It's Time to Upend Tradition: Fashion Week Does Not Make Sense for Many Brands

New York Fashion Week is rapidly approaching. The Spring/Summer 2018 shows officially kick off on Thursday in Manhattan, where upwards of 100 brands – some household names, others virtually unknown – line the official calendar. This go-around of the bi-annual week comes with a few noteworthy absences, as some of New York's most prized names – including Thom Browne, Proenza Schouler, Rodarte, and Altuzarra – have decamped to the greener pastures of the more established Paris to show their seasonal wares. 

But the mass exodus of sorts is not the only thing that makes this go-round of shows worthy of special examination. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has put changes in play in New York in order to fashion a more compelling week for the industry's participants and stakeholders: A shortened week (NYFW is down to six days as opposed to seven) and more striking bookends. For S/S 2018, new opening acts include Calvin Klein and Tom Ford, who will kick off day one, and Marc Jacobs, who will serve as the closer. 

Beneficial: But For Who?

These NYFW-specific alterations – which will ideally cut down on the days-late rush of editors, buyers, and influencers, who have, for many seasons now, skipped the first few days of NYFW, arriving just in time for the biggest events, such as Alexander Wang, Oscar de la Renta, and Marc Jacobs – are good for the brands that stand to gain tangible benefits and meaningful traction from their runway shows, such as increased sales, new clients, and press buzz that lasts beyond the day of show, etc.  

But if we are being honest, not every brand on the calendar walks away from its respective fashion week event with a benefits worth writing home about (and that is not New York-specific). In fact, only a small fraction of brands that stage shows or presentations likely stand to capture a truly meaningful fashion week ROI.

Nonetheless, most brands incur the expense and continue to stage shows (which tend to set  them back $100,000 at the very least) because, well ... that is what brands do and have done for decades. It is the traditional model upon which fashion brands are built and operate within the industry. Brands – big and small, established and emerging – show during fashion week, and until very recently, it seemed as though the vast majority of them did so without necessarily questioning the individual merits of the situation. 

Questioning the System

Yet, changes are afoot. It is difficult to not sense that fashion has been very much in flux in recent seasons, and that designers – regardless of their size of their brands – are re-examining the old-school fashion week model, which started in New York, at least, in the 1940s in order for brands to secure magazine placements. Is fashion week necessary in the digital era? It is relevant if we consider the unique demands of millennial and Gen-Z consumers? 

The result of such inquiries, it seems, is the largescale emergence of the idea that not only is fashion week participation not a requirement for brands (and especially not for less established ones, no shortage of which are situated in New York and London), participation very well might not even be a sound business idea. (It is hardly a secret that a handful of brands that have religiously showed during both NYFW and London Fashion Week have called it quits in recent years).

In confirming that she would not show her collection during NYFW this season, Jenny Packham said she is "questioning the value of the traditional catwalk show" and that she will, instead, launch her Spring/Summer 2018 collection digitally to "provide stronger assets to use across multi-media platforms." 

This is just one example of the countless other symptoms of designers questioning the system and veering away from what was long considered (implicitly or otherwise) the only way. Small scale appointment-only presentations have proven a more compelling – and cost-effective – alternative for some brands, as have online-only shows and the combination of menswear and womenswear onto one runway. Others have taken to relying on a "see now, buy now" model (a trumped-up trend that went virtually nowhere), or the more viable option: Capsule collections that are made available to customers almost immediately after the show in order to actually bank on the press and social media buzz created.

Relevance Lost?

If nothing else, it seems as though we are currently experiencing "a moment of change in fashion and experimentation, in terms of making fashion week relevant now," Will Khan, Market & Accessories Director at Hearst’s Town & Country magazine, told Reuters this time last year.

But what seems maybe most apparent is that there is absolutely no guarantee that the traditional fashion show will continue to be relevant for any brands other than maybe the big-name oft-conglomerate-owned ones, such as Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Saint Laurent, Prada and co., which stage runway extravaganzas more for the purpose of maintaining lucrative licensing deals (eyewear for Prada, cosmetics for Tom Ford, underwear for Calvin Klein) and selling in-house-produced accessories (logo-adorned bags for Chanel and Louis Vuitton) than for facilitating buying opportunities for clients or press mentions.

Similarly, brands that are aiming to elevate themselves to the conglomerate-attracting level – à la Altuzarra and Christopher Kane (in which Gucci’s parent company Kering holds a stake), Proenza Schouler (which until relatively recently was said to be courting an LVMH investment), and those similarly situated – potentially also stand to benefit from the traditional prestige that comes with showing on the runway.

As for how the traditional runway model translates into an advantage for the emerging-stage brand or even more established ones that lack hundred-million-dollar licensing deals and/or wildly profitable leather goods categories, that is unclear. This is especially questionable now at a time when consumers are seemingly just as – if not more – swayed by product placements on celebrities and influencers that appear on their social media feeds than by Vogue’s runway photos or editorial placements in magazines.

With that in mind, runway shows do not necessarily make a lot of sense for the majority of brands. Chances are, the viability of many brands, including the handfuls of little-known brands on the official NYFW calendar, for instance – are better off by taking a hard look at what they – very tangibly – stand to gain by showing in a traditional capacity and in some cases, accepting that there just might be different – and better – ways of doing things in 2017. 

Things do not have to be – and frankly cannot realistically be – relevant forever.