The fashion calendar is ass-backwards. Because fall collections are shown at Fashion Week to buyers during the end of the summer and spring collections are shown in the dead of winter, the clothes you want to buy when you need them are rarely in store. (Can you recall the last time you successfully bought snow boots in January, when it snows? Or a pair of shorts in August, when it’s hot out?)
As a shopper, this is annoying. And for a brand, it’s tough business-wise. A lot of labels are pushing back by selling direct-to-consumer, which allows them to stock what they want, when they want (and at a lower cost). But being able to sustain a business solely through e-commerce is a luxury — or at least not possible for everyone — and a lot of smaller designers are often stuck, beholden in part to their stockists.
One such designer: Jordana Warmflash of the womenswear brand Novis. The New York City-based brand was founded in 2012 and is currently stocked in big department stores like Bergdorf Goodman, major e-commerce sites like Shopbop and Moda Operandi, and smaller boutiques like TenOverSix. Here, she explains what makes this so tricky, including how the shopping landscape has changed in the past few years and the crazy challenges this puts on smaller brands.
Can you tell me a little bit about how you’ve seen things change over the years?
I think that it’s very confusing — every store is trying to figure out what their own needs are. They’re not totally sure. And I do think that it’s changed a lot. Even in the past year, stores have been wanting more transitional-weight pieces; they’re nervous about buying heavyweight pieces. Even in fall, which ships in August.
People aren’t shopping several months in advance. They want to buy it and they want to wear it next week. The stores understand that the customer is shopping more buy-now, wear-now and not saving something for months, but they still want product really early. In my opinion, I think fall should be fall and we should ship it in either late September or early October, when it’s starting to get cooler, as opposed to during the summer, when it’s 90 degrees.
I also think that people are just nervous in terms of weather. We have a lot of accounts in the South, and they really want the transitional-weight pieces. But at the same time, the stores in the North also want the transitional-weight pieces, but it’s a little bit confusing because the markdown calendar doesn’t change. The transitional pieces would make sense for everyone if there were no crazy markdowns. The idea of transitional should be not only that you can wear it whenever, but also sell it whenever.
We ship spring in February, when it’s probably the coldest. It’s going to get marked down before it’s even really warm enough to wear any of it. That’s probably because people are buying now to wear now, but if it’s too cold to wear it… If you’re thinking about the North, places start marking down before the season really starts. What gives someone an incentive to buy something full price? If they wait until May, they can buy it on sale.
Our buyers at Bergdorf told me: “Don’t think about the name of the season when you’re designing. Think about the month that it ships.” Which is helpful in a way, but that’s also not helpful for everyone, because the month that it ships to a store in New York is a little bit different than the month that it ships to a store in the South.
What design challenges does that create for you? Do you think if it continues this way, you’ll actually start rethinking what you design for a “fall” collection?
I love structured, heavyweight fabric, but I’ve been trying to steer clear of that. I mean, of course I need to use some, but for the most part I’m aiming at lighter-weight fabrics. I think [it’s about] using colors differently with lighter-weight fabrics that can be worn all year round, and sprinkling in some of the more summery pieces or the more heavy wintry pieces. I think that the non-seasonal outlook makes the most sense.
I also think that right now, our garments have essentially a full-price shelf life of three months before stuff gets marked down. But, like, a vacuum cleaner doesn’t have a shelf life! No other product that I know of has a shelf life that short.
If we move toward more season-less collections, that could be an answer. At the same time, the stores always want new things because they want to keep getting their customer in the door to buy more.
Why do you think some of those stores want stuff so early? Is it just to have it before anybody else has it?
That’s it. We have these really lightweight, beautiful knit dresses in spring. They’re a mixture of cotton and silk, but they’re very delicate. It’s definitely not appropriate to wear until I would say, like, June in New York. They’re hanging on the floor. By June, it’s not going to look as good. It’s really tricky.
There’s also just too much product. I think for designers to churn out four collections a year is a lot. I think you end up putting a lot of filler in a collection. I don’t see us moving away from a sale culture at all, but I’m curious what kind of happens next, especially with this over-saturation.
Do you feel like you’ve had to deliver more clothes because of that run, through? Or maybe even less, because things aren’t going to move for a certain amount of time?
We usually deliver three collections a year. We’re doing a small capsule for May or June, sort of pre-fall, I guess — though it’s really a summer capsule — for a couple of our stores this year. In terms of the amount of product, we’ve been about the same. We’re a growing brand, so each year it’s more and more.
Do you think you’re in a better position or a tougher position, as a smaller brand, to be able to navigate this?
I think that all companies have their own challenges. I’m sure larger companies have challenges, too. For us, we’re operating off really tight budgets; we’re envious of companies that have a lot of resources and money. What we also lack as an emerging brand is we don’t have the same sort of brand recognition as some other brands. That’s hard. It’s like, how do you compete when there’s a lot of noise?
It seems like the brands that are having the most success right now are the brands that are working on figuring out what works for them, rather than what’s worked for other people.
It’s always nice to have some baseline or ideas, but I think at the same time, every brand is so different. You kind of need to carve your own path and see what works — it’s a lot of experimenting, and no one really knows. For us, we’re trying a combination of wholesale — right now, we’re primarily wholesale — but we’re working on our own direct-to-consumer channels. It’s a combination of both. But I think it’s about offering the customers something special, something that they can’t get somewhere else.
This interviews has been edited for length and clarity.