EXCLUSIVE OP-ED: Business of Fashion editor-at-large Tim Blanks on the necessity of fashion weeks

FashioNZ asked, Tim Blanks answered

One week from today, New Zealand Fashion Week: Kahuria returns following a four-year hiatus, during which it’s undergone a change of ownership and an ambitious rebrand intended to secure its standing as a culturally relevant, industry sustaining and economically viable event at the centre of Aotearoa’s fashion calendar.

A front-row mainstay at every international fashion week throughout his decades-long career as a globally renowned fashion journalist, Business of Fashion editor-at-large and proud New Zealand ex-pat Tim Blanks writes exclusively for FashioNZ on the question that has been debated amongst industry insiders (and some opinionated outsiders) for years.

What role do fashion weeks play in an increasingly digital world, and is there a place for such over-the-top and eye-wateringly expensive displays of (one might say) ‘frivolity’ in the future?

Here is what he had to say.

A line up at CPHFW

Two things about fashion weeks.

They’re everywhere! I’ve been to Dublin, Prague, Sao Paolo, Medellin, Copenhagen…I could go on and on. And, obviously, Sydney and Auckland, where a re-energised fashion week is about to kick off.

Second point: “week” is an optimistic misnomer. Very few run a full seven days. The ready-to-wear schedule in Paris usually clocks in around 10 – which makes sense because the city is the godmother of the entire fashion industry – but I was once invited to Transylvanian Fashion Week, which spanned a full day and a half, travel and accommodation not included, making it a curiously resistible proposition.

Still, whatever the location or the duration, fashion weeks around the world share the same features. Like art fairs and film festivals, they are cultural events, luring visitors and locals alike. They function as fashion’s watering hole, where the industry gathers to make deals and careers, to gossip, and, more recently, to peacock for social media. And, maybe most important for the people who shape the actual look of fashion – the designers, the stylists, the teams of hair and makeup artists, the photographers and models and soundtrackists and all the other people who grease the wheels – fashion weeks are a physical incentive to create. Because fashion weeks are all about fashion shows. And shows are, in a peculiarly enduring way, the industry’s lifeblood, its ultimate show-us-what-you’ve-got inspiration/content provider.

I say ‘peculiarly enduring’ because the very idea of the fashion show has been periodically challenged over the decades I’ve been working in the industry. Which seems utterly laughable in hindsight or with foresight or any other kind of visionary gift you possess. I love fashion shows and I can’t imagine fashion without them. Except for a while I did, and it felt ok. It seemed like there might be other perfectly valid ways for the industry to introduce new ideas, new ways to dress. I’m talking, of course, about the challenge of the pandemic. It seemed insurmountable in its darkest moments. No more cultural events, no more watering hole. But a very different kind of incentive: showing without a show.

There were moments of sheer brilliance. Some of my favourites came from Jonathan Anderson. He made one show in a box, dozens of moving pieces which you could assemble in the privacy of your own home, like a diorama. He reproduced other collections as a photo album with photographer Tyler Mitchell or a roll of posters with Juergen Teller which could be repurposed as exhibitions, again in the privacy etc etc.

A lot of designers made videos. Dries Van Noten’s autumn/winter 2021 collection arrived in the form of a film featuring 47 dancers and models choreographed by contemporary dance stars Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Marie-Agnès Gillot, exquisitely photographed by Casper Sejersen. Van Noten was initially in despair that he would no longer be able to stage the intelligent, emotional spectacles that have made him one of fashion’s greatest showmen, but his collaborations over the long months of lockdown proved his visual genius could thrive in contexts other than the physical catwalk. And there was enough work like that being produced to encourage speculation about the fashion week’s place in the post-pandemic fashion world.

What a rank idealist I was to imagine it would be anything other than business as usual when the COVID cloud lifted. Actually, bigger than usual, because fashion’s titans consolidated their financial positions. Their muscle flex is most obvious in the giant brand-building exercises they’ve been staging all over the world, carbon footprint be damned. On the other hand, the recovery of the fashion week – meaning that burst of season-driven activity that comes round a couple of times a year – hasn’t been quite as stable.

Money is tight for designers outside the golden halo of the big guys. Putting on a show will almost inevitably cost those designers more than they have. Some will choose to be creative with other options, maybe elaborating on the necessary ingenuity of the pandemic years. And yet, for many others, a show remains a practical necessity to generate vital exposure…and also something more emotional. I think Dries Van Noten nailed it when he said that for him a show was always the reward for all the hard work he and his team had put into a collection. A release, a celebration…the fun bit, in other words.

It’s always been a privilege to see fashion shows in real life, to experience a collection as a designer wants me to experience it. It’s part of a process, like being in a studio while an artist paints, or an edit suite when a director is working on a final cut. Because a show isn’t the full stop. There’s a whole afterlife of film and images and opinion, more than ever with social media. But it’s the moment of the actual show I still love most, with all senses – even smell – engaged. (I could always smell burning when I walked into Alexander McQueen’s shows in the early days. It heightened the sense of danger, especially because there usually was something on fire somewhere in the venue.) And with all the will and words in the world, it has always been hard to fully convey the experience. I write a rave review and people will tell me, as kindly as possible, they just didn’t get it from the pictures. I can live with that. I’ve been lucky.

Sometimes it’s spectacle that irrevocably sticks in my mind: a celebration of the Ballets Russes by John Galliano for Dior Couture at the Opéra Garnier, or Karl Lagerfeld planting a forest for Chanel in the Grand Palais, or Virgil Abloh’s last musical extravaganza. Otherwise, it’s as elegantly simple as models riding escalators for Raf Simons, coats flaring out like angel’s wings, or walking through a rainstorm, makeup streaming, clothes soaked through and clinging. McQueen again, and, however spectacular that effect sounds, it was budgeted to the very last shoestring, proving that money is really no object.

And that reminds me of the first time I saw a Karen Walker collection on the catwalk. Sydney 1998, the New Generation Show, her dresses trailed extensions cords with plugs bouncing along behind the models. I remember the collection being called Electricity, and if that wasn’t the title, it should have been, because a single eccentric and cost-effective flourish was exactly that – electric! – and the world noticed. That’s the persuasive virtue of simplicity, though I fully understand you probably had to be there.

But maybe you will be there next week in Auckland, seeing what designers have to say for themselves with all the tools that beauty technicians have to offer and all the personality that models can bring to wearing their clothes. There’ll be a soundtrack too, to draw you in and complete the picture. The designers will be hoping that picture is unforgettable. I’ve got thousands and thousands of them in my head, years and years…and years. And still I’m happy to sit and wait and collect a few dozen more. Fashion week is never really over.

Image credit: Copenhagen Fashion Week SS24