Once the nexus of the industry’s creativity, the monthlong, globe-trotting event has become a media circus forcing any element of surprise right off the runway.
Today marks the last day of Fashion Week in Paris, for the Fall 2015 collections. And the magazine editors, stylists, and buyers, who’ve been bouncing from city to city, and show to show like Dead Heads for the past month— from New York to London to Milan to Paris, hurriedly eating meals, doling out air kisses, and forgoing sleep in favor of attending after parties—are undoubtedly exhausted. But curiously this season, the burnout—or is it ennui?—seems to have set in well before the circus had even left the States, if Twitter was any indication. As Stella Bugbee, editorial director of The Cut tweeted, “It’s so sad how undocumented fashion week is. I mean let’s get some cameras in these shows.” It seemed the biggest trend to come out of Fashion Week is that excessive media exposure has rendered it meaningless.
Has Fashion Week become little more than clickbait? Even regular feature magazines that have rarely if ever shown an interest in the fashion world are clamoring to offer coverage: The New Yorker ran a slideshow on peacocking male models. Forbes found itself attempting to analyze trends in New York vs. London. Hollywood Life traded Tinseltown for the Big Apple, and offered a vapid “Fashion Week diary” written by Sophia Richie. Even traditionally stuffy political magazines like the New Republic are getting in on the action.
It’s all part of the shift from fashion show as industry-only trade event into a legitimate form of mass-cultural entertainment. “Twenty-five years ago, you wouldn’t see every single look [in a fashion show] unless you worked at Women’s Wear Daily,” says longtime fashion critic Nathalie Atkinson, who now writes for the Globe and Mail. Fashion shows were literally trade shows where buyers could see clothes for the next season. There may have been celebrities or socialites in the audience but they were there because they were customers, not because they wanted to be seen. Our cultural metabolism exploded and because of the increased access that social media has given us, we now treat fashion the same way we treat film, television, and books: as products meant for our consumption, digestion, and excretion.
As a result, Fashion Week is no longer a furtive peek into an alien world, where enfant terribles used to gleefully concoct ensembles out of pee-stained mattresses. It’s become closer to the Olympics, a bona fide media event where even the smallest newspaper in Podunk County sees fit to send a reporter. But the problem is, everyone at a fashion show is seeing the exact same thing. “Even though we supposedly have this multiplicity of voices, I think its still a really homogenous kind of coverage. There’s only so many angles and opinions I can be interested in that aren’t repetitive,” says Atkinson, who explains that part of the reason for the homogeneity is because fashion companies maintain a Fort Knox–like hold on privacy, vetting journalists to ensure their reputations remain intact.
How ironic it is then, that in fashion when something is ubiquitous it is no longer stylish. As soon as a trend hits mass-market saturation, the most fashion people are already onto the next thing. Are you still bracing yourself to try out boyfriend jeans? The fashion pack has already moved on to the revival of 50-inch-wide pantlegs. Now that almost everyone is interested in Fashion Week, it’s starting to feel more worn out than a moldy old sock—to industry people, at least. Perhaps the casual viewer might still hmmmm with interest at the shows, but to the person who follows fashion like a spectator sport, the endless newness is fatiguing. “I’m interested in the subject and I can’t absorb all that there is,” says Atkinson, laughing.
Ironically, the amount of media coverage relative to the amount of interesting things happening in fashion have gone in completely contradicting directions. Li Edelkoort, a Paris-based trend forecaster remembers going runway shows where “we would be on our chairs, shouting with tears in our eyes and the whole place would go crazy. Check Thierry Mugler’s old fashion shows online. You see the difference. It moved us.” Simon Doonan, the Creative Ambassador at Barney’s corroborates this in his book, The Asylum, confessing to choking up at many runway shows, even going so far as to name the phenomenon fashion verklempt. Now, Edelkoort complains, “Fashion shows are becoming ridiculous; 12 minutes long, 45 minutes driving, 25 minutes waiting. Nobody watches them any more. The editors are just on their phones; nobody gets carried away by it.”
There’s not as much spectacle to behold as there was in the 1980s and ’90s, the heyday of Alexander McQueen who was known for his wild antics like staging a pee-fetish-themed runway show, and having a robot spray-paint a supermodel. These days who gets to put on a runway show is less about design talent and more about cash. The supremely interesting Meadham Kirchhoff had to cancel their runway show due to lack of funds, but Kanye West’s show went off without a hitch. Despite his extreme musical talent and admittedly strong vision, his clothing line looked like he fished them out of an Old Navy Dumpster.
Now that the shows themselves have become something of a yawn (Rick Owens’s gimmicky penis-baring collection was perhaps the exception), the best stories to come out of Fashion Week are the ones that shine a light on the absurdity of it all; specifically the attendees who promenade around in wildly weather-inappropriate outfits. The front rows of fashion shows, where the most important and powerful players sit, are littered with bare legs and stilettos, while outside New Yorkers trudge through piles of dirty slush wearing parkas and Sorels. “It” girl model Gigi Hadid showed up to the Tory Burch show wearing a miniskirt and sandals—an outfit more suited to Dubai than the wintry deep freeze of New York. She shouldn’t have to sacrifice comfort—even legendary street photographer Bill Cunningham has been known to show up wearing L.L. Bean duck boots.
But just like the bare-legged one percent, attending fashion shows has for the most part become an exercise in ego. Celebrities pepper the front row even more than fashion editors, and the most important editors only attend the most high-profile shows, leaving the important yet unglamorous work of covering unestablished designers to their assistants and lackeys. Then there’s the uninvited masses, fashion students and obsessives who blag their way in because going to a fashion show gives them a charge. Almost everyone who goes to a fashion show longs for the days of yore, when only industry insiders were granted entry, so they can feel like they’re important enough to be there.
Of course, fashion has never exactly been democratic. It’s always been for the one-percenters. Perhaps why we’re so fond of watching fashion is because it is so far removed from our lives: Most of us can’t afford a $2,000 pair of pants but we watch them greedily anyways. Atkinson believes there might be a return to “thoughtfulness” in coverage of Fashion Week, now that the immediacy of social media feels careless more than exciting. It’s the next stop in the swinging pendulum of fashion that shifts just when we start to get a little comfortable. But at the same time, who really knows? It’s the business of fashion to always keep you guessing.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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