When it comes to fashion, timeless designs always beat flashy showpieces
A show from a leading brand in a fashion capital, such as Paris, London or Milan, typically features 40 to 50 looks, each the result of countless hours of painstaking work from designers and their teams of patternmakers, tailors and studio assistants. Every season, luxury labels go to great lengths to extol the virtues of their ateliers and to put on gargantuan spectacles – a plain runway with models running up and down at breakneck speed accompanied by a soundtrack of thumping music won't do any more in the digital age.
However, have you ever wondered how many of those finely made, lavishly embellished and very costly pieces actually make it to the retail floor? In most cases, only a tiny fraction of the outfits that parade down the runway end up being produced. In fashion lingo, insiders refer to them as "showpieces" as their main function is to distil the aesthetic direction of the collection with a strong statement from the designer of the house. They're the Instagram-friendly outfits that are flown to far-flung locations for magazine shoots; photographed for advertising campaigns; and used as window displays and in-store props. Try to buy any of them and you'd be out of luck or, more likely, be shown a more "wearable" and "commercial" version of the piece in question.
Back in the golden age of haute couture, fashion shows were actually meant for clients who attended these quiet and civilised events to place orders and often outnumbered journalists on the front row.
Not any more. Nowadays, most brands make the lion's share of their profits from accessories and so-called "ancillary products", such as fragrances, make-up and sunglasses, which are more affordable than clothing and less likely to fall victim to the whims of seasonal trends.
The function of the show is, then, to create buzz – a very important function for sure, but one that reflects the disconnect that exists between the runway and what women wear as they go about their daily lives.
The fashion media is also guilty of sending luxury aficionados a bag of mixed messages: on the one hand, they exhort women to follow the latest fads and update their look every three months; on the other, they emphasise the importance of building a wardrobe of "investment pieces", hardworking items that will stand the test of time and will have perennial appeal, no matter what happens on the catwalks of Paris and Milan.
Much like shoes and bags, which often come in classic styles that can be found throughout the year, these "investment pieces" actually exist, even though most brands do little to publicise them as they'd rather promote seasonal novelties that are more likely to get media attention.
Take a house such as Burberry, whose signature item, the trench coat, is at the heart of the company's DNA and a constant best-seller. Every season, Christopher Bailey, the brand's creative director, comes up with different iterations for the utilitarian trench: delicate lace one season; rendered in a patchwork of different materials the next; and grommeted and studded another.
However, if you were to enter, say, the Burberry store at Shoppes at Four Seasons, you'll notice that customers gravitate to archetypes such as the Sandringham and the Kensington. More adventurous shoppers may opt for a slightly splashier colour than the more common beige or black, but the basic model remains the same with little tweaks to fit and material from the original.
Another label that relies on core collections for most of its ready-to-wear business is Saint Laurent. When Hedi Slimane took over the brand in 2012, he decided to build a wardrobe of key items that would be available, season in and season out, pieces that pay homage to the timeless appeal of the brand (the tuxedo jacket being one) and that ended up being the foundation of the
maison during his four-year tenure. That the house has continued in this direction under Slimane's successor Anthony Vaccarello shows how successful these permanent collections turned out to be. They include the Classic Motorcycle Jacket in black leather; the Iconic Le Smoking Jacket in black wool and the Slouchy Parka in black leather.
As you can tell from the simple definitions of these pieces – a far cry from the often three sentence-long paragraphs that brands like to provide with show notes at fashion week to describe each item on the catwalk – these are wardrobe staples, built on fit and quality, rather than unnecessary frills. Once you buy one, you're likely to keep it forever and can pair
it with different items from your closet without feeling you have to wear a wow-factor head-to-toe designer look, an outdated notion that only the diehard fashionistas who attend the shows in order to be snapped by street-style photographers ascribe to.
The list of labels offering these wardrobe essentials goes on and on, from Dolce & Gabbana and its statement body-con dresses, which come in red or black lace and vivid botanical prints; to Chanel, whose ready-to-wear offering is built on truly timeless creations. Chief among them is the little black jacket, the brainchild of Karl Lagerfeld but in fact an updated version of Gabrielle Coco Chanel's original tweed jacket, a piece so iconic that it has come to define the brand as much as its best-selling fragrance, Chanel N° 5.
Needless to say, unlike seasonal creations, these items never go on sale and drive most of the revenues that brands make from high-end apparel, which still pale in comparison to the turnover of more profitable lines such as small leather
goods, shoes, bags and fragrances.
But while these collections are important for a brand's bottom line, they're also assets for discerning luxury consumers who want to own beautiful pieces that won't go out of style after a mere season and, more important, are not so obvious
that everyone will recognise them from endless Instagram posts and advertising campaigns.
As customers become more savvy and educated with their luxury purchases, it's no surprise that brands are shifting their focus to these core collections, investing their resources on what they do best, whether it's a camel coat in cashmere from Max Mara; a tailored jacket in Armani "greige" from the maestro of Italian fashion; or a soft-as-a-feather vicuna sweater from Loro Piana, now with a presence at Shoppes at Four Seasons. The latter, for instance, will easily set you back HK$50,000, but you'll know that you're getting the highest
quality and a truly one-of-a-kind piece. After all, who wants to look as if they've just come out of a fashion ad?
So, the next time you walk into a luxury store, keep in mind that what happens on the runway stays on the runway, and look instead for those season-less staples that are unlikely to turn into regrets next time you go through your well-edited and curated closet.