This time last year, Scott Studenberg of Los Angeles luxury brand Baja East was, as he puts it, living his best life. The creative director had just relaunched his line of “loose-luxe” staples at a more contemporary price point, and 15 top retailers had snapped up the fringed halter dresses, printed kaftans and metallic cycling shorts he showed for spring 2020.
Then, of course, the pandemic hit, and nearly all of those retailers cancelled their orders, sticking Studenberg with a season’s worth of inventory. Still, the brand was in a better position than many of its peers: slouchy sweats and tie-dyed tees are core to its business, and Studenberg had a supply of blank white versions that he tie-dyed at home after his printer shut down.
“I’m so thankful that’s something I’ve stuck to because that’s what’s selling right now,” he says. “Has anyone bought my scarf-dress that I dressed Georgia Fowler in when I went to the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund Awards? Well, if I had it then and there, yeah. But now I have those on my website, and zero people are buying them because there’s nowhere to go.”
For spring 2021, he’s shelving most of the cocktail attire in favour of comfortable, stay-home styles and trimming the number of looks he presents from 50 to less than 15.
As brands embark on a market season unlike any we’ve seen before, many are showing abbreviated versions of their typical collections to retailers that are overwhelmingly risk-averse and low on cash.
“Open-to-buy budgets have been pulled back across the board by 30 per cent minimum,” says Hillary Senko Cullum, founder of US-based retail consultancy HSC Advisors and a former buyer for Neiman Marcus Group. With so much uncertainty ahead, she says, retailers don’t want to take a chance on products that may not sell, and brands can’t afford to produce the peripheral styles that would otherwise pad out a collection.
“It’s kind of like what we saw after 2008,” says Senko Cullum. “At first, there is this pullback and it’s a bit overly conservative and they’re buying just the bestsellers.”
In their most recent earnings calls, many US major brands and retailers said they will cut their inventories drastically going into the autumn season. Nordstrom’s inventory was down 24.1 per cent from last year for the quarter ended August 1, while Ralph Lauren’s was 21.8 per cent below 2019 levels, and the brand said its focus was on its core styles.
While no one can fully predict where consumers will stand six months from now, basics, at least, have a longer shelf life and are less subject to the scourge of markdowns. More nimble brands are also planning to use their tried-and-true styles as blank canvases of sorts: New York-based Still Here, whose signature embellished denim is stocked by Net-a-Porter and various high-end boutiques, is shifting its production to mostly plain jeans for the upcoming season, which stockists can then have “embellished-to-order”. The move allows the label to minimise its inventory risk while still satisfying its wholesale accounts, says co-founders Sonia and Maurice Mosseri.
Nearly all of the 15 retailers who bought Baja East Spring/Summer 2020 cancelled orders when the pandemic hit.
© Baja East
Seoul-based fashion brand IISE likewise cut the more experimental styles from its spring 2021 line-up as the pandemic unfolded, say co-founders Terrance and Kevin Kim. They reduced the number of SKUs from 140 to around 80 to 90, focusing on pieces with more accessible price points and styles they expect to be top sellers based on past seasons’ sales data.
Supply chain disruptions in China throughout the beginning of the pandemic also expedited the brand’s plans to move most of its production to Korea, they said. Offering a more concise collection should make this an easier task. “From sales to production, everything has to be a lot more calculated moving forward, especially for the next year,” says Kevin Kim.
Looking beyond that, though, there are some glimmers of hope that this period of upheaval may pave the way for more freedom and creativity for the brands and retailers that survive it.
For one, many brands that were once reliant on wholesale distribution are now focused on their direct-to-consumer channels, giving them more control than they have had in the past. After cancelling production on her autumn/winter collection at the beginning of the pandemic, British designer Olivia von Halle made the decision to reduce the number of stores stocking her namesake sleepwear brand by more than half. “It was important for us to really, really slim down who we were selling to and just partner with stores that were the best of the best,” she says, referring to retailers such as Harrods and Browns in London.
While her customer base tends to appreciate consistency — the same signature silhouettes sell season after season in new prints or colourways — selling directly to them gives her more room to push the envelope with more unusual styles. “Having the ability to sell direct to consumer means that we are able to be much freer in the way that we’re designing,” she says. “With a store, you deliver a product and it sits on a rail, and that’s kind of the end of the story. But through our own website, we’re in control of the position that product has on the page, we can promote it through newsletters, through Instagram, we can do digital marketing, we can tell the whole story behind it, we can gift it to influencers. We have an opportunity to get behind it in a way that we just don’t have with wholesale accounts.”
Studenberg, too, plans to forge ahead with the coming seasons primarily through Baja East’s website, after just a handful of wholesale accounts (Shopbop, Rent the Runway, 11 Honoré) went ahead with pre-autumn orders. “I’m just pretending no one is buying anything,” he says. “My business is my business, and if they come, then it’s going to be great and I add it on.”
Still Here is shifting its production to mostly plain jeans for the upcoming season.
© Still Here
For retailers, Senko Cullum sees this moment as a chance to break free from entrenched buying patterns that favoured more established brands, who could afford contract terms such as taking back unsold merchandise at the end of the season or guaranteeing a certain gross margin. As they are forced to walk back many of these agreements so even bigger brands can stay afloat, she says, there’s a chance it could even the playing field. “What I think could save a lot of these stores and help propel the industry forward is this discovery of newness, whether it’s new brands or existing brands… distilling it down to what they do best and focusing on that.”
For consumers, that may take some patience (but then again, who has anywhere to go?). “Maybe for the next six months, you walk into a store it might feel a little bit boring, but post that I feel like we’re going to see a lot of creativity,” says Senko Cullum. “There’s this pent-up need for expression and invention and so my hope is that that’s where it will land.”
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