HONG KONG, China — I first started researching international fashion weeks in 1992, when I was in the process of establishing what was then Mercedes Australian Fashion Week. I snuck around backstage, bribed security guards and pretended to be an industry delegate in order to secure my standing room only passes to runway shows at the big four fashion capitals: New York, London, Milan and Paris.
At the time, the ground rules for all international fashion weeks were brilliantly simple and effective, driven forward at a great pace thanks to industry visionaries like Beppi Modenese in Milan, Fern Mallis in New York, Didier Grumbach in Paris and a series of energetic CEOs at the British Fashion Council.
No need to invite the end consumer because these were wholesale collections. Invite only the fashion buyers who would make purchases and the editors who would promote them. Then, throw a veil of secrecy over the whole thing to build intrigue. A few months later, magazine catwalk reports, advertisements and editorials would appear in magazines just as stock arrived in store for the consuming public to peruse. It was perfect timing and the driving force of a global ready-to-wear fashion industry worth billions.
Oh how the world has changed. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and their social media brethren have lifted the veil on fashion week and allowed the public to flood the front row. They know exactly what the new Alexander Wang collection looks like, that Anne Hathaway sat next to Anna Wintour at Chanel and that the most influential designer at fashion week in Sydney was Dion Lee. And the same fashion weeks that initially catered to buyers and editors are now geared towards creating media impressions via celebrities and social platforms. Long suffering buyers who, nowadays, have mostly made their buy prior to the show via a showroom visit or lookbook preview, often can’t even get an appreciation of one garment before the next one flies past.
But the new emphasis on instantaneous promotion of the collections, directly to millions and millions of end consumers who now join fashion weeks via social media, is in some senses going to waste. That’s because the industry is clinging to existing fashion week parameters, not realising the huge economic potential that could be unlocked.
So which brave designer or major fashion week is going to be the first to proclaim that their shows are designed for consumers first and shift their timing to coincide with the arrival of clothes in store? In this way, fashion weeks would become the retail starting gun of the season, as designers globally use the content from their shows (which they create at great expense) to immediately create consumer demand — and sales.
Just imagine the retail traffic if every Instagram showing a new-season item was shopable, if every Facebook and Weibo feed came with a stockist list, every Tweet had a price and every YouTube video let consumers shop the runway. Online sales would be directly linked to digital distribution and social media coverage of a particular show, and designers would actually be able to track effectiveness and return on investment.
But does this have to be the end of the international fashion week circuit as we know it?
Fashion weeks currently do a lot more than promote wholesale collections. They are also a catalyst that allows the industry to collaborate, to compete, to exchange ideas, to launch new products, and to introduce new blood. We need this seasonal exchange to maintain our relevance and to push ourselves to grow and explore. Realigning the dates of fashion weeks should not be their demise.
But if the timing of the international fashion week circuit changed to align with the retail cycle, rather than a wholesale cycle, logistical changes would clearly be required. Retailers would have to buy collections away from fashion weeks — something which many of them are already doing for pre-collections — and their role at fashion weeks would now be to support the stock they would have previously purchased with digital and social communications activities.
Long lead-time media would still preview wholesale collections as they prepare editorial coverage and distribute their magazines when new collections first drop. But the magazine catwalk report would be a thing of the past. Rather they would use the Internet and social media to do that job.
Fashion related trade shows would not need to change their timings, however. From Coterie to Pitti and Tranoi, these events still service buyers well and don’t really have the media applications that fashion week shows do.
One additional benefit of rewiring fashion week would be the overnight eradication of knock-offs that the fast fashion chains produce immediately following current fashion weeks shows. Today, these rapid, low-cost interpretations of fashion week designs are launched off the back of the digital media storm that’s generated by the presentation of the originals — though they often arrive in stores months earlier.
Years ago, when I was the mouse that roared (brazenly, in the eyes of the fashion establishment) from Australian Fashion Week, I proposed that the big four establish an international fashion week association to discuss these very issues. At the time, the thought of getting the leaders of the four major fashion weeks to sit down and discuss such things was considered laughable — and, indeed, the bickering between competing fashion weeks continues today.
But perhaps it’s time to think about this again. If a paradigm shift is going to happen, it would clearly have to be coordinated internationally to ensure a clear message was sent to fashion consumers worldwide: a message that said that, as a global industry, we would like to welcome them all to every fashion week around the world — and that what they would see was now available to instantly buy.
Simon Lock is CEO of The Lock Group and a former senior vice president of IMG Fashion & Models. He has been involved in the development of several fashion weeks across the globe.
A version of this article first appeared in a special print edition of The Business of Fashion, published to accompany the launch of the BoF 500. To get your copy, click here or visit Colette in Paris, Opening Ceremony in New York, London and Los Angeles, Le Mill in Mumbai and Sneakerboy in Melbourne.