Tom Ford’s spring '16 video

There’s a great deal of conversation this week in Paris, and it’s not about the clothes.

It feels as if fashion is on one giant collision course with itself and everyone’s talking about it, designers included. While no one wants to turn back the clock (not possible, and reactionary doesn’t fly in fashion), many wonder — out loud — how to evolve (or perhaps revolutionize) the system in a way that makes sense.

This story first appeared in the October 7, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

In the days leading up to his Lanvin collection, Alber Elbaz mulled fashion’s muddled show system. “The more I talk with people, I see everybody looking for a change, everybody,” he said. “It’s almost like a confusion, about what we are, and who we are in fashion.”

He’s not alone. After a decade-plus of schedule-packing and the frenetic quest to capitalize on the ever-burgeoning fascination the public has with fashion — a global public now accessible in real-time via new technologies — many in the industry, at least those who come from the traditional-show perspective, wonder whether there’s a viable alternative to the current madness. The fashion-show train is overheated so intensely, it feels ready to explode.

“I’m questioning a lot,” Raf Simons said just before his Dior show. “I feel a lot of people are questioning. We have a lot of conversation about it: Where is it going? It’s not only the clothes. It’s the clothes, it’s everything, the Internet.”

Fashion requires nothing of its denizens so much as steadfast adherence to currency, and both designers stressed that they don’t fancy the impossible, squeezing the proverbial fashion toothpaste back into the tube. “I’m questioning. I’m not criticizing, I’m only reflecting,” Elbaz said. And from Simons: “I’m very aware of the world I’m in.”

The show system has changed astronomically over the past several years: more and more shows. Longer and longer days. Celebrities. Live-streams. Instagram. Tweets. Vines. An external show to rival the inside show, with attendees dressing to be photographed, again and again and again. (Yes, cyberspace is infinite; still, where do all those photos go?)

That scene now reeks of self-satire; outside one Spring Studios stop in New York, a photographer asked a pretty girl in a full-skirted white dress to leap and twirl. She did, as if she were in Richard Avedon’s studio in 1978. In front of people, not at all self-conscious. Increasingly, the inside show is conceived and planned for dual reach: to hold the interest of the small in-person audience, but also to resonate powerfully with the vast, opinionated, clothes-buying (at least in part), device-wielding audience around the world.

But just as the shows have changed, in a way, they’ve stayed the same: a pack of working people in fashion-related jobs (new-media types included) still spend a full month on a three- or four-city caravan of going to shows and, in between, doing whatever the related tasks of one’s particular job might be — retailer, traditional press, blogger, street-style star, other influencer. The show behemoth started on its wanton path to mayhem as the ranks of designers presenting became too great to fit reasonably within the days allotted. In a given hour on many of New York’s 13-hour days (that’s 13 hours of actual show time; there’s work being done before and after), three or four shows might run concurrently. The situation grew ever crazier as technology exploded, and the vast global show audience muscled in. This explosion has happened over time. Yet for years, conversation about what might be done to better the system was often brief, halted by variations of that most defeatist (and irritating) of lines: “It is what it is.” Had Helmut Lang been so inert, New Yorkers would still be showing on Halloween.

Finally, today, many in the industry are acknowledging what the current system isn’t: one that makes sense and functions at anything resembling maximum efficiency and impact. Not that efficiency has ever been a primary goal. But the inefficiency of yore was one of intimacy that functioned for the relatively small group of people involved. We went, we waited, we whined, but when John Galliano or Marc Jacobs rocked our cloistered little insider-only world after an interminable delay, we went away transfixed.

Today, live-streaming allows for no such indulgence. Nor does the calendar. Now, it’s considered an affront — and justly so — when one designer cuts too severely into another’s time slot; given the intensity of the schedules, there’s no way to make up the time. Such courtesies aside, the show system tries to serve two constituencies (at least), and they’re both not best approached in the same way. This season has seen experimentation from Riccardo Tisci at Givenchy and the Rag & Bone guys, whose shows had a consumer-audience element. Certainly, the moment seems right to broaden the discussion of whether the shows should be open more generally to the public. Fashion has become a major source of entertainment, and shows would be incredibly hot tickets. Yet widespread participation would be difficult; Givenchy’s extravaganza wasn’t done on the cheap.

Still, shifting the shows to a consumer live-audience model wouldn’t solve the question of how to address the original trade purpose of fashion shows — including the elephant-in-the-room mat- ter of just how important that purpose remains to the houses staging shows. Do they still find the traditional audience essential, or are they merely being polite? Nor would it address the fact that live entertainment is generally produced very differently than that intended for screen viewing.

Tom Ford perfectly summed up that point in the letter he sent out with his spring video, produced in lieu of a traditional fashion show. “Having a runway show has become so much about the creation of imagery for online and social media and watching a filmed fashion show can be like watching a filmed play (which is never very satisfying),” he wrote. “I wanted to think about how to present a collection in a cinematic way that was designed from its inception to be presented online.”

Ford had another reason to think out of the box; he’s directing his second feature film and had no time for a fashion show. Yet this isn’t the first time he’s channeled his inner Helmut and gone rogue in search of a better way.

In 2010, when social media still felt new and to some degree controllable (we live, we learn), Ford staged an intimate show at which no outside photography was allowed. His 100 or so guests felt pampered and special. Yet when he tried to maintain tight control of all coverage in subsequent seasons, he had his guts ripped out on multiple fronts. But skin doesn’t come any thicker. Ford grew new guts and tried new approaches, first small shows in London; last season, an extravaganza in Los Angeles tied in with Oscar frenzy, and this season, the video. Starring Lady Gaga and a host of models doing something that models on runway duty aren’t supposed to do — have fun — it’s feisty, loaded with personality, and makes for more engaging screen viewing than a traditional parade of poker-faced (pun not intended) girls. Though the numbers aren’t in yet, it will surely rack up infinite views.

Are slick videos the way to go? Maybe, maybe not. Others have tried it, but not on Ford’s scale. He’s got the name, the resources and access to get noticed. And for those who love fashion and have been lucky enough to experience one or more of those rare, magical runway moments that transfix and remain a memory forever, that would be sad.

But we can boo-hoo all we want. Times change and institutions — even those fashion institutions we love most — require the occasional Darwinian overhaul.

At Chanel on Tuesday morning, Alex Gonzalez, creative director of Elle, talked about fashion today. A longtime show veteran, this is his first season of full, monthlong coverage in some time, so he spoke with some perspective, he offered a simple assessment. “It’s starting not to make sense to me,” he said.

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