Fashion Shows Are Dead: It is Time to Acknowledge the Industry’s Big Illusion.
The Fashion Weeks season is on. As I am seeing photos and meaningless videos of runway shows on Instagram, I am choosing to unfollow anyone who posts too much. I don’t want to be part of this anymore. There is too much illusion, very little reality in fashion.
Funny enough, I’ve been that person several years ago — the one who went to fashion shows, took photos and shared on social media all the time. Contributed to building this big illusion. Things change, priorities shift. But I’m drawn to write about this topic now that I have a more holistic and detached view of the industry and have a few stories from my personal experience to share. I’ll share with you my vision and examples of how fashion shows can be used to show the REAL fashion industry, to shed light on what’s behind the veil.
Let’s start from basics. Fashion Week season is a superficially created time extended for 2 months for generating hype to pump the ever-expanding consumption process. Fashion weeks are not real. They are a construct of the industry. Trade shows are still real, appointments in showrooms are still real. But fashion weeks are not.
These days the general purpose of fashion shows is two-fold:
- To showcase the collection to be photographed + posted on various media outlets for stylists, buyers and customers to see.
- To keep the status of the brand high in the eyes of press and customers.
Yes, not much more purpose. Everything else is either on social media or hidden behind the “seams”.
It is obvious that in this digital age, it is not necessary to have a fashion show for a brand to become successful commercially. I’ve worked with numerous brands for years as a sales rep and later as a consultant and most of them stayed away from the ridiculous expenses of producing a fashion show. (125,000-$312,000 plus the cost of producing runway samples. Read more here.) Sometimes, some of my clients would host a presentation, where garments can actually be seen better by the audience. Most of the brands I worked with simply showcased their new collections at a showroom for press and buyers to get familiar with their work in a more intimate, calm setting. I acknowledge that fashion weeks are not just about the shows anymore, but in this article, I’m drawn to unfold specifically the topic of the shows.
We all know what a fashion show is at its core: about a 10-minute presentation, where a bunch of models go down the runway presenting clothes by a certain designer for the audience to see the new collection and for the media to photograph it. Back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, fashion “parades” were held by department stores to lure the customers and get a customer acquainted with new styles. These parades were more theatrical than an average fashion show today, had commentaries and lasted for a longer time. So these were customer-centric events. It is close to what the modern fashion movies, pop-ups, installations, and special events are for these days.
In the 30s-40s, French fashion brands started showcasing their new collections to a selected group of buyers, it was highly secretive and no one got to see the images from the show until the collection came out in 6 months.
In 1943, the shows got even more commercial. The first-ever “fashion week,” in NYC was held, and its main purpose was to give fashion buyers alternatives to French fashion during World War II, when no one could travel to Paris for buying trips.
From there, the glamourous whirlpool of fashion weeks had developed and spread around the world. Photographs from the shows reach customers through media and now all of a sudden the average customer already knew what they were going to be offered in the fast fashion retailer stores within a couple of months.
Let’s face the truth: fashion weeks are no longer relevant. It is not necessary anymore to have a model wearing a garment go down the runway for a product to reach a consumer — especially with the Internet and social media. Collections can be showcased in a multitude of other ways. But it is the idea of a fashion show has been blown up to such extends that it has become an industry joke and a money-making mechanism.
Did you know that NYFW now has an “All Access Experience” for $1,999 + tax that promises “an exclusive opportunity to spend an entire day alongside fashion’s elite and receive the VIP treatment at one of fashion’s most sought-after events.”? I’ll say no more:
My body cringes as I was reading this, it really makes me simply give up and say “ok, fine, you guys win”. Because I don’t want to play this game anymore. That’s why I’ve been ignoring fashion weeks for the last several seasons, not even saying much about them. But during this fashion weeks season, as I’m far outside of the traditional fashion circles (both physically and energetically), I feel drawn to speak my truth.
An experience like “All Access” by NYFW is made for people who want to be part of the industry because it’s so alluring but DON’T HAVE A CLUE how harmful and disastrous this industry is for our Planet and what it takes to work in this industry. These people want to participate in this man-made illusion by buying their way in or by slaving their way in. As ridiculous and foolish it sounds to me now, I’ve felt different before. I used to be one of these people dying to attend a fashion show and to experience how that glamorous world of illusions feels. Growing up in Moscow, I’ve worked as part of a production team in Moscow Fashion weeks when I was 15. That is a whole other story, I won’t get into it today.
But the story I’m drawn to share is to show how blinded I was by the sparkles of this industry at the beginning of my career in fashion, so I understand very well those people who are allured by fashion shows today. Back in Fall 2007, I bought a NYFW fashion show invite on Craigslist. Yes, you read it right, I bought a show INVITE on Craigslist. I was visiting NYC that Fall, before my fashion design course started in London. I had no idea how to get to NYFW but I read The Secret as soon as it came out in 2006 and practiced Law of Attraction for every wish I had. Most wishes I had included my firmly chosen fashion career path.
Back then, NYFW took place at Bryant Park. How many of you guys have seen the Bryant Park tents? I’m not going to lie, it was a VERY alluring and powerful image. “Sex and the City”, “The Hills” and early “Project Runway” glamorized the idea of “The Tents” at Bryant park for me to the level that I had to do this shady thing and get that invite from someone at the corner of 38 and 5th near then popular department store Lord & Taylor for the exchange of around $50 as I now remember. I was going to be attending a show by a Brazilian fashion designer, Carlos Miele, who I’ve never heard of before. (Side note: those who know me well may laugh harder when they read this sentence because they know I have a meaningful soul connection thing with so many things Brazilian)
Yes, I bought the fashion week invite AND didn’t even know the designer whose show I was attending. It didn’t matter to me. Moreover, I was going as someone named “Zhang Wei” or “Wang Xiu Ying”, definitely something Chinese sounding and hard to pronounce correctly for a 16-year-old coming from Russia.
I got in. I was ecstatic. Partially because I’m at the New York fashion week, and equally because I confirmed yet again that the LAW OF ATTRACTION WORKS. I’ve dreamed about that and that manifested. It was empowering. The collection was boring, but I didn’t tell anyone. I did share with everyone that I attended NYFW and it finally made me feel “good enough”. I’ll talk more about the not enough-ness sickness some other time. But you got the idea. The show was not even great the clothes were average party gowns, the people who attended looked too serious, yet it was all about the whole experience for me. Which honestly was also disappointing. I don’t remember what I hoped to see but I didn’t see it. I knew I wanted to be the true “insider” to find out what is it that is so alluring.
So that year, when I moved to London and later, to NYC to study fashion design and fashion business respectively, I’ve found a wayyy more multi-sensory way to get to know how Fashion Shows work: to experience the backstage. So, since modeling was not an option for my prakruti, and being an editor at that time was still my hidden superpower, I figured out another way in: as a volunteer (better known as an intern, or the industry used to call these temp interns for fashion week as “dressers”). Yes, I was to become the infamous typical fashion intern. Devil Wears Prada — inspired, but just for Fashion Week for now. (FYI Devil Wears Prada book that came out back in 2003 was my bible for a while by then). So I simply emailed all the brands on the London’s, and later New York’s fashion week directory ModemOnline — and I had about 2 % replied. Both agreed to have me as a dresser/Intern. Naeem Khan & Marios Schwab were my first international exposures to the glamorous backstage of London Fashion Week. Cathrine Malandrino and Zac Posen were the first designers I got to work with backstage during NYFW. Here are some visuals that I got as an exchange for my slave-ish labor and hours and hours and hours of work:
I was ecstatic and loved myself for making my dreams come true, regardless the fact I had to volunteer my hours away for these designers for weeks before and after because that were the “terms” of volunteering with them backstage. I didn’t mind, these were some form of the first fashion internships experiences that guided me where I saw myself evolve within this glamorous industry.
The most interesting thing is that clothes and the customers didn’t matter as much in fashion shows especially back then. It was an industry’s trade event. It was ALL about marketing and sales for designers, all about money. It was not about showcasing their new collections to the customers, but having press write about them and attracting the right buyers. That’s where the industry’s illusion started to unveil in my eyes and I got to see the unsettling way press and sales appointment are held, how retailers dictate their terms and how brands are pushed to be “a certain way”, the way press and buyers wanted to see them. I remember seeing that worried and weak look on designers face when they talked to some big-ass journalists or buyers from large department stores. It looked scary. My heart was telling me that there was something wrong with fashion weeks, but again, I didn’t get what it was. It took me years of working (mostly slaving away) in this industry to really get it and now that I extracted myself from this world for a while, my mission now is to spread this message: fashion weeks are a distraction from what our industry has become. They are this glamourous cherry on top, the tip of the iceberg, the illusion that holds the industry so appealing to the outside world. With social media and globalization spread in the past 10 years, fashion weeks have become even more shallow and useless periods of time when fashion’s fantasy is fueled. This can’t go on anymore. People need to see the reality behind the veil of fashion’s stage.
WAKE UP, WORLD, FASHION IS NOT WHAT YOU SEE ON THE RUNWAY.
And it is not what you see on the streets next to the runway shows either.
It is all a circus, as Suzy Menkes put it in her infamous article for NYT from 2013. What goes behind the scenes is what really matters and it is a disaster. So as a gentle reminder, I will sprinkle a few harsh facts fashion industry doesn’t want you to remember:
- Fashion shows are for the show. Generally, most of the garments you see on the runway won’t be produced. Only more “COMMERCIAL” and simple versions end up offered to the customer. What goes down the runway are “editorial” pieces that will be photographed for fashion magazines' shoots, but no one will wear these pieces besides maybe your stylist friend. (I love you, Stefania)
- If a product is too cheap, it’s surely too good to be true. Yes, the manufacturing was unethical and probably involved kids labor, the fabric is bad for your skin, worse for the environment, you’ll not want to wear it after you look at it when it comes from the first laundry cycle. PRODUCING CLOTHING IS NOT EASY AND NOT CHEAP. Any brand will confirm that. It’s not yet robotized to the degree where everything we wear is produced by machines.
- Luxury’s brands mark ups are higher than you think is not appropriate. They’re ENORMOUS. And yes, the biggest percentage of the revenue goes into marketing to pay *insert a K-name* or other “influencers” their royalties. (At this point as I’m reminded that the world is so screwed I want to drop writing the article and do something else… but I’ll continue)
- We consume more than we need. This is pretty self-explanatory I hope. Trends are fake, they’ve been created for us to stay hooked for a purchase. There’s nothing wrong with not buying new things each season, but WE DON’T HAVE TO FOLLOW TRENDS. We don’t have to look like someone else photographed on a runway show, or on the street (in many cases a stylist/imposter not even attending the show or not even working in the industry, a clown).
- This list can go on and on but I’ll stop right here and take a deep breath. You may join me.
Close your eyes and cover them with your hands. Take 3 more deep breaths.
Thank you. For not closing this page instead of your eyes and committing to this article fully.
All I’m asking, let’s stop supporting fashion weeks around the world. They don’t have to exist anymore, really. Pop up events throughout the year is more than enough to keep the customers excited about new collections coming out at the suitable timing for that brand, when their creativity is not pushed to the limits when the industry demands 2,4,6,8 — collections a year. This is not how creativity works. It is spontaneous, it is unpredictable, it is magical. Creativity comes from the heart, it doesn’t come from the brand and a space-time construct of 3rd dimension in which we operate. Creativity comes from our dreams, from our visions, from long nature walks, from connecting with loved ones and sharing peaceful moments of contemplation in the magic of a present moment. These days, so many designers became commercial machines and lost their artistic sparkle.
Moreover, no one really cares about an all-star production of a fashion show and the celebrities on the front row. Priorities of consumers are shifting, and it’s time for the industry to shift as well and stop following an old trend that doesn’t make any sense anymore, as we’ve embraced the digital age.
Fashion is about to enter an age of renaissance.
It is going to be all about raw expression of creativity, with sustainability and ethical practices at its core. Some independent designers start using their fashion shows as a way to ring a wake-up call for action for the industry. I see this is the more healthy and impactful way to use fashion weeks as a tool for activism as brands shed light on the aspects of the industry that are so, so dark.
Throwing a few examples here from NYFW as an inspiration for new ways fashion shows can be used as a stage to promote sustainability in fashion.
Last year, in Sept 20178 during SS19 shows, New York–based label Vaquera has sent a model down the runway holding a bunch of plastic grocery bags and Amazon Prime orders.
A couple of seasons earlier, Yuna Yang launched a “Save the Earth” collection of clothing that mimics nature.
A young brand Livari creates zero-waste capsule collections, as they turn fabrics that other designers disregard into versatile staples made to last a lifetime, not just one season.
As mentioned in this Fashionista article, Collina Strada and Chromat are the most recent examples of how “brands used their Fall 2019 shows to communicate the idea that we’re facing a genuine environmental crisis.”
Chromat’s new collection, “Climatic,” which designer Becca McCharen-Tran said was inspired by Miami and the climate change affecting this city. Chromat uses sustainable Lycra made from discarded fishing nets, utilizes upcycled and deadstock fabrics and works with factories that have been vetted for fair labor practices. Whitney Bauck reports for Fashionista: “Models in the first half of the show wore or carried bright tropical vegetation, but as the show progressed, the accessories morphed to feature “flowers” made of plastic cups and dress trains fashioned from what looked like fish nets. The transition was subtle, but the message about where we’re headed — from a world from a world filled with greenery to one filled with trash — was clear”. Additionally “each showgoer received a booklet that featured both sexy Chromat imagery and a smattering of thought-provoking questions and facts about environmentalism and overconsumption.” What I also love about Chromat is that on top of it all they promote body positivity as they send models of different shapes and sizes down the runway. That’s a whole other topic for another article, yet super important in the new wave of activism by means of fashion shows.
Collina Strada’s designer and founder, Hillary Taymour named her Fall 2019 collection “Low Carbon Diet” and “it was made of 75 percent deadstock fabrics and recycled ocean plastic beads in partnership with 4 Ocean, an organization that removes trash from the sea. On the runway, models walked with reusable bottles and glass containers full of food in their hands (some of which they noshed on mid-walk) to make a point about bringing your own containers and thereby avoiding single-use plastic. And the show notes themselves were full of recycling tips to get showgoers thinking even before the models appeared.” — Whitney Bauck for Fashionista.
“Perhaps the most memorable part of the whole show was the presence of indigenous teen climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, who gave a moving talk that served as the soundtrack. To hear the 18-year-old discuss how he’s addressed the UN General Assembly and sued the government over fracking laws while a pregnant model and a model with a baby on her shoulders walked the runway underscored one thing: the future belongs to the young, and the planet we abuse — or save — will ultimately be their inheritance. The effect was somehow convicting and hopeful at the same time.” — Whitney Bauck continues.
Wow, now if there’s one way I’d like to see fashion shows to evolve in, that would be it. Thank you, Collina Strada and Xiuhtezcatl Martinez for this beautiful collaboration. I was lucky to watch Xiuhtezcatl speak the Truth at The Assemblage last year and he honestly has the most powerful voice for the next generation I’ve ever experienced. It fascinates me to see collaborations like this happen when fashion becomes a medium for spreading the Truth.
“A crisis this critical can only be overcome by a movement founded in love.” — indigenous teen climate activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez
I acknowledge there are certainly more ideas to use fashion shows as a “wake up call”. I am very curious about this topic, so please email me when you come across more examples, I’ll write about them. Using fashion shows as a tool for running sustainability campaigns may not be an efficient use of designers money from a business perspective, but a great example for other brands of what fashion shows can be if a budget allows the excess we see in the production of some brands’ shows.(examples here and here) We are on to something huge here and the shift is already happening.
With my company, Balanced Fashion, I’m grateful to be an observer and a consultant who helps brands transition through this shift. Reach out to me so we can brainstorm how your brand can make this transition to sustainability in a realistic, efficient and effective manner.
Disclaimer: I believe this is the best time for me to express my personal opinion on the industry in general in the context of fashion weeks in particular. This article offers a perspective and I apologize if it offends anyone. It is not based on judgment but solely based on my personal sense of what is truth to me.