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Runway revolution: what is the future of fashion week?

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This season’s catwalk circuit starts this week in New York. But debate is raging about the purpose of fashion weeks, how they are run and the role they play

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Sayya spring 19 at Tbilisi Fashion Week

For fashion industry insiders, a slight chill in the September air signals only one thing: fashion month has arrived. With it, four weeks of glamorous fashion shows, buying appointments and intense networking in New York, London, Milan and Paris.

However, times are changing. This summer, the Swedish Fashion Council cancelled Stockholm Fashion Week’s spring 20 edition – it intends to launch a more sustainable alternative. New York Fashion Week (NYFW) condensed seven days to five. London Fashion Week is adopting an increasingly consumer focus, and is hosting ticketed public-facing fashion shows for the first time this September. Meanwhile, smaller fashion weeks in cities such as Copenhagen, Seoul, Tbilisi, Lagos and Sydney are gaining traction.

Buyers still value fashion weeks for the chance to spot trends and network across the industry, and they still represent a unique way of getting your brand seen. But the events are more open to the public than ever, and concerns about cost and sustainability have led some to label the format as outdated. This combination of factors is leading fashion week bosses to seek new approaches.  

“This is where we actually do our jobs”

With their roots in the global buying schedules of international retailers, fashion weeks remain of immense importance for buyers across the globe, whether they attend individual shows or not.

Stavros Karelis, buying director of London store Machine-A, says his team regularly attends London Fashion Week and Paris, as well as making occasional trips to fashion weeks in Hong Kong and Seoul: “For buyers and press, this is where we actually do our jobs. When we go to the shows, we see more of the world that the designer wants to present. The most important part of fashion week for us is visiting the showrooms after the shows and seeing the collections close up.”

Fashion weeks and shows also help buyers to gauge trends and themes for the season ahead, informing their buying decisions as well as offering a valuable networking opportunity.

“I find it easier to spot trends during fashion week,” says Felicity Brand, former Harvey Nichols buyer and head of buying and merchandising for Australian retailer Mode Sportif. “In between shows and appointments, I can think about which ones I feel strongly about and anticipate which ones our customers will love. Fashion week is also a great opportunity to socialise within the industry in general, which can often lead to exciting new collaborations.”

This visibility has been an invaluable marketing tool and has raised our profile tremendously

Sylvie Millstein, Hellessy

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Hellessy autumn 19 at New York Fashion Week

Nonetheless, the focus of fashion weeks has shifted away from buyers and towards the consumer. Social media makes fashion shows instantly accessible to watchers all over the world. The marketing value and awareness that they bring brands is an increasingly central motivation for showing.

“Fashion Week was traditionally for the industry, but social media has opened it up to the consumer for us,” says Sylvie Millstein, founder of womenswear brand Hellessy, which shows in New York. “We consider, more than ever, how the venue, images and content will live on social and digital.

“This visibility has been an invaluable marketing tool and has raised our profile tremendously. These photos living on editorial and social allow our supporters to identify with the clothes, which we’ve seen has a direct correlation to an uptick in sales.”


“Fashion weeks have changed”

This digital dimension has driven some traditional fashion weeks to dramatically change their formats. In July, the British Fashion Council (BFC) announced that the upcoming autumn 20 LFW would “open its doors to the public” for the first time.

A consumer-focused event will run alongside the traditional fashion week schedule. While buyers and press attend the traditional spring 20 show schedule, members of the public will be able to buy tickets to attend six catwalk shows: three each from womenswear brands House of Holland and Self-Portrait, showing their autumn 19 collections. 

Paying visitors will also be able to attend industry panels and a new Designer Exhibition that shows work from designers who are leading the way in creativity and sustainability.

I still believe fashion weeks are a very valid trade platform

Caroline Rush, BFC

Caroline Rush, CEO of the BFC, explains: “Fashion weeks have changed from being a trade event to being something that – while it retains a focus on business – is very much about entertainment. It has huge power on Instagram and garners an enormous amount of consumer interest. Being able to respond to that and enable brands to engage directly with that consumer audience is a great opportunity for consumers and businesses.”

She adds: “I still believe fashion weeks are a very valid trade platform. But because of digital and because of the amount of content that is created around fashion week, there is an opportunity to adapt to that and build a second layer that gives a consumer access. Ultimately, all the businesses showing at fashion week are selling to a customer. Helping them develop those audiences is a great opportunity.”

However, not everyone is convinced. Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at trend intelligence agency Stylus feels that democratising fashion week could negatively impact on the luxury industry.

“Opening fashion weeks up to the general public does little to increase allure,” she says. “Luxury brands needs to return to traditional modes of exclusivity to maintain relevance rather than by increasing accessibility. Fashion weeks need to reclaim some of that insider-only access and intrigue to keep fashion’s ’halo’ status.”

“It is expensive to present your brand”

Another criticism levelled at fashion weeks, particularly from new brands, is the cost of producing shows. Karelis describes the costs as “astronomical”. He advises young brands to invest instead in a strong lookbook that can gain traction on social media in the early days.

“My personal perspective is that the young generation should be holding back and waiting to do fashion week,” he says. “They should have a strongly selling collection before they host a show, then they can better capitalise on the coverage from the shows. The big brands treat it as a marketing initiative, and it’s absolutely worth it for them.”

Daisy Hoppen, founder of PR agency DHPR, which works with brands including Shrimps and Ganni agrees: “Fashion week can absolutely give brands an amazing international platform to showcase their new collections to buyers and press in a way that reflects their universe. Ultimately, it’s about brand visibility, but I don’t think it’s critical for all young designers to show. It is expensive to present your brand so it’s important to understand what return on investment you will get.”

Even with the rise of consumer-facing formats, traditional powerhouse fashion weeks no longer hold the overwhelming dominance they once did. When New York Fashion Week organiser CFDA announced a condensed schedule for September’s autumn 20 shows, it noted the change came in response to buyer demands for a “tighter, strengthened” event – reflecting the time pressures and demand for newness coming from the international fashion markets.

For Hellessy’s Millstein, the change was positive: “We see and appreciate the mindset behind it. It’s in the interest of all of the industry to curate the week and attract as much international attendance and visibility as possible.” [to here]

“Fashion week should be using its voice, power and influence”

As the giants battle to innovate with their formats and costs deter some from showing, other smaller fashion week players are gaining prominence. These shows provide a fresh take on the format, catering to the demands of the modern fashion market and allowing new brands a chance to shine.

“Having attended the traditional fashion week circuit for many years, I’ve felt more of a sense of excitement in recent years attending international the more up-and-coming international fashion weeks such as Seoul, Copenhagen and Sydney,” says Mode Sportif’s Brand. “I’ve felt more of a thrill discovering new smaller brands that I wouldn’t necessarily have time to get to during a regular fashion week schedule.”

Copenhagen Fashion Week in particular has grown rapidly, and of-the-moment brands such as Ganni, By Malene Birger, Stine Goya and Wood Wood headline the event.

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Brøgger spring 20 at Copenhagen Fashion Week

“Copenhagen is not as condensed and it’s not as saturated [as other fashion weeks] and it feels like there is more breathing space,” explains Julie Brøgger, founder of luxury womenswear brand Brøgger, which shows in the city. “In a city such as London, it is much more difficult to stand out with a small budget. Copenhagen brings in a lot of international buyers, so it gives us the opportunity to show the brand how we want it to be perceived. We’ve got some great accounts after the show [in the past].”

Cecilie Thorsmark, CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week, stresses that in addition to its strong, young brand mix, the event has been working hard to increase its sustainable credentials and, through that, to drive change in the wider fashion industry.

“Fashion week should be using its voice, power and influence to talk about other things than trends, and dare to address important and urgent topics like climate change and resource scarcity,” she says. “They should urge – or require – the industry to speed up their sustainable transition.”

Thorsmark explains that Copenhagen Fashion Week has developed a new sustainability strategy, based around the UN Sustainable Development Goals: “Our effort is well under way, but it sure doesn’t happen overnight. Initial steps have included banning single-use plastic bottles at all events, partnering with sustainable suppliers for food and transport, and making activities and projects climate-positive.

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Stine Goya spring 20 at Copenhagen Fashion Week

Sustainability concerns were also a core reason for the demise of Stockholm Fashion Week.

At the time, Jennie Rosén, CEO of the Swedish Fashion Council, said: “By doing this we can adapt to new demands, reach sustainability goals and be able to set new standards for fashion.” 

She tells Drapers the current approach to fashion weeks “outdated”, because of its lack of action on modern industry issues.

“The ongoing paradigm shift, driven by digitalisation and sustainability, creates enormous challenges for the fashion industry that require urgent attention,” she tells Drapers. “To truly help the industry, we need to explore new opportunities where sustainability becomes the result of creativity and design.”

With their role in setting trends and raising brand awareness coupled with their potential to drive change within the fashion industry, fashion weeks should certainly retain their relevance in the modern fashion world. However, the format is on the move, and questions around sustainability and cost as well as the rise of younger fashion weeks mean that their relevance is changing – and those involved must make bold decisions to ensure they remain valuable to the industry in the future.

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