brand staged an actual carnival to showcase a fully shoppable collection of nautical-inspired daywear. Guests bought pieces from the nearby pop-ups after the show, at least by Tyler's account; she even felt compelled to pick up a $95 sweatshirt for herself. Later that same day, several of the under-$100 pieces were already sold out online. Now, a solid portion of what's on Tommy.com is either sold out entirely or only available in very limited sizes.

Hilfiger got the equation just right: an influential social supermodel whom everyone wants to look like (not to mention her friend Taylor Swift in the front row), a buildup of buzz before the event, an immersive, Instagrammable spectacle of a fashion show, an open-to-the-public shopping component and affordable, wearable and relatively seasonless product. According to the Digital Engagement Rating released by ListenFirst on Monday, Tommy was the top digital brand of NYFW on the day of its show, generating over 411K digital engagements — a 347 percent increase compared to the previous day and a 36 increase increase over Tommy’s performance at NYFW the year prior.

"See now, buy now" makes perfect sense for a brand like Tommy Hilfiger that has millions of dollars to spend on building everything from buzz to ferris wheels, and that is by and large a commercial brand with over 1,400 of its own stores across 90 countries. The point of its runway shows was always to sell both clothes and a lifestyle, as opposed to presenting an artistic vision, like you might expect from a Marc Jacobs or a Rodarte show.

Somewhat similarly — though on a smaller scale — Rebecca Minkoff showed her second "runway to retail" collection on the backs of both models and influencers on a sidewalk catwalk outside of her Soho store. The designer's guests, half of whom were customers, could immediately buy what they had just seen. Minkoff has said that last season's "see-now, buy-now" show drove a 200 percent sales increase that month, suggesting that, for an accessories-driven contemporary brand with an influencer marketing strategy, this model might be the way to go.

But what about when a true Fashion Brand tries the new system? For Alexander Wang, it was the perfect way to launch his (semi-) secret collaboration with Adidas. An element of surprise + an extremely strong brand identity + a festival-themed after party + affordable black athleisure (with a marijuana leaf-esque logo) + limited availability = demand. (I’m pretty sure that’s what they teach you in Microeconomics 101.) Our very own Alyssa bought a crew neck sweatshirt at said after-party, and various pop-up trucks around the city carrying a limited capsule drop (the full line doesn’t hit stores until spring) drew lines around the block hours before they even arrived at their designated locations the next day.

Of course, that was just a capsule collection. What about when a high-end designer's entire runway assortment is "see-now, buy-now"? So far, Burberry seems to be the winner at that level. The digitally savvy brand has dipped its toes into "see now, buy now" for several seasons with select items, such as customizable bags and scarves. But on Monday, everything it showed in London — after plenty of social-media teasing — was shoppable. It became available not just in stores, but also via Facebook messenger (the show streamed on the platform), Snapchat, WeChat and Kakao. While the Virginia Woolf-inspired collection included some fall staples (outerwear, boots), Bailey described it as "seasonless" and there were a number of covetable pieces that had Fashionista editors and the brand's engaged social media followers seemingly ready to shell out some dough. (Also, this piece about the brand's new supply chain is worth a read.)

But at Ralph Lauren's first "see-now, buy-now" show — part of new CEO Stefan Larsson's "Way Forward" strategy — the designer took inspiration from the American West, resulting in a collection that at times felt too literally Western and not modern enough, and thus not necessarily desirable enough to get people shopping.

Tom Ford showed a very Tom Ford (i.e. neither commercial nor affordable) fall 2016 collection, filled with sequins, tweeds, furs and exotic leathers that became immediately available for sale at Tom Ford stores and on Net-a-Porter. He presented the collection at a private dinner that, while intimate, was live-streamed and well-documented on social media thanks to celebrity front row guests such as Rita Ora and Uma Thurman.

But the next day, I went to view the clothes in person at the Madison Avenue store where they were being sold. And while the clothes were beautiful to look at, I did not feel one ounce of desire to purchase them immediately. Even if I did have $6,450 to spend on a velvet and tiered ombré feather maxi skirt, that's a very different type of purchase for someone to decide on versus a T-shirt or sweatshirt that costs under $200. Meanwhile, the luxurious fur coats that make up a significant portion of the collection were just hard to wrap my head around, considering it was still upwards of 80 degrees outside.

"We all desire to have the clothes we see coming down the runway in our wardrobes right now," said Net-a-Porter Vice President of Global Buying Sarah Rutson in a statement. "Tom Ford is making it possible for the customer to make this their reality."

Truthfully — and this point has been made before — when I find myself desiring the clothes I see on a runway, it's often spring clothes that I see while it's still hot out in September and fall clothes that I see while it's still freezing cold in February. While it's nice that Tom Ford customers won't have to wait a full six months to buy what they saw on his runway (and fast fashion retailers won't have time to copy him), it's unlikely that any designer will be able to create immediate demand for their wares unless the clothes are somewhat seasonless and appropriate for the actual weather at that time, in addition to being affordable enough for people to justify them as impulse purchases. Another element that helps — as we saw with Tommy Hilfiger and Alexander Wang — is the sense of scarcity that comes with a limited-edition collaboration. What makes shoppers desire something more than the fact other people can't get their hands on it?

Which brings us to the biggest "see now, buy now" success stories there are, which came before the term "see now, buy now" was even coined: H&M's designer collaborations, which typically involve some sort of runway show spectacle days or hours before the clothes hit stores. It's a winning combination of high-end designer prestige, a big publicity stunt, a huge online and brick-and-mortar retail network, affordability and limited availability. Basic fashion math, really.

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