The State of Runway Fashion: Present and Future

The year 2020, with its’ colloquial reference to eyesight clarity, was foreseen to be a year of vision—an assessment of the past and a retooling of future goals and endeavors. People proclaimed this to be “their year,” and had high hopes of refocused energy and innovative projects. Creatives planned to produce work the likes of which we have never seen before. How eerily accurate those predictions are.

Images of Rodarte, Christopher John Rogers, and Marc Jacobs courtesy of their respective brands

In February, as normal, we began fashion month with the fall/winter 2020 collections shown in New York. We were awestruck by the silhouettes and construction of Christopher John Rogers, sucked into the colorful goth and vamp collection of Rodarte, and danced in nostalgia with Marc Jacobs. As we transitioned to the shows in London, we began hearing news stories about a highly transmittable virus hitting Asia. The spike of European COVID-19 cases hit Italy at the approach of Milan Fashion Week, and forced many brands to rethink how and if they would present their collections. Most runways went on as planned, but a number of events were canceled. Less than 24 hours before his scheduled showtime, Giorgio Armani decided to livestream his collection from an empty venue, rather than a live audience. Due to a nationwide travel restriction, a handful of Asia-based brands were unable to show their collections during Paris Fashion Week, and even more events were canceled.

Images courtesy of YSL

Fashion show cancelations did not stop in Paris. Fashion houses began postponing or canceling their upcoming cruise and resort shows all around the globe. Chanel in Capri, Prada in Japan, and Gucci in San Francisco were canceled. The Met Gala, CFDA Awards, Paris Men’s Week, Paris Couture Week, New York Resort Week were all canceled. New York Fashion: Men’s and Milan Men’s Week have been postponed. London Men’s was merged with London Women’s into a “gender-neutral” all-digital platform.

With so many fashion shows being canceled, where do we go from here? Do we try something new and scrap the current fashion week model? Yes, and no. Obviously, it is not business as normal, but the show must go on. For years, designers have griped about the pressure to create five or more collections a year—two seasonal collections, pre-fall, pre-spring, two couture collections, a bridge season collection, collaborations, retailer exclusives, maybe even a bridal collection … It can all be mentally and physically fatiguing, but rarely did any designer venture out of the revolving door and not show during the regular fashion schedule. This global pandemic gave the fashion industry the break that it needed.

Images courtesy of Giorgio Armani

Prior to, and in the midst of, this global pandemic, a few brands had begun retooling when they would design and present their collections. In January 2018, Alexander Wang announced that, after his fall/winter18 runway, he would begin showing his collections in June and December, more closely aligned with the pre-collection schedule. On April 3 of this year, Giorgio Armani penned an open letter to WWD, expressing his staunch agreement with an article the publication released a day prior that discussed the dire need for the fashion retail industry to re-examine its’ creation, production, and delivery cycle. In May, Gucci’s creative designer, Alessandro Michele, announced the brand would permanently abandon the traditional fashion calendar. This need to reset was not borne out of the COVID crisis, but was exacerbated by it.

With COVID-19 besetting the globe, the entire fashion industry was thrown into a flux. Teams couldn’t meet to design, factories were shut down, shipping was delayed, red carpets were canceled, and fashion shows were postponed … or reimagined. The $2.5 trillion global fashion industry would not just sit idly by and wait for the storm to pass. While some business aspects are beyond their control, one thing that brands can dictate is when and how they will present their designs to their customers and fans. It’s impossible to currently stage a traditional runway show, so brands turned to some new, and some not so new, alternatives to keeping their products in front of customers.

In March, Tokyo Fashion Week canceled their runway shows, but allowed their designers the opportunity to livestream their collections. Weeks later, Shanghai Fashion Week became the first fashion event of its size to go fully digital. In the seven-day event, over 150 brands livestreamed their collections on Tmall, Alibaba’s e-commerce platform, which boasts over 800 million active monthly users. Some designers incorporated a “See Now, Buy Now” feature, allowing viewers to purchase current items and pre-order items from the fall collection straight from their phones. The event generated over 11 million views and more than $2.82 million in sales.

Image courtesy of Ines Di Santo

In April, New York International Bridal Fashion Week took a toned down approach to their presentations. Instead of public livestreaming, brand stalwarts, such as Ines Di Santo, employed Zoom—the business platform du jour—and hosted invitation-only press viewing sessions live from their showrooms. In what seemed like a nuanced version of 1950’s Parisian couture shows, bridal designers spoke about each individual piece of their upcoming collections while a handful of models showed their garments before the camera.

June saw the merging of London menswear and women’s resort fashion shows. What was billed as a genderless fashion week, allowed the two genres to combine for a three-day online event that embraced the wide capabilities of the internet. Housed on the London Fashion Week website, designers were given free rein to present their brands in whatever form they desired. Given the short notice in April that things were moving to a digital format for June, many of the bigger brands sat out this season, creating space and opportunity for smaller, newer brands to have time in the spotlight. Some opted to present via video, Q&A segments, and virtual art galleries. Though the platform was heavy on various types of creative content about the brands and designers, it was light on actual clothing presentations.

This pivot is still relatively new for the fashion industry, and brands are trying to find what direction is the right path for them, whether that means altering the schedule of when they create their designs, or how they present their collections to the press and public, or how they engage their customers and sell merchandise. With over twenty-five years in fashion, VERY New York co-founder R. Scott French is one of the few people who has first-hand understanding of three sides of the industry. Having spent time as a CFDA designer, former fashion editor, and current publicist and fashion show producer, he notes that this pandemic shutdown can be good for the trade. Speaking of the burnout of designers and retailers, French contends that, “this will lead to equality, leveling of the playing field. [We] get off the hamster wheel, repair it, and move forward in an exciting manner that makes it feel real once again.” He also notes the fashion community will “clean up and put more energy into it and give new faces to, once again, be part of it.”

Image courtesy of theurbantwist.com

One of those relatively new faces is designer Anifa Mvuemba, founder of Hanifa and Hanifa Bridal. Already making her presence known by dressing some of the hottest celebs like Kelly Rowland, Ciara and Vanessa Simmons, it is the digital debut of her Pink Label Congo collection that has industry professionals and consumers jaws dropping. While most designers are trying to navigate the new digital presentation landscape, in May, Mvuemba took to Instagram Live to show her new line, featuring transparent 3D models. This was not a show with animated or robotic models, but a runway with the garments seemingly dressed on an invisible woman, with the clothes moving just as if it were perfectly fit on a live model.

Digital presentations have already been incorporated into the strategy of some brands. In a panel discussion for Vogue Global Conversations, Cedric Charvit, CEO of Balenciaga, demonstrated the importance of both the physical and digital aspects of runway shows. Charvit explained that the fashion house invites 600 guests to their show. However, the livestream brings in 8,000 views, while Instagram adds an additional 60,000 views and Twitter brings 300,000 interactions. Combined with all the replays, Charvit states the collection receives about 10 million views. Not only is this good for the brand, but it’s good for the models, as well. Balenciaga pays their models 50% for the catwalk and 50% for the capitation rights of livestreaming and the digital presentation. Not bad for a few hours of work.

Charvit went on to say “there’s a digital identity that’s already happening, that one needs to embrace; [it] asks do we have guests or do we have viewers, or are they becoming one?” Bong Guerrero, CEO of Fashion Forward Dubai, says that digital is important to extend the format of a presentation, but the offline element is still vital to build a community and organic following. In the same Vogue Global Conversations panel, Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing adds, “digital can push your dream to the maximum. At the same time, I completely agree that we need to have an experience, a real experience. Digital cannot bring the real experience.” Scott French is currently working on a fashion award show slated for later this year. This year, it will take place virtually, instead of in-person, and his team is exploring digital options to realize what is possible. French also holds a firm belief that the 2021 event will not go back to the way it was in 2019; rather, it will incorporate digital elements of 2020, as well as live elements of 2019, thereby broadening the brands’ footprint. French explains, “Fashion will be the same way. Whatever results you get from the digital experience, you will have a digital plus a physical experience going forward.”

Some fashion entities are hoping to skip the temporary digital presentations. Paris Fashion Week, via the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, has announced that they will show their spring/summer 2021 womenswear collections in September. The Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, which oversees Milan Fashion Week, similarly announced that they, too, are going forward with live runways in September. Both organizations also announced accompanying digital platforms to support, not replace, their live shows. Burberry, which didn’t show as part of the recent London Fashion Week, has declared to show a live presentation on September 17, although the British Fashion Council, who oversees London Fashion Week, has made no announcement regarding their September shows. As the globe seems to be getting the coronavirus under control, fashion weeks are on the horizon, and the future looks promising.

Images of Thom Browne and Marine Serre courtesy of the respective brands

Coco Chanel famously said “fashion reflects the world we live in.” In the first half of this year, the world temporarily forgot about the “it” bags of the season and focused on a different accessory we’ve seen on the runways—the mask. We’ve also gotten more than our share of Zoom, and spent untold hours on social media while isolating and “working” from home. If there’s one lesson to be learned, it’s that you must embrace change in order to survive. This is a new day, and you either embrace change or you get left behind

—Carl Ayers

 

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