We are all familiar with the impeccable style witnessed during fashion week. From live catwalks, to YouTube, Instagram and Tiktok, shows are now spread across every platform in the world. But we do not realise how significant the industry is for various cultures globally. The fashion industry is the third largest in Italy, according to Claudio Mrenzi, President of Sistema Moda Italia. Twice a year, brands debut their Spring and Autumn Ready-to-Wear collections, in October and February respectively. Fashion month of the “Big Four”, starts with a week in New York, followed by London, Milan and Paris. It serves as an opportunity for designers and brands to debut their creations for upcoming seasons to buyers, collectors, critics, the media, and celebrities. This year has been like no other, but the show must go on, and fashion weeks throughout the year will host a mixture of physical and virtual events.
Not only is this a business opportunity for brand advertisement, but an important time for tourist and hospitality industries within the host cities. According to the French government’s official website, fashion week in Paris generates a revenue of around 1.2 billion euros. While in 2019, Milan Fashion Week alone resulted in a turnover of 36 million for the tourism industry and 160 million for the Italian hospitality sector. Evidently, the opulence and elitist nature of the shows, feeds capitalism and mass consumption of goods.
“The runway shows still prevailed behind closed doors or on empty streets with only essential staff for a live audience.”
The exclusivity factor is a huge part of its success. People attend by invite only, unless you are lucky enough to be staff, yet simply being there is not enough. Unlike the cinema, the front row of a fashion show is the most sought after. It is a privilege only afforded to the most valued guests, like Anna Wintour and Kate Moss, something that normal people will only dream of. However, this year because of Covid-19 restrictions, the Autumn/Winter 2021 runway shows turned virtual and were more accessible than ever. The shows still prevailed behind closed doors or on empty streets with only essential staff for a live audience. For Milan Fashion Week, Italy’s National Chamber of Fashion, created an online hub to showcase the dozens of catwalk shows and collections in one place. Brands like Missoni decided to create a 3-minute-long short film of their new line. Prada live streamed their catwalk show from their YouTube channel, where it amassed over 3.5 million views. For Paris Fashion Week, Dior’s Autumn/Winter21 show took place in the Hall of Mirrors at the Chateau de Versailles and was posted as a 10-minute-long video to their YouTube channel.
“More than 50 brands like Burberry, Gucci, and Prada, committed to reducing emissions by 30% before 2030, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, participating in the UN’s Fashion Charter for climate action.”
Despite the success, economic profits, and promotion of these performances, the industry is not without some serious issues. Consumers are becoming more cautious when shopping, and looking at the effects on the planet thanks to organisations such as Greenpeace, Eco Age, and Extinction Rebellion. People are learning to shop second-hand, buying vintage or supporting online sellers from Depop. The change in consumer habits has put pressure on the fashion industry to reconsider many of its deeply embedded practices. In 2019, more than 50 brands like Burberry, Gucci, and Prada, committed to reducing emissions by 30% before 2030, and to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, participating in the UN’s Fashion Charter for climate action.
But has fashion week become more environmentally friendly? According to a report by Ordre, fashion buyers and designers alone contribute 241,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year, by attending events in New York, London, Paris, and Milan. With the travel factor being eliminated, surely virtual shows would be more sustainable? Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. According to an article by Vogue UK, published in July 2020: “the preparations are much heavier in carbon footprint during the digital event than the physical events.” On the other hand, when the travel factor is taken into account, the carbon footprint of a digital fashion week is “substantially lower” than an in person fashion week as a whole. The only major fashion brand at Paris Fashion Week being applauded for its efforts in sustainability this year, was Chloé. Led by creative director Gabriela Hearst, its latest collection was four times more sustainable than its last, with models walking the runway holding second hand bags reworked from leftover material from their design studio. The brand has also stopped using artificial cellulose fibre in its garments and now uses 80% recycled cashmere in knitwear.
Sustainability was not the only aspect anticipated this year. In the wake of the horrific public incidents of police brutality last year, and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement, brands have pledged to do more to make their companies diverse and inclusive. Model diversity has improved with most brands now featuring a percentage of people of colour in their runway shows, but some still have a long way to go. Only recently, as of 2018, Alton Mason became the first Black male model to walk in a Chanel show, 108 years after its foundation. Even with this, Black representation is still lacking among the executives and designers leading these brands. Gladly, some small progress is being made; to open Milan Fashion Week Fall/Winter 20/21 show, Black Lives Matter and African born “fab five” designers collaborated with the National Chamber of Italian Fashion, to create their digital show, We Are Made in Italy. It showcased designs of African heritage, and included Nigerian Joy Meribe, Fabiola Manirakiza from Burundi, Morocco-born Karim Daoudi, Cameroonian Gisele Ntsama, and Pape Macodou from Senegal.
Seeing the fashion industry adapt to the Covid-19 restrictions and how considerations are evolving to reduce shows’ impacts on the planet, begs the question: what will be the long-term impact of Covid-19 for future fashion weeks? Designers and fashion houses are eager to get back to creating collections for a physical audience. The host countries would gladly welcome the boost in tourism, to support the economy and the attendees want to see them return as well.
“While sustainable fashion is on the rise and environmental awareness is almost mainstream, there is a sense that these issues might fly out the window, if we are given the chance to resume our old habits.”
Most people wish to reclaim some form of normality, and that is something we can all relate to, even if our version of normal does not include attending fashion week. While sustainable fashion is on the rise and environmental awareness is almost mainstream, there is a sense that these issues might fly out the window if we are given the chance to resume our old habits. These bi-annual shows need to re-evaluate the idea of what normal means, for the sake of the planet, and the future of the industry. While virtual fashion shows are unlikely to become permanent, there is no doubt that brands will continue to use digital platforms to reach a wider audience. At the very least they have learned to adapt when needed, without an in-person audience, whilst proceeding to put on a good show.