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Pre-Fall Fashion 2011

© Courtesy Yves Saint Laurent

Why pre-fall, fashion’s new most important season, is dominating the stores this spring.

As tanned shoppers stock up for summer vacation, they can hardly find a single bikini behind the racks of fur-trimmed coats and leather-fringed totes. Thanks to the rise of pre-fall collections, designers are shipping their most innovative fall fashion in May and June, clearing store windows of pale pink and sea green in favor of deep, autumnal tones. From Bottega Veneta’s 1964 Red Desert–inspired collection of mustard-yellow, cobalt-blue and pea-green jackets popping with thick black stripes to Gucci’s ’70s shaggy shrugs, this spring wool and fur won’t wait for fall.

The pre-fall phenomenon started three years ago, when the recession changed customers’ buying habits to favor buying a few new key pieces over conspicuous consumption. Catering to a client who doesn’t want to buy what she already owns, designers now use pre-fall as a laboratory for testing new ideas and previewing their fall collections. And because the early pieces stay on the floor longer than others—often from May through January—stores are finding this “season” their most lucrative. “Pre-fall has become the most important season in retail delivery,” says Marissa Hartington, whose Marissa Collections, based in Naples, Florida, is stocked with pieces from Givenchy, Lanvin, Chloé and Balmain.

For designers, shipping early collections gives them a chance to keep their retail footprint consistent. “You can’t just deliver your clothes twice a year,” says Scott Sternberg, founder of Band of Outsiders, who ships his classic, Americana-inspired schoolboy blazers and rep ties in May and June. “Pre-fall helps your metric because you’re on the floor longer.” Since fashion moves faster than its biannual spring/summer and fall/winter presentations, producing a new collection is a chance for both the design and retail sides to keep up, with four collections (including resort) instead of two.

From a creative perspective, pre-fall acts as a “palette cleanser,” according to designer Nicole Miller. “Everyone needs a color change from summer brights and whites,” she says. Miller ships dark, rich colors in June that are precursors to her runway collection. She will sometimes later use the same pieces that debuted in pre-fall, such as her fitted button-front shirts that went from pre-fall 2010 to the runway. Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga uses his pre-fall collection as a basic silhouette on which to elaborate with heavier fabrics and more structured styling for the runway.

“I think pre-fall can be an indicator of trends, and it can certainly influence other collections subsequently,” says stylist Annabel Tollman. “I thought the Yves Saint Laurent pre-fall was incredibly strong and lustworthy, with all the gray and jewel tones and fur, and certainly saw elements of it afterward as trends in the fall collections—albeit not in Yves Saint Laurent!”

It’s also an opportunity for customers to choose items to incorporate into their fall wardrobes. “Since it is often a precursor to what we will see going down the runway, customers can actually build what they buy into the colorization of the season,” says Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s fashion director. The felted wool, leather separates and pleated skirts showing up in many pre-fall collections easily work with runway pieces appearing in stores in the following months. “Michael Kors is the perfect example of someone who incorporates the pre-fall collection into the runway with transitional-weight fabrics the customer loves,” Downing adds.

Neiman Marcus buys 70 percent of its inventory in these early collections because of their buy now, wear now appeal. Beth Buccini, owner of Kirna Zabête, a luxury boutique in downtown Manhattan known for its well-edited pieces and extraordinary service, advises her clients to buy two thirds of their wardrobe in the pre-collections and then “ice the cake” with a third from the runway, partly because pre-fall tends to be less expensive and more commercial (read: wearable).

Still, with so much wool outerwear lining shelves in sunny weather, some retailers are having trouble selling it. Even for shoppers looking for the latest arrivals after going through the sale rack, it’s hard to rationalize bypassing summer before it’s begun. But it’s a quandary they’re used to, says Tollman. “The seasons get delivered at the time of year when it would be least appropriate to wear them—bikinis appear in the shops in January and there are coats in August, so there are ostensibly no actual clothes for buy-now, wear-now, which I think is still, despite these strong collections, how most people continue to shop.”

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Pre-Fall Checklist

Pre-fall items arrive in stores in May. Here, a few favorites from the ever-expanding offerings.

Akris cashmere rugby shirt dress, $2,990; akris.com.

Bottega Veneta Corniola orange coat ($3,680); sapphire color-block coat ($3,500); bottegaventa.com.

Celine belted trench with Harris tweed collar, $5,000; celine.com.

Chloe luggage-colored leather skirt, $2,495; chloe.com.

Gucci flared gray trousers ($850) and cropped black peacoat ($1,950); gucci.com.

Lanvin black cocktail dress with ruffled collar, $3,990; lanvin.com.

Louis Vuitton cashmere pullover, $1,510; louisvuitton.com.

Marni khaki-green puffer vest, $1,145; marni.com.

Max Mara gray tunic and cropped cigarette pants, $890 for both; maxmara.com.

Oscar de la Renta belted fur vest, price upon request; oscardelarenta.com.

Versace fluted leopard-print skirt, $1,295; versace.com.

YSL peony cape coat ($3,490); fox hood ($4,250); ysl.com.