Monday, November 16, 2009

FGI’s ‘Consumer’ Report

Fashion Group International held its spring summer 2010 ready-to-wear collections trend overview this past Friday, November 13th. For those who attended, like me, the date proved to be anything but ‘unlucky’. The event was not only informative, but unabashedly consumer oriented, and consumer friendly, and indeed, the consumer seemed to be on everyone’s minds (understandably so; since he/she holds the purse strings, right?)

First off, FGI President Margaret Hayes made her brief welcoming comments, adding her upbeat observation, “The good news is the economic recovery.” Then, as usual, Marylou Luther, FGI’s Creative Director, did a fantastic and exhaustive editing job; putting it all together and narrating the wonderful audio visual slide report, which details the most important trends for the upcoming season, as seen on the recent runways; the best of the best in every category (ready-to-wear, accessories, and beauty). She did it as only she can, with humor, wit, puns aplenty, and even whittled the trends down to “140 characters or less”: Squeeze/ease; Thighs /knees; Goth/froth; Drape/shape; Reality/romance; Transparent/apparent; Undies outed/utility touted.

But perhaps the most relevant ‘trend’ right now, according to Ms. Luther, is the way in which the clothes are “communicated”, and the fact that designers are becoming “more connected with consumers: some directly, some indirectly via in store videos.”

Exemplifying this ‘direct’ route, was Alexander McQueen, who stated that this season, he wanted to give consumers an “unfiltered view of what goes on at a fashion show” (which is usually reserved for members of the press, retailers, and celebrities). And thanks to Internet technology (for spring 2010 he collaborated with Nick Knight of SHOWstudio.com), this became a reality, as “29,000 hits in one second crashed the online show briefly”.

The emphasis on engaging and attracting the customer, continued with the lively panel discussion which followed the noon time presentation. Comprised of committee members who are among the most highly regarded professionals in their fields, it’s a balanced mix of retailers and members of the press and this time they were:

LINDA FARGO, SVP, Bergdorf Goodman
IKRAM GOLDMAN, IKRAM Chicago
JANE LARKWORTHY, Beauty Editor, W
LINCOLN MOORE, V.P. & DMM Handbags/Accessories, Saks Fifth Avenue
CANDY PRATTS PRICE, Executive Fashion Director, Style.com

The guest moderator was Donna Karan, who was introduced by Ms. Luther, referring to her as “fashion’s favorite agent of change”. ML also pointed out that the award winning multi tasker, who has received countless accolades and honors, has the distinct honor of being the first American designer to have been given the Fashion Group International’s Super Star Award during the organization’s annual Night of Stars back in 2003.

Unsurprisingly, the outspoken designer wasted no time in getting to, what for her, is the most important and pressing issue facing the fashion business; in two words: The Consumer. As she put it, “Fashion changes so quickly, but where is the customer in this?” “As a designer, it’s all about inspiration, but the consumer is the end result. How do we communicate to the consumer”? And so, the groundwork was set for the panel discussion which followed.

When Ms. Karan asked Linda Fargo, “How would you like to be the conduit for change”?
Ms. Fargo answered: “I’ll commit to join Donna in her campaign for ‘Buy now, wear now’. That’s what needs to be re-evaluated. Selling clothes closer to when she’s going to wear it”.

Donna was thrilled, saying it was “the best birthday present anyone can receive”, and “it’s not even my birthday!” (Donna, among others, has long been outspoken in her belief that the consumer is ‘confused’ thanks in large part to all the information out there, in addition to all the seasons being ‘thrown’ at her at one time. She also believes strongly that the clothes on the selling floor, should be in tune with the season. In the same way it’s healthy to eat ‘fresh’ food in season, it is healthy and a good idea to buy clothes ‘in season’.)

DK then spoke with Jane Larkworthy about the idea of beauty, (which she admitted is an ambiguous notion for her). “Is it inner beauty or outer beauty we’re talking about?” she asked. And as for the runway beauty trends, how are they relevant for the consumer?

JL said she was pleased to see “so many gorgeous looks”. “There was a lot of thought and effort put into the beauty looks this season”. But Donna quipped: “Where is the ‘us’ in all of this?” “How do we talk to the customer who’s not a beauty or a model?” JL replied that she sees the runway beauty trends as being a point of inspiration for the ‘average’ woman out there. She may not be able to or want to follow the trends literally, but she can be ‘inspired’ in some way.

Then Donna asked Lincoln Moore: “Lincoln. How would you like us as an industry to be getting together? What is your wish list for the holidays?”
LM: “We need to retrain our staff and talk to the customer about the value of the product, not just the brand. Developing a personal relationship with consumer is the key thing. It’s about more intimate affairs. The relationship between the customer and the designer. Having a vendor relationship is imperative.”

When it came time to ‘interview’ Ikram Goldman, (the revered Chicago retailer who is all but single handedly responsible for collaborating with and dressing the First Lady) Donna could not contain her adoration.
DK: “You’re probably one of THE most influential people in fashion. Thank you! I applaud you for taking a huge challenge and working with Michelle Obama. What is it like to be that retailer?”
IG: “Success is based on the service we give. The sales and special sales (offered elsewhere) are hard on small stores like ours. I try to ignore what happens with other stores. I encourage our employees to love and sell what they believe. It’s important to educate the sales staff to educate the consumer. They have to make the consumer understand that it’s okay to spend a lot of money now, on quality items that will last forever. It’s not buy now, wear now, but buy now, where forever.”

Last up was Candy Pratts Price, who Donna has known for years, dating back to the time she worked her visual wonders at Bloomingdales.
DK: “Candy has love and a passion for fashion (Let’s face it. We wouldn’t be here if we weren’t all obsessive, compulsive.”) Then, she asked her: “How do we instill desire and get the customer to shop?”
CPP: “We have to pay attention to the customer. We need to entertain the customer, as Marvin Traub did.”

At this point, other retailers on the panel chimed in about how to best ‘entertain’ or engage the customer. Ikram Goldman admitted that she tries to give her sales staff “surprises.” “I ask designers to make special pieces for me.” (The notion of ‘surprise’ would surface again as you will see)

As for all the information available to everyone out there, (thanks to the internet), Donna asked: “Is too much information to much information? Is it too much too soon?”
CPP: “I don’t think it’s a negative. A learned customer is a good customer” (This immediately brought to mind the advertising slogan for Syms, “An educated consumer is our best customer.”)
DK: “The Internet is our communication tool right now. But for me, it’s a double edged sword”. But then she re-phrased it, saying “It’s not the information but the timing of the information (that’s problematic)”.

At this point, Donna brought up the endless seasons, the hype that goes along with the large fashion shows, and the markdowns. She admitted, “Resort, without all the hype, is one our most successful sell through seasons”, whereas “the buy on spring is so small.”

This prompted Linda Fargo to immediately exclaim: “Donna, we LOVE all our pre-collections!”

Without skipping a beat, Donna answered: “What if ‘pre’, without all the hype, hullaballoo, and all the markdowns, WAS the collections?”

At the end, Donna asked the audience if they had any questions or comments. InStyle’s Hal Rubenstein was one of several who wanted to make his feelings known. “The most important way to ‘seduce’ the customer and get her (or him) excited about shopping, is to offer an “element of surprise”. “You have to keep surprising the customer. Take your passion and your intelligence, and seduce the customer.”

-Marilyn Kirschner

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