During London Women’s Fashion Week FW19, designer Osman Yousefzada showed his clothes three times – one presentation and two runway shows. This is unusual, as brands normally offer one scheduled show, then hole up somewhere with their full collection for buyers to come and touch the cloth, figure out what might actually sell, and place orders for the next season.
Weirder still was the fact that in recent years, Osman has steered clear of catwalks. Instead he’s found interesting corners of London, like the secret-feeling Soho garden where he hosted his Spring/Summer 2019 presentation, or stayed in the brand’s opium den-turned-retail space in Fitzrovia where he presented this year’s Fall/Winter collection, which married punky tailoring with ultra-feminine gowns.
At his second show out of the three, press, influencers and the brand’s most loyal clientele mingled, cooing over embroidered chiffon and pink feathers. It was squeezed between the pair of shows at the London Fashion Week Festival, a public-access satellite to the main event, where for £245 (about $320) you’d get to sit front row.
A ticket got the fashion fan access to the event for a three-hour window, in which they’d get to watch two shows (Fyodor Golan and Marta Jakubowski on the Saturday, Golan and Osman on Sunday) as well as attend talks from industry insiders. They’d each go home with a Richard Quinn-designed tote and whatever they’d bought from the ‘exclusive’ shopping section.
Unlike the presentations happening in the rest of the city, where next season’s designs were being revealed for the first time, these runways showcased the soon-to-drop collections that the designers had shown at London Fashion Week six months earlier. On one hand this goes against the entire point of a fashion week, which is supposed to be about the new. On the other, it’s closing the loop, taking runway shows back to the end consumer.
Before there was Instagram, before there was even a fashion press, there was Charles Frederick Worth, a British expat living in Paris. He all but invented the runway show when he started showing new designs on models to a group of invited clients. Before Worth, couturiers had to go through the rigmarole of one-to-one consultations.
Runway shows have played the same role ever since. Inviting the press gets you a bigger audience. With press and influencers, brands found an even bigger audience. But these figures are just conduits. The ultimate target of every fashion show are still the people who’ll eventually take out their wallets and buy the clothes.
Fashion Weeks are workplaces, in essence not so different from a photocopier expo (albeit a touch more glamorous). Designers show what’s new. Press write about it. Buyers place orders based on what they think will sell in six months time. For most of the 20th century, it was fairly workaday. Everyone had a glass of champagne at the end, then headed home.
But by the 90s, with the rise of supermodels and fashion’s shift into mainstream culture, the most interesting shows began appearing in the front of newspapers, rather than in the back at the fashion section. Internet changed the audience again, providing scale, turning runways into branding exercises.
That’s encouraged a shift in what actually ends up on the runways. Throw in something strange, like Viktor & Rolf’s meme-sparking dresses, Chanel with its rocket ships or Gucci and its severed heads, and they explode on social media, finding an audience that would have been inaccessible even a decade ago. Selling the clothes is still important, but so’s selling the brand. Though at its most extreme in haute-couture (which is basically high-end marketing that helps flog diffusion lines), even at more accessible brands there’s increasingly a disjunction between what appears on the runway, and what’s actually available in the showroom afterwards.
But Fashion Week remains indispensable. You can watch runway shows live on your phone, but you get a different sense of the clothes – and the story that holds each season together – when you can see them up close. And though for those who attend, the reality of Fashion Week involves a lot more schlepping from between shows than you see on Instagram, for those outside the bubble the glamour is still intoxicating. Industry folks get worked up enough over who sits where and the status it conveys; for the people buying into the illusion, £250 (about $325) might seem a reasonable price to get the exclusive access.
If selling tickets helps brands sell clothes, you can expect to see more getting involved. A handful of them already invite big-spending customers, who sit front row alongside celebrity friends and favored influencers. Some even sell tickets themselves – you could sit front row at Mary Katrantzou’s F/W19 show for £5,000 (about $6,530), or at Alice Temperley for £2,500 (about $3,270). When asked by the Guardian if attendees would need to have any interest in fashion, Katrantzou’s sales rep replied, “Not particularly, no.”
This isn’t an entirely new idea. In 2015, Riccardo Tisci put up 1,200 tickets for the Givenchy show at NYFW, on a first-come-first-served basis – the industry bods sat next to the runway, the public stood, massed, behind them. Kanye, too, debuted Yeezy Season 3 to ticket-buying fans at Madison Square Garden. It was also streamed live and shown in movie theatres around the US. Telfar’s long reimagined the runway show as concert – at FW19, those who scored tickets danced to DJ Total Freedom as the models roamed the stage.
But these are the fashion show as public spectacle. If you get in, you’re in a crowd of hundreds, and generally nowhere near the actual clothes. Sure, there’s some Instagram juice to be squeezed from a pixelated, zoom-in shot of what might be some models, if you squint. But buying a seat within touching distance offers more clout – if you can get that front row selfie, no one needs to know that you paid for it. For those in the industry but lower down the ladder, it also offers the chance to get in a room with the people who could make your brand. That said, it’s debatable whether busy editors and influencers will want to stop and chat to people who bought their way in.
While tickets to proper shows are likely to stay a rarity – offer too much access and you dilute the exclusivity – chances are that the fashion show as public experience is here to stay. As they’ve become ubiquitous on social media, fans have grown hungry to take part. And rightly so. They are, after all, the ones buying the clothes. Why should they only see it via someone else’s screen, rather than experiencing its most exciting and dramatic moments first-hand?
The big miss, though, will be if brands don’t take this chance to truly open up. Those who paid to attend the London Fashion Week Festival must have felt like they were stepping behind the curtain, even if to those traipsing between the real shows they looked like kids playing dress-up in mum’s work clothes. But letting people pay for access doesn’t democratize the fashion industry. It just creates another layer of haves and have-nots.
Then again, the fashion industry is built on the distinction between who’s on which side of the velvet rope. Brands benefit more from the exclusivity of a selective list than they do from the chance to sell their clothes direct to their customers. For now, your clout matters more than your wallet. Although if you do have more of the latter than the former, there’s always scalpers.