COPENHAGEN — When Copenhagen Fashion Week’s chief executive officer Cecilie Thorsmark laid out an ambitious three-year sustainability plan in January and spoke about reevaluating the purpose of fashion weeks, she didn’t quite estimate the weight her words would hold a few months later, when the outbreak of COVID-19 would force the industry to pause and face its issues head on.
Since then, conversations around fashion’s relentless pace, the future of fashion weeks and the urgent need to reverse the environmental damage caused by the industry, have reached a new crescendo, highlighting the relevance of Thorsmark’s approach of putting sustainability to the forefront and holding brands accountable.
Now, she has just finished hosting the first hybrid fashion week that melded physical and digital presentation formats. It included conversations aplenty around sustainability, creativity and what the industry should look like in the “new normal”; a vibrant street-style scene; as well as a spirit of experimentation among Scandinavian designers, who were all ready to embrace change and test new show formats and ways of doing business.
From her part, Thorsmark was determined to come up with a solution that would support the colorful Copenhagen fashion scene and inject some refreshed, much-needed energy into the industry.
Even if expectations were low and only very few international guests could travel to the event, she found the solution in the form of a more laid-back “no rules” zone where designers could experiment with whatever format they wanted. The added time was filled in with conversation, which took place on the platform’s new digital hub and facilitated everything from lighthearted designer Q&As to important panel talks on issues like racism by both local personalities and international industry figures who joined digitally.
Here, Thorsmark tells WWD how she thinks this first hybrid attempt went and how she sees fashion weeks being reimagined for the future.
WWD: Why did you decide to go ahead with hosting this fashion week to begin with, despite the uncertainty that was looming while you were organizing it?
Cecilie Thorsmark: In April and May, we set out to really try and understand the complexity of the situation both from an industry perspective but also from a health perspective. We quite quickly decided that canceling would not be an option. We wanted to come up with a solution to help the industry to keep the wheels spinning. It was important to keep the momentum of our fashion week and provide a platform for our brands to do sales, to do p.r., even if everything would be on a smaller scale.
I had brands on the phone telling me that they were waking up to new order cancellations every morning and wanted to make sure that Copenhagen Fashion Week still takes place because they needed it to signal that we’re still here and we’re still going. We needed to facilitate a gathering place where retailers, the ones that had to cancel their orders, could engage and and maybe find some renewed faith.
WWD: There was a lot of flexibility this season, with designers hosting everything from traditional runway shows to installations, films and rooftop parties with no clothes on show. Is this the way forward for fashion week?
C.T.: It was really important to really have a “no rules” approach to the season. We did that in order to be able to offer the brands that have traditionally been a part of fashion week the chance to still participate. We didn’t want to make it too difficult for the brands to be a part of our fashion week, and that’s why we did the “no rules.” However, I think that we could have some more guidelines to streamline things in the future.
WWD: Did you feel that the new hybrid format worked?
C.T.: The season proved that physical is still here and digital cannot just replace experiencing collections physically, whether at trade fairs or shows. So, there’s a magic vibe around the physical part of fashion week and all of us who attended in person this season felt that physical is not going to go away. But the digital platform proved that there’s so much potential in engaging brands, editors and consumers on a whole new level, by also adding discussions, conversations and making sure that even the people who can’t be here in person can actually be a part of fashion week. We had Fanny Moizant, the cofounder of Vestiaire Collective from Hong Kong, and we had Kate Fletcher from London and the talent acquisition manager of Bottega Veneta [participating in talks].
I don’t see us ever going 100 percent physical or 100 percent digital, dependent on the guidelines of the authorities.
WWD: What has been the first response to the new digital hub that facilitated the digital presentation of brands’ films, designer Q&As and live talks?
C.T.: It’s actually just been eight weeks developing it and we could only hope that it was going to work. The aim was to meet the needs of the industry, whether you are a journalist needing to access material, a designer that needs to feel that this is a universe that suits your brand or also a consumer with an interest to follow along and needing a simple and easy-to-navigate site.
We couldn’t know if it was going to meet our expectations but I’m super satisfied. The first numbers I saw actually pleasantly surprised me: There was an average spend of four minutes on the web site, so I think that shows that we were showing some relevant content obviously.
WWD: Was the new talk series an important addition to the platform? And should conversations around industry issues become a more established part of fashion week?
C.T.: Knowing that the fashion shows were going to be smaller or that some brand didn’t feel the need to do a show, we wanted to add a lot more conversation to the schedule, but also other artistic or even activist materials and spotlight new creative talent. That was the intention and we will continue in that direction. We should be able to use this powerful platform we have as a fashion week, to engage in critical discussions, address crucial topics in the industry and get people to listen to each other and have conversations that are more meaningful and on a different level. I couldn’t picture going back to just a fashion week.
A fashion week should obviously still include presentations, shows or other formats presenting the craftsmanship or the creative universe of the designers. I’m obviously in this position because I love the fashion industry, so I’m not saying, we don’t need more fashion in our fashion industry or more fashion in our fashion week and that now we just have to talk. We’re not going to turn into a conference or a discussion forum, but it’s important to recognize that we do attract awareness and the interest of the general public because of the history of fashion shows. So, we can use that voice to simultaneous address the more important issues.
WWD: You had a series of anti-racist talks that sparked a lot of conversation afterward. With fashion week taking place after the police killing of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter protests, how did you feel the industry’s diversity issue was tackled this season as a whole?
C.T.: What actually pleasantly surprised me this season, was that it wasn’t just on the runway that we saw diversity, but we saw more diversity in the streets and amongst the audience and backstage. The feeling is that some people have not been comfortable to attend fashion week and be part of an audience or somehow be engaged. But they were comfortable this time. There’s a growing confidence amongst people from minorities and it’s not just coming from the runway castings.
I think that the way the three anti-racist talks that we had underlined that there was a focus on the issue this time and that has drawn people who would not normally be comfortable to attending fashion week.
WWD: In January, you unveiled an ambitious sustainability plan for Copenhagen Fashion Week and a set of sustainability requirements brands will have to fulfill by 2023 in order to participate in the event. Do you find that this is still a realistic goal, despite the hits brands had to take as a result of the COVID-19 crisis?
C.T.: We’re still on track with our three-year plan, including the development of the 2023 sustainability requirements. The way we have designed the requirements system is to also serve as an educational guideline to the brands. It’s not just “Here are some rules and if you don’t agree with them, then you’re not a part of our fashion week.” We’re guiding the brands and they can see from now exactly which action points they need to be focusing on. There are minimum standards within each area of the value chain you need to comply with, otherwise you won’t be able to be a part of fashion week for sure, but then there are additional points that you can worked on to gain more points.
WWD: What’s your take on the vibrant street style scene at Copenhagen Fashion Week?
C.T.: It generates attention and p.r. and potentially sales. But I have a love-hate relationship with street style. On one hand it signals creative souls and it’s a celebration of fashion, so we’re fortunate that our fashion week attracts street-style stars and street-style photographers. But it also sometimes signals that everything has to be new, which is maybe not as sustainable. This is not a critique of the individuals, because I’m sure they’re having important discussions at home.
The aim is for the sustainability action plan to inspire other agents within the fashion ecosystem [like the street-style personalities] and also other fashion weeks.
WWD: What’s a message you’d like to send to other fashion weeks, which are currently in flux, from Copenhagen?
C.T.: What I’m hoping to signal is that it’s possible to have both creative brands and creative shows, while at the same time delving into the more critical discussions and conversations in our industry. One is not a threat to the other, they can coexist and be used meaningfully together.
WWD: What’s the bigger vision for Copenhagen Fashion Week?
C.T.: I really think it’s about creating a platform that can drive change. Going forward, I would love to be the fashion week that can do both: It can attracts brands that are best in class in terms of sustainability, without compromising on the fashion. We want to keep engaging the group of brands, which are part of our fashion week right now, and potentially attract more and bigger fashion brands, which can maintain that level of high fashion and at the same time foster sustainable change. Because otherwise in 2023, if as a brand you’re not complying with our 17 minimum standards, then you won’t be a part of our fashion week — with all the respect to brands. We won’t become sustainability week, it will always be a fashion week and it’s fashion first, but it must be the fashion that is best in class and also puts sustainability on the forefront. That’s the future.