Models on the runway of Fendi’s Autumn-Winter 2017 Haute Couture show in Rome INSTAGRAM/INDONESIATATLER

Fashion week has always been synonymous with opulence and extravagance. The amount of media coverage a well-staged runway show can generate within seconds is astonishing. Data analytics company Launchmetrics estimated that the total Media Impact Value generated by last year’s Paris Fashion Week was a staggering 98.5 million pounds with Dior showing the highest amounts of media engagement worth an estimated 5.4 million pounds. If these figures are anything to go by, these costly productions yield results.

"In the new age of sustainability, such high-visibility excess is no longer celebrated."

Brands are thus constantly competing with one another to capture the attention of consumers through lavishly staged productions and an extensive roster of celebrity guests. Who could forget Chanel’s 2010 Fall Ready To Wear collection which saw an iceberg transported directly from Sweden to the Grand Palais in Paris? Or Fendi’s Autumn-Winter 2017 Haute Couture show where Kendall Jenner glided down the glass catwalk overlaying Rome’s iconic Trevi fountain — proving once again that there really is no limit to Karl Lagerfield’s imagination. These events have been consecrated in fashion history as hallmarks of successful runway shows but in the new age of sustainability, such high-visibility excess is no longer celebrated. Ironically, Lagerfield had claimed that the intention behind his 2010 show was to draw attention to the fashion industry’s responsibility to address global warming as ‘the issue of our times’.

For years, fashion shows have escaped the scrutiny of brands seeking to mitigate their environmental impact. The Fashion Pact signed by the likes of Kering and Burberry at the G7 summit saw brands pledging to reduce waste and formulate sustainable practices. With brands becoming increasingly eager to champion for sustainability, does staging such elaborate productions then undermine the credibility of their message?

Protests by Extinction Rebellioninstagram/XR.BoycottFashion

London-based activist group Extinction Rebellion has called for fashion week to be cancelled completely, believing that radical systematic change is the only way forward. An increasing number of designers have also taken it upon themselves to break away from the conventional fashion week schedule. Alexander Wang has chosen to forgo showing his Spring/Summer collection at New York fashion week choosing instead to adopt a biannual model, which would see his collections being presented twice instead of four times a year. Fashion week veteran 3.1 Philip Lim has chosen to opt-out of the calendar entirely after fifteen years in order to refocus resources on creating quality clothing rather than mere ‘Instagram fodder’; while Moncler’s new ‘Genius’ model operates on monthly ‘drops’ advertised through social media campaigns rather than seasonal presentations.

"Fashion week is still fundamentally an exhibition of conspicuous consumption."

Notable brands such as Burberry and Ralph Lauren made headlines during the 2016 fashion week for embracing the ‘see now, buy now’ model which allows consumers to purchase collections immediately after they are shown instead of the usual six-month waiting period. The move which was heralded as a sign of disruptive change within the industry has been the long-standing norm for most mainstream brands. This shows how the hierarchical nature of the luxury fashion industry has been entrenched in a system that values tradition over progressive innovation.

Fashion should act as a cultural signifier for our times, yet the current seasonal model of fashion creates pressure on designers to consistently put out new collections often at the expense of sustainability. Lim says the decision to transform the business model of his eponymous brand stemmed from the excess waste he saw being produced by the demanding retail schedule. “For most companies, more than half of the clothes never see the light of day,” he says.

Dior's Spring/Summer 2020 show during Paris Fashion Week which saw the 164 trees sourced for the show replanted around the cityINSTAGRAM/DIOR

However, the fashion industry has seen significant strides in the past few years. The Swedish Fashion Council cancelled Stockholm Fashion Week last year in the name of sustainability. CEO Jennie Rosén says the decision was a bid “to stimulate the development of a platform that is relevant for today’s fashion industry”, citing a need to “put the past to rest” and “set new standards for fashion”. Copenhagen Fashion Week has announced that it would now require brands to comply with a set of sustainability standards within three years if they are to continue showing their collections then. Industry giants such as Dior staged its first carbon-neutral show this year pledging to recycle every element of its set, dubbed a ‘tribute to nature’; whereas Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2020 men’s show was consciously bare of structural elements, forgoing constructing a set entirely.


Mountain View

The problem with ethical fashion

Although the staging of runway shows only constitutes a small proportion of the carbon footprint generated by these brands as a whole, fashion week is still fundamentally an exhibition of conspicuous consumption. With the spotlight on sustainability, brands are under more pressure to reevaluate their priorities not only in their business models but in the message their fashion shows perpetuate. Moving into the new decade, balance is key. It is simply not feasible for brands to scrap runway shows altogether. Imposing a utilitarian vision on fashion under the pretext of sustainability contradicts its essence. Perhaps we should be viewing fashion week as a potential harbinger of change rather than an impediment to it. Fashion week is still one of the most visible events in the world; it can not only help raise environmental awareness but shift the tastes of consumers towards ethical fashion, which is ultimately what drives change in the industry.