No shows: how independents approached buying for SS21

Philip Browne
Philip Browne

Buying for SS21 has been far from normal, with a mixed bag of virtual and physical appointments for many independent retailers, though some have done the whole season’s buy via Zoom. Many collections are more concise with a keener focus on core pieces, as caution and uncertainty for the future takes hold. However, according to these four indies, optimism remains largely in the air.

Philip Browne, owner, Philip Browne, Norwich

We got the SS21 buying done. It was functional, but joyless. We did it all on Zoom meetings. We didn’t do one appointment in a showroom. As a result, we couldn’t feel the fabrics, engage with the products or see how the sizing and cuts were, so we lost all contact and physicality with the garments. Most of our buying is usually done in showrooms in Paris, Milan and Florence these days, so we couldn’t go and see all the big boys like Moncler, Versace, Neil Barrett or Maison Margiela.

It’s difficult to just see a garment on a screen and not be able to physically engage with it. What really showed up is how much I actually love seeing and trying product on. With a designer like Margiela, half the excitement of buying is trying a garment on that’s got no real hanger appeal, but you put it on and it has the ‘wow’ factor. You simply cannot do that on a Zoom meeting.

I think most of the houses have played it relatively safe in their presentations for SS21, but then in this environment it’s very difficult to really show edgy new and experimental design. You can see a model wearing it on the screen, but it’s not the same. Physically engaging with the product is what it’s all about. We usually like the stand-out pieces, but this time we’ve been very cautious on that front as we couldn’t see them and feel them for real. The movement of a garment is also very important, and you can’t judge that on Zoom. When the likes of Neil Barrett, for instance, is presenting a new style or cut of trousers, you really need to see it. In fact, trousers have been a particularly difficult category to buy.

All parties concerned have therefore aired on the side of caution for SS21. We’ve played it reasonably safe, with one or two exceptions. In terms of buying budget, we’ve pretty much kept it the same as the SS20 budget.

Pre-coronavirus, we got off to a really good start in terms of sales for SS20. I was excited about the coming season, and then bang! We took the hit like everyone else. We reopened very buoyantly on 15 June. I’d say the provincial cities have probably been doing better than London and the bigger cities. There’s a feeling of caution and awkwardness in Norwich, but recently everyone has been out and it’s been really busy. We’ve had a strong period of trading in the past week or two.

We’ve still got a small amount of stock on Sale, but we’ve also now got loads of new AW20 stock. Up to 90% of what’s in store is now new stock, obviously all selling at full price. That’s what a lot of our customers want. They want newness. There has been some shortages in production, and some delays too, but most of the major companies, like Stone Island, have delivered on time and in full.

I can’t wait for things to get back to normal, but when that will happen who knows? I honestly don’t see it happening by November or December when we normally buy autumn/winter pre-collections. We may even have to repeat the same buying process for AW21.

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor, co-owner and director, Pockets, Shrewsbury, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Hanley and Nantwich

In general, the buying for SS21 has been okay. We’ve had a good mix of physical and virtual appointments. The appointments that we normally do in Milan and Paris obviously had to be done digitally, via Zoom or virtual showrooms, such as Moncler and Dries Van Noten. It’s not the easiest way to do it, but we got through it. Some companies sent pre-loaded images so we could have a bit of a look before we did the appointments. We did Moncler, Dries Van Noten and Ralph Lauren digitally. Dries is always a little bit more directional, but they were very good – showing us all the pieces on a model, and specifically trying things on live for us which was a big help.

In terms of showroom appointments in London, we went to Four Marketing to buy Stone Island, CP Company and Paul & Shark, and we also went to Paul Smith, Hugo Boss and Norse Projects. If we could do them in London, we did. The showrooms were all very accommodating. There’s nothing better than being in a showroom, picking garments up and trying them on.

We found London extremely quiet, but very easy to get around. Being a northerner, it was actually quite a nice experience without all the usual hustle and bustle! We stayed in London from Sunday to Thursday night to get all the appointments done. There’s an apartment rental company we use all the time in Shoreditch. We used The Hoxton hotel in the mornings for breakfast, and that was noticeably dead.

I’d say the collections are a little bit more concise than normal and the brands are maybe being a bit more cautious with certain products, with generally more core product out there.

In terms of our SS21 buying budget, we’ve held back on the tailoring brands because we’ve had no tailoring business to speak of this year. So, we’re rolling through our SS20 tailoring – using it for SS21. There’s certainly no need to double up on core navy and grey suits, and the brands have been very understanding. They are aware of the difficulties we’ve had this season. We’ll actually be carrying the majority of our tailoring through, though we have picked up on a few bits to freshen it up. Fundamentally, we’ve not bought much formalwear for SS21, but casualwear has pretty much been the same in terms of our buying budget. We increased it where we needed too, on the winners such as Stone Island and Moncler.

We’re slightly cautious for AW20 because of the unemployment levels and the unknown. There’s still all these so-called ‘ghost jobs’ floating about which people don’t know will still exist when the government’s furlough scheme ends.

However, trade is very buoyant at the moment across all our stores and we remain confident going forward, with a good balance of stock. Since we re-opened, we’ve pretty much been hitting last year’s figures. Of course, it doesn’t make up for the three months of closure, though the website saw growth and you cut your costs accordingly. We also took the decision to close our store in Worcester in April, but that decision had been taken pre-coronavirus anyway as it was underperforming and we wanted to use that money elsewhere.

Business has been very casualwear focused, but certain casual brands are in demand and performing extremely well with new AW20 stock. There’s also carry-over SS20 stock which we’re still selling full-price because it’s still relevant and we took the decision to push our Sale back. We’ve used our online platform for certain Sale items, but we’ve kept our bricks and mortar stores 90% full-price.

In terms of cancellations on our AW20 orders due to production difficulties, the majority of our brands have generally had to cancel around 20% of our orders. Some more, some less.

Chris Terry
Chris Terry

Chris Terry, managing director, The Modern Draper, Beverley, Yorkshire

The buying for SS21 has certainly been different. It’s been a mixture of Zoom meetings, working from line sheets and a few showroom appointments.

I’ve recently returned from a buying trip to London and was pleasantly surprised at how hassle-free it was. London was strangely quiet but it was therefore very easy getting around the city.

My preference will always be to see product in person at trade shows and showrooms, but right now we have to be flexible. I hate working with multiple files on a small laptop screen, so I’ve splashed out on multiple monitors and my office now resembles that scene from the film Minority Report!

In terms of showroom appointments, I did a day in Manchester and a full week in London recently – visiting 19 showrooms overall. In some cases, the brands have asked me to complete a questionnaire, essentially a coronavirus risk assessment. But the actual showroom appointments were pretty much business as usual.

I’m not personally a big fan of virtual appointments, though I have done a couple. I suppose we fashion buyers are naturally a visual and tactile bunch. I personally much prefer to work closely with the product in person, visually merchandising the assortment on the rail as I go.

I’ve had to order from CADs in some cases but if you’re familiar with a particular silhouette then colour-ups are pretty easy to imagine. I’ve not been playing it safer with my buying in a dramatic, knee-jerk way but, to some extent, I have done. There will be fewer new brands introduced this season simply because of the cancelled trade shows.

I’ve not really reduced my buying budget for SS21. We’re still a relatively new business and, despite everything, we plan to grow in 2021.  The original store, at 1 North Bar Within, opened in April 2017 and our second store, almost opposite at numbers 10-12, opened in October 2019. Brilliant timing, I know!  Number 1 houses our premium contemporary and heritage brands and 10-12 is for our street, sport and outdoor lifestyle brands.

In some cases, brands are producing smaller collections and keeping to the real key pieces and signature styles. The collections have generally been pretty focused which, to be honest, can make my life a bit easier.

We’re not carrying over stock that’s been specific to SS20. We made the decision to close out the stock. Our lovely customers are a savvy bunch and we try to follow each brand’s lead and match their strategy. We do, however, carry a lot of non-seasonal core classics that we don’t need to mark down.

Without a doubt, what’s been the most disappointing and frustrating for SS21 is having to cancel my summer trip to Paris. But virtually all the brands have shown great adaptability and ingenuity in reacting to the current crisis. I’ve seen great use of technology, particularly from the brands who had existing B2B sites. To name a couple, Wood Wood and Lacoste went the extra mile.

In terms of how I see AW20 panning out, if we manage to avoid further lockdowns then we could have a bumper season. I get the feeling that after so much individual sacrifice, most people are desperate to return to some kind of normality and so I think people will be ready to celebrate come Christmas.

Going forward I think it’s all to play for. Obviously, there is the worrying possibility of further waves of COVID-19, but we’re steadily growing our online business and plan to invest in new hires and offices with the intention of future-proofing our company against further outbreaks.

Academy & Co

Kate DeSeta, owner, Academy & Co and Number 8, St Ives

In the midst of it being extremely busy with the rush of staycation holidaymakers flooding to St Ives, we had a bit of nightmare with a flood a few days ago in the Academy & Co store  – on top of the storm – and it’s all been a bit crazy. We managed to keep the store open throughout though. As soon as people were allowed to travel on 4 July, the whole of St Ives just went crazy busy.

We’ve had consistent busy days since then, with people constantly coming through the door, though we have been limiting how many people we have in the store at any one time. We’ve managed to sell a lot of stock and we’ve only recently gone on Sale. As we are a holiday destination, we usually leave our Sale until really late anyway.

We haven’t gone up to London once this season for any appointments because we’ve not been reopened long, so we couldn’t afford to leave the stores. We reopened on 16 June.

The SS21 buying has therefore been a bit of a nightmare. I thought it would be quite nice doing it over Zoom, which is how we’ve done most of it, but it’s been difficult because you can’t see anything properly. We’ve also ordered off line sheets, catalogues and look-books that we’ve been sent, and a few people have done virtual showrooms, but it’s mainly been done on Zoom.

I wouldn’t say we’ve cut our buying budget because luckily since we reopened we’ve been so busy, but I’d say we’ve been a little bit more cautious with what we’re buying, because you can’t feel or see the detail of the product as we would do if we were physically there. I’m sure we’re not the only ones being more cautious during such uncertain times. Buyers might not be placing such big orders because they don’t know how the winter season is going to go.

We had three stores in St Ives, but now we’ve got the two – Academy & Co and Number 8 – though we’ve bought a beautiful old building in Penzance where we had planned to open a new store in June. Academy & Co has men’s and womenswear contemporary brands, such as Norse Projects, Folk, Edwin and Red Wing. And Number 8 is just men’s – selling brands such as La Paz, Portuguese Flannel and Vans. It started off as kind of a streetwear store, but as the years have gone by it’s become similar to Academy. We just had so many incredible brands we wanted to keep hold of that we built a great brand list for the second store too. We’ve had Academy & Co since 2008 and Number 8 since 2012.

With everything that’s happened, we just haven’t been able to open Penzance yet, but we are still hoping to open it at the end of September or beginning of October and we’re taking on a few new brands for it. Everything has taken longer than it should have done, but we remain optimistic for the future.

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