Discover more from Fashion Strategy Weekly
The Business Use Cases for Fashion Week
This Friday FSW long read explores the question of whether fashion week shows are still worth brand investment.
Fashion shows never start on time. This is a fact to which everyone in the industry will attest.
During the heyday of Mercedes-Benz New York Fashion Week (NYFW) in 2013, however, I witnessed a single celebrity delaying a fashion show by over an hour. Instead of winning the ire of an entire crowd of 100+ fashion editors, buyers, influencers, and industry insiders, we all just shrugged it off and moved on.
While a celebrity delaying an event is nothing new, this single episode planted a seed of doubt in my mind about the enduring purpose of fashion week for brands that has never really abated and seems to grow year after year.
Celebrity over Brand?
In September 2013, a flock of stylish, selectively flamboyantly-dressed observers were huddled into folding chairs in the very grand Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal, awaiting the start of the Diesel Black Gold Spring/Summer 2014 show. Only the show didn’t start. At least not for a very long time.
Andreas Melbostad’s team held the show back to wait for the arrival of Kanye West, who was in the early stages of his brand collaborations and still in good standing with the popular press. So, we all waited. After around 45 minutes, people started getting grumbly and jumped on their phones, calling and emailing assistants to reschedule meetings and cancel invites to other shows that would be missed. An hour and a half later, West showed up. He was met with a flock of excited photographers and reporters. Then, the show began.
What I remember most about this event was unfortunately not Melbostad’s sharp collection. It was the fact that the group of deadline-religious journalists (of which I was a part), photographers, and influencers shrugged it off as if it didn’t even happen. They moved on. Neither the lateness of the show nor even West himself even made any of the major fashion reviews of the Diesel Black Gold Spring 2014 show at the time, which I always found odd. No talk of the expense of such a late running show or the inconvenience of rescheduled plans. Nothing.
The fashion show must go on, even when severely delayed. But, it wasn’t just that. The fashion brand and, in turn, the media, had made a conscious decision to prioritize a celebrity over the designer, no matter the cost.
This made me wonder whether we even needed the show in the first place if everything was all about who was attending, rather than Diesel’s brand vision, Melbostad’s creative ideas, or his team’s craftsmanship.
What is the business case for fashion week? How do brands know when a physical runway show at fashion week is worth the investment? How do they gauge the right way and right time to showcase a fashion collection?
Not surprisingly, the answer is complex. Being part of a formal fashion week matters greatly for many brands for specific business reasons at certain points in time; but for some brands, it is becoming increasingly less relevant and too costly to stick with for the long term.
A Brief History of Fashion Week
Since the inception of NYFW in 1943, semi-annual fashion weeks have been the seminal events of the fashion calendar. Indeed, fashion weeks are the place where brands and fashion houses typically unveil their latest collections to the world, both to the magazine and press crowds but also to fellow designers and consumers.
However, the concept of a “fashion week” and its catwalk shows and presentations pre-dates the founding of NYFW. The idea of catwalk presentations originates in private salon shows for the very rich in the 18th and 19th centuries. Couturiers arranged for private presentations of the latest fashions to individual aristocratic clients hungry for new frocks to show off their wealth and social standing. These presentations took place either in private residences or in a designated room in a designer’s salon, and involved models wearing the designer’s creations for aristocratic clients to view.
Not surprisingly, the salons of France dominated the fashion design market as early as the 18th century, though they faced some competition from the impeccable tailoring of British designers in the aftermath of the French Revolution. From Marie Antoinette to Empress Eugénie, the glamor of the French queens and empresses significantly impacted international fashion, which was supplied by highly-skilled couturiers.
While haute couture initially referred to the bespoke work of Englishman Charles Frederick Worth (of Woolworth’s fame), the term was embraced by French designers in the late 19th century and later syndicated with formal criteria by the Chambre de commerce et d’industrie de Paris in 1945.
While the glamour of Hollywood brought fame to some American designers, the first serious threat against French fashion came in 1943 with the organization of New York Fashion Week by publicist Eleanor Lambert (founder of the CFDA) in a deliberate attempt to attract attention away from la mode de Paris. Lambert created an organized “Fashion Press Week” to introduce the collections of American designers to the world when the fashion world was unable to travel to Paris because of the war. Due to the success of this event, Lambert later helped created a coordinated system of similar press events in fashion capitals around the world.
Almost 80 years later, fashion weeks now operate on a more-or-less coordinated schedule of events for Fall/Winter collections in the early part of the year and Spring/Summer collections in the latter part of the year beginning in New York, followed by London, Paris, and Milan. Haute couture shows in Paris still operate on their schedule. The notion of a “fashion week” is a mainstream concept, especially as a plethora of cities across the world have latched upon this idea to present the work of local designers.
Until around 15 years ago, the Big 4 fashion weeks were invitation-only events for the press, celebrities, and industry insiders. While fashion weeks are hardly a monolithic concept and have experienced organizational and industry politics over the years, it was the onset of social media that shook up fashion weeks and forced them to transform into a slightly more democratized concept.
Even if access to fashion shows has remained limited, the landscape of attendees has changed a lot over the years; and media coverage of these events is now real-time, accessible, and fully open to the public. Of course, there is a bevy of factors affecting or even threatening the concept of fashion week. These include buy-now, see-now purchasing models enabled by mobile tech, a younger demographic of GenZ and GenAlpha who may have negative views on fashion’s impact on climate change, and you’ve got a fashion industry grappling with the best ways to showcase a fashion collection to buyers and the public.
The Cons of Fashion Week
The problem with fashion week, of course, is that exclusivity forgoes inclusivity. No matter how organizers open up show rosters, they always leave people out, including small- to mid-sized brands who cannot afford the costs and consumers who by design are meant to watch from afar.
In the democratized era of social media and future of tech things like Web3 (or Web4) and the metaverse, one could argue that the concept of a physical fashion week is archaic and elitist. That is, of course, part of the point.
While we’ve explored why the world is not ready for Metaverse Fashion Week, what is the continuing relevance of fashion week to brands and the business of the fashion industry? Is there an economic, social, or business rationale for brands continuing to invest so much energy, time, and money into these major show productions several times a year? (Note: The cases for and against fashion week are essentially the same as those for a fashion show itself so I am conflating the two together for the sake of simplicity.)
The cons of fashion week are plentiful. Fashion shows are notoriously expensive, require extensive advanced planning, production, and strategy, and have questionable ROI when it comes to converting into actual sales. Even modern see-now, buy-now fashion show business models suffer from supply chain, tech, and marketing issues due to cost, timing, and scale. Bigger brands that do stage mainstream shows still face logistical and production issues, never mind more basic issues of cohesive collection narrative and brand messaging, even if they are never meant to be sold.
Sometimes, a fashion show falls flat for no particular reason. They get lost in the shuffle or simply do not attract any press attention. Fashion week shows also are much more challenging for small- to mid-sized brands to pull off successfully simply because they neither have the staff nor the budget.
There’s also the unavoidable, elephant-in-the-room question of how much average people, even those who work in fashion, even care about fashion week anymore.
Some Fashion Week Use Cases
When it comes to the pros of fashion week, let’s take a practical approach. Strategists and developers alike love a good use case to illustrate and contextualize specific capabilities and functionalities and how they may operate in practice. So here are four high-level business use cases for fashion week to explore why a brand may benefit from participating.
Use Case 1: Tradition and clienteling
The most common use case for fashion week involves brands with a long history of involvement with fashion week for whom these events are an institutional part of the fashion calendar. For these brands, such as Gucci or Burberry, releasing a fashion collection as a physical runway show is a fashion tradition, an expected regular showcase of brand creative vision. Under pressure to show collections six times a year or more, these are usually larger brands for whom fashion shows are a key driver of business, a healthy source of visibility and press coverage, and a natural path to clienteling for high-net-worth consumers and celebrities. The current trend for exotic destination resort shows like Louis Vuitton’s Cruise 2024 collection in Isola Bella fall into this category.
Use Case 2: Artistic expression
Perhaps overlapping yet distinct from traditional brand fashion week shows are presentations designed to exhibit a brand or creative director’s artistic vision. This is fashion as high art for art’s sake and encapsulates almost all of haute couture. We’ve explored the why of couture at length. From a business perspective, the why of a fashion week show for the sake of artistic expression comes down to big brands with a big budget to do big things. Think of any of Pierpaolo Piccioli’s couture shows as of late, such as the extravagant Valentino Fall/Winter 2023 Couture show staged on the Piazza di Spagna in Rome.
Use Case 3: Launching something new
More often than not, fashion shows are simply a means to an end for launching something new, whether it be a new creative director, a new product line, a new collection, or an entirely new sales model (e.g. buy-now, see-now). A fashion week show is the perfect opportunity to test media and consumer reactions to a new collection or product and to gather data ahead of spending a lot of money investing in manufacturing something that won’t sell. Recently, we’ve seen a lot of turnover within the Big 4 fashion weeks with major brands decamping New York and showing their wares in new markets in London or Paris instead. Think Thom Browne, Rodarte, and Proenza Schouler have all left NYFW at one point or another, though the latter left and came back. Some brands leave the main fashion calendar altogether.
Use Case 4: Strategic marketing initiative
Another use case for a fashion week show is to launch or showcase a strategic marketing initiative, such as a big campaign or collaboration. Think of all the fanfare surrounding the launch of Gucci x Adidas during Fall/Winter 2022. The list of collaborations between fashion and luxury brands and other brands, celebrities, and influencers is extensive. Like my earlier Diesel Black Gold/Kanye West story, fashion shows linked to strategic marketing goals are about more than just the clothes. They are inextricably linked to the people who attend, whether the creatives who designed it or the celebrities and insiders who are there to be seen. Tied to a specific campaign vision and goals, the fashion week show as a strategic marketing initiative is usually big and is designed to create a moment through meticulous planning down to every last detail.
Obviously, any of these use cases are interchangeable at some level but they serve to illustrate specific reasons a brand may decide that participating in fashion week is worth the investment. Fashion is equal parts business and art. To a real extent, fashion weeks are more than the brands, the designers, the celebrities, and even the clothes. Fashion weeks are a cultural phenomenon, an expression of the sinuous relationship between business and art that makes fashion what it is. Fashion weeks will remain a relevant concept, as long as they continue to bring business value to the brands involved, the organizing bodies, the fashion media, and the fashion-loving consumer.
Thanks for reading FSW. Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support our work.