Runway Shows on the Way Out?

As fashion weeks kick off across Europe, the question of the huge cost of runway shows versus actual business wins will be up for debate.


fashion-veronica-grech_web_low-res

February 2015 marked my 10th year covering New York Fashion Week.

If you do the math, that adds up to 20 seasons and 500-plus runway shows and presentations (more, if you count the pre-fall, pre-spring, resort and holiday collections).

I began as a reviewer for Fashion Wire Daily in 2005, and went on to cover the runway for British Vogue, Dossier Journal and The Fashion Informer, among other outlets. I remember how thrilled I was to land the FWD job. They were going to pay me to go to fashion shows? It was like a dream come true. A close friend had just left Women’s Wear Daily and laughed at my enthusiasm, telling me she was thrilled to never have to attend another fashion show. I remember thinking she was crazy and that I would never tire of attending runway shows.

But 10 years on, I know exactly how she felt. The whole idea of Fashion Week now seems kind of outdated, with the runway show feeling like a particularly old-fashioned convention. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed many of the shows I’ve attended and have even experienced some transcendent “fashion moments,” as folks in the industry like to call them (Marc Jacobs’ ’80s-era tribute in fall 2009 and his rewound, finale-first spring 2008 show come to mind, as does Vera Wang’s spring 2010 “Partying with Poiret” show, which was so beautiful it literally moved me to tears).

For the most part, though, runway shows have become increasingly vanilla, cookie-cutter affairs, with a parade of models rushing by on a stark white catwalk with a stark white background designed to look good in photographs. This is especially true in the digital age, when said photographs are transmitted across the Internet almost the second the shutter is snapped. And when you factor in the celebrity hoo-hah, the clothes themselves often seem eclipsed by front-row sightings (Gwyneth! Rihanna! Kimye!).

Back in the pre-Instagram day, the point of a runway show was to preview a designer’s new collection to press and buyers. Shows were intimate events attended by professionals there to do a specific job, be it a fashion critic reviewing the collection or a retailer buying it for their store.

Today, runway shows are a crazy free-for-all attended by anyone and everyone—and broadcast on social media in real time for the millions of people who didn’t score an invite. This anything-goes attitude has become increasingly off-putting to the very people the runway show was originally intended to serve, not to mention private clients (you know, the women who actually spend their hard-earned cash on a designer’s clothes season after season). Because who wants to jostle for a seat next to some C-list blogger or celebutante who expects to wear the clothes for free simply because they had a walk-on in Real Housewives of Des Moines or have 50,000 Twitter followers?

All this is not to say that things were so much better in the good ol’ days. Or that the runway show is going the way of the MP3 anytime soon. But they do seem to have outlived their usefulness if the point is simply to share images of the collection with as many people as possible.

And if the point is to have an immersive live experience for the people who are present in the room, I’ve always found the presentation format to be much more engaging. For the uninitiated, a presentation is a Fashion Week event in which the collection is shown on a dozen or so models in a static format over the course of several hours. Usually it involves the models standing around on a raised platform in front of an elaborate set or plain white seamless backdrop while editors and buyers mill around taking photos, studying the clothes and chatting with each other and the designer. Unlike at a runway show, you can see the looks up close and personal—and even touch them if you like—engage with the models, get creative with your photo ops, have a leisurely chat with the designer and usually have a two-hour window in which to view the collection so you can stop by when it’s convenient. On the whole, fashion presentations feel much more civilized, intimate and modern than the average runway show (average being the operative word).

Not surprisingly, designers themselves are of two minds when it comes to the relevance of the runway.

Dennis Basso, who held his first show at the Regency Hotel in 1983 with 200 people and now shows to almost 1,200 fans at Lincoln Center each season, is adamant that the traditional runway show is not a thing of the past.

“Seeing a collection in person and taking part in the excitement of fashion week is an experience that can’t be captured online,” Mr. Basso told the Observer. “A runway show allows a designer to create a vision and enables the audience to see the collection in its entirety as the designer intended.”

“My clients love to come to the show and enjoy a private showroom visit after they have seen the collection on the runway,” he added. “They enjoy the total experience.”

Designer Cynthia Rowley, on the other hand, believes that lockstep shows have become less interesting than alternative events, and in 2010 she upped the ante by making her limited-edition fall collection available for sale at the Gagosian Shop just hours after debuting it on the runway. More recently, she’s nixed the runway altogether in favor of immersive presentations at a dilapidated hotel on Beekman Street and at the newly refurbished Diamond Horseshoe nightclub.

“I had an epiphany a few years ago,” Ms. Rowley said during a call as she readied her fall 2015 collection. “We’re fashion designers; aren’t we supposed to always be thinking of something new, reinventing the norm and making things fresh? So why do we show our collections in the same antiquated manner every season?”

Like Mr. Basso, she doesn’t think the runway show will disappear entirely (“I appreciate the format and think it’s really exciting that things are happening at that moment. There’s no retouching or do-overs on the runway.”). But, she added, “I think it’s interesting and exciting for me to now think of other ways to show.”

She also said that when it comes to selling a collection, the twice-yearly runway show is not as important as it once was: “A retailer really wants to see the pieces and the photographs and hear the story. I feel like we see buyers, even from Europe and Asia, at the showroom at more frequent intervals now.”

This season, Ms. Rowley opted for a digital show online, to be followed by a Fashion Week party that incorporates elements of the online set in a way that makes guests feel like they’re part of the experience.

“If you’re asking people to come to something it should either be really fun or really entertaining,” she said.

Alongside the fun element remains the question of business. The show format is still the most powerful but many big Milan and Paris names already show in presentations in advance of the main runway collections. The final word on presenting collections goes to Ms. Rowley “There has to be something special about it. I’d rather take a risk and do something different than do the same old thing.”

Amen to that.

Lauren David Peden is editor of The Fashion Informer. @FashionInformer