At the end of January, just two weeks shy of the start of New York Fashion Week's Fall 2020 season, blogger Bryanboy asked if somebody could look into "why NYFW [has] pretty much died?"
It may seem like a gross exaggeration, but over the past five to 10 years, fashion week — and New York's, in particular — has been trying to "evolve" and keep up with the changing customer landscape: by showing collections in season, by opening themselves up to the public, by combining men's with women's. People consume differently than they did a decade ago, and the runway has been forced to keep up.
The excess of the runway show — hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of dollars spent on a less than 10-minute-long production — has been frequently debated, both on the designer and editor sides. Is it worth the cost to brands, particularly in this fledgling retail economy? Is it worth the time of those attending when they can see everything, and typically in greater detail, online? At a time when the industry is being forced to face difficult change and customers are reexamining their consumption, why would anyone want to host a fashion show in 2020?
At its core, "the business case for investing in a seasonal fashion show, or any other fashion event, is that it should get the brand the attention of the market and press," Jeffry Aronsson, the former CEO of Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan who currently consults luxury brands on growth strategies, tells Fashionista. Measures of success, he notes, come in the form of online impressions (including social commentary and likes), editorial coverage (both digital and print) and, though difficult to quantify, word of mouth, which help raise brand awareness, desire and, hopefully, sales.
Erin Hawker, communications expert and founder of Agentry PR, notes that a brand can get 50 to 100 press hits in one single day globally after a runway show (and even double that if there are big-name celebrities involved), as well as millions of impressions on earned social media.
"If you assign an editorial value to shows with or without celebrities, it's usually in the tens of millions of dollars worth of impressions," Hawker says. "This far surpasses the cost of a show."
Brands, however, "can't just show up in New York City and expect to garner press coverage without doing the work behind it," she cautions. That work includes hiring a strong public relations team that "spends months cultivating relationships with media and influencers so they will actually want to come. Unless your collection is 'hot, on fire,' editors don't show up just because you're doing a runway show."
That attempt to chase brand awareness has ignited the emergence of alternatives to the runway — presentations, short films, museum-style exhibits, and interactive see-now-buy-now events have all attempted to reinvigorate (and in some ways replace) the traditional option. These "can accomplish a brand's communications goals at lower costs and provide a more on-brand experience than a runway show could, even though that excitement of the crowds and that anticipation of the first look is missing," Aronsson says.
Hawker agrees that "presentations are highly effective and cost a lot less money," and says she would recommend them to emerging designers that can't afford a runway show. "You'll still get a lot of press coverage and it's really convenient for attendees; editors can pop in for five or 10 minutes. Sometimes they don't want to sit through an hour of the pomp and circumstance for a designer that isn't well-known."
Christian Juul Nielsen, creative director of AKNVAS, a new women's ready-to-wear label based in New York City, is choosing a presentation-style format for his first fashion week showing partly for those reasons. "Right now, it's not worth it for me to do a runway show," he says. "I just started [my brand] and, at this stage, I'm just introducing it to the industry," he says. "I think too many small brands today spend way too much money on a runway show, rather than spending that money on making good clothes."
Nielsen says he actually prefers the format, as it allows him "to spend one on one time with key buyers and editors by walking them through the collection, explaining each piece, and letting them touch the fabric" — three components critical to an emerging brand.
"I think it's important that we remember that fashion shows are a big part of what makes our industry exciting," Nielsen says. "It's crucial to inspire people. I don't think [the runway] is the only way, but it's definitely not over in my opinion. It puts your name out there, and people following the calendar will know that you exist."
Aside from a presentation, something like an art installation — think how Kenzo showed a short film starring Milla Jovovich for Fall 2018 — can be a strong, less cost-intensive alternative to a runway show, says Hawker. More intimate events, like seated dinners, meanwhile, only work for a "high-power, super press darling." Plus, choreographing a way to showcase the collection could be very expensive, and you're basically paying for two things: a presentation and a sit-down meal.
In recent years, some established designers have chosen to forgo fashion week-related expenses altogether. This season, Phillip Lim — a mainstay at New York Fashion Week since 2005 — announced he would be skipping Fall 2020, telling WWD in an interview the decision was prompted by "feeling isolated and having to navigate so much noise" within the fashion industry. In its place, Lim will be throwing a "no RSVP, no rush, no stress" house party.
In a statement provided to Fashionista, 3.1 Phillip Lim's CEO and co-founder Wen Zhou said: "It's no secret to anyone that shifts in the industry have made navigating our business more and more challenging. We see it with our peers and hear it in conversations we are having… We made a decision as an independent designer to pause, take a step back, and give our creative teams a little breathing room to reclaim the act of creating freely rather than reactively. The hope is that in slowing down, we can allow ourselves some time for introspection, contemplation, and exploration." That, and the brand is saving, as stressed to WWD, upwards of half a million dollars.
Unsurprisingly, "the justification of funds and ROI on executing large-scale fashion shows has been under fire for a while now," Laurie DeJong, CEO of LDJ Productions and a fashion show producer who works with IMG on New York Fashion Week, says. "We live in the age of content. The ability of a brand to create enough content to extend the story from a 10-minute show to a multi-month campaign is what often defines its success and the validation of the spend behind it. If a brand is investing in a show, they need to have a strong media plan pre- and post- event."
Like Lim, designer Thakoon Panichgul has chosen to sit out New York Fashion Week once again. (In 2015, he took a year hiatus from the runway while he transitioned his ready-to-wear business model to see-now-buy-now; he did the same in 2017 when taking his company direct-to-consumer.)
"[Leaving fashion week] was a thought that I've had for a couple of years now. Fashion has changed so much in terms of its impact on culture and how democratic it's become," he says. "In relaunching my brand, I was really focused on the clothes and how they pertain to the customer. To be successful in the direct-to-consumer space, you really have to focus on the customer, and the runway is just another distraction to the end goal."
Panichgul reflects on the beginning stages of his career, pre-digital media and Instagram, when success rested on the recognition and approval of Anna Wintour and her peers. His debut appearance at fashion week in 2004 was a presentation — he says he was "one of the first people to usher in that tableau format," and that it "got the attention of Vogue right away." However, he also notes how he felt forced into doing a runway show the following season "because that was the next step we kind of had to get to."
Still, fashion shows in the mid-2000s weren't the over-the-top events we know today: "Back then, the runway was really about the industry: The production caliber was much cleaner, people weren't taking pictures on their cell phones," Panichgul says. And today's runway shows just don't fit into his current framework — business or style wise.
"We used to design 50 looks on the runway that were mostly fantastical and red carpet- and cocktail-driven. Now we're creating very curated and practical capsule collections of beautifully-designed classics," he explains. "In that sense, I felt like the runway medium just didn't jive with what these collections stand for. They're quieter and need to be communicated in a quieter way. And that gets lost in a runway format, because it's supposed to be a form of entertainment."
It might not currently fit in with his brand, but Panichgul still sees the value in doing a fashion show — as does Thomai Serdari, a strategist in luxury marketing and branding and adjunct professor at NYU's Stern School of Business.
Though she says they're an efficient way for a brand to communicate both its vision and products, "the real question is whether the market will ever move entirely away from the fixed calendar the buyers are relying on for stocking boutiques and department stores with inventory," Serdari explains. "At the moment, this seems doubtful, even though social media has allowed smaller brands to get in front of their consumers and generate sales."
Regardless, Serdari says it is ultimately "very hard to create a brand without the opportunity to tell a story on a grand scale, which is exactly what the fashion show does."
And even though Panichgul has chosen to opt out of the traditional format, he agrees that "you can't replicate the beauty of a runway show."
"When you go to a really good show, it's fucking amazing and transportive — and you feel it," he says. "That art form should exist in some way, but it's really about who comes and covers it. If you can control it, I think runway shows are valid."