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With Fashion on Pause, Designers Rethink the Value of Runway Shows

With COVID-19 serving as the ultimate global disruptor, the fashion industry is reconsidering the processes it’s always known—and it’s starting with runway shows.

In the second Vogue Global Conversations on Wednesday, some of the industry’s most acclaimed creatives video-chatted about the future of the catwalk. Nicole Phelps, director of Vogue Runway, spoke with Chloé creative director Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Balmain creative director Olivier Roustieng and Balenciaga CEO Cedric Charbit on their predictions, and they all agreed that shows will look different once isolation orders have lifted.

And that’s a positive change for Charbit, who said runway shows often include around 600 guests—a far cry from the population for which they’re meant. Factoring in the Balenciaga shows’ digital reach—the tweets, Instagram posts and articles they spawn—the number skyrockets to 10 million.

“There’s a digital shift that’s already happening that one needs to embrace,” said Charbit. “Our audience has to be reconsidered: Do we have guests or viewers, or are they becoming one?”

Roustieng echoed that sentiment, pointing to the way technology has slowly and unintentionally made its way into shows for years.

“[When I started with runway shows], people were in the room clapping. Now, everybody’s on their phone, checking to see if they’re getting the right pictures for their Instagram,” he said. “The digital moment started six years ago.”

Social media initially received pushback from many in the industry who didn’t see the importance of infusing technology into shows. But as the pandemic threatens in-person events for the foreseeable future, this could be exactly what the industry needs to make its shows more inclusive and tech-centric.

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Roustieng sees shows of the future being broken down into two categories—digital and in-person—and warns against simply taking the physical show and making it digital.

“With digital, I can make my fashion show on the moon. I can bring my fashion show to the sky, I can walk on the clouds. I see digital more like an experience where you can push your dreams to the next level,” he said, adding that the physical event should touch guests emotionally and provide them with something other than the runway.

Chloe’s Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Balmain’s Olivier Roustieng and Balenciaga’s Cedric Charbit discussed the future of the runway with Vogue.
Olivier Rousteing at the Balmain show, Paris Fashion Week David Fisher/Shutterstock

Ramsay-Levi, who has a track record of highlighting emotion and craftsmanship in runway shows of Chloé’s past, referred to fashion shows as “spectacles.” By doing them less frequently, they could make a greater artistic impact and less of an environmental one.

“We need to reevaluate the business model of this industry,” she said. “We can’t waste materials, and we can’t waste creativity either.”

The concept of creating space for creativity was a focal point in Tuesday’s Vogue Global Conversation, in which Marc Jacobs discussed the inevitable fate of the runway. Lifting the pressure of frequent runway shows could make for more mindful designs, he said.

Waste, Ramsay-Levi said, comes from a system that asks for new products—novelty products—every few months. “And after two months on the floor, it’s discounted and irrelevant,” she said, noting that the industry’s mindset is in need of serious change.

With change happening so rapidly throughout the industry, Charbit warned that those who don’t adapt risk becoming irrelevant—and added that on the flip side, smaller brands could have new opportunities to reach a larger audience.

“The big names or today and big names of tomorrow might be a different list,” he said.

Charbit suggested looking to other industries for inspiration, pointing specifically to musicians who for years have been forced to adapt to a digital takeover. Performances are now streaming on social media sites and songs are available for digital download. The fashion industry must get creative in their adoption of technology, he said.

“Tech and fashion need to be in sync, and it’s no longer wishful thinking,” he added. “We must inject tech into our messages to people.”