What is the future of New Zealand Fashion Week?

Models on the runway at Hailwood’s New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 show. Image by Lyle Adams.

In a pre-Covid world, this week would have been New Zealand Fashion Week 2020 and the 20th anniversary of the event which has been showcasing our local designers to our nation and the world since 2001. On the eve of our nationwide lockdown in March, NZFW’s organisers announced that due to the effects of the global pandemic the event was postponed until 2021 (at the time of publishing the new date is still yet to be confirmed).

As the past couple of weeks have shown us, nothing is able to be planned very far in advance with certainty at this point in time and the events industry, like tourism and others, is struggling with the restrictions that come with trying to manage the pandemic. In this instance, what happens to an event like New Zealand Fashion Week that requires many months of detailed planning (the following year’s event planning pretty much begins again as soon as each one finishes) and hundreds of thousands of dollars in sponsorship to make it happen?

While the global fashion industry has been discussing the relevancy of fashion weeks in general for years, there are still valid reasons in their favour and also reasons why some aspects don’t really work anymore. The chaos caused by Covid-19 has seen no traditional fashion weeks take place since March until Copenhagen Fashion Week went ahead as a hybrid event this month (some digital shows and some physical shows) but even then capacity was cut dramatically with shows that would normally seat 700 cut down to just 50 seats. This past season’s Paris couture shows in July went digital with most brands opting for a streamed video presentation with varying degrees of success. The resounding sentiment being that it obviously wasn’t the same as a usual fashion week show but better than nothing at all.

Interestingly, while the fashion media still covered the digital shows with reviews, galleries and trend notes appearing on Vogue, Business of Fashion and Harper’s Bazaar etc, BoF reported that online engagement for the shows was down massively on the previous year’s shows. The digital shows generated less than a third of the online engagement of the physical shows the previous year which is a significant drop. While there was less interest from the public in tuning into a video presentation there was also no buzz generated from the usual street style coverage and general people watching at the shows that fashion fans love so much. No physical audience definitely seems to mean less interest at this point but it remains to be seen if that will change in future as digital presentations become more high-tech and offer more of an experience for the viewer.

The only big fashion show the world has seen in the past few months was the Spring/Summer 2021 Jacquemus show in July that took place in an undulating 35-acre wheat field an hour’s drive from Paris. Speaking on his motivation to hold a physical fashion show in the current environment, designer and co-founder, Simon Porte Jacquemus told Vogue Business last month, “We had to do it, our company is all about fashion shows, the impact of the shows cannot be compared with a beautiful film or a lookbook.” The brand worked with the French government on the presentation that adhered to strict pandemic protocols and saw the 100 guests brave enough to attend seated in socially distanced spots a couple of metres apart down one side of the outdoor runway, which was a massive 600 metres long. While the show quickly went viral for it’s stunning imagery and it generated much more online buzz than the digital shows, there were quite a few who criticised it for being “too soon” and that potentially jeopardising people’s health for the sake of a fashion show was “unacceptable”.

The show also drew criticism for showing diversity on the runway yet next to none in it’s production team which is a bigger issue that there has been a lot of discussion about in recent years. Diversity in fashion is another article (many articles actually) but representation is important and things will only really change when there is true diversity throughout the fashion system not just on the runway or in some campaigns.

It has become pretty clear over the past few months that returning to life as we knew it is unlikely anytime soon but what it presents is an opportunity to be innovative and think about the kind of future we want and how we want to experience it. The fashion industry has long been an early adopter (we are trendsetters after all) of technology and the likes of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Virtual Reality (VR) have the potential to dramatically change how we experience fashion in an exciting way.

Want to experience a fashion week show in your living room? That will one day be possible with the advancements in virtual reality. Recent digital fashion shows at Helsinki Fashion Week showed us that a clever combination of technology and creativity can offer an interactive virtual show that you don’t have to leave home for. There’s also artificial intelligence technology being developed so that you’ll be able to scan your body and then see how clothes will look on you without having to try them on. Both of these things are still a way from being mainstream but they’re currently being developed along with other technology that will one day shape a very different fashion experience from the one we know today.

But where does that leave us right now? And how does it effect New Zealand Fashion Week? Well, it’s long been discussed that the fashion system is broken and in need of a rethink because it’s gotten too fast, there are too many seasons and it’s unsustainable for all involved. This pandemic situation presents the opportunity for a reset, a slowing down of the system and a way to shape it into something more sustainable that benefits everyone.

For brands that may mean smaller collections (also influenced by the predicted recession to come), dropping them in time with the physical seasons instead of ahead of them, slower, more local production and increased use of sustainable materials. Local designers like Maggie Marilyn and Kowtow are leading the way in terms of sustainability, circularity and utilising technology to create garments that are kinder for people and the planet. For consumers it means buying less but perhaps saving up for special pieces, shopping second-hand and having more awareness about what we’re buying and who we choose to support. It may be a cliché but the idea that every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in is entirely true.

When it comes to fashion weeks, we know that a screen can’t replace the excitement of in-person social interaction and the magic of seeing the fabric of clothing swish by almost close enough to reach out and touch it. Any designer will tell you that fashion is about much more than clothes, it’s about storytelling and it’s supposed to make you feel something, it’s hard to get that across in the same way from a screen. A live event like a fashion show allows a brand to tell their story in an effective way while instantaneously gauging a reaction from the assembled audience. There’s an energy and electricity from fashion shows, especially great ones, which as yet hasn’t been replicated online, much like seeing a live concert of your favourite band, it’s that much more thrilling in person.

Each brand’s reasons are different for doing a fashion week show too, ranging from picking up wholesale accounts to getting more media coverage, to creating a great live experience for their loyal customers that generates sales and sometimes a combination of all three. For emerging designers it’s an important opportunity to get noticed by the industry and public alike, while for established brands it’s more of a PR exercise and given how expensive it can be to hold a large scale event there are less brands these days that choose to show year in, year out. Some have long since chosen to eschew fashion weeks completely opting for much smaller events where they can interact in a direct way with media or their customers.

Another issue is that fashion weeks have long been focused on showing coming seasons that were often not available for up to six months in stores. In recent years the rules have loosened and more brands are choosing to show in-season or a mix of current and next seasons on the runway. While that’s great for the ‘see it now, buy it now’ culture that we currently live in with shoppers able to snap up that new dress they spot on social media straight away on an online store it also presents problems in relation to the purpose of fashion weeks.

Traditionally, they were for trade and for the buyers seeing a collection on the runway that’s already in stores is pretty much irrelevant, it’s also less interesting for media who will also have already seen an in-season collection but their coverage can still help a brand sell to consumers. Those consumers may very well be what essentially ‘saves’ fashion weeks though, as thanks to the likes of social media and popularity of selfies the number of people interested in aesthetics and fashion in particular has skyrocketed in recent years.

New Zealand Fashion Week, like many international fashion weeks, has successfully grown a consumer event alongside its trade event that allows the public access to what used to be a strictly industry-only event. The runway experience is very popular with the public, both as a sociable ‘shopping’ experience and as an ‘Insta-worthy’ experience and they’re willing to pay for it too. As the fashion industry slowly moves away from its elitist roots into being more inclusive and noticeably diverse the democratisation of the event and its accessibility is definitely a key part of its future.

That future could perhaps be a fashion week that’s not simply recreating the shows digitally, but rethinking them into a hybrid of digital and real world experience on a smaller physical scale than what we have become used to. They could incorporate digital components into physical events and vice versa, creating a synergistic experience that is inclusive, sustainable and reduces the environmental impact and cost of large scale physical events. Fashion shows (and a fashion industry in general) that are kinder to people and the planet are better for us all.

Going season-less (as recently suggested by Gucci), taking a streamlined approach and showcasing each brand’s creativity while utilising the advancements in technology could result in a truly modern future for fashion weeks. With an industry full of intelligent, passionate and creative people who love to experiment, the possibilities are exciting and no doubt we’ll see some truly innovative ideas come forward in the future.

While its immediate future may currently be uncertain due to the ongoing effects of the global pandemic, New Zealand Fashion Week still has industry and public support that will be critical for it’s next steps. Whatever form the event takes in 2021, if it utilises the learnings from how other fashion events adapt to the pandemic and continues with it’s ethos of sustainability and diversity that was established last year, it’s next event may be its most progressive and innovative one yet.