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‘See Now, Buy Now’ Changed Shopping in 2016, Whether or Not We Cared

Some major designers altered how they did business this year. Did you notice?

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A model walks the runway wearing a pale teal off-the-shoulder sweater with darker teal shoulder straps.
Burberry’s fall 2016 runway show in September.
Photo: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images

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For mass market brands, “see now, buy now” is the status quo. You go into a store or browse your favorite e-commerce site, you find a great pair of boots, and you drop some hard-won cash on them. Maybe you saw them on Instagram or your best friend or favorite blogger first, and that led you to checkout. This is how most of us shop, most of the time.

Designer brands traditionally present their work at fashion weeks half a year before it hits stores, showing fall clothing in February and spring looks in September, thus creating a lag between seeing and buying. But in 2016, the high fashion world was aflutter with talk of “see now, buy now” collections, as labels like Burberry, Tom Ford, Rebecca Minkoff, Thakoon, and Tommy Hilfiger decided to put pieces on sale immediately after their runway presentations. This movement was part of a broader conversation about the misalignment that has grown between how designers do business and how people shop today.

Offering clothing fresh off the runway changes how we buy it in a very immediate sense. During London Fashion Week in September, Burberry’s Soho store in New York held a private event at which it livestreamed its Orlando-inspired runway show (a mix of men’s and women’s styles) and then welcomed attendees upstairs to browse and buy the pajama tops, billowing blouses, and military jackets they’d just seen on the catwalk.

It was gratifying to get an unhurried, closer look at items of interest after they disappeared down the runway, and the fresh imprint of how Burberry’s legion of languid models looked in their outfits provided the momentary (misguided) inspiration to try out a neck ruff under a linebacker-style sweater, too.

Compelling as the experience was, it was hard to believe that a majority of Burberry shoppers would actually tune in for a runway show before turning to shop the collection. How many of the people who entered the store later that day were even aware that fashion week was going on in London? For many consumers, shopping a “see now, buy now” collection probably isn’t all that different from any other kind of shopping.

The distinction may be lost on customers, or it may inform them in subconscious ways, but it does matter to brands. Cutting the time between showing a collection and selling it kills the opportunity for counterfeiters to bring knockoffs to market in the intervening months. Unveiling and offering clothing in the season it’s intended for better matches our modern inclination to buy for instant use.

“See now, buy now” comes with its drawbacks, too. As Business of Fashion wrote in March, the financial risk of pre-ordering stock is one best left to big brands with their own stores, not young upstarts. The format could stunt designer creativity, too. Runway shows often serve as a jumping off point, a fantasy that gets toned down as buyers give feedback and place orders, but “see now, buy now” shows are obliged to present sellable reality right away.

The “see now, buy now” conversation is going to persist into 2017 as brands figure out what’s working and what’s not. As the fashion industry debates its merits, the rest of us will keep shopping as we always have. By seeing, then buying.