Are fashion shows really necessary?

Everyone loves a good show. From the biggest shows on the West End to the open mic night at your local, there’s something about performance that is vital to the human experience. Fashion shows claim a slightly strange, yet no less performative, place in this tradition, since they are not performance for its own sake, but to showcase a product to potential customers. Being sold is not the performance itself – it is a means to an end. When it seems as though everything is moving online, a fashion show is a tangible representation of the brand’s aesthetic, ethos and direction – there’s certainly something to be said for seeing the movement of clothing on models.

Moreover, fashion shows are no longer insider-only events: anyone can access them through social media, whether you’re watching via an official brand feed or that of a blogger’s. Is it the case, then, that fashion week actually epitomises the democratisation of fashion? Or is it the ultimate symbol of overblown excess in the face of climate change? It’s a debate worth having, and it’s a debate in which the cultural capital of these shows shouldn’t be forgotten.

If you’ve been following the news, you may have noticed that Extinction Rebellion called on the British Fashion Council (BFC) to cancel London Fashion Week; when the BFC rejected this proposal, Extinction Rebellion began making plans to shut the event down. With the events kicking off today, we’ll see how successful they are.

It was an extreme demand, yet also understandable when faced with how high profile the event is, and how it is a lynchpin of the trend cycle; the clothes presented this September inform the clothes that will be churned out from fast fashion brands like Zara, H&M, Pretty Little Thing and ASOS. The Pulse Report 2019 states that global apparel production is set to rise by over 60% by 2030 – it is this unnecessary consumerism which Extinction Rebellion is focusing its message on, not to mention the waste which is inevitably produced by a week of fashion shows.

As Emily Farra reported in Vogue, although it is very difficult to quantify the impact of an individual show, it’s not a leap to assume that it must be large. Not only is there the simple detritus of hosting potentially hundreds of guests, and the backstage waste (E! News estimated that a bottle of hairspray is used up between just two models, and that’s just one of around six products that are likely to be applied) to take into account, there’s also the impact of transporting the huge number of people across the world to each destination. When Greta Thunberg’s just spent two weeks sailing across the Atlantic to highlight the environmental costs of flying, it’s easy to see why fashion week is seen as useless and wasteful.

The thing that throws a spanner in the works is that, as I mentioned above, fashion shows can (and arguably should) be an artistic endeavour, rather than a mere sales event. Alexander McQueen was as famed for his presentations as his clothes: who could forget the robots viciously spray painting the Shalom Harlow’s pure white dress, a finale which drew inspiration from installation artist Rebecca Horn’s 1991 work ‘High Moon’? Shows also have the power to push the boundaries of what is expected – earlier this year, I included Chromat in my round up of AW19 shows because of their unapologetic approach to diversity and inclusion.

Alexander McQueen RTW Spring 1999

Equally, it’s important to remember that all shows are not created equal, and not all designers are Alexander McQueen – what’s more, they shouldn’t be! That’s the glory of it – a desire to constantly change and move forward. Unfortunately, that very change is what drives the trends, which creates the demand for huge amounts of throwaway clothing. Sure, fashion is now democratised through social media, but that ultimately means that everybody wants a slice of the pie at a fraction of the price, with online retailers and high street brands leaping to fill the gap. They also increasingly spawn ‘micro trends’, such as mini handbags or skinny sunglasses, which you blink and miss (but not before Missguided has sold thousands of units).

Recently, fashion shows have been becoming more performance based, rather than simply a string of models turned out down the catwalk: this week in New York, Ralph Lauren opened a jazz club for the night and Rihanna created a new kind of lingerie show (which will be broadcast on Amazon). The SavageXFenty show is an ethical conundrum – I must admit, I balked at the mention of Amazon, but I also love Rihanna’s commitment to representing the reality of being a woman, rather than some godawful Victoria’s Secret advert for anorexia. The cultural impact of these shows should not go unnoticed or uncredited.

If we are to quantify the carbon footprint of a fashion show, then we must also do the same with stage plays, music gigs or TV filming: it is, perhaps, unfair to single out fashion shows as evil without considering the impact of other productions. As someone who studied literature at university, I’m always conscious of the efforts to devalue the arts as wasteful and worthless, lacking in purpose and therefore dispensable. Fashion has always struggled on a tight rope between the commercial and the artistic, but it is far from unnecessary. In fact, life would be incredibly boring without it.

Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t make huge changes to the ways we conceive of and produce clothing and fashion. There are ways to minimise the impacts of these shows, from changing the lighting used to renting furniture; although some might say that’s not doing enough, at least it’s doing something. But it’s simply not being spoken about. Hopefully that is what Extinction Rebellion’s protests will spark: a conversation not only about how London Fashion Week can evolve in a way which is not only sensitive to the environment, but also encouraging new perspectives on the traditional fashion show.

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