Words by Naledi Sibisi
Fashion Week has fast become a point of debate. Does it serve its purpose? If so, what is that purpose? Historically, fashion week was designed to structure the way in which buyers purchase clothes – to aid designers, brands or fashion houses. That said, the necessary debates around whether it should still exist are warranted.
If we’re talking globally, fashion week made sense a few years ago. The runway afforded buyers and spearheads at publications the opportunity to get the first glimpse of collections while simultaneously giving them the head start of deciding what was trendy before said trends made it to department stores. Although the concept originated in France, New York is the city that is cited for organizing fashion shows on a seasonal basis. ‘Haute Couture’ which literally translates to “high” or “elegant” in addition to “sewing” gave rise to the concept of high fashion – the business of custom designs on the part of the French. The idea of luxury garments birthed an exclusive world where designers who were as exclusive could hold fashion shows for their most esteemed clients. In the early 90s however, Fern Mallis along with the executive director of the Council of Fashion Designers of America attempted to strike a balance between editors and buyers attending runway shows in New York. That said, fashion week is arguably not what it used to be or intended to be. Today, we can question its relevance based on the way people purchase garments, the rise of fast fashion, blogging and influencer culture and finally, the way in which content is circulated and critiqued across social media.
While exclusivity is a big part of Fashion Week’s history, we cannot ignore how social media along with the rise of the fashion and style blogger have democratized fashion. We are no longer living in a time where fashion’s elite and industry insiders are the ones to dictate what we consider trendy. The conversation now extends to platforms such as YouTube, Twitter, Instagram and the likes; and designers have to, in some ways, acknowledge this new wave of fashion experts. Back in 2013, recognizing how online platforms had the ability to reshape how designers showcased their latest collections as well as how consumers received them – Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week (New York) made the decision for all shows to be available for streaming on their website. Today, shows are available for live-streaming on platforms like YouTube or Periscope; another example of the movement away from the exclusive world of fashion. With that, collections are more accessible for viewing to the general public and importantly, open to critique to anyone with an internet connection. This online culture has opened up the fashion industry to outsiders who, in a previous life would not get close to entering the room. Furthermore, the inaccessibility to high-end garments and luxury designers has declined because runway collections are available for viewing on large scales before they are available in stores and public interest declines.
This by-the-minute dynamic that social media has created has further enabled fast fashion and the reinvention of diffusion lines (a subordinate line by a luxury brand or well-known designer targeted at a younger, hopeful consumer sold at more affordable prices). Rony Zeidan — founder of the luxury agency RO NY expands on the idea that Fashion Week as we have come to know it, is dead. “People go crazy when there is change that’s happening. We just have to adapt to the new normal”, he expresses. “Fashion is not what it used to be twenty years ago; retail is not what it used to be twenty years ago. I blame Instagram. There’s a rush in trying to understand what’s going on and reacting to things, versus just waiting it out.” Ultimately, the idea of gaining access to the fashion world online has created a conflict between what buyers want in the moment, versus what they are offered in store. As much as they have come under fire in the past, brands like Zara and H&M have been notorious for recreating runway looks and mass marketing them at lower price points to feed the immediate need of the consumer.
With the prestigious event being affected to this degree at a global level, it would be interesting to investigate the current state of South African Fashion Week. The Johannesburg instalment took place a few weeks ago, with the Cape Town leg commencing over the last week. As a business platform, SA Fashion week positions itself as a marketplace for designer collections to buyers, the media, celebrities and designer clients. Celeste Arendse, designer of SELFI – the Cape Town based ready to wear clothing brand mentions that she uses the platform merely as a brand marketing tool. “It drives great exposure to your brand and opens it up to media partners, corporate partners as well as new customers and followers. I wouldn’t necessarily say buyers as much as brand awareness and engagement on social platforms which over time turns into revenue”. While the core of SS19 - The Luxury Collections was to showcase luxury in African fashion – the discussion quickly turned into an examination on the lack of exposure of the designer’s collections across social media contrasted with the outfits that South African influencers wore to this year’s instalment. “The importance of Fashion Week in South Africa has always been relative”, Noluthando Dlamini, Creative Content Strategist explains. “Fashion Week in SA has never been linear in its purpose of what it is represents and why the platform exists. It was a learning curve as we needed to adapt to the ever-changing climate of fashion in comparison to the rest of world”.
As such, our industry appears to be met with the disconnect of catching up to its global counterparts while at the same time progressing according to consumer interests. Above that, there is the issue of debating at face value without the knowledge of how the system might work. Let us consider front row politics for a second. Generally speaking, top celebrities would be seated in the centre of the front row while bloggers would be placed in the centre of the rows behind them for PR purposes, imagery for blogger’s websites and designer photo ops. Esteemed editor Anna Wintour for example would be placed towards the end of the front row for the sake of having more time to take in the details of the garments as they enter and exit the runway. The media and buyers would be spread out between these first two rows to honour the tradition of garments being showcased for their benefit – giving them first-hand access to designers, brands or fashion houses in order to place designers and retailers in promising positions. As the influencer industry has gradually evolved in South Africa, they are arguably the new celebrities. These are the faces that brands will inevitably turn to for marketing purposes and, not unique to South Africa, these are the faces we will see more of in the front row. The reality is that influencers, along with their following are more valuable to brands for the sake of relevance, traction and engagements. “Globally, the landscape of who attends the shows has dramatically changed. You still have the buyers coming to shows and sitting front row but social media has allowed it to be easier for influencers to become the stars of Fashion Week”, Noluthando Dlamini explains. “They have merely replaced the actresses and music stars who used to draw the headline for attending certain fashion shows. Unfortunately, the SA field lacks balance. Its either or. The two seemingly can no longer co-exist harmoniously. Our influencer’s attendance at Fashion Weeks has substantially shifted the conversation and focus and I blame this partially on the fact that Fashion Week was never established in its right essence in this country”.
It seems that while there are multiple issues and cultural shifts that are shaping the fate of Fashion Weeks across the world, the crux of the matter is that high fashion has had to adjust to the way in which the internet responds to content. Above that, the esteemed event was going to be inevitably doomed by the way in which we purchase clothing today – the traditional system of the way runway shows were once set up no longer fulfils that function. The quickness with which visuals spread online matches the quickness with which consumers want to attain clothing. Trends are coming and going at faster rates and drop culture is furthering this notion. “Sixteen seconds. That’s how long it took for Rimowa’s suitcase collection in collaboration with streetwear brand Supreme to sell out, despite its starting price of $1600 US dollars. Both labels announced the collaboration by simply posting a picture of the product on social media, alongside its release date: a mere three days ahead”, says Marjorie van Elven. This kind of marketing tool has much to do with brands releasing limited-edition product drops without giving consumers too much notice ahead of time. In doing so, they perpetuate the “see now buy now” culture and in a way, restore the essence of exclusivity that fashion houses aimed for during Fashion Week runway shows.
With all these changes, along with the pace at which they seem to occur, we are left to question who Fashion Week is benefiting if not the designers or buyers. While it can still be a helpful platform for lesser-known designers on the basis of coverage or getting their name out into the fashion world, its historical function is slowly starting to feel a little too far gone.