Can public facing shows breathe new life into Fashion Weeks?

House of Holland London Fashion Week
House of Holland

Fashion Weeks’ viability are continually being questioned. It’s the same conversation every time on the front row – the fashion industry’s twice-yearly déjà vu – “What is the point? And, how do fashion brands and designers justify the expense and time?”

There’s no doubt the major Fashion Weeks – New York, London, Milan & Paris – have suffered recently as the industry has contracted, brands have merged men’s and women’s catwalks together, and others have opted out entirely, reducing both the quality and quantity of shows. Yet, many brands are still willing to spend millions on a few short minutes of exposure.

Ready-to-wear Fashion Weeks’ last hoped for raison d’être trend was “See Now, Buy Now”, which didn’t really work. It was too restrictive in a creative capacity for brands whose collections are often pulled together and styled a few weeks before each show.

It’s time to try something else, so could “public-facing shows” be the solution and create a much-needed source of income for the trade organisations behind the Fashion Weeks?

The British Fashion Council has announced public-facing shows at the forthcoming London Fashion Week in September. Designers House of Holland and Self-Portrait, the first to be announced, will be taking part in the new format, which sees the internationally recognised event open its doors to the public.

Unlike the “London Fashion Weekend”, which was tagged onto the end of Fashion Week, and is more of an exhibition-type shopping event, these public-facing shows will take place during the main Fashion Week. There are public shows on the Saturday and Sunday with ticket holders choosing from three different time slots; 10am, 1pm and 4pm. The public audience is able to purchase tickets to “an immersive London Fashion Week experience” taking place at the official London Fashion Week Hub at The Store X on The Strand, where standard tickets are priced at £135 and Front Row tickets at £245.

The British Fashion Council says: “The experience includes catwalk shows, on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 September 2019; creative installations, industry-led talk panels from experts offering unparalleled insights to the fashion industry, the DiscoveryLAB, an experiential space where fashion meets art, technology and music and a newly relaunched Designer Exhibition, which will fully embrace #PositiveFashion, the BFC’s initiative designed to celebrate industry best practice and encourage future business decisions to create positive change.”

Fashion Writer, Dal Chodha, @dalchodha is positive about the idea of formally involving the general public. “Fashion shows are already ‘public facing’ so I don’t think this initiative is necessarily a bad thing. What is increasingly obvious is that the industry has tried to maintain its aloofness whilst still courting attention from anyone and everyone for too long. There has been no clear welcome of the general public into the fashion conversation, despite all of the hot air about the ‘democratisation’ of fashion. I haven’t seen it,” he says. “There is nothing democratic about showing people clothes they cannot get, or streaming experiences they cannot feel.”

Dan Hasby-Oliver, Blogger, Last Style of Defense, agrees but offers a note of caution: “I do think this opens up crucial funding for both designers and the BFC, as well as making an industry more transparent, given the conversation around sustainability – it all goes hand-in-hand. However, I do fear it could become a circus of phone toting teens…”

I think it’s a great idea. The designers need customers. If we can get #shoptherunway technology and eventually solve the fit issue using technology, we’ll have a seemless way for designers to make money from a runway show. The old model is dead. Off with its head!” says Melissa Shea, Cofounder of Fashion Mingle, the first nationwide platform designed exclusively for fashion professionals.

The full line-up of catwalk shows, talks and designers taking part in the London Fashion Week “Designer Exhibition” will be announced in the next few weeks. London isn’t the first Fashion Week to try to tap into this enthusiasm from the public.

“I have visited Seoul Fashion Week four times to report on it for Wallpaper and I was most struck by the energy, the excitement in the room!” says Chodha. “I believe they operate on a lottery system, but I don’t think people pay money for tickets. The first show I went to was bizarre because people were screaming and smiling and laughing each time they saw a celebrity or a look they liked. It felt like the photographs of 1980s shows coming to life. People were enjoying them – in contrast to the glum faces you see in Paris, Milan and London.

“Most of us are too busy trying to process what we are seeing to really enjoy it. No one applauds at shows anymore because each of us is wielding a phone, ‘gramming the moment. So if people are avidly watching and enjoying the stories, why not free up a few seats and invite them to the show? I don’t see the harm in it, as long as we are still allowed to do our job. Fashion is a tricky industry because it is so seductive. I just wish that more young people were encouraged to go and see scientists or surgeons at work too, rather than just designers!” he says.

With ticket prices to rival a rock concert, the BFC is clearly hoping to make serious revenue from this. It has previously sold tickets to The Fashion Awards and sponsors have always been given tickets to London Fashion Week in exchange for money.

“I agree that the pricing is an issue as it pits itself as a ‘luxury’ experience – also in terms of broadening out the kinds of people who have access to fashion, the price of the tickets will foster no new ways of thinking,” says Chodha. “The move from the BFC just confirms fashion’s new role as a type of theatre. It is a spectacle (even when it is bad). Just like traipsing around an art gallery or squeezing yourself into a concert, fashion is entertainment.

“‘Outsiders’ have been going to fashion shows for a long time under the guise of ‘sponsors friends’. Is this the future? It is the here and now. To be snobbish about it is to refuse evolution. Something has to change, that’s for sure,” he says.

Fashion Week is a working environment, and to perhaps make it a free for all could make professionals reconsider their place during the week, thus transitioning the event to a redundant, consumer facing replacement for See Now, Buy Now,” cautions Hasby-Oliver.

“Perhaps more work-place/open days/industry support would benefit keen outsiders looking to the industry instead. I do think, the current price package is prohibitive to the less privileged. Conclusion: Yes for transparency and education for the few, No to making it a frenzied free for all,” he says.

Traditionally, Haute Couture fashion shows have always been about the consumer with the hope these ridiculously expensive clothes are ordered off the back of the show. But it was a model only for the mega-monied who could buy entry by becoming a customer.

These new public facing shows will be separate from the press/buyer shows, but should give attendees a feel of going to a fully-fledged fashion show. Many people want to attend a fashion show once in their lifetime and if the BFC get the designers, music and models right they should satisfy those with the desire to stump up this sort of cash to go. Unfortunately, the best designers will probably decline to take part.

Fashion and Fashion Weeks’ exclusivity is one of the attractions of the industry. The desire for tickets, the scrum at the door and the hysteria are all part of the fun. To sell out six catwalk shows for these prices will be a challenge, but it will certainly generate some income. These shows need to be buzzy and full to give the true LFW experience. If successful, other brands could look at offering another public show after their main one and possibly give the tickets away in a ballot or to VIP customers. The industry will be watching.