The fashion catwalk used to be a by-word for glamour; its few weeks in the sun, spread across the traditional fashion capitals of London, New York, Milan and Paris, set the style internationally for half a year. But all that, arguably, was then. Small wonder that Tom Ford, one of the most influential designers of the last decade, recently decided to return his collection presentation to the low-key salon style of the 60s, inviting only special customers and buyers to an otherwise closed event. Designer Gareth Pugh didn’t even do that – for spring/summer 2011 he simply showed a finely-crafted film of his collection: more control, fewer worries about models falling over, he noted.
Proliferation has been one aspect of the radical transformation that the business of catwalks has undergone in recent years. Now there are over 100 fashion weeks around the world, as the fashion industry seeks new ways to get regional talent to rise to the surface – by definition their status as special events has waned. Influence has arguably also taken a nose-dive: thanks to the reach and reportage of the internet, more than ever trends are now likely to be localised, exist in parallel or come up from the street, not down from designer heights. Even the traditional six-monthly pattern of presenting a new season collection is breaking down as the high street’s fast fashion model of multiple small collections throughout a year proves a more responsive and lucrative approach.
“Catwalks are only a brand-building exercise now, not about selling,” says designer Oliver Spencer, a finalist for the British Fashion Council’s 2011 Menswear Designer of the Year award who launched his first catwalk shows just three seasons ago.
“We don’t even refer to the events as ‘catwalks’ anymore - it’s ‘fashion theatre’, about the drama and the stage production,” says Rivleen Chadra, designer manager for Dubai Fashion Week. “In a couple of years the traditional catwalk will go. Indeed, they don’t play a strong role in sales terms anymore – what they are is a showcase.”
Undoubtedly, technology is raising questions as to the very nature of what the catwalk show can be. Burberry has been most ground-breaking in its use of technology, pioneering live-streaming of its shows, allowing viewers, more radically, to ‘shop the runway’ – to order what they see with the click of a button, for delivery in seven weeks – and has now experimented with 3D streaming too.
Other brands are starting to follow suit. Most recently, French fashion house Chloé aired its 'See By Chloe' collection in its first-ever digital catwalk show during Paris Fashion Week (video above), streaming the live show over the internet and offering fashion enthusiasts everywhere the chance to be in the 'front row'.
Of course, such innovation is expensive and available only to the fashion giants – but clearly only going to become more important as lives are increasingly mediated through some or other kind of screen.
'Two tiers' of fashion shows
“People are demanding a much more immersive experience from catwalk shows because technology has changed their expectations generally,” argues Rachel Jones, senior trends editor for the fashion industry analysts WGSN. “It’s necessary to make any show stand out – nobody wants to see models traipsing down a runway anymore. But more than that requires money, so I think the gear change from the companies who can afford it will inevitably lead to two tiers for the industry’s presentation of new collections.”
On the one side, will sit the more established, off-schedule or regional model which, as Chadra stresses, “new designers will continue to need as a platform for their work in order to establish a reputation locally before moving on to bigger events, and which remain important to buyers as they look for a competitive advantage by uncovering new talent.” Smaller, regional fashion weeks offer up-and-coming talent the opportunity to tap into lucrative markets; Dubai Fashion Week, for example, attracts international designers looking to break into the luxury market, while traditional Arab garments such as the abaya represent a whole new set of possibilities in the fashion world.
And on the other side, one could see the development and uptake of an entirely new fashion medium for the big brands – an event that at once expresses an over-arching seasonal theme while also providing buyers with the details they need to make decisions; that is aimed at the industry but accessible to the consumer; that is an entertainment event but also an opportunity to shop.
In fact, for a generation of ‘want it now’ consumers empowered by the next day global delivery systems now offered by e-commerce, buying direct from the catwalk may not only change the way they shop, it may eventually change the structure of the whole industry. In time, the buzz of anticipation as style watchers wait for the new season collections to hit the shops may prove a thing of the past as instant gratification becomes the name of the game.