In a world dominated by excess, is it time to rethink our runways?
By Myriam Laroche & The Talia Team
I studied fashion in Québec City back in the 90s with the aim of becoming a runway show producer and a trend forecaster. Every season I religiously awaited the delivery of Collezioni Magazine at my school to see what was featured on international catwalks and get inspiration from the luxury designers whilst admiring Yasmeen Ghauri, Claudia Schiffer, Christy Turlington and Naomi Campbell. Our teachers would tell us that the trends we were seeing in the magazines would hit the stores four to six seasons later. This was before M.F (Mass Fashion), and they weren’t wrong.
My first big role after school was as a buyer for a retailer that owned 22 stores. At the time we did our private label development via fax as the internet was almost non-existent along with the emails, DMs and the instant messaging services that came with it. Can you imagine leaving the office in the evening or at the weekend without your phone pinging away? Our job was simple, to supply the demand for the market. It wasn’t until later in life that I entered the world of fashion shows and production.
I believe that in order to shed light on the debates surrounding the extravagance of fashion weeks, one first needs to understand why they came to exist.
The origins of Fashion Week
Fashion shows date back to the 1860s and were created for wealthy private clients to visualise fits, fabrics, colours and patterns. Initially known as fashion parades, the events were small and scaled-back. To give you an idea of how low-key these could be, Coco Chanel hosted her’s in the comfort of her own home, a far cry from the multi-million dollar spectacles that are put on today.
In fact, it wasn’t until the Second World War that the concept of a Fashion Week was born in New York City. American buyers, editors and designers who had been visiting Paris to get inspiration for their collections were no longer able to travel to the City of Lights and without the regular trips, American designers began creating independently.
From then on, and until the late nineties, thousands of industry people travelled from New York to Paris via London and Milan twice a year in order to watch hundreds of collections walk the runways of the ‘Big Four’.
When did it all change?
A new millennium brought technological advances in production and transportation as well as a more accessible internet. Brands began to offer dozens of collections a year rather than their usual four or five and discount sales became the new key to marketing. The internet allowed people from all over the world to view and order an item with just a click of a button. The cost of production got cheaper as industrial farming and fertilizers became more widespread. More efficient air and sea transportation meant brands could outsource their factories to countries where they could turn a blind eye to workers rights and fair pay.
This shift to a global market created a need for more products, specialized collections and specific shows to market swimwear, streetwear, outerwear and bridal. Smaller cities joined the fashion week movement in a bid to feature local designers who were unable to compete with the ‘Big Four’. VIPs were flown across the world to be photographed sitting front row and the whole industry became synonymous with excess and extravagance.
Fashion weeks were something to gawk at for outsiders, inaccessible events for the elite. However, in recent years, topics surrounding sustainability, overconsumption and waste have hovered over them like a dark cloud. Are fashion shows highlighting how unhealthy our industry is? Have fashion weeks forgotten what they are there for and do they need to get back to basics?
The true cost of Fashion Weeks
When speaking with Vogue Business, American fashion designer Christian Siriano revealed that a New York fashion show could cost anywhere between $125,000 to $300,000 to cover models, venue, lighting, sound, staff, seating, set design, catering and transport services. That’s without taking into account participation fees, PR, marketing, front of house and social media campaigns which are all additional expenses. For shows that last less than 10 minutes, it is a hefty investment. An investment which could certainly be beneficial to improving working conditions and factory wages.
I’ll allow you to imagine the cost of producing Raf Simmons’ first couture collection for Christian Dior in 2012 where models paraded through a Parisian mansion covered floor to ceiling in over a million flowers. Was it magnificent? Absolutely. Did it meet the PR and social media wow factor? Totally. Could the money spent on the show have served a more worthy purpose? Undeniably.
We are living in an era of excess, where quantity, speed and profits come before quality, care and people. In a world dominated by social media, have we lost the true essence and meaning of a fashion show? Do brands really need them to succeed and should the industry’s leaders be looking to the future? Currently, more money is spent on extravagant theatricals than paying those making the clothes or limiting the environmental damage caused by production. Brands are producing more garments than we are able to wear, with 350,000 tonnes of clothes going to landfill in the UK alone. Brands are racing to reach the bottom when it comes to cutting costs however, it is the planet and the people that are paying the price.
A look to the future
Fashion shows are the face of an industry with an estimated workforce of 430 million people. An industry that is responsible for approximately 10% of global greenhouse emissions. Whilst fashion weeks are just the tip of the pyramid, they are representative of the industry as a whole and perceived to be a wasteful extravagance. As the world faces a global pandemic and a climate emergency, now might be the right time for the industry to rethink how we do fashion week.
For many brands this year, digital fashion shows have been the only way to be seen and even though buyers were unable to touch or see the garments in real life, their orders were still being placed. This leads one to believe that flying thousands of people around the world for a week of ten minute shows and after parties might not be as necessary as we had thought it to be. In fact, the live streaming of shows has made the runway a little more accessible and a lot less front-row.
So what if runway shows were stripped back to their original purpose of showcasing garments for buyers? Would there be a need for them at all? Could avatars replace real-life models? Perhaps Jeremy Scott’s recent puppet show is a sign of things to come…
Perhaps in order to impose change, cities could limit fashion weeks to once a year or introduce mandatory carbon offsetting for participating brands. If brands want to use fashion shows as a way of speaking to consumers, they need to start engaging in a bigger conversation surrounding ethics and sustainability. Budgets should be allocated to workers and use only what’s left on marketing.
Although we may not see a return to the years of Coco Chanel’s parades, fashion shows are in desperate need of a makeover. I invite all fashion brands looking to survive the next couple of decades to be the ones to lead their consumers towards healthy consumption. In order to stay ahead in the next fashion revolution, brands will need to visibly start prioritising people over profits and actively championing equality and diversity. This starts with fashion shows.
Myriam Laroche is an expert in sustainable fashion and textile circularity and has worked in the clothing industry for nearly 25 years. Since 2009, she has devoted herself exclusively to the sustainable development of methods and strategies for the design, manufacturing, distribution, marketing and reusing of clothing.