This year’s fashion week ended up being a larger source of confusion than of great fashion. With changes in technology, consumer behavior, and weather, the fashion industry is in a completely different landscape than it was when fashion week was first introduced.
The Beginnings of Fashion Week
The idea of showing collections of clothing started with Charles Frederick Worth in 1858 in Paris when he became the first noted “fashion designer” as opposed to simply a dressmaker. Women would come to him for his designs instead of ordering their own designs to be created for them. When people started to rely on him for his design aesthetic he started showing collections of clothing modeled by real women (creating the profession of modeling) instead of just putting them on display.
Many other designers followed suit to show their designs to private customers, press, and buyers but the process wasn’t formalized until Eleanor Lambert rose to influence and created the first American “Press Week” in 1943 when fashion press couldn’t travel to Paris due to WWII. Soon after, Ruth Finley launched the first Fashion Calendar, compiling all of the week's events into one comprehensive guide and Lambert created the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) to oversee the process and promote American fashion. Other cities followed suit like Milan in 1975 and London in 1984. Paris had a similar process for their haute couture designers when Le Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture required that a couture house must present a collection each season of at least 35 looks with both daytime and evening wear to the Paris press in 1945.
All in all, fashion week remained solely a trade show for industry press and buyers to preview and order the designs that were presented 4-6 months before the season in which it would be worn. This is why the Fall/Winter shows are presented in February and Spring/Summer in September. This allowed time for press to be on top of the fashion changes and for buyers to choose which looks to order for their stores with plenty of time for manufacturing and shipping. As more designers started entering the scene, however, they started competing for influencer/press attendance and thus the shows got more and more extravagant.
The Tech Revolution
This was all well and good until the explosion of the internet technologies we know and love today. With video streaming and watching our favorite celebrities and fashion influencers on Instagram/Snapchat, the average consumer has unprecedented access to the cutting edge of fashion and it has started to cause a lot of confusion:
- Seeing the newest styles the moment they’re presented has consumers clamoring for the products immediately. Unfortunately these styles are being shown six months before they’re available for purchase. With the increasing pace that fashion consumers are picking up and moving on from trends, it’s almost infeasible to think a customer can see a garment one day and still be interested in it six months later. Brands are basically doing their biggest marketing push months before the product is available!
- Due to the lack of intellectual property laws in the fashion industry, showing a new concept six months before a designer can profit off it leaves a lot of time for the agile fast fashion retailers (Zara, H&M, etc) to quickly copy the look before the original designer makes a single dollar for the idea.
- With more unpredictable weather patterns, some designers’ ideas for a season can be completely inappropriate by the time the clothes hit the shelves. For example, a designer’s Fall/Winter collection may be heavily focused on luxe coats when that winter will become the warmest one in history.
The Future of Fashion Week
Not surprisingly, these factors (and many more) have contributed to decreasing sales and increasing confusion in the fashion industry. The CFDA conducted a study to look into possible changes to fashion week to make American fashion designers more successful. The primary takeaway of the study was that brands should show the collections during the actual season of production (Spring/Summer in February and Fall/Winter in September) with small previews for press and buyers prior to the extravagant shows. A few brands took this approach last fashion week including Rebecca Minkoff, Tom Ford, and Burberry. There are some drawbacks to this approach however:
- There is a fear that these “see now, buy now” collections will become overly commercialized and will restrict designers from exploring more creative designs in favor of clothing that will sell easily.
- Brands need to rethink their press strategies in order to do an adequate preview but still maintain some of the mystery and drama for the actual show.
- It’s difficult to get all brands to agree to this approach. We saw in this last fashion week that a few brands took to the “see now, buy now” mentality while others were showing the complete opposite season -- an even more confusing event for fashion enthusiasts.
The time is ripe for change in the fashion industry but no one can seem to agree on an approach. While some American and British designers are leaning towards this new system, French designers are ardently traditional. Fashion Month is bound to get even more confusing before it gets any better with half the shows presenting winter coats and half showing summer dresses. However, there is a lot of opportunity here to show a unique approach that combines the unbridled creativity we love of fashion week with the on-time commercialization that the industry needs to survive.