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How Buyers Adjusted to an Unusual, Mostly Digital Season

Plus, they share their vision for what we'll be wearing come Spring 2021.
Khaite Spring 2021

Khaite Spring 2021

Usually around this time, after a fashion month has wrapped, we ask buyers from top fashion retailers to share the looks they're most excited to stock the following season. But since the Spring 2021 showing was not typical in any way, we're doing things a little differently this time around.

In addition to asking what they're buying, we had fashion directors from Ssense, Saks Fifth Avenue, Shopbop, Moda Operandi, Nordstrom and Mytheresa reflect on this unprecedented season. Of all the people who travel from city to city to see collections in-person, that IRL interaction is perhaps most important for buyers, who need to touch and feel and understand the things they're going to stock. Since that wasn't an option for Spring 2021, they spoke about the ways in which the way they do their jobs changed. 

Yes, sales and buying teams have excellent technology at their fingertips designed to help them do their jobs from anywhere. There's NuOrder and Joor, both of which digitize the showroom and order-placing processes in as much detail as possible, as well as, of course, Zoom, which allows virtual face time with designers and their teams. Still, most found doing their jobs long-distance to be challenging and felt that nothing could replace the in-person buying appointment. On the other hand, some noted that this digital-only season helped them give more consideration to how an item would look on e-commerce (which is, of course, more important than ever).

Read on for more observations from top fashion buyers on Spring 2021. 

On the lack of travel and in-person shows

Wales Bonner Spring 2021

Wales Bonner Spring 2021

Each buyer we spoke with stressed how drastically different this season was than any other due to the lack of travel and in-person appointments — and not necessarily in a good way.

"It has been challenging given how important the relationship between the buyer and the final product is," says Brigitte Chartrand, vice president of womenswear buying for Ssense.

For Shopbop fashion director Caroline Maguire, the fully digital approach to fashion month even made her miss the constant running around, from show to appointment to presentation to show. "To me, the beauty of fashion month is seeing the designers and clothing up close and personal, having discussions with your buyers and team about new brands and having coffee with editors or even your competitor," she notes.

Roopal Patel, Saks's fashion director, hasn't sat out a season of travel and in-person shows in her entire career in the industry, so pivoting to entirely digital "was a learning experience." Still, she was impressed by what designers came up with to express their creativity digitally: "There was so much thought put into presentations — from artistic films and curated fabric swatches, to handwritten notes and design walkthroughs. We really felt the fashion community and design world overcome the challenges we've all faced together during this experience."

Time zones could make things tricky for buyers, like when UK-based Mytheresa fashion buying director Tiffany Hsu was trying to follow New York Fashion Week. "Being not on the ground and the time difference made it a bit hard to follow all the live streams," she laments. "Fashion weeks are a vital point to convey the message behind each collection and I would appreciate to keep those impressive events and also the in-person appointments as much as possible. Not being able to touch something is a very big challenge for us. A picture is always more picture-perfect than what you would have seen in real life."

Moda Operandi buying and fashion director Lisa Aiken, meanwhile, thought the digital shows helped with scheduling. "It did allow for a more fluid and efficient schedule, as even livestream events could be viewed a little later, particularly given the time difference with Europe," she reasons. 

On the pros — and cons — of virtual buying

Gabriela Hearst Spring 2021

Gabriela Hearst Spring 2021

"During the market appointments, the brands and designers share their screen so you get a full picture of linesheets and lookbooks," Maguire explains of the Spring 2021 set-up. "In some instances, brands have models (in masks) whereas other brands just spotlight the product off-form. As we walk through the collection and the buyer selects products, I make comments or suggestions from the fashion office POV."

Despite all the technological workarounds available, trying to buy collections from home presented a number of challenges. 

"By not attending live shows or having in-person buying appointments, one certainly loses the tactile experience of buying a collection," argues Aiken. "A runway show or presentation and the showroom appointment that follows, where you put together the buy for the season ahead, are designed to give as much insight into the physical product and sadly, that reaction or connection cannot be recreated digitally."

Still, like Patel, Aiken appreciated designers' attempts to get creative, calling out Loewe's experiential "Show on the Wall" mailer in particular. But, she says, "Even with these highly creative concepts, I must say that the perfect format for this newly digital age hasn't been conceived yet."

Having everyone view the new lines via Zoom can make it more accessible to people, according to Maguire. However, it can lead to some new issues. "The workarounds were trying not to talk over each other in market appointments, not being able to touch and feel fabrications and hoping that my internet didn't cut out due to the high demand of everyone working from home," she notes. 

Some buyers did point out that digital buying helped them look at items through an e-commerce lens. Being online-only, Ssense's Chartrand was used to this. Still, she found the process somewhat inefficient. 

"The digital process we're adjusting to is quite time consuming and is not an ideal way of working for such a visual medium," Chartrand shares. "While I don't foresee this becoming the new way of buying moving forward, thankfully, various platforms and many vendors are able to offer strong imagery of the collections."

Buyers also have to take it upon themselves to ask for everything they need to make decisions.

"When working with brands digitally, we ask for as much detail as possible and some brands even send fabric samples," says Hsu. "Seeing model shots is very important to us, we do only very little buys from flat shots only and that is mainly with brands we know very well."

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"[Digital] showroom walk-thru appointments where we get to see product on a model makes a big difference as it allows us to see fit, scale and functionality, and opens conversations around function, scale and wearablity," adds Anne Egan, VP DMM Designer Women's at Nordstrom.

On how we'll be dressing come spring

Victoria Beckham Spring 2021

Victoria Beckham Spring 2021

In spite of all this, buyers were still able to gather a sense of what their offering will look like next season. One consensus was that while we'll continue to value comfort, we won't all still be wearing sweatpants in Spring 2021 — at least, not exclusively. 

"We know by next spring our client will have what I'm now calling 'sweatpants fatigue,'" declares Aiken. "Instead, she'll be building a wardrobe of specialty tops, denim, knit co-ords and easy summer dresses that are versatile, and fit for a garden party, or one of many Zoom touch-bases. She certainly wants to be comfortable, but with none of the aesthetic limitations that come with that. The idea of comfort and fashion don't need to be mutually exclusive."

Patel concurs, bringing attention to "a strong presence of what we're calling 'ladies who lounge,' which is a more luxurious take on casualwear with elevated caftans, tunics, robes and pajama dressing" that she noticed across the collections, which translated to flowy dresses, relaxed tailoring and bra top/shorts sets. 

At Nordstrom, Egan sees a Zoom-fueled interest in "shoulder-up" product including hair accessories, jewelry and scarves.

Dior Spring 2021

Dior Spring 2021

Maguire highlights the uptick in sustainability-related measures from designers. "I am most excited that brands are being so mindful for 2021 through their upcycled fabrics and ideas," she notes.

As for the overall vibe of the season, "optimism" was a word used quite often. 

"It was a very uplifting and joyful season," per Patel. "The fashion is reminiscent of a summer escape, as if the designers are looking to whisk us away as we head into spring. The optimism shown through vibrant colors, whimsical prints and designing for the customers' new lifestyle makes us feel hopeful for 2021."

At Ssense, Chartrand sees lingerie, swimwear and flats being important categories in addition to loungewear. Plus, she says dresses are currently selling "better than ever."

"We've always focused on building an offering that is casual yet elevated," she adds. "Given that sales in e-commerce have grown significantly over the last few months, we're not aiming to trim our assortment or shift our buying direction."

Valentino Spring 2021

Valentino Spring 2021

As far as specific trends and pieces we might see crop up more and more next year, buyers already have some strong predictions.  

"Specialty blouses will be very important as women start looking for ways to make their wardrobes work overtime," per Aiken. "An oversized, couture-inspired top styled back to denim and other casual separates, as seen at Valentino, Victoria Beckham, Khaite and Carolina Herrera will be a key look next season.

Knitwear dressing will continue to be A Thing in Spring 2021, Aiken adds — "from skinny rib sweater dresses to co-ordinating separates and cardigans." (Look for them at Khaite, Anna Quan, Altuzarra and Joseph, she says.) Other key pieces for the season include cotton poplin and linen (as seen at Emilia Wickstead) and chunky sandals (at Stella McCartney, Staud and Studio Amelia), according to Moda Operandi's buying lead. 

Ssense's Chartrand, meanwhile, brings attention to the variety of color palettes, from vibrant colors to earthy neutrals, as well as the checkered prints, florals and crochet seen throughout. Also, she says the retailer plans on continuing to spotlight and support emerging designers, like Nensi Dojaka, Charlotte Knowles, Kwaidan Editions, and Louisa Ballou.

On the standout collections 

Miu Miu Spring 2021

Miu Miu Spring 2021

Shopbop's Maguire calls out Sea NY, R13, Stella Jean, Preen and Ulla Johnson as having presented her personal favorite collections of Spring 2021. "I love how they all pulled together pieces that are fresh and seasonally relevant, but still casual enough to wear working from home," she says. 

Hsu was especially inspired by Loewe and Rick Owens and felt Acne and Valentino delivered some must-have accessories.

For Patel, it was Victoria Beckham, Khaite, Valentino, Dior, Prada, Gabriela Hearst and Altuzarra that impressed. Chartrand, meanwhile, loved the Spring 2021 showings from The Row, Kwaidan Editions, Charlotte Knowles, Miu Miu, Wales Bonner, Collina Strada and Jil Sander. 

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