NZ Fashion Week cancels February event and what it means for the industry

NZFW cancelled

New Zealand Fashion Week has cancelled the February 2022 event. Image from Campbell Luke’s runway show at NZFW 2019. Image supplied.

For the third time in as many years, New Zealand Fashion Week (NZFW) has had to cancel their annual event, this time planned for February 7th – 12th 2022, due to Aotearoa’s response to the current pandemic. To say that this third cancellation is a devastating blow to the fashion industry is not an overstatement given the ramifications across every sector, not to mention the fact that this was meant to be a celebration of New Zealand Fashion Week’s 20th anniversary, a milestone that was originally going to be celebrated in August 2020.

With the increasing threat of the highly contagious Omicron variant of Covid-19 in our communities, our Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and our government leaders have been preparing the country to deal with a move back into increased restrictions for some weeks now. However, up until the past few days it felt like New Zealand Fashion Week might just get lucky this time and the scheduled event would be able to go ahead before a major outbreak occurred.

That expectation was crushed this past Sunday morning when an unscheduled press conference was announced for 11am and our PM confirmed that the entire country would move to the red setting of the Covid Protection Framework, otherwise known as the traffic light system at 11.59pm that evening. Alongside increased restrictions for various activities came a limit on events to 100 people, effectively cancelling New Zealand Fashion Week and a myriad of other events including the Auckland Pride Festival and Splore, that were all planned for February.

Within a few hours, a statement arrived from New Zealand Fashion Week, confirming the cancellation; “Today’s announcement that all of New Zealand will move back into the Red Traffic light at midnight tonight has resulted in the cancellation of New Zealand Fashion Week. The 100 person limit within the Red Traffic Light setting means it is not viable for our designers to put on a show.

Dame Pieter Stewart, Managing Director and founder of NZFW says: “It’s incredibly disappointing for everyone involved that the event has been cancelled. Our designers have put in a huge amount of work, as have our partners, buyers, models, production teams and a number of other people.

We respect the decision of the government to put the health and safety of all New Zealanders’ first.”

Resulting social media posts from New Zealand Fashion Week and many participating designers alongside those involved in PR, production, creative teams, media and many more expressed sorrow and frustration that yet again the event had come so close to being held, but was cancelled at almost the eleventh hour. While many New Zealanders in general seem to support our government’s response to the pandemic and respect the rules and restrictions in place to help keep us safe and protect the vulnerable members of our community, there is still an understandable sense of disappointment that comes with this latest move back into increased restrictions and the cancellation of events that were many months in the making.

“Of course, we are gutted as a lot of time and energy has gone into preparing for our show,” says designer Caitlin Crisp who has previously shown at NZFW in 2018 and was preparing for her first solo show. “However we respect the decision that has been made, it’s in the best interest for the health and safety of everyone involved.”

Which is a sentiment also shared by designer Bobby Luke of Campbell Luke whose NZFW 2019 show was one of the most celebrated shows of the week, “I’m feeling deflated. I think the first time it wasn’t so bad as we knew it was being rescheduled so I think for many of us it has been numbing,” says Bobby Luke. “I have been a part of NZ Fashion Week in all capacities from being a volunteer to now showing my second solo show. But the health and safety of my whānau and the livelihoods that we depend on for these events are more important.”

For All is for All co-founder Grace Stratton, whose disabled models debuted at NZFW 2019, the focus on safety by cancelling the event is appreciated, “The cancellation of NZFW is deeply disappointing for the designers and team who work every year to make it possible, and it is disappointing for our models, but we all equally appreciate the safety conscious approach currently being taken in NZ in response to Covid-19 and new variants,” says Grace Stratton. “Globally the safety of disabled people and our immune comprised populations is being disregarded by some approaches, while our approach, although it might be disappointing to cancel events, helps ensure the safety of all of us.”

The impact of cancelling the largest event on the New Zealand fashion industry’s calendar is wide-reaching with the financial effect first to be felt. Alongside the huge upfront costs of the organisers, which should be eligible to be covered by the government’s large events scheme to underwrite 90% of costs due to cancellation, are the costs for the participating designers which can range from a few thousand dollars to many tens of thousands of dollars depending on the scale of the show. There’s also a myriad of freelancers from makeup artists and hairstylists to models, show producers to technical crew, and of course hospitality staff who were all relying on the money made and would have turned down other work to participate in the event.

That’s aside from all the other companies with a stake in the event such as PR and media, as well as NZFW’s many sponsors and partners. The hole left by New Zealand Fashion Week’s cancellation is huge and with the government not yet putting a timeframe on when restrictions would be reviewed (notably for the first time since the start of New Zealand’s pandemic response) it leaves organisers up in the air on whether they should even try to reschedule this year or if it’s best left until 2023.

Unlike some events and festivals where timing is less important, to be relevant for the industry and for consumers, the timing of New Zealand Fashion Week is crucial for it to make sense for designers and customers. While the fashion industry has been moving away from a seasonal model for a while now, the seasons themselves don’t exactly change and there are still two key times of the year when new collections arrive which are February/March/April for Autumn/Winter collections and July/August/September for Spring/Summer.

While there’s a lot more variance now in new arrival dates, with the current fashion selling and production cycles these are still the main delivery windows. New Zealand Fashion Week has been less about wholesaling in recent years, but it makes sense that the event is timed for the fashion seasons, especially now that there is a strong focus on the in-season consumer shows.

Attendees flock to the NZ Fashion Weekend shows and the likes of the Resene Designer Runway Show to see the latest looks that they can then go out and shop straight away. In that sense it wouldn’t work to hold New Zealand Fashion Week in June for example which is mid sale season when stock is depleted. The event needs to be at the beginning (or very close to the beginning) of the new season to work, which is why it was rescheduled from August 2021 to February 2022 (aside from that was hoped it would be better timing pandemic-wise). Unless it can be held in the next couple of months the next logical time would be August again, which is the event’s usual spot on the calendar.

Doing a fashion week presentation on any scale is a big commitment of time and resources, it’s also a chance for designers to bring their vision for their latest ranges to life in a way that they hope will make them stand out while captivating their audience and generating sales. There’s a great deal of planning and creativity involved to create spectacular runway moments and while the event may have been cancelled again some designers are optimistic about eventually presenting their collections.

“New Zealand Fashion Week is always such a great celebration for the industry and our new seasonal collections being released,” says designer Kathryn Wilson, who has been showing at the event since 2010. “We had collaborated over the last six months with an incredible team of creatives, stylists, dancers, models, make up and hair artists to produce custom-tailored outfits, a choreographed and stylised catwalk presentation and a beauty look we were so proud of and excited to share, we look forward to being able to showcase our designs on the catwalk again when it is safe to do so.”

Designer Turet Knuefermann who was the celebrated Mercedes-Benz Presents designer at NZFW in 2018 concurs, “We feel indebted for the incredible support NZ Fashion Week has given us over the years to allow us to survive these difficult times together. We value our loyal clients for their amazing support and are thankful to have face to face experiences together for the meantime. We hope we can offer a glamorous show again in the future!”

In May last year, it was announced that New Zealand Fashion Week had been sold to Canadian businessman Feroz Ali who has also purchased NZ Fashion Tech and Whitecliffe College of Art and Design in recent years. Founder Dame Pieter Stewart and her team were meant to deliver the 20th anniversary event before stepping back to let the new owner and his team take over, with this latest cancellation it remains to be seen if Stewart and her current team will continue with the event or if the 20th anniversary celebrations will end up being scrapped entirely.

New Zealand Fashion Week itself definitely has a future and it’s importance to the fashion industry shouldn’t be underestimated. Aside from being a celebration of creativity and commerce, it’s the one occasion each year when pretty much the entire local fashion industry is in one place and the social aspect of seeing longstanding friends and colleagues, and making new connections is a vital aspect of it. The pandemic has meant a dearth of events which has been widely felt and especially in an industry where the calendar is usually full of them, as fashion is meant to be seen and experienced. How those events look going forward and what NZFW will be like in the future is something that many in the industry will be considering.

“We need to be resilient, this is the new normal and it also teaches us to find other ways of presenting our collections such as digital exhibitions,” says Bobby Luke.

For Murray Bevan, director and founder of leading PR agency Showroom 22, who has been involved in New Zealand Fashion Week since the beginning, the cancellation of the event was devastating but he remains optimistic about the event’s future and how it can continue to evolve in new hands.

“For NZFW to be cancelled for the third time in as many years is absolutely gutting, and my heart goes out to Dame Pieter Stewart and her team. The creative, commercial and community opportunities the event provides for our fashion industry are unmatched by any other single activity, which is incredibly hard to replace,” says Murray Bevan. “From here we need new leadership to re-imagine what New Zealand Fashion Week could look like for 20 more years and to ensure it can survive in the real world as well as in the digital space, truly taking advantage of our global connectivity.”