PARIS, France — What does it take to create a true fashion moment? This season, the answer would seem to be either the high-profile dismissal of a longstanding creative director just days before his fashion show, or a massive budget to create a larger-than-life fashion spectacle that not only captures the imagination of show-going industry insiders, but generates striking imagery which plays out on livestreams, social media, and fashion magazines, carving a place in the collective memory.
As usual, BoF was in the fashion trenches to take it all in. Sometimes it felt like drinking from the proverbial fire-hose, but we’ve distilled the experience here for you in an effort to make sense of yet another mad-capped season of fabulous fashion moments, not least of which were our own trans-Atlantic fetes in London and New York to celebrate our fifth birthday.
And so, without further ado, here’s to Autumn/Winter 2012, the season that was.
THE TROUBLE WITH NEW YORK FASHION WEEK
Unfolding over nine jam-packed days, with more than 300 shows, held at venues that have the fashion flock pinging back and forth, up and down, and all across Manhattan, the schedule in New York verges on the ridiculous. Unlike other fashion capitals, in New York anyone with the will and the financial means can put on a show anytime, anywhere. This may be a reflection of the less centralised “American way” of doing things, but surely there’s a better balance to be struck that retains this open and entrepreneurial spirit, while injecting a bit of pragmatism into what has become a chaotic experience.
“I calculated that I spent 7.5 hours on the Westside Highway,” Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune told me, referring to the stretch of road that connects Lincoln Center, all the way uptown, to Milk Studios and other downtown venues in the Meatpacking district and SoHo.
But the frustration is not just about the taxing logistics – it’s about whether it’s worth all the effort. As one prominent buyer, who preferred not to be named, said: “I found more fashion inspiration in two days in London than in an entire week in New York.”
What’s more, quality designers in New York risk being drowned out by the all the noise, and the poorly coordinated schedule sometimes means having to choose between some of the city’s best shows. This season, Thakoon’s show conflicted with that of Simon Spurr, while Patrick Ervell showed at the same time as Edun. Sure, these are (predominantly) menswear shows conflicting with womenswear shows, but personally, I would have liked to have seen them all.
In other cities, fashion week is a more curated experience with an official schedule overseen by a central body that evaluates which designers should be included, establishes when they should show, and recommends and coordinates locations amongst designers to minimise transport fuss and potential conflicts. What’s more, in the case of London, the most important shows are grouped together in a couple of big days, which is especially handy for those who aren’t able (or willing) to stay for the whole week.
Last year, Steven Kolb, chief executive of the CFDA, pointed out to me that achieving consensus around who gets to shape an official New York schedule would be a huge challenge in and of itself. Indeed, it’s true that these kinds of processes can become extremely political, something that designers in London and Paris complain about all the time. But as things currently stand, it seems the only person that really benefits from New York’s current laissez-faire approach is Ruth Finley, who has been publishing and selling a “Fashion Calendar,” for over 65 years, cobbling together a schedule of all the uncoordinated events and charging both brands for the privilege of being listed and industry insiders for the privilege of knowing what is going on and where.
In other cities, the official schedule is available online, free of charge.
PR INNOVATORS AND DINOSAURS
This season, one solution proferred for overcoming the taxing logistics of fashion week was KCD’s digitalfashionshows.com, a platform targeted at industry professionals with webcasts of digital-only shows, which made its debut with Prabal Gurung’s collection for ICB in New York. In the early days of Paris Fashion Week, See by Chloé also leveraged the site to present its first ever show.
While these online events didn’t really capture the real-life experience of attending a fashion show, they did reflect an increased openness to experimentation amongst certain forward-thinking public relations companies as the rise of digital continues to disrupt the core elements of their traditional service offering. Indeed, rather than sitting by and watching, these firms are rolling up their sleeves and getting into the digital game themselves. Could this mean that old-school PR as we know it is dying?
“We always want to take a progressive but practical approach to our communications strategies and tools,” said James Grant, co-founder of Starworks Group, which, this season, made high-quality runway images available via the Fashion GPS Radar app for its London shows, providing industry professionals with immediate access to imagery that could be published in close to realtime. “The service will be widely available from Fashion GPS next season for all brands,” he said, adding that Starworks and Fashion GPS are actively developing other new digital solutions and services for the fashion industry.
In Paris, however, many clipboard-wielding public relations professionals are stuck in the pre-digital age, even as their counterparts in New York and London have migrated to iPads and software to streamline the PR process. In Paris, by contrast, PRs are often inaccessible, and they shut doors on internet-based media, all in the name of serving their clients who probably have no idea what is going on.
“Paris is definitely the biggest struggle for us in terms of getting access to shows for coverage,” said Leah Chernikoff, executive editor of Fashionista.com, which gets a whopping 1.25 million unique visitors per month, more traffic than Vogue.com. “We have to sell ourselves a bit since we’re not attached to a big print outlet: ’Here’s who we are, how many unique readers we have a month, this is why you should grant us access, etc.’ It can be incredibly trying and frustrating,” she said.
Indeed, emails are ignored. Interview requests are declined. And promises are forgotten. Having heard these complaints from major American fashion magazines, as well as the editors of blogs and websites that reach millions of people a month, it’s time for Parisian PRs to get with the program and catch up with digital revolution. The internet is not going away.
DESIGNERS COME AND DESIGNERS GO
It wouldn’t be a fashion week without some designer drama. And while nothing came close to John Galliano’s meltdown one year ago, there were two designers who found themselves publicly sacked only days before their shows.
In Milan, when Jil Sander announced that Raf Simons was leaving Jil Sander, the industry seemed at once shocked and saddened by the news. When Simons took his bow and then an encore, his face streaming in tears, he received a rapturous reception that demonstrated that he still had the industry’s full support, even without a big brand to lead. What Mr Simons will do next is not clear, though his signature menswear line will certainly continue to be one of the highlights of the men’s shows in Paris.
But it was the jubilant tone of the press release announcing the return of Jil Sander the designer to Jil Sander the brand that really got the industry up in arms. As one astute, well-connected fashion observer said to me, it seems like there is already a collective chill against Ms Sander because of the way the transition was handled.
The dismissal of Stefano Pilati from YSL was better handled, even though Mr Pilati had been dogged by exit rumours for some time now. So, his eventual dismissal this season was not met with as much surprise. By contrast, the announcement of his replacement, Hedi Slimane, created a level of hysteria not seen since the return of Phoebe Philo to the fashion fold in 2008.
And so, fashion’s game of musical chairs continues as the industry awaits confirmed news of a successor at Christian Dior, where the role of creative director has now stood vacant for over one year. In the meantime, the rumour mill will continue to churn relentlessly as even innocent and often uninformed comments can now swiftly create internet memes about the next supposedly ‘confirmed’ successor to Mr Galliano.
THE POWER OF PRODUCTION
As the Guardian’s Jess-Cartner Morley wrote, “Fashion has outgrown the catwalk show. Now that the industry is a worldwide entertainment business, with celebrity-packed audiences and global-reach livestreamed collections, beautiful women wearing beautiful clothes is simply no longer enough to satisfy the audience.”
Rising to the challenge, Marc Jacobs created over-the-top productions for both his namesake collection in New York and Louis Vuitton in Paris. Following a backlash after a late Marc Jacobs show several years ago, both shows started promptly. But it was also the fact that both shows were live-streamed to the world that made timely starts an imperative.
In New York, Mr Jacobs delivered a magical fashion moment, with a meandering runway, heart-wrenching music from ‘Oliver,’ and a humongous paper set. In Paris he offered up a train specially constructed by Louis Vuitton, from which each model appeared with their own porter, carrying several Vuitton bags. While these spectacular productions helped to create unprecedented levels of buzz around Mr Jacobs’ shows, they also detracted from the clothes. Who can pay attention to anything else when a massive train has just entered a tent in middle of the Cour Carrée du Louvre?
But it was at the Lanvin show, celebrating 10 years of Alber Elbaz at the helm, that staged fashion theatre at its best. Attendees were greeted, as usual, by dapper waiters serving champagne and canapés, but this time around there were also sky-high birthday cakes all along the runway which must have been snapped and shared on social media hundreds of times as we waited for the show to start.
Next, fueling the energy in the room as show-goers continued to wait, a number of celebrities were brought out one by one. First, Pharrell Williams appeared (acknowledging a bench of heavy hitters from Conde Nast as “the most powerful row in fashion”) quickly followed by Tilda Swinton, and Dita von Teese, each creating their own moments of mini-hysteria amongst the gathered paparazzi.
Finally, almost one hour after the show was supposed to start, the lights dimmed and models came down the runway in a powerful non-stop retrospective of Elbaz’s body of work for Lanvin. And when the well-loved designer joined the girls at the end of the show, taking a bow to celebrate his reinvention of the once-dusty French fashion label, the fashion flock rose to its feet to applaud.
But it didn’t end there. Mr Elbaz took to the stage and broke into song, singing “Que Sera Sera, What Ever Will Be, Will Be,” prompting a flood of cheers and tears from those in the crowd. Perhaps the only downside was that online fans and followers of Lanvin weren’t able to experience the event in realtime through any of the brand’s official channels.
SOUNDTRACK OF THE SEASON
Leave it to Rick Owens to create a fashion moment without a massive set or major press announcement. Yes, there was the regular oohing and ahhing over Mr Owens’ continued evolution as a designer, but it was his pared back soundtrack with provocative lyrics and catchy back-beat that really stuck in the minds of everyone present.
“I’m gonna read that bitch. I’m gonna school that bitch. I’m gonna take that bitch to college. I’m gonna get that bitch some knowledge,” rapped Zebra Katz in Ima Read, which quickly became the most talked about song in Paris.
While some, including the Daily Beast fashion editor Robin Givhan thought the lyrics — and indeed, some of the looks — in Owens’ show objectified women, most people couldn’t get enough of the track. Derek Blasberg, Edward Enninful and Tommy Ton were amongst the fashion tastemakers who tweeted about the song in the days following Owens’ show.
AN ELEVATED CHINESE PRESENCE
There was a visible rise in the presence of China’s fashion contingent at the shows this season, especially in Paris, where mega-brands like Dior, Chanel and Vuitton are counting on continued market growth in China to sustain their spectacular financial results.
At the Christian Dior show, a polite Chinese photographer perched next to me trained his camera in on four Chinese celebrities sitting in the front row for the entire duration of the show!
On another night in Paris, I was invited to attend an intimate dinner hosted by Sham Kar Wai, CEO of I.T, the Chinese retailer and distributor that operates a number of China stores for several international brands alongside its own retail presence. The talk over dinner was of the brands and designers in the I.T stable that have Chinese consumers most excited, which included fellow dinner guest Gareth Pugh, as well as Comme des Garçons and Junya Watanabe. Notably, these are not the “bling-bling” brands one typically associates with rising affluent consumers in China.
But perhaps the most notable Chinese presence was on the runway itself. Confident, proud, beautiful and graceful, Chinese models were a formidable force on the catwalk at Balenciaga, Chanel, Hermès and Stella McCartney, amongst others. And while everyone certainly has their eyes on the unforgettable Karlie Kloss, with her signature walk and mile-high legs, Chinese model Liu Wen walked in no less than 18 shows in Paris alone, speaking not only to the rising Chinese market, but also striking a chord with the assembled fashion flock.
Imran Amed is founder and editor-in-chief of The Business of Fashion