by Hilary Milnes

The see-now-buy-now revolution is fizzling

Fashion’s great see-now-buy-now experiment is beginning to fray.

On Monday, Thakoon, a small label based in New York and led by designer Thakoon Panichgul, announced that its business was on “pause,” seven months after moving to a direct-to-consumer, in-season model. Then on Thursday, Tom Ford said that he was ditching the see-now-buy-now model.

The reasoning: It’s a logistical nightmare. See-now-buy-now was supposed to modernize the stodgy cyclical release cycle the fashion industry is wedded to, but right now see-now-buy-now is just not yet feasible. Ford recounted to WWD that his fall 2016 collection shipped to stores by July sat around for over a month after that. Stores carrying the collection had to wait until just after the show in September to pull the trigger.

See-now-buy-now has more going against it than delivery timing. It’s going to take more than a few seasons and some forward-thinking brands for fashion’s longstanding operations to upheave. Any industry tent-poled by old guards is going to resist disruption; fashion, potentially more so.

“It’s extremely hard to disrupt an industry and fashion is one of the oldest,” said Kimmy Scotti, a partner at VC firm 8vc. “You can’t change an engine while a car is in motion.”

It’s a regional difference, too. More traditional markets like Paris and Milan are not going to bend over backwards to try to win over customers with a buzzy new collection and Instagram strategy — it goes against the elusive ideal of luxury.

“The designers need the time to create the desire and the demand for the actual products,” said Jane Hali, CEO of retail research investment firm Jane Hali & Associates.

Hali said that designers who are dismayed by a rushed schedule are mainly impeded by the logistical obstacles of getting deliveries to wholesale partners. While, for department stores, see-now-buy-now could surge sales, it’s impossible to get the timing just right so that inventory isn’t left sitting around. At the same time, when some brands dive in and other brands sit out on a production cycle, department stores are left with a mishmash of collections reflecting different seasons.

“It’s very ‘every man for himself’ right now,” said Rony Zeidan, founder of the agency RO NY. “And that’s wonky when you’re in a department store. The industry has to wake up at some point and realize that the see-now-buy-now notion needs to apply to across deliveries at the store level.”

Thakoon decided to pull out of department stores altogether to control when and how customers interacted with collections. For a smaller brand with less name recognition like Thakoon, however, taking on the responsibility of a restructuring that goes against the grain of the rest of the industry was a hefty task. In a statement, his business partner, Blue Fame Fashion, said that “the business model is ahead of the current retail environment.”

Other brands like Alexander Wang and Michael Kors have dabbled in see-now-buy-now with capsule collections, which is more reactionary than a real business strategy. It also fails to solve the problem that see-now-buy-now sets out to do, which is close the gap between full collections being shown on the runway and their delivery. For Wang, however, it just wasn’t doable: the rest of the industry isn’t there.

“We explored every option,” said Wang in an interview with Alina Cho. “Are we going to change our fashion show? Are we going to do capsule collections every month? Buyers spend 70 percent of their budgets on pre-collections, 80 percent of our business is wholesale — so what we do depends a lot on buyers and what they want.”

Another cog in the see-now-buy-now wheel: The fervor around it is only so deafening in America, a culture built around consumerism. It hasn’t stirred more traditional markets like Paris and Milan, and as they’re watching the action play out, high-profile drops of the model aren’t going to look promising.

“The French, and the Italians slightly less so, are more introverted. They move at a much slower pace because they tend to assess, observe and see. If the U.S. does it well and successfully, then they’ll follow,” said Zeidan.

See-now-buy-now’s death sentence hasn’t been written yet. Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger have, so far, been two poster children for the immediate fashion show, having shown two in-season collections each. Both have overhauled their production and supply chains to manage to do so, and have the weighty pull of legacy brand recognition behind them to buck the rules.

“The consumer audience is there, they’re ready,” said Elizabeth Stafford, director of business and strategy at digital agency Four32C. “But luxury fashion has a challenge ahead of it: to move successfully into the see-now-buy-now model and retain the sense of exclusivity and scarcity that drive true luxury. It’s going to take time and a lot of failing to do this.”