The fashion show must not go on (in its current state)

Written by Adam Bryce 

Dead or alive, the runway show format needs an emphatic shake up. Or a complete re-think.

It’s one of the fashion industry’s most popular subjects for debate and an article headline I’ve read, time and time again, the demise of the fashion show as we know it. And now, with the topic on the tip of mainstream media tongues, it’s got me thinking. Not about Covid-19’s disruption to the fashion week calendar or its financial effects, but why fashion shows were still a thing.

It’s interesting to note, that the concept originated during the 1800s by Parisian couture houses and was popularised throughout Europe and American around the turn of the century. Simply as a means to show garments to fashion boutique buyers on people rather than mannequins. The early 1900s saw those couture houses up their organisation game and a seasonal calendar, with invites zipping out to fashion buyers around the world, was created. A natural progression so buyers weren’t limited to only hail from the ‘city of love’.   

From that point forward, the fashion show evolution pitter-pattered along nicely in a self-explanatory manner as brands began to add touches of ‘theatre’ to their formats. Concurrently, other parts of the world began to gain design momentum and the fashion show concept spread as new houses hosted their own shows.

It all made sense. The purpose was pragmatic and direct — to sell fashion collections to boutique buyers and haute couture to the super wealthy. The fashion industry began to swell in popularity with designers, brands, boutique buyers and custom-couture clients popping up here, there and everywhere. And so, the next logical step occurred. Fashion week. With the majority of the world’s finest fashion offerings emanating from Paris, New York, London and Milan, the concept of a ‘buyers week’ was music to their ears.

By the 1990s, fashion media had cemented themselves as an integral component of fashion week. Impressing key fashion journalists and stylists could make or break the pending popularity of a collection. The more wowed the media, the more likely the clothing would fly off the shelves. More magazine appearances afforded more confidence to the boutique- (and now department store-) buyers that, investing in certain collections, would be a fail-safe bet.

With this desire to media-impress, we saw song-and-dance antics start to infiltrate the shows. And it was great. They became more elaborate and models were given more free rein to personalise themselves, however, the increased number of moving parts meant things became more complicated. But it, still, all made sense.

It was around this time that I became obsessed with the world of fashion. A fan from afar, a kid from the other side of the globe who was greatly inspired by fashion magazines and the odd fashion documentary that aired on network television. Martin Margiela, Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan set the bar in my eyes and their performance art-style nuances led me to a career in fashion. Their narratives took me on a path of exploring history, conceptual creativity, social issues and contemporary culture.

Come the early 2000s, and fashion shows entered a phase of change. Commerical demands superseded creative direction. It didn’t bother me too much, however, as I’d become one who benefitted from the evolution. The traditional fashion press became resentful of the switch up in the media landscape. Fashion bloggers were seated front row, up close to the action and the stale names slowly edged to the back of the pack. We didn’t journey through a typical route but our voices garnered more clout.

This shift in fashion-media hierarchy seemed leftfield but the PR strategy behind it was well conceived. As boutique and department store buyers also began dropping rungs in the order of hierarchy, grumbles grew, once again, on why this new fashion media pack were now seated front and centre.

At the time, members of my media company were honoured with the coveted seats but we never once covered the fashion shows. We took the opportunity to network and create relationships with like-minded businesses. Why didn’t we cover the shows? Because they didn’t mean much anymore. Fashion week had evolved into a different beast. Performance art pieces were no more and industry people-pleasing was goal number one.

The ‘theatre’ was still evident but not in the same manner in which it had drawn me in, all those years earlier. It was now token — not there to make you think, not there to connect culture with art and fashion. The financial risk was too great. What if the narrative didn’t gel with the media? It could end up being a PR disaster.

As time has gone by, the safe angle has continued. In 2012, I recall feeling excited about the news of Raf Simons’ appointment as creative director of Dior and eagerly awaited the release of the documentary Dior and I. It captured the creation of Simons’ first (albeit rushed) collection for the iconic fashion house. The clothes were on point, of course — a fusion of Dior’s classic silhouettes with the deconstructionist art of Sterling Ruby.

We saw Simons push for Dior’s parent company, LVMH, to spend big on a monumental flower installation for the runway show. It was portrayed as Simons’ takeover of the brand but I saw something else. Flowers were 100 per cent guaranteed inoffensive. Sadly, this lacklustre but, still, fairly expensive direction has continued and fashion shows have merely become Instagram-flooding fodder.

If the marketing and PR departments gathered, pre-collection launch, with the goal of concepting a bi-annual event to best capture the intrigue of buyers, media and potential customers alike, would the brainstorm result be a fashion show? I find that hard to imagine.

It seems Covid-19 has given fashion a kick up the pants it needed, to re-evaluate their marketing spend and make better decisions on where and how their budget is managed. Are fashion shows, finally, officially done and dusted? Yes. Now give me a show, but don’t put it on a runway. Inspire me again.

fashion show

Maison Margiela, 1990.

fashion show

Alexander McQueen, 1998.

fashion show

Chalayan, 2000.

fashion show

Alexander McQueen, 2000.

fashion show

Raf Simons, 2002.

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