How to shop ahead of the curve

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Pre-ordering designer clothes before they hit the shops used to be the preserve of fashion insiders. Now Net-a-Porter and Topshop are offering us all the chance

The fashion industry loves new things, and those who work in it love having them before anyone else.

So when faithful clients and label loyalists attend the international collections, it's a chance for them to plump for pieces straight from the catwalk and pre-order their favourites, which often won't arrive in stores for another six months. A handy way to stay on top of the trends and ensure you're snapping up the season's must-haves before they sell out – and undoubtedly an insider perk of the job.

But it's also the shopping model behind a new capsule collection of clothing launching on the e-boutique Net-a-Porter. From Wednesday, McQ, the second line from Alexander McQueen, will offer its autumn 2012 collection on the site for exclusive pre-ordering for a week only. Pieces will then arrive in as soon as two months after the order has been placed, right at the very beginning of the new-season drops.

"Pre-order is a service that we have offered our customers in the past for truly exceptional collections," explains Net-a-Porter's buying director, Holli Rogers. "The first time was in 2007, when we collaborated with Roland Mouret on the relaunch of his brand. This was the first time customers could pre-order directly from the catwalk, anywhere."

The McQ collection in question was a highlight of London Fashion Week last February, as models in strictly tailored but rustic wool coats and delicate but structured A-line dresses trod a catwalk strewn with crisp autumnal leaves. And the reinvigoration of the brand, as well as its return to the capital's schedule, has been met with enthusiasm and excitement among the industry's cognoscenti.

"As soon as we saw the McQ runway show, we knew our customers would love the collection as much as we did," Holli Rogers continues. "McQ wasn't originally planning to sell the collection, so it's wonderful to be able to offer our customers the chance to pre-order a piece of fashion history."

Make no mistake, pre-ordering is for people who love their clothes, who eat, breathe and sleep fashion, and for whom only the most exclusive of pieces will do. But it's also a sales technique that is being adopted by more and more labels and shops, as customers become more confident about buying online and as the internet continues to speed up the traditional cycles of trends and tastes. High-street giant Topshop has started offering its autumn 2012 Unique collection to editors for pre-orders – and where that commercial force leads, others are sure to follow.

Burberry, too, has become known for its engagement with online audiences, having last year launched a "Tweetwalk" (in which every catwalk look is tweeted during the show in real time) and, before that, a "Runway to Reality" service which means customers can buy pieces straight from the show via the company's website. "Customers can buy immediately from the show and receive in six to eight weeks," explains chief creative officer Christopher Bailey. "It has changed the whole system of buying, as well as the cycle of production. Basically you can buy every bag that goes down the runway, every coat, and the make-up as well." Needless to say, it's months before the same items are scheduled to arrive in the shops.

"During the international fashion weeks, we see immediate responses from clients about the collections," says Selfridges' client-services manager, James Servini. "We can receive enquiries as soon as a day after a show. It's mostly a very fashion-savvy customer who will be interested – somebody who has an intuitive sense of which looks define the coming season. They're extremely sure of how they want to dress, and particularly passionate about 'newness'."

With the refurbishment of the store's Designer Galleries this year, Selfridges has also launched a lookbook of imagery that has further increased the potential for pre-orders. Working with the buying team to gauge shipments and arrivals, these customers, their tastes and inputs are also helping to shape the selection that will finally arrive on the shop floor – James Servini points particularly to high-end and directional labels such as Haider Ackermann, Ann Demeulemeester and Rick Owens, which are consistently popular orders. The practice may be for a minority, but it's an excellent way for both designers and buyers to canvass opinion, of getting an instant reaction and a sense of which might be the strongest looks in the range.

"Pre-ordering gives more choice to the customer," agrees designer Jonathan Saunders. "Often people look for more special pieces – which are sometimes not picked up by the stores. It's really interesting to see what people select."

In this way, shops are slowly returning to the old system of trunk shows and private views. Some designers still do these in person – Michael Kors runs a circuit of chi-chi boutiques across the US for his diehard fans, while Nina Ricci's Peter Copping and Alber Elbaz at Lanvin have also resurrected the practice – but Net-a-Porter's idea is that the trunk show can be run digitally, and orders taken there. It's a modern approach with roots in a much more personalised couture tradition. Moda Operandi (which stocks Jonathan Saunders, Alexander Wang and Marc Jacobs, among many others) also offers online trunk shows, as well as from-the-catwalk ordering.

"Everyone is planning the next season in advance," says Kay Barron, fashion-features editor at Harper's Bazaar, "and we're not as spontaneous as we once were. You have to put quite a lot of thought into it and really understand your personal style. But it's always worth it, so long as you actually like what you've ordered when it arrives three months later."

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