Is There Still a Place for Runway Shows Post-Pandemic?

Discussions around waste in the fashion industry, particularly around runway shows, have been happening for years. But in the 12 months since the last ‘real’ Fashion Month happened, its future has never been less certain. 

Even before the pandemic hit, fashion shows were struggling with their identity, toeing the line between valuable marketing tactic and unnecessarily over-the-top spectacle. “Fashion shows have evolved into something different since their conception; they’re no longer the small showcases they originated as,” says Whitney Bauck, senior sustainability reporter at Fashionista. “That's not necessarily bad, but brands need to be really clear [about] what shows are for: Are they for buyers? For editors? An advertising event aimed at sparking influencer content creation? Entertainment for the everyday person to watch on a screen?”

It’s no secret that COVID-19 has severely impacted the fashion industry; sales have fallen dramatically, companies have filed for bankruptcy and cut their staff (in an interview with The Guardian, British designer Christopher Kane said he furloughed one-third of his staff and plans to reduce the amount of collections he’s producing per year) and, the hardest truth: people are wearing more athletic wear—and less ‘real clothes’—than ever. But it’s also had some positives: Virtual presentations have meant a much smaller impact on carbon emissions.

The biggest environmental impact of fashion week is people flying in for shows, something that’s been put to a halt as people are told to stay at home. Ironically, the first ‘fashion week,’ hosted in New York in 1943, was born out of similar travel restrictions. “Before World War II, American designers were thought to be reliant on French couture for inspiration,” writes Amanda Fortini for Slate. “When the Germans occupied France in 1940, one of the ensuing calamities was that buyers, editors, and designers were unable to travel to Paris to see the few remaining shows.” In an effort to bolster the work of American designers, fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert hosted the inaugural press week. It was the first time homegrown names earned the recognition usually reserved for foreign brands.

In the decades since then the globalization of fashion has made it difficult to capture the intimacy of the fashion shows’s early days. In recent years, that intimacy has become nearly extinct as social media infiltrated society and made it easier for shows to be telegraphed across the world. Front rows have become see-and-be-seen fodder for celebrities and influencers. But even with this larger platform, it’s nearly impossible to attach a dollar worth to press impressions, making it difficult to justify the average $200K to $1 million dollars it costs to put on a show.

Of course, many showgoers find fashion week fun. It’s an industry networking event, and it offers a certain ego boost—the feeling of exclusivity—to those involved. But in 2021, it’s also completely unnecessary. Unless you have a premium seat (and even still, it depends on the set), most attendees can’t see the intricacies of the clothes; post-show showroom visits are much more valuable to both journalists and buyers. Celebrities may get clout-building photographs at a show, but do people really pay more attention to that than, say, an average paparazzi photo with tagged credits on Instagram? Are the financial and environmental ramifications of a fashion show really worth it?

If fashion labels want to stay afloat in a post-pandemic world, they need to reevaluate their values—cut the in-person runway show (digital presentations undoubtedly reach more people), cut the expensive press activity (in no world is it worth paying someone six-figures to attend a seven-minute event), and, more importantly, cut the number of collections (the average consumer doesn’t shop in seasons, so why are we still producing clothing like they do?). Taken together, these three issues compound and, without a strong overhaul of the current system, the environment isn’t going to be the only victim—the brands themselves will be, too.  

The hard truth is that fashion week is a direct contradiction of the sustainable mindset so many brands claim to hold, and that contradiction is reflective of a much larger issue at hand. “On some level, fashion itself is unsustainable. Clothing is necessary, but fashion, in the sense of a cycle of clothing that is constantly turning over and changing, is not,” says Bauck. “It’s worth reconsidering the pace of consumption that fashion week both reflects and encourages, because one runway show is nothing compared to all of that clothing going into production and being sold on a massive scale.”

Photo Credit: Flaunter via Unsplash

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