Barneys x Proenza Schouler, a 2013 capsule collection.
Whether you’re currently saving up for a Mansur Gavriel bag, a pair of Gucci loafers, or any other it-item from the spring 2016 collections, when you’re ready to put your credit card down, exactly where you buy it won’t really matter. You could go to a real store, click to buy online, use an app, call a personal shopper—exclusivity is an increasingly rare concept.
Having these choices is convenient for customers, of course, but a crowded fashion market presents a tricky problem for retailers. How can you differentiate yourself when everyone’s selling exactly the same thing? Companies like Net-a-Porter, Shopbop, and Barneys New York have a simple solution: convince the designer to make a collection exclusively for their stores.
Exclusive designer/retail collaborations are nothing new—Net-a-Porter’s been at it for years— but they have become far more popular recently as retailers attempt to stand out from the pack, and try to satisfy shoppers’ growing buying habits. According to Net-a-Porter’s Vice President of Global Buying, Sarah Rutson, the ideal time to debut a capsule is during the gaps in the fashion cycle. “When approaching a brand about an exclusive capsule, we are looking to fulfill the needs of our customer, especially during the quieter periods when designers have stopped delivering main and pre, but customers are still hungry for new designs,” she says. “Having an exclusive capsule that is fresh, new, and something she has never seen before allows us to continuously feed her desire for unique and special pieces.” Shoppers aren’t only looking for new clothes; they want pieces that they can’t find at a dozen other stores.
Net-a-Porter’s just-launched Temperley London collection satisfies this need for both luxury and exclusivity. The idea for a partnership arose when Rutson noticed that Temperley’s signature embroidery was missing from its most recent pre-collection. “Season after season, this romantic detailing is something that the Net-a-Porter customer has come to love and look forward to,” she says of the label’s trademark embroidered details. So Rutson went straight to designer Alice Temperley and asked her to create a four-piece line with a special focus on embroidery. Temperley’s embellished kimonos and maxi skirts give Net-a-Porter customers an in-between season option, and they also strategically nod back to the retailer’s London heritage; it’s an ideal partnership.
Three pieces from Temperley x Net-a-porter’s capsule collection.
The best capsule collections are based upon brand identity, history, and knowing shoppers’ needs—ideally before they know themselves, which is what drove one of the online store’s capsules earlier this fall. “We recently worked with the Elizabeth & James team to resurrect a favorite sweater I had from a past collection,” Rutson says. “After wearing it to shows one season and getting lots of questions from my friends in fashion, I decided it was a fun and versatile piece the Net-a-Porter woman needs to have in her wardrobe.”
Having an established identity within the fashion industry allows companies like Net-a-Porter to work closely with designers on these pieces—consulting on everything from inspiration to picking out the cuts and colors. Even big-name fashion houses like Dolce & Gabbana took input from Rutson in this summer’s Portofino capsule, proving just how much power these retailers (and buyers) possess. “We have established strong global intel on our customers’ needs across brands and categories,” Rutson says. “By working closely with the designers and houses on these collections and capsules in person, and speaking openly with them about what our customers are wanting, we are able to achieve the strongest results.” Regardless of whether you’re referring an e-tailer like Net-a-Porter or Shopbop, or an iconic department store like Barneys, these companies represent distinct types of customers, and the exclusive capsules can play into that.
Barneys and Proenza Schouler used their mutual history as inspiration behind their exclusive collection in 2013. The two go way back—the New York retailer was the first to buy Jack McCollough and Lazaro Hernandez’s senior thesis collection when the Proenza Schouler designers were still Parson’s students—so it’s only fitting that they teamed up for a capsule celebrating the brand’s 10th anniversary.
Like Net-a-Porter, Barneys uses capsules to zero in on specific designer DNA. Take Narciso Rodriguez (who regularly designs dress capsules) or Nili Lotan (who created a cashmere knitwear collection), both play into Barneys Manhattan roots, like this year’s “Made In New York” collection, developed in partnership with CFDA designers. Jennifer Sunwoo of Barneys says the store actively pursues both big-name and emerging designers for capsules. “Because exclusivity deeply resonates with our customers, we also create distinct capsules with newer designers such as Esteban Cortazar, Tomorrowland, and new brands to Barneys like Victoria Beckham to truly differentiate the edits for our customers.” Barneys has managed to straddle the line between the established old guard while keeping its pulse on newcomers to know, which is exactly what New York’s fashion scene is all about.
Even something as basic as denim isn’t immune to the exclusive collection treatment. After recognizing its role as an online denim destination, Shopbop launched the Principle Collection, including 15 styles of jeans from 13 different designers. As Shopbop’s General Merchandising Manager Rachel Macpherson explains, the e-tailer “customized everything from silhouettes and washes to tailoring and hardware in order to offer a collection that particularly appeals to our shopper’s needs.”
You might not know you need a pair of custom cropped denim trousers in your life right now, but Shopbop’s buyers are banking on the fact that you’ll buy them anyway. Judging from the popularity and sheer number of exclusive capsule collections in stores, they’re probably right. Following fashion means that you’re constantly looking for something new, and buyers are determined to please you. As Rutson says, “As an authority in luxury e-commerce, we always need to be on the forefront of trends. If that means creating something that is not yet in the market, we’ll do exactly that.”