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Is the showroom the new catwalk for high fashion houses?
Sands Style / Interviews & Features
Sands Style / Fashion & Luxury

Is the showroom the new catwalk for high fashion houses?

Buyers express a preference for the utility of showroom visits over the hoopla and hassle of runway shows

The glitz of the catwalk show gave way to the practicality and affordability of the presentation for brands at London Fashion Week Men’s in January.

There was more than money-mindedness going on: presentations allowed media and buyers to get up close with the clothing and to take detailed photos. Some brands took their reconsideration further: traditionally showing garments available the following season, Chester Barrie offered some of its new collection on a “see now, buy now” basis. Anyone could order garments for delivery in four weeks.

Burberry pioneered this notion years ago. Prada has used it since. But societal shifts are impacting the way we shop: high-street fast fashion having diminished consumers’ patience with having to wait six months for anything. The internet’s information proliferation has made consumers savvier and less willing to indulge in displays of clothing that rarely make it into production.

“The way fashion is consumed is seeing radical shifts and that is affecting the role of the catwalk, and giving rise to a sense that it can’t just be about showmanship, about which celebrity is sat on the front row, about generating coverage at any cost and of any kind, rather than focusing on new ideas in clothing,” argues Rae Jones, lecturer in fashion forecasting at the University of Westminster, London. “Consumers enjoy the razzmatazz, but there’s a sense that this has taken over from what these shows are meant to be.”

We’ve seen Prada, Saint Laurent, Givenchy mix men and womenswear. We’ve seen Tom Ford show a winter collection in September. We’ve seen Gucci cut shows to two a year, after a decade or more of multiple events.

Fledgling technologies are changing how the catwalk operates as a spectacle – in the way it is consumed (via live streamed shows), reported on (instantaneously via blogs and Instagram) and in its purpose (commercial or creative). Developments have included Balenciaga, Hussein Chalayan and Dior experimenting with 360-degree filming – Dior offering a 3D-printed VR headset – Ralph Lauren staging a 4D holographic show in New York’s Central Park, Burberry revealing looks to Snapchat before the catwalk, and Tom Ford replacing it with a Lady Gaga music video.

These tech grabs have not always worked. When Alexander McQueen became the first designer to live stream a show in 2009, Lady Gaga tweeted that her new track would play as the models came out and the host website crashed. Jonathan Chippindale, CEO of Holition – a leading supplier of technology to the fashion and retail industries – says we’re seeing a bumpy transition towards something less gimmicky, new and improved.

“It’s valid for a brand to make some kind of statement through their catwalk shows, one which increasingly blurs the line between commerce and theatre,” he stresses. “The question is what form that should come in.

There was a time when the catwalk was all about whether you had Leonardo DiCaprio on the front row. Brands were averse to anything that might uglify the
show. But digital media has forced them to listen to their actual customers and make the catwalk more of a conversation. It’s democratising the way collections are shown.”

Many brands are jumping on new technologies as though they were fashionable in their own right. “One season it’s all about holograms, then wearables, then drones, then VR [virtual reality], such that technology has slightly taken over that conversation,” he suggests, “though that will pass as they’re fast running out of new tech to try”.

Where might today’s disruptive, disrupted catwalk wild west be heading? One response is to go more outrageous and more public – akin to Chanel and Louis Vuitton’s multimillion dollar shows. These will have no pretensions to being a practical resource. Buyers are expressing a preference for the utility of showroom visits over the hoopla and hassle of catwalk show attendance.

Words that keep surfacing include a return to the “intimate”, to the “personal”, to the “real” – akin to the salon-style method fashion companies employed before the catwalk. This would offer a return to what the higher end brands claim – exclusivity, beauty, craft and privacy.

“Quite where the catwalk should go is the hot topic,” argues Alessandro Sartori, the creative director of Ermenegildo Zegna, where he is introducing a hybrid of presentation, travelling trunk show and catwalk – from which up to 50 cent of the collection shown will be ready to make to order next day.

“The catwalk still works for many brands,” he adds, “but it clearly doesn’t for a lot of them. Catwalks operate in a way that is right for the established fashion system rather than what’s best for the individual brands. There’s no point doing a catwalk show in which nobody believes in the garments they see. It just doesn’t express what we’re about any more.”

These sentiments are echoed by Christopher Bailey, CEO and creative director of Burberry. “It will be very difficult to go back to just a traditional show. We have all become so used to these technologies that allow you [to experience everything] right when it happens.”