On Tuesday, the first day of Vogue's virtual Global Conversations conference, Marc Jacobs lamented how fashion shows might not be the same post-pandemic. Today, Balmain's Olivier Rousteing, Chloé's Natacha Ramsay-Levi and Balenciaga CEO Cedric Charbit grappled with the question: What does the future of the runway even look like?
Vogue Runway's Nicole Phelps opened the conversation by conceding that the value of fashion shows had already been up for debate pre-pandemic, for reasons including the carbon footprint they produce, the financial expense they pose and the time commitment they require. In the discussion she moderated, the fashion designers and executives reflected on what runway presentations have represented for their respective brands, what alternatives they've considered and what issues they've found with the "traditional" format, even before the coronavirus.
Rousteing had been considering opening his Balmain shows to the public in some way, he told Phelps, in an effort to make the brand more inclusive of its audience. And, as the editor pointed out, he's long been savvy with his use of social media and well-versed in digital storytelling. However, he's meditating on what that balance between a physical activation and a virtual one might look like. "I completely agree on the side that we need to have an experience," he said. "I know that after this confinement, I want to create something in the streets, I want to bring back the togetherness, for sure."
Charbit brought out some numbers to illustrate the importance of having a digital component to a collection debut: Balenciaga is able to accommodate 600 guests at a fashion show; online, that show can reach 8,000 viewers on Youtube, 60,000 on Instagram and 300,000 on Twitter. "I'd like to question myself and ourselves on, 'Is our audience physical or digital? Is it both?,'" he asked.
Ramsay-Levi acknowledged that the biannual fashion shows are an opportunity for the Chloé team to express its full creative vision for a season, as well as to bring its community together. (The brand's Fall 2020 presentation featured paintings by Rita Ackerman, sculptures by Marion Verboomn and spoken-word poetry from Marianne Faithfull — all women who inspire Ramsay-Levi.) However, there can be discrepancies between the resources put into them and the return they see.
"There's a total dichotomy on where we put the creativity and where we put the business," she said. "The way the business model of the fashion show has been done has to stop. It has to be rewired totally." Designers put a lot of time and effort into creating a runway collection that might not spend a lot of time on the retail floor, to then jump right back in to work on the pre-seasons, which are the ones that actually sell better, Ramsay-Levi explained: "Where you put your energy is where the business values the less."
The Chloé creative director called on the different organizations that oversee the fashion industry across the globe — the Camera della Moda in Italy, the CFDA in the U.S., and the French Fédération — to discuss this issue of how these collections are sold. "We need to reevaluate the business value of the way this industry is made," she argued. "We can't waste materials, but we can't waste creativity... I feel buying is not a meaningless act, it's an act of being part of a community... We are putting on the market too many products for quick deliveries. There's always this ask of novelty, novelty, novelty, all the time — I think we need to rethink the way we buy the collections."
From his perspective as the CEO of a brand, Charbit agreed that "we need to challenge the status quo" when it comes to fashion shows. "What's happening today is the followers, the fans, the contributors, the clients are left out of the room. We have a number of seats to invite clients to the show. We have increased [that] number over the seasons, but in a way that's not really fair." Technology allows for more people to be brought into the conversation, he continued, and for the brand's message to be conveyed to a larger audience. "To me, it's very exciting that finally fashion and tech are merging and are in sync, because they need one another."
For Rousteing, it might be a matter of rethinking what the physical experience of a "fashion show" is. You can showcase a new collection online, be it by streaming a catwalk or curating visuals in some other way, he argued; the in-person event, it can be more entertainment-oriented — "create an incredible performance with artists and models."
The way fashion shows have traditionally been done, "it's about emotions," Rousteing said. "I see [digital fashion shows as something] completely different, because with digital, I can make my fashion show on the moon, in the sky, on a cloud if I want to. I don't see less emotion, I see [somewhere] you can push the dream to the next level."
To watch and read about the full conversation, you can head over to Vogue.