Fashion Weak: it’s the codephrase sometimes bandied about by editors and buyers weary of New York’s biannual fashion exhibition. “Weak” could refer to ones’ personal stamina, the offerings on hand, or any number of the slights great and small endured by attendees over the course of the month’s long seasonal showcase. Not to suggest that attending runway shows is like marching off to Aleppo or something, but what is largely considered a privilege by the general public can instead feel like a chore at certain points during the grueling calendar, despite the facts that we (the oft-glorified “fashion industry”) signed up for it, and are (mostly) getting paid to be there. However, there are parts of fashion week – shows, venues, music, individual garments or performances – that are uplifting. They can even be transcendent. As an editor and a critic for many years, these were the moments that I hoped for; that I went to every show big and small, new and old, in search of. They were special, they were rare, and when they happened, they shifted our industry.
But now, for reasons outside of anyone’s control, Fashion Week is at its biggest, yet weakest point in decades. A confluence of factors, many of them having nothing directly to do with fashion, have greatly affected our business. First and foremost, there’s the technology: social media has turned fashion week from industry function into a cultural phenomenon all its own, so much so that documenting one’s access and status at a show has become more important than the clothes on the runway. This does allow for the sharing of mood and details – those little revelations I mentioned that are so hard to translate – but it also detracts from actually being there.
More than that, social media promotes two things of the very things that the fashion industry is finally realizing jeopardizes its business. The first is “fashion fatigue,” a condition caused by overexposure to a new season’s collection for basically six months between its runway debut and the clothes hitting shop floors. By then, the fashion savvy customer these items are aimed is insufferably bored: their news feed has been clogged with photos of the collection since the show, and simply put, the fashion is no longer cool. Many brands (Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger, etc.) are tackling this problem by doing runway shows that are of current merchandise, available for sale directly following the presentation. However, this “See Now Buy Now” model brings its own distinct challenges, especially concerning inventory. If you produce the whole show before getting any reaction, the chance of lemons (and therefore, financial losses on top of environmental waste) is that much greater. This results in safer collections and more homogeny. Still, those showing next seasons’ collections should pay attention: not only does SNBN confuse the seasonality of what fashion week represents, but could eventually anger customers anticipating the instant gratification of this practice.
The second externality is a shift in how the events themselves are conducted: thanks to social media, designers and houses are reshaping their fashion week offerings to provide “social media moments.” If the new line is an afterthought in the proceedings, then it doesn’t really need to be happening during fashion week, does it? Yes, we all love parties, spectacles, and performances, but that’s after we see the clothes, not instead of seeing them. Just look at the far flung Resort shows the big houses are organizing: spending eight figures to host lavish shows in Cuba (Chanel) or on the Great Wall of China (Fendi) seems like a waste, but if the only metric that matters is Instagram views, it can’t be beat.
Photo: Chanel Resort 2017 Fashion Show in Havana, Cuba
Then, there’s a global disruption of an even bigger kind: both inside and outside of the fashion industry, our seasons are fundamentally changing. I mean, what are seasons anymore, really? It’s not like our Anthropocene era weather behaves as it ought to. It’s never reliably hot or cold at the appropriate times on the East Coast, and no one can remember the last time it rained on the West. This should be the biggest concern of humanity in general, but let’s narrow back down to what the fashion industry means by seasons.
In the age of social media, the traditional “show now, buy later” fashion cycle is rapidly making the spring and fall runway shows irrelevant to end consumers, who demand more – and instant – access. Even though fashion shows were not originally meant for the public, they have become a foundational part of brand marketing. Internet fashion pioneer Style.com [disclosure: I was the fashion editor of men.style.com and reviewed some of the men’s shows] brought runway images of these biannual shows to a large public for the first time, but even then, the dominance of pre-collections was beginning.
Now, in 2016, something like 75% of wholesale orders for many collections comes from the pre-collection and not runway. Adding in the resort and holiday deliveries, most major fashion houses produce at minimum about 6 full collections a year. That level of output places borderline unsustainable demand on the creatives within each house, as has been well documented in the press and demonstrated in the musical chairs of top design talent around the world.
Despite the biannual spectacle of fashion week, the 4 city parade 4 times a year (for men’s and women’s), and hundreds of millions of pictures “liked”, the fashion community is wringing its hands. The big emerging markets, particularly China, have cooled, and the continuing glut of product in American stores – still the biggest luxury market – has further convinced consumers that 40% off is the only time to start buying. With 6 collections split into 12 deliveries, even perennial bestsellers must frequently go on sale to make room for the next collection. However, a reliance on discounting has made the whole process less tenable for all involved. As a result, the big American brands (Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, etc.) are seeing their market share and profitability falter, and the European mega houses (LVMH, Kering) are rather flat.
Online sales are part of it, too many outlets is part of it, worldwide political and economic instability is part of it, and the climate in general is part of it, but the single biggest factor behind this weakening is demographics. Millennials know when they are being marketed to, and they don’t mind, as long as they are in on the conversation rather than being talked down to by advertisers. Fashion shows are top down marketing in the fullest: they’re a dictation of style in a time when younger consumers are obsessed with the idea of individuality and “personal brand.”
Direct brands, such as Greats, Warby Parker and Reformation are sidestepping the whole thing, catering to young peoples’ sense of individuality by giving them well considered, well priced items that fit into their lifestyle as opposed to trying to dictate it. Then there’s Supreme, and now Kith, who keep product tightly under wraps until days before store drops. Because of youth identity, the appeal of scarcity, and many other factors, long lines are there to greet every new release. Large fashion shows using See Now Buy Now are trying to re-create this excitement, but most of the brands embracing this are the ones with the flagging demand to begin with. And still, none of this takes into account the jobs of the professionals are meant to interpret the runway for customers. Our role has always been to tell stories and put trends in perspective, but the social media landscape has less and less interest in actual context, replacing thoughtful analysis with visually-driven instant gratification. If judgment (and sales figures) are established in real time, where do the stylists, the editors and the buyers fit in? Talk about feeling weak.