The Relevance of Fashion Weeks: Weaknesses, Covid-19 and The Future

 

 

The past few months have seen Saint Laurent announce its withdrawal from the Fashion Week calendar. The relevance of Fashion Weeks has long been debated, however, with names such as this choosing to leave it we look more closely at what Fashion Weeks really entails. Whilst also, analysing the recent changes Covid-19 has made to Fashion Weeks and whether those changes would be a way forward.

 

 
 

Fashion Weeks, in a general term, began in 1943 in New York, although similar shows were taking place in Paris in 1918, both were ‘press weeks’ which took place every spring and autumn. It involved editors and buyers gathering in hotels to preview collections and organise their schedules. During this time, New York, London, Milan and Paris established themselves as the centres of fashion, although, the event itself was not centralised.

The Fashion Weeks we’re currently familiar with started in 1993, it was Fern Mallis, the then executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who sought to bring everything together. Mallis told Racked in 2015, “ there were 50 shows in 50 locations. Everyone did their own thing without understanding what a nightmare it was if it was your business to get from one show to the other.” This modern NYFW was known as “Seventh on Sixth” and gathered American designers to show their new collections in white tents at Bryant Park. The other cities then took the initiative to organise their own similar centralised events.

Fashion Weeks have now become a spectacle, they have given designers a platform to push boundaries, such as the iconic shows of Alexander McQueen and Karl Lagerfeld. Those spectacles have extended to include the street style, celebrity attendance, exclusivity and parties that now surround the event. This new kind of Fashion Weeks is what we’ll be discussing in this article.

 

 
 

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH FASHION WEEKS?

In April 2020 Saint Laurent announced their departure from the Fashion Week calendar through a post on their Instagram that stated, “Saint Laurent will take ownership of its calendar and launch its collections following a plan conceived with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity.” Similarly, in May, Gucci reported it also will be stepping away from Fashion Weeks through Alessandro Michele’s diary entries posted to the Gucci Instagram; “I will abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows to regain new cadence, closer to my expressive call. We will meet just twice a year, to share the chapters of a new story.” When looking at both statements, the main reason for these two brands leaving the Fashion Weeks calendar is about taking back creative control; they want to be able to choose the number of collections they release each year, when they release a collection, and specially how they release it. Fashion Weeks have become more than events, they are now rulebooks of how fashion brands should be operating - it is conformity.

NYFW, as an example, is based on showing collections every February and September which requires designers to put out four to five collections a year (when including Mens Fashion Week and Couture Fashion Week.) Tom Ford told WWD magazine in 2016, “we have been living with a fashion calendar and system that is from another era.” Although Fashion Week provides a venue, audience, press and general set up, it has become demanding and restrictive for many brands. 

Continuing to look at NYFW, this past February saw Ralph Lauren drop out with plans to show in April, Tom Ford showed his collection in L.A and Jeremy Scott cancelled his show in New York to reschedule it for Paris in July. Recently, many brands haven’t announced definite departures but have been non-committal with their attitudes towards fashion week; instead, choosing other locations at different times that fit better with their creative vision. At it’s height NYFW hosted about 300 shows, but this year it was less than 85 - with big brand such as these not taking part, Fashion Weeks lose theirs allure.

 
 

An article by Vox magazine, fittingly entitled, ‘Why Fashion Week Is Dying’ has the opinion that Fashion Weeks do not have any relevance to the way consumerism works nowadays. With the majority of the fashion industry, such as high street and fast fashion brands, allowing people to buy items instantly, whereas Fashion Weeks previews collections for the next season. Burberry, Tom Ford and Tommy Hilfiger all recently left the Fashion Week calendar to line up their shows with the collection’s release date and adopt a ‘see now, buy now’ technique. When questioned about this move Tom Ford said “in a world that has become increasingly immediate, the current way of showing a collection four months before it is available to consumers is an antiquated idea and one that no longer makes sense.”

A survey conducted by the fashion search engine Tagwalk in April 2020 concluded that 70% of consumers follow street-style trends rather than runway style trends. This shift in consumerism has given power to social media platforms and created a new kind a career; influencers. In 2014, critic Robin Givhan wrote that these influencers “had a keen awareness of how technology could help them attract the attention of hundreds of thousands of like-minded fashion fans who had been shut out of the conversation.” These influencers have become the middle-man between the industry and the consumer, they filter Fashion Weeks into something their audiences can connect with, which means influencers have, almost, taken over Fashion Weeks. With their influence it changes Fashion Week from an exclusive industry event to one directly aimed at consumers.

Finally, it has been estimated that in 2007 a show at Bryant Park cost “at least $50,000” and in 2014 a basic runway show was estimated to cost around $200,000. Many brands might be considering more cost-effective ways to launch collections, as for new designers and exciting up-and-comers, Fashion Week is near impossible. If the industry does not include the new generations of designers it becomes outdated; these new designers are finding other spaces to debut collections away from Fashion Weeks.

 
 

FASHION WEEKS DURING THE PANDEMIC

The existence of Fashion Week during the global Pandemic is summarised in The Guardian when Jess Cartner-Morly writes, “the invitation-only elitist traditions have been ditched in favour of digital content accessible to all.” As this quote implies, the Fashion Week as we know it, and are discussing in this article, was cancelled.

The pandemic cannot be seen as an example of the fashion industry without Fashion Week because, firstly, all fashion events, of any kind, have been cancelled and secondly, this was not a choice, instead, it is a reaction to the current circumstances and had very little planning.  But the relevance of Fashion Week has already been in debate and Covid-19 meant it had to be re-designed if only for a season or a year, it forced the industry to seriously look at the current Fashion Week and evaluate what is working and what isn’t.

The most successful digital Fashion Week, so far, was Shanghai; drawing in 11 million viewers and seeing £2.2. million of merchandise sold to consumers during the live streams. It was the biggest “see now, buy now” fashion week to date to “ensure all the designers and brands… had a voice this Fall 2020. In addition, given the current domestic retail difficulties, it aimed to facilitate sales for commercial brands.” It wasn’t a traditional fashion week as the focus was on selling rather than previewing collections, also, it wasn’t based on seasons. This example shows Covid-19 causing fashion week to be about consumers rather than industry officials and how “see now, buy now” makes much more sense for our fast-paced, digital society. Designer, Yutong Jiang, said his live shows usually reach audiences of 350, but with the new digital fashion week he reached about 20,000 to 40,000 - the exposure for new designers was massive.

Some have been asking, could this be the future of Fashion Week? The Financial Times asked that very questions and based on their research concluded - “was the all-digital SFW a suitable replacement for real shows? For the industry members (designers, buyers and editors) who tuned in, the answer was: not yet.”

But why can’t this new digitalisation be the way forward for Fashion Week? Firstly, the aim of Fashion Week is the review the new collections, and as Alexander Fury stated for another article in the Financial Times, “I am a menswear critic. My job is to look at clothes, think about them, analyse them, maybe slot them into a cultural context and generally say if I think they’re any good or not… but without actual clothing in front of you — on a hanger, on the flesh, the screen - it’s impossible.” Though these digital fashion weeks provide some new collections and ways of viewing them, it not nearly detailed enough for fashion critics. Buying Director of London designer boutique Browns gave her insights about the SFW to the Financial Times, and “during SFW, Browns’ Peterson scheduled virtual appointments with Chinese showrooms but, without being physically present, she missed the opportunity to scour the rails in search of new talent.”

 
 

During Fashion week Russia, the Russian Fashion Council partnered with the massively popular social media platform Tik Tok to form the #rewiringfashion challenge. A press release explained it sought to “change the fashion calendar and the fashion system to spend less resources and to better answer the consumer demand.” It featured 50 participants from 20 countries who exhibited works in presentations and runways with real and, virtual models, also it was free for designers to participate in.

This is the kind of re-evaluating the fashion industry needs to be doing during this break of normal scheduling. As a fully digital experience, Fashion Week Russia was an innovative statement. But, whilst using virtual models is a statement, a basic 3-D 60 second animation has costs starting from $10,000. Digitalisation as a route alone it would be “far more difficult for smaller designers, who lack the name recognition and finances to draw audiences and drive sales. At a minimum, they would need the support of local fashion councils to offer promotional and technical support.”

But, as stated before, this is all a reaction to the pandemic and as no fashion event of any kind can take place it’s hard to find a balance between digital and physical right now. What has been happening is experimentation. There are elements, discovered during this pandemic, that could be incorporated into a new version of Fashion Weeks. As the Financial Times stated, buyer Ida Peterson “travels 10 months a year to see collections, and would prefer to do more virtually if she could.” The first digital London Fashion Week was criticised for not having many new collections nor big brands, however, the ‘behind the scenes’ videos, Q&A, panel discussions and virtual showrooms meant people could connect with the fashion industry in a new way. These are some of the new features that could be incorporated into the existing Fashion Week to create a more varied event.

There have been only three digital Fashion Weeks so far, Shanghai, Russia and London however we are expecting Paris and Milan to be next, with concerns about the bigger womenswear fashion weeks in September. There might be a lot more to be discovered as more shows take place.

 
 

THE FUTURE OF FASHION WEEKS

Throughout this article, we have looked at the issues that face the traditions of Fashion Weeks, whilst also seeing a recent change, due to the Pandemic. However, we believe Fashion Weeks will not be discarded, as an event that has survived for decades, it simply needs to be modernised. Most elements of Fashion Weeks are still valid industry procedure and Covid-19 has shown people still want to engage and explore fashion.

To modernise, there is one important question that need to be asked: who are Fashion Weeks for? Because, as explained at the beginning of this article, Fashion Weeks were always for editors, buyers and other industry officials to organise their schedule for the next season. It was a method of planning and was considered part of business. However, we are increasingly seeing Fashion Weeks directed towards consumers and inviting in people such as celebrities and influencers who have nothing directly to do with the fashion industry but rather serve as an advertisement.

New York Times claims for Fashion Weeks during Covid-19 “there’s an opportunity now to provide a different solution. What it demands though is not just recreating events, but rethinking them entirely.” That is the sentiment that Fashion Weeks should move forward with, not just in a pandemic. It is not about re-creating the same experience every year but rather, how to design it with a purpose. Is that purpose to showcase designers? To inform industry officials of the next season? To sell directly to consumers? Or, to create a spectacle of the industry? Fashion Weeks are trying to do all of these at once and because of that it’s failing to please any of them.

 
 
+ Words:  Caroline Louise Hamar
 
A recent Film graduate, Caroline Louise has delved into the world of journalism; contributing to several online publications. She has immersed herself in the fashion, art and culture scene of London, with the hopes of adding her voice to the discussions that surround them.  Instagram: @caroline_louisee