by debra scherer
As the CFDA doubles down on a broken system with yet another branded fashion week dreamed up to accommodate none other than the store buyers and press firms, it seems retail has a pretty big puzzle to solve. It has to be more than closing stores or rebranding and or trying to shove a new yet tired concept down everyone’s throat. They have to serve another purpose. They have to ask, what’s my job? Is it to serve up basics at a certain price? The perfect shoe? Represent a designers aesthetic? Maybe a little bit of everything? Well, the news is that retail as we know it has already been disrupted and there aren’t enough weeks in the year left to brand that could turn the tide back in the retailers direction. The whole rythm between shows seems to be off. The way we shop now is less dependent on seasons, on school years or days of the week with colors attached to their names. People travel, people are busy and people just don’t know what they want to wear until maybe that day. Everything else in our lives has sped up and happens in real time and the fashion industry’s systems aren’t able to reinvent themselves fast enough.
Just walking in and constantly seeing everything on sale racks is off-putting while creating more problems for retail brands than they solve. Rather than truly innovating to address this new reality, department stores continually refresh and redesign the departments, moving shoes from here to there, making no bigger difference than having an event to celebrate and Instagram about. It’s not as simple as just embracing e-commerce either. Its what kind of e-commerce are we talking about? Net-a-Porter lets you know they can have your dress delivered to The Hamptons that day while you are sitting on the beach, while Farfetch is promising to meet you on your yacht using GPS wherever your Mediterranean vacation might take you.
So then what’s a store for? I’m just thinking back to some of the places I’ve lived and how there was always a store that became more than just a place to shop, more like something I tied my identity to. This could in some way be the key. There has to be a culture tied to it, otherwise the reality is that there is always an easier, cheaper or faster way to obtain any product. Thinking about some of these stores that have stayed in my memory, they had certain conceptual things in common. For me, growing up in New York City, it all began with Fiorucci, the ’80’s emporium on 59th street that was for us what entire malls were for our suburban counterparts. We went every Saturday without fail, thinking the kids that worked there were so incredibly cool and had to touch, smell, take in and try on every last thing. Every little button, every neon light, every poster, pair of (safety) jeans and every song they played. It gave us a means of self expression, even if it was nothing more than a tee shirt. When I was studying for a year abroad in Florence it was all about Luisa Via Roma. I remember being entranced by the shop windows and the excitement of this ultra cool cathedral of everything modern in a town that was thoroughly ancient. A move to Milan in the early ’90’s let me witness the birth of 10 Corso Como and time in Paris had me in love with L’Eclaireur. Though the experiences were very different, they all were expressions of identity and culture that I felt a part of.
I’m sure that for everyone it was a different store. Great shopping experiences create communities that can be tied just as easily to a certain city as to a certain app on your home screen. It doesn’t matter if you choose to drop in on Opening Ceremony or open The Net Set app, the identity ogling is the same. If a retail brand can’t create this kind of cultural “join the club” online or irl, then they have little chance to survive in this new retail environment. The Titanics like Gap, J.Crew and Joe Fresh are sinking while Barney’s and Bergdorf’s have constant storewide sales and horrible service as the shopping public thinks, what are these stores for anymore? Having industry organizations like the CFDA continue to promote an already outdated system is toxic. They are actually doubling down by adding to the calendar when they should be ripping that calendar up into a million pieces and throwing it away once and for all. This strategy of schedule intensity might give more frequent press opportunities, but having presentations, events and sales all the time just dilutes these experiences overall. As the saying goes, “culture eats strategy for breakfast” and the retail puzzle certainly hasn’t been solved by any strategist so far. So here’s to all the stores I’ve loved before. The best have alway touched on something in the culture, reflecting on its time and place. In other words, they know what they’re for, they are giving you something to buy into.