ARCHIVE: When Did Fashion Shows Become More about the Publicity than the Clothes?

Tommy Hilfiger built a cruise ship (prompting WWD to tweet: “Tommy Hilfiger theme park or runway show?”) for Fall/Winter 2016, a carnival for Spring/Summer 2017. Kanye West casted 1,200 extras, invited 20,000 people (many thousands thanks to the public sale of tickets), and in lieu of a formal show, opted to DJ his new album one season; thereafter, he carted everyone off to Roosevelt Island to sit in the HOT sun for 3 hours. Alexander Wang took it to church and more recently, staged (his first iteration of) #WangFest. 

Publications wrote home about these things, of course; there were also garments and accessories to talk about in their reviews but those old things seemed secondary - at best. That is because the touch points in recent fashion weeks – for the most part – seem to be coming by way of over-the-top sets and staging, buzzy Insta-models, and not necessarily in terms of the garments. Given the current climate in fashion, this does not seem particularly surprising.

A Fashion Show or Just a Show?

This is not a new phenomenon; we have seen it coming. In 2014, in lieu of a traditional show, Gareth Pugh, who normally lists on the Paris Fashion Week calendar, staged an "expansive multimedia and multidiscipline extravaganza," 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, complete with four-story tall projections. Mulberry staged a citywide treasure hunt for a Cara Delevingne bag, complete with bikes, dozens and dozens of gold balloons and canvas "Cara" bags for guests. More recently, Givenchy staged its S/S 2016 show on location – in New York, as opposed to Paris – on September 11th, complete with 800 public tickets and a performance art collaboration with Marina Abramovic. 

These shows make for an experience, which makes a lot of sense, if kept in check. All we keep hearing about consumers – particularly millennials and those of Gen Z, the market’s future big spenders – is that they don’t want to buy stuff; they want to buy into an experience. Hence, the adoption of Snapchat, for instance, by the industry. From this perspective, such shows make sense; they’re shows, after all. 

But does this mounting competition for the title of the biggest, most statement-making, most press-worthy show make for good, wearable, viable fashion? All signs (think: consumer disinterest/fatigue, dropping sales, the increasing amount of market share that fast fashion retailers are gaining, etc.) point to “no," but that is not necessarily a death knell for the industry. 

What is the Fashion Industry Really Selling?

Yes, the fashion show spectacle is not all bad. In fact, the recent over-the-top show trend does serve a very real purpose, especially when it comes to licensing and the sale of a brand’s more affordable goods. If the public can be seduced by a brand’s luxurious runway show and its high fashion brand image, there is a chance they will buy into its lower priced goods, such as its licensed fragrances or sunglasses, which serve as a significant portion of a high fashion house’s revenue.

In this way, these runway show spectacles allow brands to up the ante in terms of web traffic and social media numbers, which have really begun to reign supreme to some extent, as this has largely replaced the old model of advertising. The casting of the social media models (think: Gigi, Kendall, Bella, etc.), the staging of extravagant shows, the luring of celebrities to the front rows, the social media fodder, and the availability of livestream shows has intensified over the past several years, drawing in a wider pool of potential consumers. This is a good thing.

The fashion show-induced exercise in branding is undeniably important, especially in the upper echelons of fashion, where brand image is so very important. And to the defense of But designers are choosing not to focus on clothing. This is something that Alexander Fury touched on recently for the Independent, writing: “I haven't talked much about the clothes, have I? That's because catwalk shows don't feel as if they're about the clothes these days, but rather the circus of branding.” And he’s right. Others (namely, Vanessa Friedman and co.) have noted that "fashion week [is being] transmogrified into a pure marketing exercise, where a brand sells a concept instead of clothes."

For designers and brand owners, the market is terribly complex, particularly right now. The cost of manufacturing clothing in an ethical/quality manner is expensive. With the influx of fast fashion, consumers have truly come to expect dirt cheap, trend-driven clothing, especially given the current economic climate. Consumption patterns have changed – with buying lots and lots of garments being the norm, as opposed to investing in a few high fashion ones. This, among other factors, makes high fashion a difficult sell, and so, it is completely understandable that fashion brands are grasping for relevance and for selling power.

However, the push for it cannot be approached in a vacuum, as some brands have been doing. The result, at least in terms of the clothes, themselves, is unoriginal and unappealing. And in a business that is based upon selling things, selling clothes, in fact, can we afford to have them be unappealing? No. 

* This article was initially published on February 20, 2016.