There's been a lot of discussion around what future fashion weeks are going to look like, with all the logistical challenges presented by the Covid-19 pandemic — but what about the trade side of things?
Buyers for department stores, designer boutiques and the like travel throughout much of the year (often even more than editors), not just to see fashion shows, but also to attend market appointments and trade shows, where they discover and preview new collections in-person and plan their buys for the upcoming season. There's an entire behind-the-scenes ecosystem around the buying and selling of fashion that relies heavily on travel and face-to-face meetings, two things that won't be considered safe until...well, who knows?
Everyone from buyers to brands' sales teams to the founders of trade shows and other B2B companies are currently scrambling to cancel orders, postpone their summer events and regroup with clients, all while planning their next moves. In talking to them, one thing is clear: This time will bring about lasting change in the ways in which clothes are bought and sold.
We spoke with who we think are five of the smartest players in the fashion wholesale business — Lisa Aiken, Moda Operandi's buying and fashion director; Laura Vinroot Poole, owner of Capitol, the Charlotte, NC and L.A. designer boutique; Hillary France, founder of the Brand Assembly trade shows; and Heath Wells and Olivia Skuza, founders of digital wholesale platform Nuorder — to find out how they're strategizing right now and what meaningful changes they expect to see in wholesale moving forward.
Some overarching themes? Digital solutions to in-person activities will be key; communication between retailers and brands needs to be stronger than ever; and everyone needs to be aligned when it comes to delivery and event schedules — which, yes, need to change. Read on for the highlights from all four conversations.
Nuorder Founders Heath Wells and Olivia Skuza
Digital commerce tools that connect buyers to brands and allow the former to place wholesale orders with the latter were becoming more popular before the pandemic hit as an efficient complement to in-person meetings. Now, the teams behind them are working quickly to enhance their capabilities as more brands and retailers come to rely on them to do business remotely. Some showrooms are creating their own proprietary digital solutions, while there are also a number of existing platforms used by many in the industry, including Joor, Ordre, Alkeon and Nuorder.
Heath Wells and Olivia Skuza, the L.A.-based founders of the latter, accelerated the development of a new, "immersive" virtual showroom tool that will go live in June. It will offer brands the ability to showcase 360-degree product imagery; custom content (think videos, inspiration images and designer interviews); and shoppable videos. They can also upload imagery of their real, physical showrooms and make the racks shoppable. It will create a bit more work for brands and their sales reps, but Nuorder built an easy drag-and-drop backend template and is even offering access to its network of photographers to support the need for 360-degree imagery. "You don't need a computer science degree to do it," assures Skuza.
Of the impetus to get this new product out, Wells explains: "The conversation now is: We're going to have to sell in the future and we all know no one's going to be traveling, and so how are we going to sell? We're giving the brand the tools to be able to [share] what they would've in person."
In preparation for the launch, the Nuorder team have been hosting webinars and training brands in how to use its virtual showroom, with labels like Alice + Olivia and Redone already preparing their content for launch in June. As for the future, Skuza and Wells feel that once this type of technology is widely adopted, there will be no going back.
"Changing your behavior is difficult, but once people start adopting these technologies, as we've seen with our early adopters, they never go back," says Skuza. "You can't after you realize the old way of doing it is so inefficient." Not to mention more expensive — and as companies big and small undergo cost-cutting measures, travel budgets are likely to be slashed. Nuorder also sees its capabilities and technology becoming even more advanced in the coming years. Virtual reality market appointments, anyone?
Brand Assembly Founder Hillary France
With Brand Assembly, Hillary France supports emerging, independent fashion brands and connects them to retailers, primarily via IRL events, including multiple trade shows per year in New York and LA. The company also helps brands with back-office services and runs co-working spaces in both cities, which are now closed. With all facets of her relatively small business currently suffering, France has been strategizing with her brand clients on how to work and communicate with retailers. Her team set up a Slack workspace for brands and retailers, as well as roundtable discussions with brands, retailers and showrooms.
"It was great to see retailers and brands sharing info," she says, noting how some brought up concerns about things like what to do with unsold inventory from cancelled orders and how to communicate with retailers. It turned out, "the retailers were very open to communication and they want the brands to reach out [to them]," France adds.
When it comes to doing business for upcoming seasons, Brand Assembly is also going digital — at least, partially. Its next trade show was scheduled for June 15 through 17 to support resort collections, and France and her team are instead planning three days of digital programming including workouts, discussions and virtual showroom walkthroughs.
On Tuesday, Brand Assembly also announced a partnership with Alkeon, another e-commerce tool for showrooms and trade shows, on a digitization of Brand Assembly's events, starting with the one in June. France feels Alkeon's search functionality and emphasis on brand discovery surpasses that of competing platforms. It will also allow buyers to book face-to-face meetings with brands — through Zoom, for now; and IRL once things open back up. By September, it will allow retailers to actually place orders through the app.
The blending of digital and physical is crucial to France. "The way we see this tool working in September and October is that if brands have their assets up early enough, retailers could actually preview and look at these things in advance of going to market," she says.
France doesn't think digital will ever be able to replace physical entirely. "You can't necessarily fall in love with a collection if you're not hearing [about] it from the designer's mouth and feeling their passion for what they're designing," she explains. "Retailers like to see and feel that energy because that's how retailers are buying, especially when discovering new designers. It will change but I don't think [in-person appointments] will 100% go away. If they do, I'll be very sad."
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Moda Operandi Buying and Fashion Director Lisa Aiken
"It's been a really pressured time for us as a buying team to restructure our buy for Pre-Fall/Fall/Winter '20 in a way we think is going to respond to demand, knowing that obviously demand is falling overall within the luxury space, and ultimately that required really swift action to ensure it had the least impact on our brand partners that it could," says Lisa Aiken, fashion director of designer e-commerce site Moda Operandi, which focuses on individual brand trunk shows.
Unlike a lot of retailers, Moda didn't cancel any outstanding Spring 2020 orders.
"We're in a good position in the sense that we're a pure-play e-commerce player and we've remained operational throughout, which has not necessarily been the case for everybody else," she explains. "We're able to sell to clients, but did know taking on that inventory comes with its own risk and we have used promotional tactics to drive demand. It felt like the lesser of two evils: I'd rather take the margin hit than leave brands with stock that they can't sell."
And, as France also mentioned, communication with brands has been key, says Aiken: "It's been really encouraging to see how collaborative people have been — how open to different ideas and different ways of thinking about things — and I think it's brought the industry together more than I've ever seen before in terms of those relationships between retailers and brands."
Aiken feels digital wholesale tools — she names Joor as a personal favorite — will be "invaluable" in forthcoming seasons, and is currently in the process of finding out if and how brands are planning to showcase their upcoming collections. She says she's hearing a lot of brands talking about having designers themselves doing digital walkthroughs of their collections. Whether or not that's a cost-cutting measure, Aiken thinks it's smart.
"Often you're working with a sales executive or commercial director — which is fantastic and their insight is so crucial — but balancing that with the way the creative director saw things or the design team, I think that's going to actually tighten the loop between a wholesaler and a retailer," she says.
Whether it's with a designer or a sales rep, Aiken feels that those in-person conversations and connections will remain important in helping buyers feel confident in their choices. "I can walk into a showroom and have a gut reaction to something... having that immediate reaction to what is going to work is really, really important to us because that's ultimately what the customer's going to feel and I do worry about capturing that digitally," she adds.
As far as those proposed changes to delivery schedules, Aiken is excited that conversation is happening but notes that everyone is going to have to get "on the same page."
"It's an opportunity for everyone to hit reset on just how much stock everyone needs," she notes. "This opportunity to reset inventory levels is really important — that's just for the health of our planet, not just the health of our industry."
Capitol Founder Laura Vinroot Poole
Known for its joyful curation of designer womenswear and top-notch customer service, Capitol operates locations in Charlotte, NC and L.A. as well as e-commerce. Founder Laura Vinroot Poole echoed France's and Aiken's sentiments about communication — something she says she learned after the 2008 recession, which she also weathered.
"It's so important that your vendors hear from you personally and know that we're committed to the relationship and committed to your business in general," she says. "We called and conducted Zoom meetings with our sales reps to provide a state of the business."
Like many, Capitol was forced to cancel outstanding Spring 2020 orders as well as cancel or revise Fall 2020 orders due to both cash flow and relevance. "Several things just didn't seem relevant anymore in a pandemic- and post-pandemic world," she notes.
Moving forward, Poole plans to scale back buys for forthcoming seasons and drop brands that have consistently low sell-through. She also hopes to negotiate more nimble terms with brands, like consignment agreements, bringing in additional inventory in-season to fill in gaps, and investing in "carryover inventory" with longer shelf life.
All of Poole and her team's buying appointments for June and July are virtual and they plan to use Power Point to create "buying boards" featuring imagery of each buy — her workaround to her preferred method of "pulling a rail during market to see how the buy will merchandise within the store."
While she uses tools like Joor, Poole hopes they won't come to replace these in-person appointments. "We're very concerned about not being able to see the clothes on models and the ability to touch the fabric," she says. "We have such specific climates in North Carolina and California and weight and quality of fabric is my pet peeve. I have felt every piece of clothing that has ever passed through these doors in 22 years, so the inability to do that is keeping me up at night a little."
Ultimately, though, Poole does want to see some fundamental changes to the wholesale buying process, which she feels had become "overwhelming."
"It's high time to innovate and reinvent this process so that it's not only more sustainable environmentally, but also personally," she says. "Keeping a marriage together, raising a child and running a business while mostly on the road with buying trips has been challenging and has felt wrong for some time. For example, the fact that some brands couldn't align their schedules meant that I traveled to Milan sometimes eight times per year. That makes no sense. I'm ready for meaningful change and so is my family."