Why the shows must go on

For the pure exhilarating theatre of fashion, nothing beats a front-row seat
From left: Chalayan, Comme des Garçons, Céline, Isabel Marant and Junya Watanabe © Catwalking

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Throughout this fashion season, I’ve been asking anyone and everyone what they think will be the future of fashion and specifically, the shows. The question was precipitated by announcements from Burberry and Tom Ford that they would be shifting their runway presentations in future to a “ready-to-buy” model whereby, rather than the normal six-month interval, items seen on the catwalk will go on sale immediately online and in store. If widely adopted, it would mark a huge shift in the industry towards a more commodity-based show schedule. It also presents many questions of what the fashion show should be — or whether we even need one.

From designer to chief executive, and from buyer to publicist, the responses have been as varied as the many different business models that might allow for the new world order. Some have embraced the idea as a necessary step to keep fashion moving forward and the customer engaged. Others have been alarmed: they argue that the time it takes for stock to arrive in store is vital in building desire in the consumer, and that the new approach would crush the wholesale system — and thereby the nascent fashion labels which depend on those early orders that make production possible.

Some designers can’t wait to have a more immediate dialogue with their clients. Others worry that without the final deadline of a show which everyone attends, and the introduction instead of a rolling schedule of presentations for the different buyers, journalists, magazine editors and stylists that must see the clothes, their work may never be done.

“It’s a mess,” said Karl Lagerfeld in Milan. “I need a final deadline in order to keep my creative sanity,” said Coach creative head Stuart Vevers in New York. “I need to protect my wholesale orders,” said designer Christopher Kane in London.

I write this at day 25 of the season. At this point, I’ve seen around 160 shows, and about 8,000 looks. I’m not so fool as to think that everything I see will end up in a store: I’m as complicit as anyone in this industry subterfuge that pretends we’re all about to wear this stuff. But the show is about so much more than product.

Michael Burke, chief executive of Louis Vuitton, was emphatic on the sanctity of the show when I met with him last week. “Our model of business is already ready-to-buy in that most of our sales are in the pre-collections which go in store without a show,” he argued of the huge commercial collections never seen on a catwalk that arrive in shops in May and December and make up the vast majority of sales.

Louis Vuitton is one of the handful of brands which presents some off-schedule pre-collections (known as “cruise”). Most other brands quietly slip their pre-collection orders in-store after negotiating independently with the buyers.

The trouble is, ready-to-buy is boring. Do you want to see a show featuring 60 black cashmere sweaters? Neither do I. As Burke explains, for Louis Vuitton, “only 5 to 10 per cent of store merchandise is presented on the runway, and our catwalk collections are by definition more fashion forward and not immediately commercial when they first appear”.

“For us, the show is not about commercial product. It’s about being transgressive and remaining interesting. So that we have something to talk about. So that it presents a total vision that will then filter down through to the consumer through to the various dialogues that are then had — in print, within the ad campaigns and in magazines.”

“Fashion is the most contemporary form of art,” said Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana (Italy’s chamber for fashion). The show is fashion’s theatre: a 10-minute vignette of what a brand represents and where it’s going next. It’s quick, short, powerful and when done well, or especially badly, it sears an image on to your brain in a way that can’t be replicated on a screen or in a showroom.

This weekend in Paris, I saw an autobahn-set fairytale at Chalayan, an exploration of all thing “Teutonic” where models wore severed ponytails from their ear lobes, dresses embroidered with dashboard details and silks printed with old German sewing patterns; at Junya Watanabe’s “Hyper Construction”, I watched a slowly choreographed maths lesson involving geometric dresses folded in a spongy bonded polyurethane and accessorised with rubber caps and bizarrely shaped headwear.

At Comme des Garçons, the models wore armadillo-type layers of material body armour and panniers all covered in beautiful, antiquey brocades. The brand’s 73-year-old designer Rei Kawakubo called the collection 18th Century Punk, “because the 18th century was a period of change and revolution. This is how I imagine punks would look like if they had lived in this century”.

Comme des Garçons’s annual revenues currently stand at $260m. And that’s not because the brand’s about to sell a lot of brocade cocoons or vast layered pink vinyl jackets. It sells a lot of quirky black clothes, stripy T-shirts and esoteric fragrances. Many features of this punk collection will percolate through into the commercial offering seen in store: the pink suit jacket will be stripped back; the brocades turned into blouses. But people will buy those simpler commercial pieces because they believe in the authenticity of Kawakubo’s art, and want a piece of her vision. To my mind, delivering that vision in 17 extraordinary, outlandish looks is the simplest, most effective way of doing business.

Yet not all shows are so removed from their commercial outcome. At Isabel Marant, 44 early-1980s punk rockers walked out in shiny red leathers, oversized tweed coats and big cat prints; clothes and accessories that will surely be exactly the same when they arrive in store. Marant is an expert merchandiser and her clothes are designed to walk off the catwalk into the closet. Her collection was highly marketable, and a little less memorable for it.

At Céline, however, designer Phoebe Philo has brilliantly occupied the space in which artistic and commercial currency coexist. Her show, staged between tiered neon seats at the Tennis Club de Paris, was full of editors wearing items from her SS16 collection, often the exact kind of difficult designs — bovver boots, curve-waisted coats in a mustardy tweed — that take a while to reach maturation in the consumer mind.

Ironic, perhaps, that since an in-house statement stipulating Philo will be staying at Céline for the immediate future, her AW16 show was a study in “possibilities: the possibilities inherent in the wardrobe, in the woman, and in life”. The palette was stripped right back to blacks, beiges and yellow: a canary coloured furry coat provided the only real clout of colour, while the silhouette was trapezoid, layered and liberated. Tunic dresses, sheer and oversized, were worn over wide-flared trousers and silky, 10-denier knit tops wrapped over shirts. As with Balenciaga, there were lots of trenchcoats. Many were sleeveless, and left strappy and flapping. The bags were tactile, their straps wrapped around the hand like bandages.

“Every one of the looks was touched by hand,” said Philo, who places great emphasis on the slow build of her design process, and cares deeply about whether clothes “feel right”.

Feeling right, doesn’t always look quite right at first. That huge silhouette, the Big Bird robe coat, the exaggerated jagged collars, the flesh-toned polo necks — they weren’t designed to be immediately accessible. It’s transgressive, but only very gently so. And thank God for that. You’ve got six months to catch up.

Photographs: Catwalking

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