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Retail Rehabilitation: Why Fashion’s Night Out Isn’t a Solution to the Industry’s Woes

I’m a proud consumer. From my morning coffee to my date-night restaurant, from the clothes I wear to the gym I attend and even the computer I write this editorial on – I have a brand affiliation for nearly everything. I try not to pass judgment on myself about this. Everyone makes choices on these matters and, yes, rocking those natty old sneakers and khakis to work because you “don’t care” is, indeed, a choice. Maybe because I’m particularly aesthetically-inclined or maybe because I’ve been immersed in the fashion and advertising industries in one way or another for a long time, my choices in particular tend to be over-informed and fickle. I’m quite cognizant of the products on the market as well as equally inclined to buy the ones that entice me at the blink of an eye. Thus, as Fashion Week 2011 is in full force here in Manhattan, I should serve as the target customer for Fashion’s Night Out (to be referred to as FNO from here on). Indeed, I spent a lot of time last Thursday night heading from boutique to boutique checking out exclusive deals, drinking free liquor, noshing on snacks and rubbing shoulders with celebrities.

What I didn’t do, however, was buy anything.

So, what’s the problem here? If an event that was created especially to encourage spending and over-consumption couldn’t coax someone like me into dropping a penny, there’s clearly something wrong. This predicament is that, simply put, FNO no longer does its job. Like some kind of decadent bacchanal raging inside a cloistered palace as Rome gets sacked and set ablaze, FNO has, in only three short years, become a thinly-veiled excuse for the fashion industry to party, for the bridge-and-tunnel crowd to exploit open bars and, most unfortunately, for the retail economy to continue to suffer as cheap, fast fashion reigns supreme. I’m not alone in this evaluation of the occasion. Recently The New York Times’ Cathy Horyn (one of the most well-respected fashion journalists around) seems to be fed up with FNO as well, claiming “though it apparently raises money for some causes, I have to believe that the costs of security, crowd control and entertainment, not to mention the traffic headaches, outweigh the actual benefits.” I have to agree with Ms. Horyn.

Although FNO has become a global phenomenon, it began here in NYC under the watchful eye of Vogue tsar Anna Wintour and remains inherently relevant to Manhattan. Additionally, the event doesn’t suffer as much abroad as it does here. The first FNO in Paris, for example, was a huge success due to the oversight of Carine Roitfeld. The ex-Editor in Chief of French Vogue kept the night exclusive, expensive and curated to only the glitziest of tastemakers as well as limited the venue solely to Triangle d’Or. There was little appeal to mass consumption – instead, the evening focused on encouraging people who were already spending money on branded products to let loose and spend even more.

The Roitfeld model, however, is inherently un-American and would never fly in NYC, where Wintour’s vision is noticeably more egalitarian. If you don’t believe this, just look at the fact that the first FNO in 2009 found the notoriously glamorous Devil Wears Prada–inspiring editrix heading to a Macy’s in Queens (of all places) to sign T-shirts (of all things). So, if Wintour’s populist vision of FNO isn’t going to help inflate the retail economy in New York the way it should be, what will? I have three suggestions that could help make every evening a fiscal boost to boutiques in my hometown.

First of all, stores simply need to be open later. Shops in Las Vegas remain open in the hopes of reeling in drunken jackpot winners. Stores in Hong Kong operate until 10:00 or 11:00PM routinely due to the city’s workaholic banker population and vibrant late night scene. So, why is it that “the city that never sleeps” doesn’t have more nocturnal shopping options? Yes, it is more expensive to pay employees to stay open for longer – but sacrificing the costs of FNO alone could easily make up for the additional hours. Furthermore, with rents for retail operations in hip districts of NYC persevering at such obscenely high rates, it seems foolish to shutter stores at 6:00 or 7:00 when customers could be enticed to shop well into the night.

Secondly, retail operations in Manhattan need to get more creative with their business models. Simply selling clothes won’t be enough anymore. Even if the economy were to miraculously recover completely tomorrow, New Yorkers have been hit hard by the recession and won’t dole out cash for frivolous luxuries in the same way they would have before. We need to be seduced, intrigued and enchanted into entering a boutique. The chance of such a courtship succeeding is much higher if the store operates under some type of hybrid business model. I remember being pleasantly surprised, for example, when I walked into an agnès b. in Hong Kong last month to discover not only a full men’s boutique on the second floor but also a lovely café and even a fully-functional upscale florist. Integrating multiple businesses into a single retail environment helps bring customers in, keeps them loitering for longer and encourages them to make impulse purchases. A young man walking into agnès b. to buy a scarf, for example, could very easily end up splurging on an overpriced latte and arranging for a bouquet to be delivered to that girl he’s been pursuing recently. Before he knows it, he’s spent double what he planned on, yet he’s not guilty because of the diversity of the purchases he has made. Ralph Lauren knows this, attaching restaurants to his stores in Chicago, Washington, DC and most recently Paris. Barney’s New York is aware as well, operating the iconic Fred’s out of their top floor for years. Unfortunately, few of the newest and hippest New York boutiques have caught on to this strategy.

Finally, stores should focus on collaborating on multiple, smaller events yearlong. Instead of throwing one ultra-expensive blowout party on the same night that all of the competition is doing the same, NYC-based boutiques could benefit from hosting creative and engaging evening events several times a year. Working with a local artist, chef or musician, for example, to promote their work while attracting new customers to the store is a win-win situation that’s also cost effective. Furthermore, offering FNO-style deals (“spend $200, get a bottle of cologne for free!” etc.) at random intervals throughout the year will also help gain press, acclaim and all-important income for shops that have suffered during the recession.

By extending hours, embracing creative hybrid business models and serving as host to fun and interesting events yearlong, stores in New York and the world over can stop suffering in this oppressive economy without resorting to annual fêtes that break the bank. If executed effectively, this strategy could help boutique owners transform every night out into Fashion’s Night Out. It might even help convince me to buy something.

Douglas Brundage is a born-and-bred New Yorker and aesthete who has been writing, editing and branding in one form or another for most of his life. A frequent contributor to HYPEBEAST with experience in both the advertising and editorial worlds, Douglas’ interests in food, travel, hip-hop, fashion and marketing have allowed him to garner the unique ability to discuss everything from Woody Allen to Kanye West. He curates and writes original content for two of his own blogs, one on trends in mixology and another regarding branding and design. Check out his Twitter for a barrage of links to articles on things you never thought you needed to know about.

Image: Yiying Lu for Meets Obsession Magazine

Date: Sep 20, 2011  /  Views: 548  /  Author: Douglas Brundage
Category: Editorial  /  Tags: Op-ed, Fno, Fashion's night out