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 played his new album; he carted everyone off to Roosevelt Island this season. Alexander Wang took it to church and more recently, staged a #WangFest. Diane Von Furstenberg threw a house party. Miu Miu went social with its model line up, whereas MSGM banned social altogether. Lanvin fired its creative director. Dior - until recently - hasn't named a new one. Saint Laurent staged two shows instead of one and Chanel's show was front-row only.
Not surprisingly, publications wrote home about these things; there were also garments and accessories to talk about in their reviews but those old things seemed secondary. That is because innovation in recent fashion weeks – for the most part – seems to be coming by way of sets and staging, models, and not necessarily in terms of the garments. Given the current climate in fashion, this seems particularly problematic.
A Fashion Show or Just a Show?
This is not a new phenomenon; we’ve 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. 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.”
What is the Fashion Industry Really Selling?
The fashion show spectacle is not all bad. In fact, the more recent over-the-top show 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.
However, it becomes hugely problematic when brands rely so significantly on these endeavors – namely, the pure desire to reach a larger pool of the general public and to meet the entertainment needs of the social media universe in hopes of gaining new consumers – without evolving in terms of the actual products that they are meant to be selling: clothes and accessories. As such, it seems that the push for social media relevance and for new consumers (read: millennials and Gen Z-ers) is simultaneously enabling designers to lose focus and is not necessarily adding much to brands’ tangible bottom lines, as indicated by their citing of the “broken fashion system” or as demonstrated by the push for a shift in the system.
If we look critically to some of the NYFW shows thus far – namely, the garments, themselves the results are not spectacular. Opening Ceremony felt dated. Hood by Air was flooded with overbearing quirks and antics. Public School lacked a distinctive touch. Victoria Beckham's collection was okay, comfortable, warm, unoriginal thinking in design, not designed by her at all. Alexander Wang's collection mirrored fast fashion with its designs that felt mediocre at best.
These are just a few impressions, and they are not completely off-base with what critics, at least the ones who have not been bought off by advertisers, are also saying. In short: things aren’t great. And the fashion industry knows this, as indicated by the recent and fairly aggressive push by brands to “disrupt the fashion cycle,” to shift to align the schedule of the runway show and the retail deliveries, which stems, at least, in part, from a growing sense of fatigue when it comes to fashion.
So, Let's Introduce More Distractions
Designers have stated that they want to better connect with digital-age consumers and to serve them in ways that formerly were not possible, as a means of boosting sales again, of course, amidst sluggish growth and widespread consumer fatigue. Yet, instead of going to the root of the problem (and addressing the fact that fashion isn’t really about great design anymore for a large pool of brands), the industry is introducing a huge slew of temporary solutions. It is introducing a bunch of new and probably temporary changes - most of which center on logistics, as opposed to real solutions. Case in point: Introducing a digital-only runway show format (or social media only a la Misha Nonoo for the nth season in a row now), moving your runway show from February to September, etc., showing in a different location, not showing at all, changing the name of your collections so they are not season-specific. There are more, though: MSGM announced that it would ban social media from its F/W16 show; Armani announced that it is going fur-free; Mugler announced that it will rebrand its various collections; and Gucci announced that it will NOT adopt the See Now-Buy Now model.
These strategies are creating a ton of buzz. There have been countless articles dedicated to the “upending of the fashion system.” But like any trend in fashion, whether it be retro rocker looks (a la Saint Laurent) or sleepy, studious sexy (thanks to Alessandro Michele for Gucci), this tactic will sooner or later (probably sooner, given the speed at which fashion operates) become “so last season,” and we will be back at square one having ignored the real issue: the clothes.
With this in mind, the current push for faster fashion, for See Now-Buy Now-Wear Now is not going to solve the problem of consumers not wanting to shop in any sustainable manner. Chasing more press by releasing PR statements and big campaigns surrounding your season-less runway show or your Instagram-only show is simply not a sustainable way to lure consumers back to your brand given what we know about the cyclical and trend-driven nature of the fashion industry. Such stunts, while seemingly effective for the time being, are inherently superficial. They will not bolster design and thus, they will not cure consumer fatigue. Focusing on the products (read: the clothing and accessories) will.
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.