Death or Dearth: What Happened to the Art of Fashion Shows?
There was a time, not all that long ago, when the fashion show was not just another ticked box on the marketing to-do-list but a spectacle in and of itself. Think Margiela’s White Show, the prescience of Raf Simons’ S/S02 collection, or pretty much anything Alexander McQueen ever staged. Where once headlines and careers were made on the catwalk, there is now only a sense of dull disenchantment, artistic timidity and of obligations that must be met. The previous two decades played host to some of the most impactful and enduring runway shows in fashion history, many of which could legitimately be considered art, so why has the medium fallen so flat?
The most obvious scapegoat is the intense corporatization that has overtaken the fashion world in the past 10 or so years. Instead of having up to six months to develop, design and enrich their vision, designers now – especially at the larger labels – are finding their creative windows increasingly truncated in order to satisfy media and consumer demand, to the point where entire collections are being conjured up in mere weeks before being trotted out down the runway. Of course, none of this is news to anyone who seriously follows fashion, as a slew of names, including heavyweights such as Raf Simons and Tom Ford, have spoken out in recent months about the ‘broken’ system that the fashion industry now operates in, with Simons decrying the current system precisely because he felt it stifled true creativity.
When such criticism is coming from a man who is not only one of the biggest names in contemporary fashion but also one of the true masters of the runway, it’s reason to stop and look for a moment. The contracted design process undoubtedly has a large amount to do with the relatively weak runway offerings with which we are now presented, but I believe the causes extend further than numbers-driven corporate direction. The decline of runway spectacle has, to whatever extent, coincided with the expansion of fashion in the public eye, an expansion that has been aided and even created by our dear friend the internet.
As internet involvement grew, particularly amongst my generation, an industry that was previously famed for its exclusivity suddenly became available to everyone, whether it was through online publications, on the backs of their favourite celebrity or, as we have seen increasingly in the past five years, through social media. While this availability ultimately made the realm of high or luxury fashion accessible to whomever it reached, it also diluted much of the ‘caché’ surrounding fashion, and in a way contributed to its de-intellectualization. Let me state that I am in no way a fan of the intellectualization of fashion, as I believe that it is, fundamentally, just about clothes. I am however a fan of art, and to me the fashion show represents an intriguing intersection of art and commerce, being at once a platform for brands to promote themselves and shift product, while also allowing a considerable degree of intellectual and artistic exploration by the designers beyond just the clothes they produce.
But I have strayed from my point. The advent of instantaneous communication (as well as the effect and opportunities afforded by social media ‘influencers’) has changed the way in which brands market themselves, and, crucially, has changed the importance of the runway in the fashion calendar. The runway is no longer the first point of communication with a brand, having been replaced instead by a seemingly endless and ever-expanding host of digital lookbooks, pre-collection previews, teases and sneak peeks. While this may not necessarily be a bad thing, it has also helped create a culture of instant gratification, whereby the digital audience is constantly hungering for new media and information. If your audience – which, remember, now includes less die-hards and purists than it once did – cares less about the shows, and if you can make more money peddling digital advertising, why would you bother investing the time, stress and, most importantly, money into a show? With that being said, one begins to wonder if we should even bother with runway shows anymore.
Now I understand that the runway does serve a very tangible purpose, being an opportunity for the press and especially the buyers to take a proper look at a collection. But we already have showroom days, days dedicated specifically for those very people to do (presumably) exactly what they’re doing when they are front row. With our current ability to send and receive information, is it even necessary to have a runway show? At this point it feels as if many labels hold shows simply because that is how it has always been, but in a time where many within the industry are speaking of change and modernization, doesn’t it make sense to do away with the old in favour of the new, especially if the new is just as effective at fulfilling its intended role.
There was a time when the runway meant something – but whether it is a problem in my own perception or if the times really have changed, there seems to be no excitement on the catwalk anymore, no creativity. Go and watch footage or read testimonies from shows like McQueen’s La Poupée (F/W ‘97) Savage Beauty (S/S ‘99), VOSS (S/S ‘01) or Joan (F/W ’98) and show me one designer now with even half of his runway ability; hell, even Highland Rape (F/W 95) as sloppily executed and low-budget as it was, was able to generate a reaction. Fashion shows now are flat, lifeless and ultimately uninspired. The best showman we currently have is probably Rick Owens, and even his shows aren’t particularly exciting, though it must be said that they are at least consistent with his vision (Austere! Brutalism! Techno!). After that, the next best offerings might be, I am remiss to say, Demna Gvasalia of Vetements, who has really just regurgitated everything Margiela has done since the ‘80s (even down to the venues) or Virgil Abloh of Off-White, whose creative output is essentially a distillation of Raf Simons’ and Helmut Lang’s archives.
What was once seen as the pinnacle of creativity in fashion has quickly slid to become just another calendar filler, unnecessary output from creators who just don’t seem to have their hearts in it. The causes of this may be many, but the solutions are few: get rid of the shows altogether, do away with the Fashion Weeks and the underwhelming runways and reduce the process to its intended purpose, or lift the level of effort involved. Either one works, at least by doing something they won’t have to worry about 19 year-old fashion bloggers writing snarky articles from the dark depths of their rooms.