By Miles Socha
with contributions from Joelle Diderich
 on June 8, 2020
Comme des Garons RTW Fall 2012

As much as fashion people love to grumble about runway shows and interminable fashion weeks, there is a strong case to be made for the format — and the high-profile stages Paris and Milan offer in particular.

Listen to Rei Kawakubo, the maverick Japanese designer behind Comme des Garçons, whose runway shows — invariably daring, thought-provoking and often poignant — are typically a highlight of Paris Fashion Week.

“I believe there is no better way to express my creation than by having real people wearing the clothes with other people watching close by,” she told WWD. “And sometimes it may be necessary to use other ingredients — like the space, the lighting, the music, the hair, etc. — to further explain what I want to say.”

Comme des Garcons RTW Fall 2015

Comme des Garçons RTW Fall 2015  GIOVANNI GIANNONI

Executives at many top European fashion brands agree wholeheartedly, characterizing runway shows as a crucial moment for designers, an essential deadline and competitive arena, and a key moment of creative expression that trickles down through entire companies, energizing them.

While acknowledging the need for some adaptation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — physical fashion weeks have been scuttled this summer, and the September shows look iffy — they articulated the benefits of runway shows and organized fashion weeks with vigor and urgency.

“The physical show is like an opera, or a concert. Sure, you can watch an opera on TV, but it’s not the same,” said Sidney Toledano, chairman and chief executive officer of LVMH Fashion Group, which includes the Celine, Givenchy, Loewe, Kenzo and Marc Jacobs brands. “Fashion is about celebrating, and shows are a big moment.”

The veteran executive, who partnered with John Galliano to propel Christian Dior into luxury’s big leagues, said Galliano’s spectacular shows in the late Nineties and early Aughts heightened the brand’s stature, galvanized the house and cemented it as a global player. He recalled a 2010 cruise show on Shanghai’s Bund in a massive tent that “established Dior in China” and a couture show broadcast on a giant screen in one of Hong Kong’s busiest crosswalks that stopped people in their tracks.

Dior Cruise 2010 show in Shanghai

Dior Cruise 2010 show in Shanghai.  Sharron Lovell/WWD

Likewise, “Karl [Lagerfeld] contributed to the success of Chanel with his shows,” Toledano said. “Everybody hates to have the pressure of a show, a concert or an interview, but it gives you energy.”

He held out hope that physical runway shows, even if with smaller audiences for health reasons, would resume soon, with Paris and Milan the key hubs, given their strong traditions of creative fashion and savoir faire. “Most of our designers are working on their September shows,” he noted.

Toledano also endorsed the European calendar and season-ahead format, saying see-now-buy-now showcases do not work for creative, luxury fashions.

“Time is part of luxury. We need time to prepare the collection, and as soon as it’s done, we have to present it,” he said. “You can’t put it in the fridge and take it out in a few months. The designer will say, ‘Maybe I change this,’ or ‘I don’t like anymore.’

“You also have to tell the world, ‘This is my creation,’ or someone will copy you.”

He noted it takes time to produce the exceptional materials once orders are placed, and for specialty manufacturers to work their magic. Toledano confessed he once tried to rush seamstresses in Dior’s atelier, to no avail given the painstaking work and skill required. “They said, ‘We decide when we are ready to deliver, apologies sir,'” he recalled. “You can put pressure on marketing people, on the digital department. Artisans? They work their own way.”

Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera della Moda, Italian fashion’s organizing body, agreed that new and original fashion statements are not always immediately understood. Echoing Toledano, he said see-now-buy-now formats do not work for highly creative designers and, if used across the board, would turn the industry into a “marketing machine.”

“When a designer is very creative, a consumer needs maybe three, four months to understand the creativity, and to hear about it from intermediaries,” he said, referring to media platforms, influencers and the like. “The market is not ready for creativity all the time. People have to digest it.”

Capasa said he welcomed creative use of digital formats for collections — the basis of fashion weeks in Milan and Paris in mid-July, for men’s wear and some pre-season lines — but suggested such formats might eventually become a communication vehicle for “closer to the delivery of the goods” and talk “directly to consumers.”

The executive also believes in separate fashion weeks for men’s and women’s wear, while allowing some brands are perfectly suited to coed expressions.

Bruno Pavlovsky, president of fashion and president of Chanel SAS, also believes fashion shows are not going away.

“The fashion show remains the best way to express the brand’s creativity and know-how.…It’s the beginning of the story,” he said. “For the moment, we have not found anything better, but to be honest, we were not even looking. I think we really like to make fashion shows.

Models and dancers on the catwalk

Models and dancers on the catwalk at Chanel Cruise 2017 show in Cuba.  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

“Will we want to wear 3-D glasses tomorrow to watch a fashion show? Is it really exciting? I don’t think so,” he added.

“I really want to start doing runways shows again,” echoed Virginie Viard, Chanel’s creative director. “They elicit a special atmosphere, an excitement, an emotion.”

Pavlovsky, who has served as president of the Chambre Syndicale de la Mode Féminine, the governing body of women’s fashion in France, also trumpeted the importance of a designated fashion week in Paris. He said it unleashes a tidal wave of creativity, and engenders “friendly competition” between designers and brands, each eager to flex their creative muscles, influence the market, make people dream and reinforce their brand positioning.

A pioneer in mounting spectacular destination shows, Chanel plans to continue to hit the road for its cruise and Métiers d’Art collections as soon as health conditions allow, Pavlovsky said, characterizing these as a “strong moment for the brand” and a chosen international market. Chanel has traveled as far afield as Havana, Shanghai, Edinburgh, Singapore and Los Angeles for its itinerant spectacles.

“You have to be able to do both. You have to have the set moment [of a fashion week], where you are in direct competition with everyone, and the privileged moment, where you work this particular relationship with a target,” he said.

Pavlovksy lamented that Chanel could not present its 2020 cruise collection in Capri last month, instead unveiling it online today. It will also show couture digitally, but hopes to be back in the Grand Palais this fall for its spring 2021 ready-to-wear show.

Asked about big European brands that have revealed intentions to show less frequently or outside long-standing European fashion weeks — Saint Laurent said it would remove itself from the Paris schedule for the rest of 2020 — Pavlovsky questioned why a brand emblematic of Parisian chic would do such a thing.

“It’s up to us, too, to support [Paris Fashion Week] and make sure that it continues to have as much influence,” he said. “These brands should ask themselves the question of what is the impact of not participating. I think it’s a very individualistic act. “

To be sure, headlines screaming that runway shows are over seem to be exaggerated.

“The show is the lifeblood of our creative process and represents the ultimate manifestation of the creative vision of the creative direction and the studio team,” said Riccardo Bellini, chief executive officer of Chloé. “It provides a creative space for designers to experiment and innovate, generating the creative lifeblood and inspiration that feed all other creations across the house.”

Echoing others, Bellini said designers thrive under the creative pressure cooker and the need to stand out amidst their peers, whose shows unfurl almost hourly for a month at a stretch during rtw season.

“The show allows designers to amplify and communicate their vision beyond the single products — to create a world and an emotional context for their creations,” he enthused. “I think shows remain a fundamental asset for the industry in order to nurture creativity and innovation. It will be up to each brand to define their best formats and approach according to their vision and their strategy.”

Guram Gvasalia, cofounder of Vetements, said the cancellation of physical fashion weeks in London, Milan and Paris this month has generated some remorse among veteran attendees.

“There is nostalgia in the voices of journalists, buyers and other fashion victims,” he said. “Live fashion shows create emotions and are important not only for the final consumer, they are important for the industry as a whole. Experiencing things live is essential for human nature.

Models on the catwalkVetements show, Runway, Fall Winter 2019, Paris Fashion Week Men's, France - 17 Jan 2019

Vetements RTW Fall 2019  Giovanni Giannoni/WWD

“The industry is very small and we all need each other to exist,” he added. “And even if the industry feels sometimes as a dysfunctional family, we are all still one big, crazy family.”

A renegade brand in more ways than one, Vetements has experimented with various formats: staging runway shows during all Paris fashion weeks, or sometimes not at all.

But three years ago, it merged its men’s and women’s fashion shows; decided to have only two collections a year with multiple deliveries, and opted for the men’s wear and couture schedules in January and July, respectively, rather than the women’s rtw schedule in March and September.

“All those steps will become essential for the brands to survive in the post-virus years,” he argued. “The virus might end up having a good influence on the industry. It seems the industry will finally have to awake from the long-lasting hibernation. Already now we see as a result established brands implementing our proven strategy.”

Data from Launchmetrics, the data research and insights company for fashion, luxury and beauty, support his assertion that coed formats are effective.

“It may be the easiest way to move forward,” said Michael Jaïs, ceo of Launchmetrics. “The impact is very clear on the return on investment.”

The company’s “The State of Menswear” report for 2019 showed that “the media impact value of men’s wear is between two times more and 20 times more, so on average 10 times more valuable in terms of impact, to group it together than to show it separately. It really benefits from the impact of women’s.”

And what does history teach us? That the runway show has been the dominant form of designer expression since the 1860s, when Charles Frederick Worth decided to show his fashions, signed like artworks, to clients on live models, according to Pamela Golbin, a Paris-based fashion historian, curator and author. Prior to that, well-to-do women visited tailors and dressmakers and collaborated on the clothes they needed.

“From the beginning, runway shows were a spectacle done for special reasons,” she recounted in an interview. “It was to show customers the final product at a time when that was extremely new.”

The advent of fashion journalism around the turn of the century only served to reinforce the format, helping them to understand trends to transmit to their readers.

Indeed, there have been few experiments beyond live modeling. After World War II, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, eager to revive an industry ravaged by wartime shortages and German occupation, came up with the idea of a touring theater of miniature fashions, Golbin recounted. Dubbed the Théâtre de la Mode, its 237 doll-size figurines toured European cities in 1945 and the event was reprised the next year for U.S. destinations. The spectacle made for front-page news in WWD twice.

After World War II, the Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne came up with the idea of a touring theater of miniature fashions. 

But it was soon back to runway shows, which gradually became ever more spectacular and theatrical, especially with the advent of the Internet and social media, which made fashion weeks a giant marketing opportunity for consumers.

In Golbin’s estimation, modern fashion shows recently became muddled with celebrity guests, an assembly of each brand or designer’s community, influencers and street-style stars, clouding the original purpose and perhaps serving too many masters.

“All of a sudden, the fashion show became monolithic, and maybe you need to carve down that monolith and give proper space to each of the special needs that the fashion show was trying to address,” she said. “Is it going to stay a professional date or will it become a mainstream event?”

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