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The Birthday Dress, by Toronto's Boneset Studio.

It was an otherwise unremarkably drab Friday in late January, but fans of Beyoncé and of streetwear were in a panic. After weeks of anticipation, the singer’s clothing label, Ivy Park, launched its latest limited-edition collaboration with Adidas online. Fans hit refresh-refresh-refresh so as not to miss out on the latest fashion from the star.

A top retail trend for 2019, “the drop,” as limited-quantity and timed product releases are known, was once reserved for sneaker culture and streetwear brands such as Supreme and OVO, but has evolved to include international brands such as Gucci and Burberry.

One could imagine that the concept might have lost its edge when Amazon launched its influencer fashion concept The Drop last summer, both named for and built around that principle of immediacy and urgency, with a countdown clock reinforcing that the items from each limited-edition range were available to buy for only 30 hours, but the merchandising conceit is stronger than ever.

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When the commercial strategy began – inducing scarcity in order to spur consumer excitement – it was good for business. But as it turns out, it’s also a boon for fostering creative change in the life cycle of the fashion system.

Toronto-based retail expert Janice Rudkowski dubs drops as “orchestrated hysteria” and says they are proving useful for thoughtful small businesses and designers who operate on a more personal scale. “It ticks off so many of the retailer boxes, when you think about it,” says the assistant professor with Ryerson University’s Ted Rogers School of Retail Management. “It’s actually a better way of managing your inventory, a much more predictable way. It also provides a regular base of revenue.”

As independent Canadian fashion labels increasingly move to a direct-to-consumer model, they too are finding drops essential to an effective retail game. “It started out a very niche and special thing that happened with streetwear, and in trying to drive the scarcity and exclusivity, it built the brand base,” Rudkowski says. “Now it’s part of any brand’s experiential retail toolkit, both in terms of building the brand and helping with the supply chain.”

Eliza Faulkner, who designs an eponymous contemporary women’s label in Montreal, for example, now builds drops into her schedule.

She initially experimented with drops in a haphazard way. “It was a creative thing, I’d get really bored between seasons and wanted to be making something new, to release something now,” Faulkner says. But a couple years ago, after one collection didn’t sell to stores as well as she’d hoped, she worked them into her business strategy. “We had a lot of leftover fabric from our previous seasons and decided to use up what we had,” she says. “That’s also when my Instagram started ramping up and I had the power to put a picture up and sell it out. We started noticing it was really working for us.”

Rudkowski likens social media’s role in the drop to the way postrecession real estate markets helped normalize the pop-up. “Drop culture is following a similar life cycle, where, once used sparingly, they’re now part of a regular strategy,” she says. “Whether it’s a big retailer or a small brand, it’s a strategy that’s very accessible for many brands, at every level. But I do think it would have been challenging to orchestrate all of that without social media. It’s been the perfect storm of timing and technology."

The consumer psychology of the drop also cultivates a collector mindset when it comes to shopping, Rudkowski points out. ​

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“And then there are the people who want to be part of the lineups or part of a community, who shop like amateur sleuths,” she adds. “Connoisseurs. Whether in the real world or online, they’re going to recognize each other, and become part of the same exclusive community.”

Turns out even a veteran retail reporter can be susceptible to that lure of belonging: It’s how I found myself with a red-letter day in my calendar. Reminders and device alarms went off one Saturday morning, just in case I forgot my appointment with Collingwood-based Red Sky’s online shop. My quarry? The scheduled 10 a.m. drop of their signature baggy boiler suit in a limited-edition leopard print. It had been teased for weeks on the brand’s Instagram feed. Once I got it, spotting it out in the wild on others and via hashtags on Instagram stories made me feel, I will admit, smugly au courant.

Beyond a boost in sales, executing a drop also has environmental benefits. “Being sustainable is very important to everyone these days and we’re trying to find our way through that,” says Jade Cooling, studio manager at the Toronto label Boneset Studio. “Ultimately, if the bolt of fabric is gone that’s great for us. We don’t want it to be left over – want it to live out there in the world.” Reducing garment waste is a goal shared by other indie label darlings like Rachel Comey, which recently released as a drop what it called “archival reproductions,” customer favourite previous styles in limited editions, cut from fabric left over from past seasons.

Boneset Studio recently launched a yarn-dyed Irish linen dress, in pink gingham and priced at $365, as a preorder drop. It sold out almost instantly – before they’d even sewn it together. It was announced and promoted through Instagram stories and posts, and suits the company’s handmade-to-order business model as it transitions from being a custom design house into offering off-the-rack garments. The size of the drop – just five units – wasn’t to manufacture excitement; it was dictated by the small supply of fabric sourced from a heritage mill. But the buzz of urgency nevertheless helped the post and stories get shared and raised awareness about the growing brand. Of the five dresses sold, two were to repeat customers and three were purchased by people new to the brand.

Drops suit Boneset’s production capacity – everything is designed, cut and sewn in-house. “In my perfect world, we will continue to [have] these little drops of special groups, maybe 25 a month, in a style we know you love,” says creative director Stefanie Ayoub, with different fabrics. “And then it’s gone.”

In this evolved approach to the supply chain, when it’s judiciously deployed by independent labels, drop culture isn’t just a marketing ploy for hype. It’s part of an evolved approach to that can shift attitudes about the things we buy, to value them all the more.

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