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Fashion's Broken Calendar

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They say the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem. And the fashion industry has a problem: The calendar is broken.

Grace Coddington admitted it in March. Julie Gilhart alluded to it in April. And Plum Sykes investigated further in this month's Vogue, with commiseration from designers like Matthew Williamson and Tomas Maier.

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Even when I worked in fashion, I struggled to understand the reasoning behind a system that kept designers "creating" at a relentless rate, so stores could fill their racks with winter sweaters come July, and bikinis shortly after Christmas.

At the end of last year, I was trying to make sense of this and called for backup. Enter Tomoko Ogura, who oversees the buyers of Barney's Co-op, and Michelle Goad, a merchandiser for Marc Jacobs. When we had lunch the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the young women were recovering from buying and selling, respectively, the pre-fall 2010 collections. But on a personal level, Michelle was in the market for a new winter coat. She had stopped by Barney's with high hopes, but all the good ones were gone in her size.

That's because the wool and cashmere coats had been out since July, when the average temperature in New York hovers around 85 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tomoko said she understood her friend's plight.

"No matter how much they want a winter coat," she said of her customers, "they are not going to buy it three months ahead of time."

But, because Barney's follows the fashion industry's general calendar, the designers Tomoko buys from ship her wool coats in July and swimsuits in January. She said she tries to give her customers a reasonable reprieve between the holidays and swimsuit season by pushing those designers to ship swimwear just a few weeks later. But in order for this to be effective, she said, designers would have to ship to all their stores later, not just Barney's. Otherwise, a Diane von Furstenberg bikini may be in the window at Saks weeks before it hits Barney's, and no one likes to appear behind the ball.

It's like an arms race, with tropical printed triangle bikinis as weapons.

Image from Juergen H. Dam

And some of those designers deliver new styles as many as twelve times per year. Each of these deliveries falls into one of four seasons: Pre-Fall, Fall, Resort, and Spring. Michelle drew me a dizzying spreadsheet-like calendar, outlining when those "seasonal" collections are actually on the stores' floors, which has absolutely no correlation with silly factors like the weather. Also on the calendar, is the ever-important markdown -- putting items on sale to make room for new merchandise.

But if Michelle Goad, a Marc Jacobs merchandiser who can hand-draw this absurdist calendar from memory, can't get it together to pick out her winter coat at summer's end, who on earth can? (Apparently, Plum Sykes can, but let's agree she's an outlier.)

Tomoko's colleague Julie Gilhart -- Barney's Fashion Director and industry bellwether -- told Style.com the seasonal system has been abused. "Whatever we can do to slow it down," she said, "I'm all for."

Grace Coddington, Vogue's Creative Director, sounded pretty fed up when I saw her speak in March. "We're trying to speed up all those poor designers so that they have fifteen collections a year," she said. "And it's stupid. I mean, how many dresses can you wear? And it makes them do it not so well, or they have a breakdown, or as just very very sadly happened, Alexander McQueen killed himself. And that's part of that hysteria that breaks my heart."

If that's not a wake-up call, I'm not sure what is.

It seems some sort of armistice is in order, but what will it take, for designers and retailers to make a systemic change? And what would that look like? At Barney's, it looks like more limited-edition pieces with interesting stories -- think recycled, hand-made, one-of-a-kind. Remember my favorite winter scarf?

Tomoko was the one who stocked Barney's shelves with the Inoue Brothers' woven shawls. In fact, after seeing one wrapped around her neck that afternoon, I was driven to distraction with the memory of its rainbow-plaid panes. I called the Barney's Co-op on Madison Avenue to ask if there were any left.

"No," a young man told me. "That's all we're getting in terms of cold weather merchandise." The next arrivals would be for Spring 2010. Outside, the first snowflakes of the season had just begun to fall.

So what can the industry do? Hazel Clark, a dean at Parsons, has explored the idea of slowing down the race, and resetting the fashion calendar to look more like a circle than a straight road.

"A cyclical approach would be to think of fashion and clothes 'moving around' a cycle," she wrote in an email. "This could simply be bringing out clothes from the wardrobe to meet seasonal changes in weather e.g. last year's warm winter coat -- or cyclical ideas like re-making, sharing."

I love those ideas, but I'm not sure we're all ready for a fashion calendar that's quite so revolutionary.

So here's my proposal. How about a compact, whereby a powerful institution like the CFDA, or even Barney's, gathers a group of designers in need of a break, and arranges for each of them to take a season off in organized rotation? Barney's could guarantee to buy their remaining seasonal collections, and the designers' participation in the program would get them -- and fashion's fast-forwarded production calendar -- some good press. It's sort of like our government paying farmers not to plant corn. Maybe a retreat for recovery and inspiration could even be part of the arrangement, compliments of Donna Karan's Pure Peru.

And when we're done doing that, we could do the same thing for journalists.

This post was originally composed for Closettour.