Of Trust and Antitrust

Why buy that fall dress now when it's likely to go on sale even before the weather is cool enough to wear it? 

That's one of the many issues raised at the CFDA's town hall meeting yesterday, which started out with a focus on reforming Fashion Week and quickly turned to related issues and proposed solutions.  Including one idea from Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour (right) that screamed "antitrust violation":

Anna Wintour.jpg"Could someone lead a committee that would make ground rules for retailers of when the discounting starts, and then all of the retailers can agree to it?"  Ms. Wintour suggested. 

"That's illegal!"  [designer and CFDA president Diane] von Furstenberg said with some horror.

"Is that something we can change?"  Ms. Wintour said.  "We have friends in the White House now!"
True, some European countries restrict sales to January and June -- but the trend is toward loosening the rules to allow floating sales at other times.  And discounted merchandise from previous seasons is available 24/7/365 via increasingly popular websites like Yoox, Gilt, and Outnet.

In the U.S., despite the Supreme Court's relaxation of the limits on vertical price restraints two years ago, it's hard to imagine Congress telling retailers NOT to put goods on sale.  Especially in a downturn. 

There's no doubt that Fashion Week, originally an engine for both sales and publicity, has overheated and threatened to stall.  Or that delivery dates that put wool coats in stores in July are out of sync with an instant gratification culture.  Or that Saks' 70% markdowns last fall created an unprecedented rush to the bottom as luxury retailers fought to unload excess merchandise.  Or that consumers are wearing their wallets a bit tighter at the moment.   

But is a new law really the answer?  Discounting isn't unfair, unethical, or immoral -- it is in essence a bargaining process between designers and consumers via retail outlets.  The original price is an offer that the customer is free to accept or reject, and it's blatantly apparent that factors from oversupply to the economy are causing her to stand and wait until that price drops.  More interesting is the fact that some beautifully designed, high-quality, limited-quantity items -- from classics like Hermes handbags to fashion pieces like Balmain's $10,000+ jackets -- are still selling out, at full price.  The same is true for coveted items at the budget end of the spectrum. 

Yes, Fashion Week can and should be re-engineered to showcase clothes, not celebrities, and the delivery calendar can be improved.  At the end of the day, however, the industry needs to place its trust in design and designers, not in jousting with the Department of Justice.