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Our Weird Weather (And Global Warming) Is About To Change How Shops Sell Us Clothes

© Cam Morin; Unsplash

Remember when it was 30 degrees in the July and the shops were full of winter coats? That might all be about to change

Oscar Wilde reportedly said that conversations about the weather were the last refuge of the unimaginative. He might be right, but excuse me, I think we need to talk about it.

It’s November, and the first days of bitter winter only just dawned. Until last week half the Grazia team were happily gabbing about tight-free, glove-free and still in the lightweight jackets of summer. Something wasn’t normal. But, then again, what has been normal about this year’s weather?

Summer in England is characterized by wet picnics and soggy festivals, but not this year. Long languorous days spent in pub gardens stretched from June to sometime last week. Hurricanes, wildfires, earthquakes, heatwaves - 2018 has seen extreme weather reach a new level of normalcy.

’Unseasonably hot weather’ was what Superdry blamed for its recent profit warning. The summer’s extended heatwave meant sweaty tube carriages, a general headiness fueled by mid-week Aperol Spritz binges and a nationwide disinterest in winter fashion. When the FTSE 250 clothing brand, as usual, dropped coats in stores early this Autumn they didn’t sell. They didn’t sell to the tune for £10 million less than expected. Shares melted like an ice cream in August and panic was triggered.

‘The traditional supply chain once dictated when shops dropped collections but in a way that is no longer relevant,’ admits WGSN’s director of retail strategy and insights, Nivindya Sharma. Consumers now dictate what shops stock and the weather has a big bearing on what pushes us to purchase.

We’re living through ‘consumer culture with the wheels fallen off’, says Christina Dean, founder of sustainable fashion NGO Redress. It’s not just that the supply chain is churning faster than ever, but retailers can’t predict if we’re going to be wearing coats in October or sundresses, she explains. There’s so much planning that goes into the item hanging in the window - design, deadlines, infrastructure, production, marketing, delivery and now erratic weather needs to be accounted for. Unexpected weather requires extra agility, ‘broadly speaking this requires faster delivery,’ explains Dean, ‘and faster delivery of anything means waste, mistakes and pressure.’

Shop floors are expensive and it’s not feasible for brands to stock clothing in the off-chance that it will be weather reactive. It’s no secret that some labels have been burning stock to make way for newness. Burberry got caught earlier this year for destroying £90mill worth of goods. ‘Burberry has careful processes in place to minimize the amount of excess stock we produce. On the occasions when disposal of products is necessary, we do so in a responsible manner and we continue to seek ways to reduce and revalue our waste,’ a spokesperson said at the time. When income is valued as more important than the wasted environmental footprint of making a garment, Dean thinks ‘there needs to be a big shift in the buying practices of inventory.’

There is one solution, though. And, it doesn’t require overhauling our shopping ethics (entirely). Simply put, brands and stores should buy in-season or at least leave some budget free to do so. Next and New Look are very vocal about moving in this direction. ‘You have to communicate newness in relation to what your customers will realistically want at that point,’ says Sharma. Some brands are better at this than others (see Zara). Sharma argues localized data analytics and an awareness of the incoming climate could lead to less wasted or unwanted stock.

Buy less is Sharma’s second mantra. ‘One solution is to reduce the depth of buy,’ she tells us, ‘that way you’re catering to the consumer and reducing the overstock issue.’ This business model is already up and running at the luxury end of the spectrum where brands like Burberry, Vetements and Supreme rely on limited edition, short-order collections. This ‘generates desire for a product by creating a sense of mystery and anticipation’, Sharma tells us, ‘right now successful brands are moving away from the big drops at the beginning of the season and instead having more interesting micro-drops.’

Mind, limited edition collections aren’t just good marketing. These mini drops can be weather-determined – for instance, they may be designed specifically for extreme weather conditions – or they can ignore the climate altogether, either way, Sharma predicts their success. The latter approach works - just ask H&M and their designer collaborations - because the hype can become fevered enough to ensure consumers are caught up in the concept not the practicality of the items. ‘It takes you away from the relevancy of the weather because people will buy it no matter what happens,’ Sharma notes as the pieces become collector’s items. Gen Z and millennials, according to WGSN, are driven by experience and the stagnant fashion calendar doesn’t appeal to their ‘drop mentality’ and craving for immediacy.

There is no way of untangling consumerism’s grip on global warming, which is the cause of the erratic weather we’re seeing, but there is a seed change happening internally in the fashion industry.

A report, published earlier this year by Stella McCartney and Ellen MacArthur revealed that the clothing industry is the third most polluting factor in the world. Soon after, H&M, Selfridges, L’Oreal and Burberry pledged to reduce plastic packaging by 100 per cent by 2025 (five years before scientists say it will be impossible to limit a ‘climate change catastrophe’).

A follow-up doc produced by the BBC has set insiders talking. Influencers - led by a call to arms from Guardian’s associate fashion editor Jess Cartner-Morley - have pledged to be more responsible and reuse, recycle and thrift rather than purely talk about for newness.

But, shopping habits, in general, have changed.

The Resolution Store - a new digital boutique reselling the wardrobe’s of influencers - is part of a growing movement to embrace recycling fashion. Ethical and sustainable concerns fuel the project that features the pre-loved wares of Pandora Sykes and Camille Charrière. The founders, Alicia Waite and Anna Sutton, simply explain their, ‘mission [is] to encourage the growth in the market for pre-loved and second-hand clothing.’ Sites like Depop and eBay can attest to a growing interest in this sector, with Etsy reporting an increase of 69.9 per cent year-on-year growth in demand for ‘vintage’ in 2017 (that’s around 7.9mil searches).

Outside of second-hand market, Meghan Markle, the Duchess of Sussex, has become the poster child for sustainable fashion. She’s been bringing the so-called Meghan-effect to a handpicked selection of labels that champion sustainability, like Outland denim and Veja as well as Reformation and Stella McCartney. Though Meghan still wears her Manolo’s and Givenchy, by giving exposure and endorsements to these labels she is elevating the conversation to the public consciousness.

The drive for sustainability and conscious thrifting is the product of global warming, but it doesn’t explain as a whole why the fashion calendar is no longer relevant.

More and more people are shopping on our computers, phones and tablets - according to Deloitte, 20 per cent of retail sales are online, and this is growing at 10 times the rate of bricks and more stores. The ease and sophistication of delivery mean buying a dress on Thursday to wear Saturday night is normalised, but so is the throw-away culture that comes with it. ‘The way consumers are shopping for clothes and shoes is changing; there is a buy-now, wear-now mentality and a desire to shop for clothes however and whenever they want,’ said Tamara Sender, Mintel’s senior fashion analyst in a report that also noted that Brits now spend £16.2bn on fashion online. Hence the exponential growth digi-first brands like Boohoo and the nascent of Kitri.

It’s the symbiosis of changing attitudes to shopping, the ease of last-minute purchasing and erratic weather that mean the traditional model is broken. Hence, it's only a matter of time before the fashion calendar wakes up and realizes that dropping winter clothes in August and spring summer collections in January is out of whack with reality