‘Fashion buying is stressful. You have to keep calm’

At the showrooms of designer Rick Owens in Paris, high fashion is bought for big money by luxury outlets to sell in their shops. It’s not for the faint of heart

 

The twice-yearly fashion weeks in Paris attract some 9,000 buyers from all around the world. To get a handle on this aspect of the trade, I joined two Irish buyers in October on one of their shopping trips for the 2016 spring season.

Clodagh Shorten, the owner of Samui in Cork, is an experienced buyer. She learned “on the hoof” with Monica John in Cork and remained with that company for 18 years before setting up on her own. Joining her in Paris is her retail manager, Mary-Claire O’Sullivan.

They buy a mix of the expensive and more affordable from top international brands. We head to the showrooms of Rick Owens in the Marais. “It usually takes about five hours here with a budget of €20,000 to spend,” Shorten says. Owens is a very successful and influential Paris-based American designer with a €30 million empire. His signature piece is a soft leather jacket with closely set arms inserted with ribbed knit, only sold in Ireland in Samui and in Dublin’s Havana.

We arrive at his headquarters and are checked in for the appointment and shown in to a long room. It is lined with clothing rails the length of the building. To the left are long brass-topped tables and benches with models and helpers standing around in attendance. Owens’s catwalk show for spring has attracted a lot of press attention due to its yoking together of women on the catwalk (one is even strapped on like a backpack).

What we are looking at, however, are not the catwalk clothes, which are downstairs, but what is called in the trade the “pre- collection”: less expensive and less elaborate items. The work begins with a specially assigned vendeuse and a style sheet: the SS16 Cyclops Women’s Collection. This is a 44-page dossier with images of garments on each page marked with their fixed wholesale prices. Photographs can be taken but there is a strict embargo on using them in social media. I count 172 items in this fat dossier.

 

Big mark-ups

The first surprise is that the mark-up is established by the brand, not the shop – in this case 270 per cent – ensuring that prices are the same everywhere. So a classic biker jacket starting at €495 will retail at more than €1,300, a hefty mark-up, the envy of other industries.

“You always have to ask what the mark-up is before you start buying,” says Shorten. “We order in sizes 10, 12 and 14, and I have to think about the general clientele and the core customer. We also need to think about strays: product for random customers. We need to think about how what we buy looks in the shop. I have learned not to be afraid. You can’t be scared. You have to be adventurous. The more you present for them, the more they will want. But buying is stressful. You have to keep calm.”

That becomes clear as the morning progresses and arguments arise over various items. “Do you think we can sell this for €1,900?” asks Mary-Claire, holding up a leather exploder peacoat. Images of purchases made from previous seasons are kept to ensure that similar items are not purchased. The vendeuse advises as choices are considered. “Do you want this in blister [a type of leather] or distressed? What colour?” Shorten has exactly a week in which to finalise orders to be delivered in January.

There are innumerable biker items and we’re nowhere near dagger dresses, kite tunics, wrapped tops and cropped trousers. Although it is only 11.30am, the spend has already totalled more than €13,000, and that has not included the main collection downstairs. It’s exhausting, and this is just one of nearly 20 appointments in their six-day trip.

Most of the business in Cork is from cashmere and jeans, and buying earlier means selling earlier, thus allowing cashflow through the year. High-end labels such as Rick Owens, Peter Pilotto and Marni are for the fashion customer, who will buy every season.

Samui also stocks Moncler, another successful and demanding brand. “You cannot leave that showroom without spending €20,000 and they want to know what the adjacencies are [the other brands that will be showing alongside theirs]. But people like us and relationships are established before we start buying. We have no notions about ourselves. People supply us easily, our reputation is sound and we pay on time.”

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