Traditional Runway Shows May Not Be the Answer to the Future of Fashion

Major changes have already begun.

Gigi Hadid walks in Isabel Marant's Fall 2020 show.
Gigi Hadid walks in Isabel Marant's Fall 2020 show. Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images

For years, the fashion industry has slowly been making extensive changes to the Fashion Week schedule, driven by a need to be more sustainable and relevant. Just take look at Sweden, which cancelled its 2019 shows for that very reason. Elsewhere, Copenhagen Fashion Week has put itself on the grid for its sustainable, eco-friendly standards, and designers around the world are focusing more on going seasonless, leaving the behind the traditional production calendar and frequent drops.

Now, however, the pandemic has propelled the seemingly outdated Fashion Week format into something else entirely. Since March 2020, shows around the world, from Tokyo to Moscow, even Paris and Milan, have gone fully digital, with select brands opting for intimate events that are streamed live.

The reasoning is hard to argue with: having a non-traditional, digital show offers more exposure, and possibly even better sales. All these smaller changes to the overall structure, which bigger fashion markets have been slow or resistant to take on, may actually be helping brands in a variety of different ways (as well as the environment and industry at large).

So what's does the future of the fashion show look like? Here, we give you a closer look.

Guests take pictures of models walking the runway during New York Fashion Week.
Guests take pictures of models walking the runway during New York Fashion Week. Manny Carabel/Getty Images

Digital Only

As New York Fashion Week kicks off, many designers are choosing to go digital, making safety a priority and joining the trend of streaming shows instead. Back in July 2020, when the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana decided on a digital Milan Fashion Week, there was arguably more buzz surrounding the shows than there would have normally been. People who otherwise wouldn’t have attended the Prada show, for example, were now posting about it on Instagram at the same time as the usual show attendees might have been doing the same thing. Most 'shows' became short video editorials instead, or brands used the more typical live stream runway format.

“We’ve achieved these extraordinary figures thanks to the incredible teamwork put in by our members who played an active role in this project, which they firmly believed in right from the start,” explained Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana president, Carlo Capasa, in a statement. “Now more than ever our brands are united. I’ve always insisted that 'in unity there’s strength' and these figures bear us out.”

According to the organization, Milan Fashion Week’s streaming platform amassed 15,100,000 plays. Still, despite those numbers, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana decided that in September 2020, Milan Fashion Week will be almost equally split between live, in-person shows and digital shows.

Jason Wu show September 2020
A model walks the runway for Jason Wu during New York Fashion Week September 2020. Mike Coppola/Getty Images For NYFW: The Shows

While some NYFW shows are still happening in person — with smaller crowds and COVID-19 safety precautions in mind — the week was shortened to just three days. It's also running alongside the launch of CFDA’s new Runway360 digital platform, which supports experiential functions like AR/VR, 360-degree capabilities, live video streams, e-commerce extensions, consumer shopping features, and social media integrations.

Some fashion brands have also been pushing the digital format even further by experimenting with CGI. Helsinki Fashion Week, which took place in July 2020, was made up of a digital village, and every single show used simulated environments and CGI models. For Paris Couture Week (which occurred the same month), the British label Ralph & Russo also presented its fall 2020 couture show in a digitally rendered format, complete with CGI models against the backdrop of the Seven Wonders of the World.

“We are fully embracing the new, digital direction the industry is taking, and very excited to be a part of it,” explained Tamara Ralph, Creative Director and co-founder of Ralph & Russo. “The opportunities with this medium are truly limitless, and have only pushed us to think more creatively.”

Only time will tell as designers continue to experiment in new, online-only mediums after the pandemic is over.

Copenhagen Fashion Week Spring 2021
Models at the Birger Christensen show during Copenhagen Fashion Week Spring 2021. Yuliya Christensen/Getty Images


In place of a normal catwalk, many designers are opting to create unique experiences. The brand Ganni, for example, opted to host a three-day long, socially distanced exhibition instead, exploring what the future of the decade is going to be like (a theme they’ve been working with since last season).

“There’s nothing quite like the rush of a show, but there are also a lot of things about the show format that are super irresponsible,” Creative Director Ditte Reffstrup told InStyle. “Flying press and models from all over the world, building a set design for a 10 minute show and the list goes on. This season we didn’t fly in any guests or collaborators, instead everything happened over phone, email, and video calls. It was pretty refreshing to see the whole project come together despite the distances and travel limitations. All installations created for the exhibition will either be reused and re-exhibited in other contexts."

Then there was Loewe, which, for Paris Fashion Week Men’s, offered up a heavy box full of physical objects representing the inspiration behind the show. The brand took the idea of the 'invitation' a step further, so that the people who would have normally attended the show were able to have a keepsake, while also hosting a 24-hour live stream on its Instagram and website.

In terms of how experience-based activities like this may affect sales, much of that is still up in the air. “In terms of exposure and interest in the exhibition we are super happy,” explains Reffstrup. “It will be very interesting to see how this translates.”

The sign for New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Spring Studios in September 2020.
The sign for New York Fashion Week: The Shows at Spring Studios in September 2020. Arturo Holmes/Getty Images

No Show at All

Some fashion labels are opting out of the fashion schedule completely, such as the emerging Wiederhoeft. As a graduate of Parsons School of Design, where he won Women’s Designer of the Year for his senior thesis collection, Wiederhoeft has already been worn by Aquaria, Rihanna, Lil’ Kim, and recently, Lady Gaga in the "Stupid Love” video. While the designer has staged presentations timed to Fashion Week in the past, this season he created a children's fairytale book in place of a show.

Other brands that are choosing to produce collections without having any association with Fashion Week at all are also proving to thrive during the pandemic. Just take a look at Lirika Matoshi, whose viral strawberry dress has gained the attention of hundreds of memes, fan art, and endless regrams. On top of Internet success, actual sales of the Strawberry Dress have spiked over 1,000% over the past few weeks. That's all without any fashion show — just social media.

As the future of the Fashion Week evolves, it’s looking more and more likely the expensive, non-sustainable fashion show will be replaced with something else. But maybe what it ends up being replaced with might be even simpler than what we expect.

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