Fashion for Entertainment's Sake

Somewhere along the line, as high fashion became increasingly more accessible, thanks to well, the industrial revolution for one thing (which enabled the manufacture of garments by way of sewing machines, as opposed to merely by hand) and then skip forward to the advent of the modern day Fashion Week, fashion became less of a solitary industry and more of a source of entertainment for the population at large. Add to innovations in manufacturing and the opening of Fashion Week from merely buyers to include press and bloggers, etc., social media, television shows like Project Runway, and various other forms of technology, and you have a wildly democratic industry; "democratic" compared to what it one was, that is. 

The notion of fashion as entertainment has been coming up with some frequency over the past several years. When Women’s Wear Daily's Lisa Lockwood commented in December 2015 on the potential opening of New York Fashion Week to the public (that idea was being floated for a bit), she posited, “The consumer demand for fashion entertainment certainly seems to exist, but how should it be satisfied?" 

Speaking to Vestoj magazine in early 2016, Nicole Phelps, director of Vogue Runway, also spoke to power of fashion to speak to a wider audience. She said: “The fashion industry has a knack for turning designers into stars,” stars beyond the industry's most inner circle of individuals, that is. Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode, similarly noted: “The public wants someone they can identify by name, someone with a recognisable face.”

With the increasing amount of access to the fashion industry available to industry "outsiders" (mostly thanks to social media) and a seemingly growing appetite for access, are we witnessing the growth of fashion as entertainment? It would make sense.

Consider the Fall/Winter 2015 runway shows, which took place in September and October 2015, as part of the bi-annual showing of women’s ready-to-wear collections. They were a bit more eventful than usual, and it was not necessarily because of the garments and accessories that hit the runway. (In fact, a number of collections were given reviews that were less than stellar).

Instead, the fanfare of the season was largely connected to the anticipation and suspense of a handful of designer debuts, which was no doubt built up thanks to countless articles of speculation and fashion blog-created graphics outlining the most recent moves in the often incestuous game of musical chairs. Such articles, with their informative yet easy to decipher charts, are page view gold.

In New York, Peter Copping - a name virtually unknown outside of the industry - made his official debut as the successor of the late Oscar de la Renta, who passed away in October 2014. Oscar de la Renta is a name known to many, hence the widespread anticipation. Copping's collection was deemed by critics to be respectful of the legacy of the great Mr. de la Renta, an icon in the industry. It was one of the most anticipated of the week, as it marked the start of Copping’s tenure and that fact, alone, had fashion insiders and fans, alike, waiting in sheer anticipation.

It was not terribly unlike the show for de la Renta’s Fall/Winter 2013 collection, which then-disgraced designer John Galliano helped to design. De la Renta’s site crashed that evening in February 2013, as it simply could not handle the number of people attempting to access it to watch the show’s livestream. That is a rarity. 

Internationally, an array of changes came during the Fall/Winter 2015 runway shows, most specifically in Paris, where John Galliano showed his first main season collection for Martin Margiela; Guillaume Henry debuted at Nina Ricci; Alexis Martial and Adrien Caillaudaud took the helm at Carven; and Nadege Vanhee-Cybulski stepped out of the shadow of the Olsen twins at The Row, and into the spotlight at famed Paris-based house, Hermès.

Also do not forget that Alessandro Michele showed his first womenswear collection for Gucci in Milan since the messy ouster of creative director Frida Giannini and CEO Patrizio Di Marco in late 2014.

But maybe the most remarkable of seasons of late came even earlier, for Spring/Summer 2013, as it marked the ready-to-wear debuts of Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent and Raf Simons at Christian Dior. (Note: Simons actually made his formal debut months earlier with his Fall/Winter 2012 Dior couture collection). The two designers were very much pitted against one another during the S/S 2013 womenswear season.

The headlines leading up to their respective shows read as follows: "Paris Face-off: Hedi Slimane, Raf Simons in the Spotlight," "Battle of the Champions: Slimane v. Simons," "Dior Duels with YSL at Paris Fashion Week," "Paris Fashion Week's biggest face-off between Raf Simons and Hedi Slimane."

The two men, who are of similar ages, may share a similar “skinny” silhouette aesthetic (which Slimane did at Dior Homme and Simons at his eponymous label), but they arguably differ quite a bit in practice. With this in mind, much of the rivalry between the two was a product of the press – which thrives almost entirely on page views and which has identified that it can reach a much larger audience by constructing a deep-seated rivalry. 

As Charlotte Cowles very aptly wrote for New York Magazine’s blog, The Cut, at the time: “Because clothes themselves don't always make for particularly satisfying gossip fodder, the fashion world has decided to add some personal drama to their stories. Surely, instead of spending day and night in their studios and slaving over every detail for the widely anticipated, incredibly pivotal collections they must show next week, Simons and Slimane are plotting each others' downfalls.”

And nothing plays into fashion fans’ interests quite like a lively round of "musical chairs," as we have come to call it. The cycle – from the ousting of a house's creative director and the often crazed speculation that most certainly follows, to the confirmation of a new creative director and the anticipation of his/her debut at the house – makes for a suspenseful ride (and many juicy articles).

When the design house is either big enough or the talent noteworthy enough, the game is arguably a good exercise in branding and a significant source of exposure for brands. Gucci, for instance, needed a bit of excitement in its orbit following years of lackluster sales and next to non-existent growth under former creative director Frida Giannini’s tenure and thanks, in part, to consumers' logo fatigue.

Alessandro Michele’s debut and subsequent rebranding did just that. All eyes were in Michele and Gucci's Fall/Winter 2015 collection as a result of Giannini's departure. The same could not really be said of the house's Spring/Summer 2015 collection under Giannini’s. Plus, Michele, a shy accessories designer, who spent over a decade working in the shadows at Gucci before clinching the most coveted position at the ultra-glamorous Italian design house, also made for a compelling story – one that the public could certainly digest regardless of whether they are die-hard fashion fans.

Other designers, such as John Galliano, with his storied past as a master designer and couturier, and his more recent trysts with addiction and law enforcement, undoubtedly bring the spotlight (and capture the attention of the mainstream because who doesn’t love a good addiction scandal-meets-glowing recovery story?). This is something Maison Margiela, a notoriously subdued and arguably secretive design house, has not specifically aimed to entertain in the past, making that appointment a particularly interesting one.

In short: these events certainly speak to a more diverse group. They attract individuals outside of the group of high fashion consumers, die-hard fashion fans and industry insiders, who would otherwise be interested. Hell, E! Online – a site dedicated to “entertainment news, celebrities, celeb news, and celebrity gossip” – has even printed fashion designer musical chairs articles, including one in July 2013, which outlined changes at Marc by Marc Jacobs, Mulberry, Coach, and Hugo Boss, amongst others.

The most recent example we have seen came just yesterday when the Daily Front Row started and subsequently shut down the rumor that Saint Laurent’s creative director Hedi Slimane had quietly left the design house due to “creative differences” with executives. The internet went wild. Within minutes, every major fashion site had an article dedicated to the rumor and Twitter was abuzz. The Daily Front Row certainly met its traffic goals for the month yesterday and all eyes – likely more eyes than usual – were on Slimane and Saint Laurent.

If we are to put this mini-phenomenon into context, it really is not terribly surprising. Such attention-grabbing ways have been around for ages in fashion, but certainly date back rather significantly to the beginning of Anna Wintour’s tenure as editor-in-chief of Vogue in the late 1980’s. She very notoriously began putting actresses and other celebrities on the magazine’s covers in lieu of traditional models – because celebrities sold more copies, of course.

More recently, the fashion industry (whether it be designers or the fashion press) has continued to perfect its ways at courting a wider audience. The social media build up to shows, the stunt casting and the social media models with which we are oh-so-very accustomed at the moment, the star-studded front rows, and the over-the-top presentations (think: the Chanel airport, THE CHANEL ROCKET SHIP) draw widespread attention. These things will certainly draw a more expansive audience than the run of the mill presentation. In a way, they are more show than trade show for the vast majority of people.

The question that arises is: How can designers play into such attention as a way to raise brand awareness and bolster sales? The answer seems to come in the form of sales of affordable licensed goods – like Prada sunglasses and Chanel fragrances – that the general public can afford after tuning into the drama known as the fashion industry.

And still, the fact remains that much of what we see coming down the runway – either from our seats at fashion shows or more likely, from behind the screens of our computer screens – is part of a larger scheme of fashion as entertainment – because garments for garments’ sake are so last season.