Season of eventual change

Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg (seated, left) and models in a fashion show held at her Manhattan office on Sunday.
Fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg (seated, left) and models in a fashion show held at her Manhattan office on Sunday.PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • The first big show of New York Fashion Week did not take place in a traditional space.

It took place in Madison Square Garden and featured not only a clothing collection, but also an album release. The event was the debut of Kanye West's Yeezy Season 3 as well as the unveiling of his album The Life Of Pablo.

Three days later, something else cast the Yeezy experiment in a somewhat different light.

On Sunday, Diane von Furstenberg, founder of the brand that bears her name and chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, held her own "experience" over two floors of her Manhattan headquarters, where she lives on the top floor. Attendees could talk to von Furstenberg and her team and get up close with the clothes in a way they never can with a runway.

And if that were not enough, when Burberry hosts its autumn show in London one week later, it will be clad in nostalgia.

Come September, the brand will abandon the concept of "spring" and "autumn" and present combined menswear and womenswear shows that will be pan-seasonal. The clothes will be in stores after the show.

This is turning out to be fashion's season of existential crisis.

Suddenly, designers are asking big questions about "purpose" and "effect", re-examining the system on which they rest. And they are doing it in the cold, blue light of the smartphone's glare.

Complaints about the fashion show system - a month-long, twice- yearly, four-country treadmill to see clothes six months before they reach stores - have been around for a long time: Fashion week is too tiring, too old-fashioned, too crowded.

But while fashion people have largely complained about the effect the system has on their lives, jobs and creativity, today's problems are driven by a more powerful force: financial interest.

Which is to say, the buying public. Interviews with retailers, editors, designers and individuals suggest that women are experiencing product fatigue.

After being inundated by images and live streams from runway shows, from awards shows where the items are worn days after they appear on the runway, and from advertising campaigns, by the time these customers see the clothes in stores, the outfits seem tediously familiar. Old. Over.

The digital world has schooled an entire generation in immediate gratification and it is no longer acceptable to many women to wait six months for something they have just seen.

Especially if they can get an acceptable simulacrum at a fast-fashion brand such as Zara or H&M, which was able to spot the garment via pictures and measure its success via the number of "likes" it achieved.

And this has been confused further by the back-and-forth promotion of what is shown on the runway (products for the next season) versus what is in stores (products from the current season) and exacerbated by the rise of precollection marketing in between.

Ms Sarah Rutson, vice-president for global buying at Net-a-Porter, said: "Our psyche has changed. It is all about immediacy."

However, as she pointed out, the fashion world is on a schedule that demands that retailers be shown a collection months before it can be sold, as they have to place the orders and wait while clothes are made. And magazines such as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar have a three- or four-month lead time.

Fashion week has traditionally served as the fulcrum for this.

In December, the Council of Fashion Designers of America hired Boston Consulting Group to suggest changes to the show system. It has canvassed insiders for ideas and will release its findings next month.

But as Mr Malcolm Carfrae, global head of communications for Ralph Lauren, pointed out, whatever the company finds, it will not work without the buy-in of the entire fashion-week universe, especially the European brands.

But von Furstenberg has no patience for those clinging to the past. "They are going to realise this is best for everyone... And I am seriously considering a consumer- relevant show in September," she added.

She is also selling a select group of items straight from the runway.

Ralph Lauren already does, as do Versace and Moschino. Versus Versace has already moved to the see-now-buy-now model.

Meanwhile, Vetements, the buzzy Paris brand, said that next year, it would move its shows to January and July and aim to deliver clothes in- season the month afterwards, thus creating its own timeline and confusing the matter further.

"It is going to get worse before it gets better," said Mr Ken Downing, fashion director of Neiman Marcus.

Which is the risk of this when-to- show-what-not-to-show fashion- world angst.

The irony is, amid the tension and mixed messaging, the consumer can only watch and check her phone, hoping that waiting for resolution will not be like waiting for Godot.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2016, with the headline 'Season of eventual change'. Print Edition | Subscribe