Fashion designers have never had more freedom when deciding how to format their collection presentations.
The traditional fashion week format — a runway show at a main fashion week venue — is still the most common. Designers who hold a runway presentation at a sponsored venue, like the Skylight Clarkson Square, are often doing so out of necessity. These venues front the cost of set builds, lighting, production and backstage management, and for brands with tighter budgets, it’s the best way to avoid shelling out thousands of dollars. A typical fashion show is an investment of $10,000 and up for a brand.
“We’re venue agnostic,” said Mark Beckham, the business director of fashion weeks for the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which owns the official fashion calendar. “Designers have to figure out what’s in their budget, the look and feel of a show, and how to tailor it.”
When designers today decide how to present their newest collection to a mixed audience of buyers, press and customers, there’s more to consider than ever before. Ken Downing, Neiman Marcus’s fashion director, ticked off a list of questions and concerns: Who is buying this, and when will they wear it? What will this look like on social media? How do I get the most out of an expensive show? What’s the moment I want to create and the message I want to send?
According to Downing, when not forced by budget, the shape of this season’s shows were influenced by three forces: in-season collections, the lens of social media and the political climate.
The done-up runway show
Brands with the means to do so are moving on to more personalized productions in alternate locations. That doesn’t mean the runway itself is dead, but its look and feel is changing.
“The runway show is alive and kicking,” said Hillary Kerr, co-founder of Clique Media Group, which owns fashion site Who What Wear. “But there was a level of innovation around the runway that we haven’t seen before, and a level of disruption that was unique and new to this season.”
This season, Marc Jacobs put on a stripped-down version of the runway to a single row of editors sitting in folding chairs. No phones were allowed, and models walked the catwalk without music or lighting cues. Following the runway, guests exited to an outdoor presentation, where models took photos of the audience on smartphones. Christian Siriano held a “People are People”–themed show, with a cast of size- and age-diverse models. Alexander Wang combined his collection presentation and his after-party into one affair, throwing a catwalk-kegger at the Hamilton Theater.
“Designers now come from a personalized place, which speaks to what goes on on social media,” she said. “Brands are taking this time to figure out what makes the most sense for them and what makes them stand out. In the past, you didn’t do anything off-script. That’s over.”
Ralph Lauren covered the walls of his Madison Avenue headquarters with live orchids and exotic ferns, and held two back-to-back shows: one for the press and buyers, and one for the public. The public show was live-streamed, and the clothes featured went on sale the next day.
“There was a lot of transition this season,” said Downing. “But [Ralph] was the most realistic and relevant approach to where fashion is headed, as customers become more engaged with fashion in real time. It was modern.”
Other designers building on their see-now-buy-now strategies included Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger and Alexander Wang, but to Downing, those holding out are just buying time. Today’s designers have the ability to build more excitement and brand affinity around a single runway show, thanks to live streams and social media, as well as the power of a strong statement around inclusivity. (This season was the most diverse he can remember.) However, unless the designer is including a “shoppable moment,” it’s a waste.
“Everyone’s looking for their ability to capture the audience through innovation,” he said. “But ultimately, every designer needs to embrace the buy-now-wear-now, see-it-get-it mentality. The theater of the runway and the social media spectacle isn’t going to drive sales six months from now. And small and large brands are using the runway as a platform to make a statement of inclusivity and empowerment. A customer on a department store floor in September isn’t going to feel that.”
Smaller brands stand out
IMG, the entertainment agency that puts on shows at tentpole venues like Skylight Clarkson Square, is helping brands differentiate within the same show locations.
“Five years ago, everyone was doing the same thing. Now, everyone is doing something different and personalized that works for them,” said Catherine Bennett, IMG’s head of fashion events. “We try to give designers as many tools and options to do whatever they want to do to customize within our infrastructure.”
Bennett said that can take the shape of a set build or lasting digital content, which IMG also produces for shows in their venues. While designers have more decisions to make than ever before, Bennett said the energy of change has inspired collaboration between designers, who compare notes about new strategies and their outcome.
“There’s a new excitement to it that I find exhilarating,” she said. “People have complained for so long that the system is flawed, but no one ever did anything. Now, people are embracing change in a way they haven’t before.”