This week, New York celebrated its 75th fall Fashion Week, with all the pomp, glamour, celebrity and hype that defines the event. The city was the home of the first-ever Fashion Week on Earth – and its original purpose was more practical than glamourous.
In 1943, the fashion capital of the world at the time, Paris, was at war and under siege. World War II prevented fashion industry buyers from travelling to France to see fashion’s cutting edge. Thus, New York Fashion Week was born.
Even after the war came to an end, the idea stuck.
By 1945, Fashion Week had expanded beyond New York to include other European capitals – Paris, Milan and London – but they all had the same express purpose: to be the place where the hip and cutting-edge looked to find out what is “in” and what is “out.”
But, just like fashion ebbs and flows, Fashion Week has evolved over the last 75 years. And the event that just wrapped in New York looks very different than the Fashion Weeks of the past – even compared to those held as recently as a decade ago.
The question that remains as the celebration of style is winding down: In the age of Instagram and lifestyle blogging, does the world still really need Fashion Week at all?
An Evolving Concept
The fact that Fashion Week is an evolving concept is not evidence alone that it is has gone out of style, so to speak. In fact, New York's event has been an evolving work in progress for much of the seven-and-a-half decades it’s been going on. For the first few decades of its existence, Fashion Week shows were very insular events that didn’t net a lot of public attention outside the industry.
Longtime industry veteran Lucinda Chambers, former fashion director for U.K. Vogue, noted in an interview with Vestoj that for its first few decades, Fashion Week was mostly about creating a space where designers and buyers from elite stores and fashion editors could meet. Those editors and buyers, she said, would take what they saw, and slowly and methodically reveal their “considered vision of trends to readers and customers” a few months down the line.
It wasn’t until the late 80s and early 90s that Fashion Week became a magnet for musicians, actors and others who certainly had fashion adjacent jobs, but were not themselves formally part of the industry. In the era of the internet, Fashion Week became a full-blown media extravaganza that was live-streamed all over the world.
As the 2000s wore on and turned into the 2010s, that larger digital audience of fashion bloggers and social media stars started moving into the tent – and, in some cases, into front row seats alongside those celebrities and fashion editors.
And the evolution of who had access to Fashion Week in turn changed how brands started thinking about letting consumers access the goods they’d seen on display. Instead of the months-long wait that has been the standard, in the last two or three years an increasing number of brands have adopted some form of “see now, buy now” functionality in an attempt to close that gap. And big names – in some cases, high-ticket brands like Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Madewell, Ralph Lauren, Rebecca Minkoff and Burberry – have experimented with some variation on the concept since 2016.
In fact, "see now, buy now" experiments were underway at Fashion Week New York this year, care of a partnership with Visa that brought tap-to-pay with contactless cards and devices to Fashion’s big show this year. Those payments came into play with the series of contactless-enabled vending machines available at the event, featuring items by designers like Venessa Arizaga, Neely & Chloe and Rebecca Minkoff.
Those vending machines offered “buy one, get two," meaning that “every tap is an opportunity to pay it forward to friends who inspire them," Visa noted in its announcement.
The Democratized and Data-Driven World of Fashion
There is a particularly funny scene in the 2006 movie "The Devil Wears Prada" that offers in two delightfully cruel minutes a full explanation of how Fashion Week and the choices made there have a major effect on how consumers dress – even if the consumer herself is not all that aware of the event.
For those who haven't, watch the scene. Then watch the whole movie – it’s a classic.
But if you can’t get to it right now, the evil character played by Meryl Streep succinctly explains how the color of the “lumpy blue sweater” her long-suffering intern is wearing comes as the result of two Fashion Week runway shows and a team of fashion editors who promoted the use of the color. Their recommendation pushed it into mass-market brands, where the questionably dressed intern “probably fished it out of some clearance bin.”
The moral of the story: You may not think you care about Fashion Week, but it (and the industry behind it) will make most of your decisions about what you wear. It’s a devastatingly funny scene – “give me a full ballerina skirt and a hint of saloon and I’m on board” is the best style assessment ever committed to film, and also a fairly accurate statement of the power of the fashion design houses and editors in the pre-mass mobile world of 2006.
These days, however, it is hard to make the case for that statement's accuracy, as Instagrammers, fashion bloggers and style vloggers are increasingly occupying the space once taken up by the editors at Vogue – and doing their job.
“The evolution of technology and social media has allowed all consumers to have a voice,” Professor Frances Corner, head of the London College of Fashion, noted in an interview. “There is no one bible, and there is a marked shift in the way we consume fashion: The sources of our inspiration are increasingly fragmented and tailored to more specific audiences.”
And the platforms that host this up-and-coming generation of fashion influencers are offering up more tools to make it more desirable for big brands to develop commercial relationships with those highly followed and trend-setting members. Instagram, for example, recently announced it was bulking up its commerce features by expanding on-site shopping beyond its feed to the much more popular (and influencer-dominated) Instagram Stories.
“From Adidas and Aritzia to Louis Vuitton, people have been able to shop from their favorite brands around the world, and now you can shop these businesses in Instagram Stories,” the social network said in the release. “Shoppers on Instagram are savvy. They visit Instagram looking for the latest trends and styles. With 300 million using Instagram Stories every day, people are increasingly finding new products from brands they love.”
And because consumers can focus on the brands they love – and the influencers they trust, like Alexa Chung, The Fashion Guitar (Charlotte) and Danielle Bernstein – they are less likely to look to the insular world of fashion professionals, Professor Corner noted, because they have a better and more accessible option.
“I follow numerous Instagrammers and bloggers who appeal to my personal aesthetic, and there are many niche magazines challenging the status quo of traditional fashion publishing and setting a different agenda for diverse audiences," noted Corner.
And fashion editors and heads of design houses don’t just have to deal with an emerging class of bloggers. They also have to fight the rising tide of online apparel merchants that are much less interested in looking at what a designer or editor says consumers will love, and are much more interested in looking at their data analytics and figuring out what their customers actually love.
From Everlane to Boohoo’s to La Ligne to countless other retailers PYMNTS has interviewed over the last several years, the trends they are most interested in forecasting aren’t the ones coming out of New York, Paris, Milan or London a few times a year. In the era of fast fashion and instant gratification, they noted, they will go out of business trying to run their companies with sporadic readings of tea leaves.
The trends they want to see are in their data – and they want to see them in real time, so they can adjust as needed and put the right products on the shelf.
So Is Fashion Week Out of Style?
It seems perhaps a bit drastic to say that Fashion Week is “out” or “irrelevant” despite the various think pieces to the contrary that have been springing up on the internet over the last few days. The sheer amount of press coverage that Rihanna's combination fashion show/performance art piece to launch her new lingerie line (Savage X Fenty) indicates that Fashion Week is still more than able to generate quite a lot of buzz.
But what does seem to be the case is that Fashion Week may be hard-pressed to remain relevant if its only hook is showing off clothes for a season that is a full six months away. Last week’s show was all about spring 2019, just in time for most of us to put away our spring and summer gear and get out the heavier clothing.
What may drive the buzz, celebrities, supermodels and anything-goes-fashion shows may not always drive the register. For that, fashionistas taking pictures or being photographed wearing on-trend, see-it-now, wear-it-now clothes that show up on Instagram or your favorite fashion blog may be more the ticket.
Unless you happen to be standing in front of a vending machine that offers a digital way to pay for the latest designer outfit. And that isn't really a joke – Visa's experiment this week indicates that the vending machine is a place where fashion can live. It's not a totally foreign concept – jewelry designer Marla Aaron has been selling her high-end offerings through a vending machine for some time – and people are willing to make a four-figure vending purchase.
“I look at the vending machine as principally an exceptional vehicle for branding and storytelling,” she said in a recent PYMNTS interview. “[It’s] maybe the best thing we’ve ever done [for storytelling].”
Fashion, after all, is about telling a story with clothes. Fashion Week seems to perhaps be a bit caught in an older story. Perhaps the pressure is finally high enough to prompt another update.