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Fashion Week: Future-Facing or Faux Pas?

First critics heralded its end, then those who championed fashion’s sacred tradition of runway shows promised it would change with the times, but as we enter yet another pandemic year, what have we learnt about where Fashion Week is going? 

By Rosana Lai
May 5, 2022

Can you feel the anticipation? It’s pre-2020, and tens of thousands of fashion’s most prominent figures are packed into privatised venues dotted across Paris to see the spring-summer shows. As models pound the runways in designers’ latest looks, buyers from around the world note what they want on shelves next season, while editors from the most reputable publications take copious iPhone photos of what will be trending come spring. For the uninitiated, this is just a regular day in September during Fashion Week in Paris.  

But as the expensive and glamorous tradition came to a screeching halt during the pandemic, and members of the industry were forced to reckon with social and environmental ramifications that resurfaced with greater urgency, everyone began asking about the purpose and future of the catwalk, and the potential answers seem manifold. 

Chanel 2021/2022 Métiers d’Art collection | Photo: Chanel

Fashion shows began in the early 1900s, as intimate affairs for designers to showcase their latest work to their VIP customers and a handful of editors in cushioned Parisian salons. It wasn’t until the 1940s and 1950s that fashion shows not only expanded geographically to New York, Milan and London, but also in scale. Venues got larger and more ornate with top luxury brands vying to use these cities’ most iconic monuments as backdrops. Today, brands small and large alike mount presentations around town, and on any given night there could be a dozen parties held simultaneously. The fuss around shows reached a fever pitch with the rise of social media and influencers who also drew swarms of photographers voraciously snapping up images of street style for an insatiable digital audience. 

Loewe 2021 spring-summer menswear collection | Photo: Loewe Men

It was around the same time that critics began to decry how the fashion system had lost its way, that shows had become more about splashy spectacles gone viral than about the clothes themselves. And what of the enormous expense, both financially and environmentally, for just a 20-minute affair? During these events, attendees often flocked from around the globe to watch elaborate shows that had taken weeks of stressful construction, casting and fittings only to be dismantled within a day. 

These concerns were still swirling when Covid emerged early in 2020, just as another season of fashion weeks was about to commence. Though Paris shows went on, albeit under a fog of uncertainty, from March onwards the runways fell silent. Brands struggled to find new paths to share their collections, many opting for photo look books, short films or streamed audience-free shows. Chanel was one of several brands that opted for a pre-recorded runway show with a handful of guests in attendance. Its 2021 Métiers d’Art show had one single guest in the front row: celebrity ambassador Kristen Stewart.  

Area 2021 spring-summer collection | Photo: Area

But the time also offered industry members opportunities to take stock, and the conversations around overhauling the entire system grew louder than ever. Sustainability advocates called for the end of shows altogether, the Black Lives Matter movement highlighted the industry’s historic lack of diverse representation, and brutal publication reshuffling or closures pushed once-untouchable figures in fashion from their mighty thrones.  

Designers’ reactions to the upheaval differed widely with regard to the future of fashion shows. Revered independent designer Dries Van Noten, for instance, penned an open letter to the industry – which was signed by established and emerging designers, buyers and retail executives – calling for the reconsideration of seasonality. “I think the fashion show was maybe right for the ’70s to the 2000s, but now I think in digital times there are different ways to do it,” he says. “Not to say I’ll never do a fashion show but not at the scale in the system as it was.” Van Noten has not presented a physical show since the pandemic began.  

Loewe Men's show-in-a-box concept | Photo: Loewe Men

Meanwhile, Jonathan Anderson, founder of eponymous British label JW Anderson and creative director of LVMH-owned Loewe, developed the “show-in-a-box” for Loewe’s spring-summer 2021 collection. The concept pivoted on fashion editors receiving a box of ephemera usually prompting them to interact with the items by having to piece together the elements, be it wallpaper or dried flowers, that had inspired Anderson’s latest collection. “For me, fashion over the last 10 years has become entertainment somehow,” he says. “I think shows will continue to exist because it’s the end of a creative process, but I think travel will be incredibly expensive and that’s going to have a knock-on effect. This is an interesting time, when we have to balance out the human impact with the environmental impact, and I would love to hope we’re going to get rid of things that are not good and keep things that are.” 

One of the widely acknowledged boons to the industry is the long overdue digitalisation of certain processes that do not demand environmentally reckless international travel and ephemeral entertainment. Tech giants took advantage of the period to invest in and expand on the metaverse, leading to luxury labels like Gucci partnering with online game platform Roblox to create interactive, virtual worlds for its confined customers.  

Gucci Garden | Photo: Gucci

The human impact, however, is less clear-cut. For Darrel Hunter, a celebrated street style photographer for publications like Harper’s Bazaar and Pause magazines, fashion weeks provided the consistency upon which his livelihood depended. “Fashion week is not just about fashion. You have everyone from set designers to local hotels that flourish because of the people that come to town, so it’s important for this community to be able to work,” he says.  

Last autumn, as the world toyed with the idea of reopening its borders, so too did brands with the idea of hosting a show. The fashion machine, once again, began its churn – though not without a few notable changes. For one, the pool of invitees shrank by half. “In Europe, there’s definitely a lack of the usual American and Asian faces, so it does seem like something’s missing, but on the flipside you’re seeing a lot of local faces that you’ve never seen before, like the local cool kids,” says Hunter. It was also encouraging to witness greater diversity on the catwalk, not just of race but of age and size with 48-year-old model Amber Valletta gracing nearly every runway from Off-White to Versace. Smaller, independent brands like Area NYC – known for their splashy, crystal-embellished looks – took the pandemic shake-up as an opportunity to forge their own rules, debuting a couture collection off traditional calendar dates. 

Balenciaga 2022 spring-summer red carpet | Photo: Balenciaga

But the brands that revolutionised the post-pandemic show format, proving the true worth of an in-person gathering, were the ones that leaned into the full fanciful potential of shows. Balmain had models wave to an enchanted public from a boat floating down the Seine for its Fall 2020 couture show – a move that felt at once more exclusive and democratic. Jacquemus took select guests to a field of wheat for a dreamy defile for Spring 2021. Last September, Demna Gvasalia of Balenciaga staged a “red carpet” on which celebrities and models wearing his latest collection posed, then filed into a grand theatre alongside the rest of the guests to watch the screening of a special episode of The Simpsons made especially for Balenciaga. The gimmick, of course, went viral, its every element dissected for days to come and referenced even as the season came to a close. But what Gvasalia and his fellow Millennial designers did was pave the way for a new kind of fashion week, where models no longer merely twirled on lit pavements, but where guests are meant to be treated to an experience no look book or digital runway can supplant.  

The Oculus, World Trade Center | Photo: Anthony Murray

As we find ourselves on the heels of another round of fashion weeks, it is clear the industry is, in some ways, still heavily reliant on this tradition of gathering. Most brands fell back into those comfortable rhythms, though at a smaller capacity than in previous years. For example, Chanel’s latest Fall 2022 ready-to-wear show was a crowded affair (that saw BLACKPINK’s Jennie jetting in from Seoul for it), as was Olivier Rousteing’s gorgeous three-act presentation for Balmain, affirming both brands and audiences’ desires to connect physically. At the same time, the metaverse’s fashion flag has been firmly planted: 3D virtual world Decentraland raised the curtain on the first ever Metaverse Fashion Week (MVFW) in March with a jam-packed agenda of catwalk shows, pop up shops, and even avatar-studded after parties. New York debuted Digital Fashion Week New York (DFWNY) in February, a virtual event attended by some two dozen emerging designers and a handful of established brands like Hugo Boss, whereby visitors could experience everything from digital runway shows to virtual hot air balloon rides.  

VR 9 by Maya Es | Photo: Harry Umen

In the coming decade, perhaps we will see even more young, independent designers break away, no longer seeking the institution’s approval or support, as technology and social media allow them to speak directly to their consumers in increasingly innovative ways, while established brands continue to sell a dream through grand, experimental shows. But for now, there’s no doubt that fashion weeks remain an integral part of fashion’s reverie. “There’s not really a replacement to shows, no matter how creative films or photos can be,” says Hunter. “There’s something about the fantasy and creativity of runway shows, the whole drama. If done well, there’s nothing like it.”

Originally published in ECHELON Issue 7