What is the purpose of a fashion show? Oh, and we're not talking about the literal “fashion show” definition.

With the onset of COVID-19, a decimated global economy and a world in the midst of a race relations reckoning, the idea of models walking down a catwalk seems quaint, if not entirely irrelevant. Still, the greatest fashion shows—from Raf Simons’ Fall/Winter 2001 “Riot, Riot, Riot” collection documenting youth angst and rebellion to Pyer Moss’ still prescient Spring/Summer 2016 show where hand drawn “BREATHE” graffiti was etched on the back of military jackets—make a statement, be they political, thought-provoking or otherwise. To the fashion community, and in some cases, culture at large, they feel important. Sure, the fashion calendar itself is an oddity, and many brands are questioning the cycle altogether, but for the majority of major houses, the show system has always made relative sense.

An ideal way to showcase clothing while catering to the editors, buyers, celebrities and stylists—fashion month is a way of life. Nothing impresses the "capital-F" fashion powers that be quite like a successful outing in Paris or at Pitti Uomo in Florence. Yet, with coronavirus still a threat across the globe and men’s weeks throughout June cancelled entirely, the future is officially uncertain. So, what comes next?

Even at the beginning of this year, we were living in a different reality. While London Fashion Week: Men’s and Paris Men’s Week were cancelled by late March as COVID cases surged worldwide, many assumed come September following a slow decline across Europe fashion would once again proceed as usual. Then, Saint Laurent Paris—once a highlight of the Paris calendar—announced it was opting out of September’s show schedule entirely, instead presenting a co-ed collection on its own timeline. While many designers, from J.W. Anderson to Gucci and Jacqumeus have combined men’s and women’s as of late, the idea of sitting out fashion month is radical, but perhaps revolutionary.

It is well established that, from a retail standpoint, by far the best selling collections are Resort and Pre-Fall, arriving in stores approximately in November and June, respectively. Considering production times, the current show system, which primarily focuses on Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter collection—both of which wind up heavily discounted due to arrival times failing to align with intended season—is clearly broken. To that effect, it’s no surprise that a coalition of designers led by Dries Van Noten came together earlier this year, releasing an open letter to buyers and press calling for significant change. A virus nowhere near dealt with and the inability to safely hold physical shows only adds further credence to their claims. Now, with a major player striking out on its own and following a wave of designers vowing to hold digital shows, the future of fashion shows looks grim.

Still, many traditional editors and fashion houses from Dior to Chloe plan on showing this upcoming September if health regulations allow. While there is ample precedent for digital shows, from Helmut Lang in 1998—the first designer to ever live-stream a fashion show—to Dior’s virtual reality Shanghai show in 2017 and Carine Roitfeld’s Youtube livestream hosted by Derek Blasberg, these events were primarily novelties, and did little to affect the bottom line. In reality, the reason that these largely exclusive IRL fashion shows still thrive is their proximity to buying season (most designers hold showrooms either during or immediately following fashion week) and the social media attention they garner. Beyond raising brand awareness and currying the favor of the fashion press, for the most part fashion shows are little more than a marketing exercise. In an economy whose recovery may very well take years and with fall buys down an estimated 30 percent according to industry insiders, they may be a cost that is hard to justify.

Of course, that does not mean fashion shows will immediately disappear. In a recent statement, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode—France’s fashion governing body that oversees both men’s, women’s and couture and controls it’s fashion calendar—explicitly stated its intention to maintain Paris’ status as the world’s fashion capital, with a full slate of runway shows included. Yet, if other designers follow in Saint Laurent Paris’ wake, it may be hard to hold that title. As budgets tighten and the ability to safely hold public gatherings remains a near impossibility, other options must be explored.

Ermenegildo Zegna already stated its intention to livestream an audience-free fashion show, while Armani jumped the gun and already presented to an empty crowd in Milan this past February right as Italy began to feel the brunt of the COVID epidemic. With two powerhouses moving to a digital strategy, surely others are to follow. Smaller, independent labels too will no doubt be affected, with many opting out of the season altogether lacking the funds to justify such an expense given the current economy. Now, whether it be a digital endeavor, fashion film or simply a lookbook, the number of options that are—not only COVID-safe but fiscally responsible—far outweigh the fashion show. While the LVMH stable of brands clearly have the means to withstand the current downtown, would a fashion week lacking the young upstarts that make fashion week so exciting even be worth it? Would editors feel safe flying to Milan to see one Gucci show and be content going home immediately after? Can magazines and newspapers even afford to send them? It’s all up in the air.

Frankly, the modern fashion show’s greatest asset is brand equity. In menswear in particular, presenting in Paris as part of the official fashion calendar is an honor, a badge of the elite. But, with increasingly fickle consumers who value sustainability, brand ethics and perceived value over brand cachet, does said badge even matter? Will anyone care if Off-White no longer presents, considering Virgil Abloh’s army of devotees will continue to cop regardless? Rather, will digital events or special projects presented online do more for fans and potential consumers than a runway presentation ever could? With September fashion month largely still up in the air, it will take until the end the next fiscal year to truly see. By the end of 2021, with COVID hopefully in the rearview and a partially recovered economy, the fashion season may bounce back. But if brands show they can operate just as well without, maybe they—along with the antiquated fashion calendar—will be gone for good.

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Grailed strives to let its community speak. The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Grailed or Dry Clean Only.

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