Some of the most talked about fashion shows during New York Fashion Week were not really fashion shows at all. These highly anticipated shows were really that … shows complete with costumes, that is. We already knew, for the most part, that the days of small presentations for buyers and selected press individuals are long gone, but it seems that with the Spring/Summer 2015 season, in New York, at least, we have gone above and beyond, really bidding adieu to the old school notion of the fashion show a la Paris couture salon presentations. One could argue that amidst all of this pomp and circumstance (and the underlying initiative to brand, brand, brand), the clothes (the reason we are all here, after all) have become somewhat secondary, and in my opinion, that would not be a terribly difficult argument to make. So, what does this all mean, and what implications, if anything, does it have for fashion?
A few examples: In lieu of a traditional show, Gareth Pugh, who normally lists on the Paris Fashion Week calendar, staged an "expansive multimedia and multidiscipline extravaganza," (pictured above) as Vogue coined it, in New York. Opening Ceremony offered up a 30-minute play, entitled “100% Lost Cotton,” created by the designers Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, and co-written by Spike Jonze and Jonah Hill. American giant, Ralph Lauren took to Central Park for his Spring/Summer offering, staging "a runway spectacular with projections of NYC, including the Brooklyn Bridge and other scenes, presented on top of the waters of Cherry Hill lake in the park," per the New York Post. The Independent's Emma Akbareian wrote: "Models appeared in four-story tall projections, dressed in outfits from the new spring 2015 collection. The images were projected in 4D onto a 60ft tall water screen creating a multi-sensory effect." Tommy Hilfiger promised an "exclusive digital program," complete with a Kardashian model, and not to be outdone, Mulberry staged a city-wide treasure hunt for a Cara Delevingne bag, complete with bikes, dozens and dozens of gold balloons and canvas "Cara" bags for guests.
Recent LVMH Prize honoree (Special Prize, that is) Hood By Air, which arguably always opts for more of a show than a fashion show, may be the most telling. The brand's creator, Shayne Oliver, sends outlandish designs, models using crutches, Great Danes, and what-have-you down the runway, essentially selling a lifestyle, albeit a very odd one, during fashion week, and thereafter, sells $200+ HBA-adorned tees and $500+ sweatshirts to its fan boys (or "fuccbois," as the brand calls them). In practice, this approach is not terribly unlike that of a lot of esteemed houses, which use runway shows, particularly couture ones, to up the ante, attract press, further establish their luxury status, and then sell licensed goods, such as fragrances and eyewear.
This undoubtedly sheds light on the motivations behind some of the aforementioned brands and their shift away from the traditional runway format to their respective spectacles. While it is probably both unfair and inaccurate to group Ralph Lauren, OC, Pugh, Hood By Air (pictured below), etc. together and generalize, it seems as though we can make a few blanket assertions here, nonetheless. The shift towards bigger, more theatrical, more exciting and more buzzed-about shows is certainly for the purpose of one of a few things, but namely: to further cement a brand's identity (and either to help facilitate the building of a big brand or a bigger brand) and to help a brand keep a firm hold on relevance.
As we have seen for some time now, particularly in New York, where commerciality takes center stage (especially in comparison to some of the other fashion capitals of the world), a significant number of fashion labels are not content with being small, niche brands. They want to be the next Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Michael Kors, the next billion dollar fashion empire. Implicit in the business models of the aforementioned mega-brands: Licensing, for one, and also, a solid brand image, as mainstream as it may be in most cases, that is identifiable to everyone from luxury shoppers to middle America mall shoppers alike.
So, is that what these brands are achieving by staging the opposite of a small press/buyers/best customers show? I would argue that they are hoping for increased brand awareness, especially because the focus on the clothing is certainly taking a backseat, and that fact has not going unnoticed. For instance, Dazed wrote on the heels of Gareth Pugh's show: "The highlight of Pugh's presentation wasn't so much the clothes as the questions: What is an audience without a seating chart? Can movement itself be clothing? Who gets to see what and why?" Of Opening Ceremony (pictured below), the New York Times' Vanessa Friedman had some qualms: "[Humerto Leon and Carol Lim] are potentially the kind of broadly creative minds that could drive a change in fashion week, its final tip from trade show to entertainment content creation." As for Ralph Lauren's Central Park show, Fashionista's Lauren Indivik wrote: "The problem was that the models and clothes were hard to make out: Because the video was projected onto a fountain and there was a slight breeze, the images were blurred." So, from this we can gauge that the clothes are not the focal point, and we can likely imply that brands are doing what brands do: Branding.
Once you have built your brand, though, your work is only halfway done, as there is the unending battle of maintaining your brand's relevance. As the Washington Post's Robin Givhan wrote this week: "Once a brand has established an identity with shoppers, it has to evolve enough to remain consistently relevant," and she's right. It is not enough to simply make stuff, and brands appear to understand this more than ever.
Designers are striving not only to provide consumers with clothing and accessories, but they want to connect with them in hopes of increasing their bottom lines, especially in a time when there are so many brands (both high end and fast fashion) competing for the same shoppers. This is nothing if not an obvious take-away from brands' heavy reliance on social media as a way of getting personal, so to speak, with consumers. But now that nearly every brand is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and even Snapchat in some cases, brands are forced to evolve again, and it seems to be taking the form of extravagant presentations as of late, at the expense of not necessarily focusing on the goods that are being hawked. The Wall Street Journal touched on this point on the heels of Pugh's show, writing: "Gareth Pugh set the tone for New York Fashion Week with a show that contained no clothes. Instead, he presented a riveting modern-dance performance, dark and full of yearning. 'We didn't want to push product,' said Mr. Pugh. 'We didn't want to sully the moment.'" The publication continued: "Mr. Pugh distilled to its essence a growing sentiment among designers: that fashion shows, rather than being about skirts and bags, should be building emotions around a brand."
So, New York Fashion Week, one of the younger cities in the big four of international showings, is evolving, and the responses are mixed. Not surprisingly, Diane von Furstenberg, the President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, sees a unique allure in NYFW. She told the AFP: "What does New York mean? It means everything is possible, it means 'diversity', a side that is a little more commercial, but another side that is much more open." And maybe that is the case. Others (Vanessa Friedman and co.) have noted "the idea of fashion week [being] transmogrified into a pure marketing exercise, where a brand sells a concept instead of clothes." And still yet, there are others who long for the intimacy and simplicity of small presentations focused on groundbreaking design and matched quality.
One thing I do know for certain, is that this recent movement, which has actually been awhile in the making (you may recall that four years ago, Ralph Lauren roped off several blocks along Madison Avenue to stage a "4D" visual spectacle), falls rather neatly into the grand scheme of fashion. Much like the focus on rave culture this season, from blogger Bryan Boy's homemade bracelets, to Libertine's embellished wares (which designer Johnson Hartig were influenced by ravers: "I saw these ravers at a music festival with a bunch of bead necklaces. I immediately decided I had to have that, too.") and Miley Cyrus's Lisa Frank-like creations for Jeremy Scott, trends reach beyond merely the colors or general themes that dominate collections. In fact, each season or couple of seasons come with trends that dictate the nature of the showings, and it seems right now that more is more.