Image: Saint Laurent

Saint Laurent made headlines on Monday when it announced that it will not present its collections “in any of the pre-set schedules of 2020.” In other words, it is opting out of the main fashion calendar, the one that dictates that brands present their seasonal collections in the respective fashion capitals each February/March and September/October for womenswear, and January and June for menswear. In furtherance of this rather-noteworthy change, the Paris-based brand says that it will “take ownership of its calendar and launch its collections following a plan conceived with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity” as part of a larger effort “to take control of its pace and reshape its schedule.” 

With such an announcement in mind, Saint Laurent is rightfully being praised for being the first big brand to more or less break the traditional cycle in favor of a presumably more measured – and more sustainable – approach. After all, in recent years, sustainability has come to dominate much of the conversation in the industry, as nearly-countless articles have detailed just how unsustainable the bi-annual or quarterly show model – or realistically, even more frequent than that if you count the oft over-the-top pre-season and couture presentations by brands – currently is. 

Such shows are, in fact, resource-intensive and wasteful in many ways and lead to increased (and arguably unnecessary) consumption by consumers and travel by hordes of fashion industry individuals, from editors and buyers to influencers and celebrities. This is exactly the thing that veteran fashion industry journalist/critic Christina Binkley highlighted when YSL brought fashion folks from all over the world to a beach in Malibu for its Spring/Summer 2020 menswear collection last year. But the issue is deeper than runway shows.

While much industry attention has been focused on the lack of sustainability that comes with such routine (and unnecessary?) fashion shows, the problem is not really with the shows, themselves, as they are just a format for – or better yet maybe, a symptom of – a larger issue: the traditional need to produce collections (and show them) X times per year because that is just how it has always been done in the industry. That – paired, of course, with the consistent push to simply produce and sell more in order to pursue greater growth, and boost bottom lines and share prices – is more fundamentally the problem. Fashion shows are merely a demonstration of that issue.

That means that skipping fashion week(s), alone, is not necessarily the solution we need, particularly if brands intend to show in a different – i.e., off-calendar – capacity that would inevitably lead to different (and more) travel, etc. 

The solution needs to be much more foundational than that, and it is something that Saint Laurent’s CEO Francesca Bellettini actually touched upon this week. In speaking to WWD in connection with the brand’s announcement to move away from the traditional calendar, Bellettini said that at YSL, they have been working “over the last four years [to] extend the life of our collections in-store.” This is something that is critical to actually creating sustainability; not just staging fewer runway shows but actually producing – and pushing – less. (After all, no matter how many “sustainable” products “sustainable” brands make/sell, they are still making/selling more stuff, which is, in some sense, at odds with a push for sustainability). 

Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello elaborated on this point, saying, “Our approach to the collections has always been less ‘seasonal’ than what the term usually implies. Each collection is an evolution of what has come before, combining timeless Saint Laurent pieces and new silhouettes.” This is an approach that dates back to former Saint Laurent creative director Hedi Slimane, who pushed for a “permanent collection” of relatively season-less garments during his tenure from 2012 to 2016. As Harvard Business Review put it at the time, “Instead of [simply creating] unwearable designs that telegraphed well from the runway, Slimane focused on details [and garments] that shoppers would really care about.” It was an exercise in “craftsmanship, not showmanship.” 

Not just a bit of a diversion from the normal, which sees brands churn out an array of “new” garments and accessories every single season no matter what (marketable and sell-able novelty driven by marketable and sell-able novelty more than any real need on the part of consumers), Slimane’s approach was revenue-generating. As HBR reported in 2016, “Saint Laurent’s sales revenues more than doubled in Slimane’s first three years on the job, and in February 2016, they reported a 37.4 percent fourth-quarter revenue increase and their highest operating margin ever (about 20 percent).” For the 2015 fiscal year, the brand generated about $1.08 billion in sales revenue, up from the $800 million it brought in the year prior. Revenue gains cannot be ignored since these are businesses (with shareholders) that we are talking about.

More than just providing a potential roadmap for a money-making approach to selling coveted high fashion staples, Slimane’s permanent collection – with its season-defying “crepe de Chine blouses, Le Smoking suits and motorcycle jackets” – was the demonstration of something-of-an-alternative-model (granted Slimane still staged runway shows with dozens and dozens of looks each season), a “rebellious” one, per HBR, given that the “fashion industry and the economy [more generally] is so focused on novelty,” often just for the sake of novelty.

Against that background and with Bellettini and Vaccarello’s current approach in mind, which Bellettini says also sees them “looking at how [they] can create efficiencies in advertising and promotion” (which would arguably be a welcome alternative given that big brands’ runway shows routinely cost upwards of $1 million each (with a questionable return on investment) and total ad spending by the likes of LVMH is “growing at the fastest rate” in recent years, reaching $6.3 billion in 2018), Saint Laurent seems to be on to something that is larger – and more sustainable – than simply removing itself from the fashion calendar, which is noteworthy but also not an absolute solution to a difficult conundrum.

This is all to say that ultimately, the questions that brands should be asking need to go much further than the logistics of fashion week and whether or not they should participate. Instead, they should revolve around and focus more significantly on how brands can operate in a more measured manner – and maybe even operate more cost-efficiently from a marketing perspective and beyond (something that very well could coincide with a less season-specific model) – with their approach to producing and marketing goods while still achieving financial growth and therefore, pleasing shareholders. It seems that Saint Laurent is asking these questions and to a large extent, may be leading the way on this.