Show Business: Are Fashion Shows Still Relevant?

As fashion’s production merry-go-round whirls ever faster, the role of the runway is changing. Today, courtesy of British Vogue, Sarah Harris examines the state of the fashion show in the digital age.

Chanel Spring/Summer 2014 | Source: NowFashion

LONDON, United Kingdom — The likelihood is that you have already seen a version of the Chanel image above. You will know that Karl Lagerfeld transformed Paris’ vast Grand Palais into a whitewashed modern art gallery filled with 75 custom-made original works and installations all in homage to the codes of the house. A sculpture of the interlocking double Cs along with the Chanel No 5 robot will already be etched in your memory. A shower cubicle drenched in Chanel chains will, by now, be as familiar a fixture of the spring/summer ’14 collections as Prada’s sporty tube socks. Because all this has been Instagrammed, tweeted, talked about – way before anyone even caught a whiff of the first exit.

In fact, half the audience – 2,520 guests comprising editors, buyers, bloggers, stylists, celebrities, and a jubilant handful of Chanel’s most important shoppers – were still fixated on their iPhones, desperately trying to get a signal (the server at Grand Palais may well have gone into some kind of cardiac arrest from such feverish Instagramming); so much so that no one really noticed that an actual fashion show was going on in front of them until midway through.

Karl Lagerfeld’s catwalks have long been a stage set for excess. Consider last season’s gently rotating, epic-scaled globe pricked with flags to pinpoint the Chanel stores around the world; or the season before, when models navigated their way around a melting iceberg, which the designer had had shipped in specially from Scandinavia at God-only-knows what cost. The eye-watering expense surrounding this season’s artsy installations is certainly up there with the best of them.

Meanwhile, Marc Jacobs’s swansong at Louis Vuitton was a smorgasbord of the house’s greatest-ever shows (well, a designer like Jacobs – 16 years at the helm of LV – was never going to go without a bang).  There was the fully functioning escalator, caged hotel lifts, a water fountain and a twirling carousel flanked by beauties Kate Upton, Eva Herzigova and Natasha Poly who all looked ravishing despite the 3am call time for this 10am show. Seven hours preparing for a fashion show lasting 18 minutes and 25 seconds. Has the world gone mad?

Arguably, there has to be an easier way of seeing what a designer has to say every season other than the status quo: buyers and press on a four-week, biannual tour, from New York to London to Milan to Paris, shuttling between locations, herded in and out of obscure venues – some icy cold, others unbearably hot, all a tight squeeze – squashed on benches before being pushed and shoved back out, and on to the next. Repeat 10 times in 12 hours, and that’s a day in the life of a professional show-goer come ready-to-wear time.

And in the main, these collections – and the clothes they present, of which around 20 per cent won’t ever be made – are small fry in terms of what the brands are producing and selling. The real money-spinners, for designers and retailers, are the pre-collections, presented without fanfare in January and June. These clothes, which are less showy, more wearable, better-priced, and hang around stores for longer, account for up to 80 per cent of a designer’s business and up to 70 per cent of a store’s annual buy.

So what’s the role of the fashion show now? “It’s a spectacle, and a social-media push,” says Martin Raymond, founder of trend-forecasting agency The Future Laboratory. “The catwalk show has moved into the arena of culture and awe. I remember Angela Ahrendts, now at Apple – one of the things she said while she was CEO at Burberry was: ‘We are no longer in the business of fashion, we are in the business of entertainment.’ The idea of spending a million on a West End show is nothing, spending that on a film is a drop in the ocean, so the notion of spending a million on a fashion show is relative.”

No problem for a house like Chanel where sales figures are estimated to linger around the billion-pound mark, or at Louis Vuitton (valued at £15.1bn, it’s the world’s richest fashion brand), but where does it leave younger, emerging designers? Fifteen years ago, a designer could stage a catwalk show for £20,000. Now the going rate comes in around £100,000, and that’s comparatively modest. Several London designers rely heavily on sponsorship from big beauty brands and drinks companies.

“Until recently, unless a designer staged a runway show their collection wouldn’t be reviewed,” says an industry insider, “which can be detrimental not only to that designer’s season but to their entire career. Stylists refer to those catwalk images for a whole season to request clothes to shoot. With that in mind, students were graduating from Central Saint Martins, blindly throwing clothes on Jodie Kidd down a runway, consequently fucking up their deliveries to Barneys because they were so inexperienced, then doing it all again the following season, hoping Barneys would come back for more. It was a nightmare.”

Show pressures aside, the clothes on the catwalk have also upped the ante. At houses such as Valentino, Balenciaga, Prada and Alexander McQueen, those ready-to-wear collections are more akin to couture, such is the level of craftsmanship, precision and fantastical ideas. “Because of the pre-collections, the runway is no longer the be all and end all from a selling point of view,” says Justin O’Shea, buying director at Mytheresa.com. “Brands are now choosing the runway as a forum to build their identity for the season and show something outstanding and inspiring which, yes, can be difficult to produce and be sellable.” Sarah Burton is a prime example: the Alexander McQueen catwalk collection is purely about image. “Sometimes you can buy one out of her 25 catwalk looks exactly as it appears on the runway, but the other 24 would be impossible to produce on any kind of scale,” explains O’Shea. “But shows like McQueen’s are very important in this industry. It’s a dreamland, a fantasy world – you’re seeing something you have never seen before, and that breeds excitement. Fashion needs those kind of visionaries to evolve it into the next phase.”

The shows may no longer be purely a device to present what will be in stores in six months’ time, but a new purpose has emerged: the show has become a hub that serves as an opportunity for all facets of the industry to meet and swap ideas and gather a collective on the season. “Personally I find it extremely valuable when buyers and editors mix – there’s great interaction and learning to be had discussing the mood of the season,” agrees Ruth Chapman, CEO of Matchesfashion.com. “Furthermore, the collections are a great forum for me to watch fashion insiders to see what they’re wearing and how. Several trends start here for us. This global gathering generates theatre and drama, and via street-style photography it engages and inspires our customers, too.”

What if the shows ceased to exist? Could a buyer do the job sitting at home, watching the new season live-streamed? “Of course I could,” O’Shea bats back. “But it would be a pretty unfulfilling job. I think I’d rather be a compulsive gambler or something.” The clothes on the catwalk are only half the story (yes, seeing them is important but that’s rarely enough to spark an idea for an 18-page fashion shoot). The other half is gleaned from an overriding mood, a conversation, nuances and minute details – all things a rolling camera can’t transmit, no matter the zoom-in capabilities.

“Yes, we would miss the shows,” agrees Chapman, before admitting, “although the schedule would certainly be more humane without them.Chapman is actively buying for eight months of the year (which roughly translates to six trips to Milan, six to Paris, and two to New York – more buying trips than there are months in a year), and that doesn’t include fine jewellery, active-wear and lingerie. Add to that the countless meetings with designers and appointments with potential brands, and it’s a gruelling timetable. “It would be valuable for the fashion world to re-evaluate the timing of the shows and work more closely together internationally to create a calendar that works better for all,” she says, adding, “I also feel strongly that not all designers need to show.”

But from a designer’s point of view, it can be their only opportunity of communication, especially those who don’t have other means, such as a string of glossy campaigns. “I don’t advertise and so I feel like I absolutely need the fashion show,” says Erdem, whose shows may be on a smaller scale than the Chanels and Louis Vuittons of this world, but not so small that he hasn’t covered White Cube in black Astroturf or built a temporary geodesic dome in Manchester Square to stage them. “The shows are my only opportunity to convey that season’s message because after that it’s over to the retailers, the merchandisers, the editors and stylists to translate and to tell their own story with the clothes.”

What of the future of the fashion show? “I do think you’ll see catwalk shows become bigger in terms of numbers attending,” says Martin Raymond. “In the front rows you will also have those who have paid for the experience. Wouldn’t we pay to see Galliano’s comeback collection? I think a lot of people would.” Certainly there are no quick definitive answers. The bulging show schedule shows no signs of abating but rising costs and the intense media eye will be forcing brands and designers to be increasingly innovative.

british-vogue-february-2014-coverThis article has been condensed. The full version appears in the February 2014 issue of British Vogue, available on newsstands on Thursday 9 January 2013.