New York Fashion Week hadn’t seen — or heard — anything quite like it.
“Waddya say? Waddya say?” hollered the rapper Kanye West as he addressed a crowd of 18,000 people at Madison Square Garden; a mixture of music fans who had come to listen to the live streaming of his new album, The Life of Pablo; hardcore video gamers who had come to witness the launch of Only One, a video game in which his dead mother rides through the gates of heaven on a winged horse; and fashionistas, there for the unveiling of his Yeezy Season 3 collection, designed in collaboration with Adidas. “Fuck Nike! Fuck Nike!” was the crowd’s response.
Kanye West: “Y’all ain’t saying that loud enough.”
The crowd: “FUCK NIKE! FUCK NIKE! FUCK NIKE!”
As the international fashion cognoscenti raised a collective eyebrow, the drama was only amplified by performance artist Vanessa Beecroft’s art direction for the show, inspired as it was by Paul Lowe’s photograph of Hutu survivors from the Kibeho refugee camp who avoided death at the hands of the Tutsi Rwandan army in 1995. Add a sideshow of the Kardashian-Jenners (where the transgender patriarch was working the same dragged-through-a-hedge-backwards sweater dress as his/her daughter) and you could be forgiven for thinking that you had stumbled into a future episode of Ab Fab.
But this, ladies and gentlemen, was a glimpse into the future of the fashion show. “I can honestly say that whatever that thing was — was it a fashion show, an art installation or some kind of music concert? — it totally blew my mind,” said one influential online retailer as she hurtled out of the stadium, keen to place orders ASAP. “It’s the first memorable show moment I’ve had since Alexander McQueen died.”
Because it has to be said that for all of West’s egotistical mouthing off (“My dream…is to…be the creative director of Hermès” announced the 21-time Grammy Award-winner who has also threatened to run for the US Presidency in 2020), the Yeezy Season 3 extravaganza called into question the relevancy of the catwalk show as it currently stands: an insular, trade-only event where invite-only guests get to watch predominantly Caucasian models wear clothes that will drop into stores in half a years’ time; an event struggling to stay interesting in a digital age where multiracial Generation Z consumers demand immediacy and to be part of the action.
And yet West’s prediction that fashion shows will become entertainment spectacles is only half of the story. On the other side of the Atlantic more seasoned designers were getting to grips with the disconnect between runway and retail calendars, or, to put it another way, the fact you have to wait months before you can buy the clothes you’ve just seen on the runway.
“In a world that has become increasingly immediate, the current way of showing a collection four months before it is available to consumers is an antiquated idea and one that could no longer makes sense,” said London-based Tom Ford in a statement. “We spend an enormous amount of money and energy to stage an event that creates excitement too far in advance of when the collection is available to the consumer.”
For the past few seasons, Ford has been experimenting with how and when he showcases a collection, staging his A/W 2015 show in Los Angeles before the 2015 Oscars and unveiling his S/S 2016 range through a fashion film shot by Nick Night and starring Lady Gaga. Upping the ante, Ford announced that he had pushed the showing of his A/W 2016 collection seven months on from the scheduled February date so the clothes can go on sale on the day of the presentation. “Our customers today want a collection that is immediately available,” continued Ford. “Showing the collection as it arrives in stores will allow the excitement that is created by a show or event to drive sales.”
Christopher Bailey, Burberry’s chief executive and chief creative officer, and the man who has led the charge to end the lag between fashion show and on-sale date, also announced big changes at the British luxury behemoth. From September of this year, Burberry will collapse the conventional fashion seasons (spring/summer and autumn/winter), the brand’s different lines (Prorsum, London and Brit) and its men’s and women’s shows into two seasonless annual shows known simply as ‘February’ and ‘September’, with the full collection being available to buy in both the brand’s bricks-and-mortar and online stores as soon as the show is over. “It just feels like a natural next step,” Bailey told The Business of Fashion in February. “I hope that what we’ll be able to do is create a moment that feels relevant when the customer actually sees it, rather than telling him or her they’ve got to wait until five or six months after we’ve excited them.”
It wasn’t long before other designers followed Burberry’s lead, including our very own Sir Paul Smith who announced that he too was uniting his menswear and womenswear design teams and merging his many lines into two collections per year. It’s therefore no overstatement to say that such changes are massive and will turn the fashion system upside-down. “You normally design the full show, then you show the show, and then your supply chain starts to kick in. Now, we will be designing the show and, as we’re doing that, we will be passing things over immediately to our supply chain partners,” explained Bailey. “It’s important to say, we do not have the answers to everything. We are going to be learning as we go.”
This new operating model will ultimately affect what you wear and how you buy clothes because every stage of a garment’s/accessory’s journey will be altered. It will determine how fabric suppliers develop/create their product; how a boutique places its orders (buyers will have to make informed guesses as opposed to placing orders based on local customer/press from post-show feedback); how magazines/blogs cover trends. Hold on — will there actually be any agreed trends if editors don’t have the usual four months’ grace to digest, edit and package the big seasonal themes? And how will the High Street copycats survive if they too can’t get a lead on what their high fashion, luxury rivals are putting into store?
“Thank goodness none of this will effect what we do here at The Tobacco Warehouse. I left that [rat] race when I closed Pollyanna,” says Rita Britton whose Nomad Atelier collection is beyond the machinations of seasonal trends and mass manufacturing systems. “Here we are small enough to be able to make up only the quantities we need using the very best fabrics; and all without compromising top-notch customer service.”
Back at Kanye West’s gig, one NYFW veteran put all of this change into ‘strictly off the record’ perspective: “Look at the clothes that Kanye just showed — they weren’t anything that we haven’t already seen before. But what are fashion ‘designers’ supposed to do when its impossible to reinvent the wheel but they still, somehow, have to keep the cogs of industry and commerce turning? All of those people that turned up today wanted a show. And Kanye gave them one. It’s what the Victoria’s Secret people have been doing for years.”
It’s true. And while there is much uncertainty as to if this is the last season we will see in the old format, it seems that there are a few things that are certain: 1) that the show must go on; and 2) there is no better place than a fashion show to see some serious social pecking order being implemented. Because one of the most potent images to come from West’s show was not the models who stood motionless for 90 minutes and looked like refugees in their mud-coloured, ripped clothes, but of Kim Kardashian and her family who sat on the other side of the divide. Dressed in a creamy-white and sugary-pink wardrobe specially designed by West in collaboration with Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, the world’s most infamous tribe was presided over by a peroxide-crowned and befurred Kim like some 21st Century Marie Antoinette. Sure, there was a pointed racial diversity in West’s model casting, but it seems that fashion will always be a game of exclusivity.