Is Fashion Week Actually an Extremely Expensive, Inadvertent Community Building Event?

Maybe what it got wrong is not thinking about what is still right

This is a public post, a critical essay about the state of fashion. To read the last one of its kind, click here.

Every season before fashion week would start, I’d poll Man Repeller’s audience to ask, “What do you want to read?”

In conjunction with this post, the editorial team would meet to think about different perspectives we could add to an already overwhelming conversation that seemed urgent and important, even if we ourselves often struggled to understand why.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but what I was asking when I’d poll the audience or speak to the team was, “How do we make this interesting to them when what makes it interesting to us (or, really I should say me) has less to do with the runway and more with what happens around it?”

That the runway was becoming less interesting had everything to do with the early onset shifts that would become seismic in the industry: social media and the people who powered it were pulling the barricades down on the formerly gated community that kept close to its chest, unquestioned, the twice-annual event they would plan their years around.

Some of the solves we’d concoct included the same levers most other publications pulled: original street style photography from what we considered less celebrated but more worthy vantage points, opinion essays that zoomed out of fashion to find broader cultural touchpoints, reported sound bites — often lighthearted and comedic — eavesdropped from showgoers.

We’d publish “days in the life” that would trail a “typical day” through the lens of different editors and at the end of each season, I’d feel a combination of satisfaction and relief: satisfied we got through it, relieved it was over.

This relief was mirrored in the collective sigh that was often captured in the conclusive Marc Jacobs runway show caption — “New York, THAT’S A WRAP!”

For many years, industry citizens (myself included) cried that the system was broken. A shifting attitude towards personal style, mostly catapulted by blogging in the early 2010’s began to question, by mere virtue of existence, the importance and relevance of industry-created fashion trends. Social media pulled back the curtain on what was once the exclusive inner world of runway shows. Brands earned the revolutionary power to tell stories on their own terms to a digitized audience of infinity (if one could seize as many) and most recently, consumer appetite moved on from a previous understanding of new fashion as literally “new” to a more conscious and sensitive and fractured interpretation (see: narrative dressing).

Previous to this season, none of it stopped many of us from attending the twice-annual global event. What remains to be seen is precisely how busy shows will be this year — but if the exodus from elsewhere to Paris early last July for couture week amid ambiguity of the state of Covid in Europe indicated much, it was the unwavering zeal to jump back in. God knows I’d have gone if I was asked.

I never stopped to question why we kept going if even those in the highest positions of power agreed that given the shifting modules, fashion week’s relevance was waning within the current format. Maybe I never asked because the answer was understood. Practically, it’s “our” job to go, but also, too much of the industry’s (and the hosting cities’) financial solvency depends on it.

After three sleepy ready-to-wear seasons brought on by the pandemic that impacted the collective fashion mindset, which has had to adapt at the dawning of a steep economic downturn, I’ve been thinking about why we’re going back. So far, the best answer I could come up with deals in the marginal impact Covid has had on the demand for luxury goods, the simple fact that everyone else is doing it and more (most) interestingly (at least to me), the speculative assumption that few of us actually want to leave fashion week behind.

Even if the current format makes less material sense in the grand scheme of what fashion week is supposed to accomplish (visibility through interactive marketing, ultimately laddering up to sales), the invisible glue that holds the seasons together for the people who attend them seems still to supersede the wasted money, time and resources.

A sense of community is often fostered within the narrow doorways leading in and out of venues. The meals that are consumed among strangers becoming co-workers or co-workers becoming friends or friends becoming partners and the drawn-out gatherings that take place after hours perpetuate social cohesion.

This social cohesion — the sense of solidarity or collectivism — makes it worth running in circles around the same old tricks even when it’s clear that they’re tricks because, in the end, we (humans) just want a place to belong.

For many people in fashion, the most salient expression of that place became fashion week. 

Until the last two years that I attended Paris Fashion Week, I did not like it. Not because I wasn’t smitten by the city or the shows or bearing witness to the international “elite” that traipsed across the dusty grounds of the Tuilerie Gardens. I was. I didn’t like it because I was lonely. I also didn’t know this is why I didn’t like it until later, when I started to love Paris. When I’d amassed a sturdy enough comfort zone that I was no longer alone, even when I was.

The runway does continue to offer a predictory glimpse into the next season -- a sort of anticipatory sentence that forms, but it is only ever really deciphered in the chatter that surrounds the shows. That takes place at the dinners, in the cars, in those narrow hallways. In this way, it can feel like a disenfranchised convention, a conference with an explicit agenda for fashion and an implicit one that builds community and actually, probably, sustains the thing at all. Is it enough to keep the engine moving onwards as it is?

I don’t know the solution or even have a recommendation for one.

But I’m starting to think that perhaps a better place to go if we really do wish to devise a solution is not in continued, directionless acknowledgment of the system’s brokenness. Instead, it might be time to think more critically about what still works. The soft motivations and unintentional outcomes that might not be apparent but are still present. Maybe this will help us to let go of what doesn’t work a little easier. To begin rebuilding from there.