We can usually rely on New York Fashion Week to kick off the season’s proceedings with a bang, whether through the high-octane glamour of a Tom Ford show or a flamboyant Christopher John Rogers runway spectacle. Yet, under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic—and given New York’s place as one of the epicentres of the virus’s spread—the biannual carousel of fashion shows began on a more subdued note, with a slimmed-down schedule of designers showing their new collections largely through lookbooks.
In London, too, most designers opted to present their collections either through showroom appointments or timed presentations with strict guest lists of under six people, in keeping with the government’s latest mandate for group gatherings. In Milan and Paris, something closer to what we’re used to seeing emerged, albeit with severely depleted audiences and an array of inventive ways to recreate the show experience more responsibly.
With the shows now over, we look back at a season like no other-and round-up the most important takeaways, from the role of technology to increased diversity on the runways and the newest names to know.
The intersection of fashion and technology
An early insight into what the fashion show’s new normal might look like came via Eckhaus Latta in New York, which presented its new collection under the Manhattan Bridge on the week’s final night. As one of the few shows resembling a traditional runway format, prescribed guidelines were adhered to with an audience of under a dozen and each model sporting an Eckhaus Latta-printed face mask. Live-streamed to their fans and followers, it set the blueprint for the future of the runway show.
In London, the format used by some of the bigger houses was first introduced by Burberry, which opted to pre-record its runway show and debut it live on its website while still remaining on schedule. It was a tactic adopted most memorably by the likes of Prada, which gave a meta nod to the central role of technology with video screens displaying the models’ names, and Rick Owens who traded the Palais de Tokyo for the epic backdrop of the Palazzo del Casinò near the designer’s Venice home.
Technology was also used to recreate the show experience in a more playful way. At Balmain, video screens displaying a virtual front row were spliced with real-life attendees, while at Louis Vuitton, a similar feature allowed editors worldwide to tune in to specific seats. Perhaps most memorable were the marionettes of familiar front-row faces created by Jeremy Scott at Moschino.
Arguably the most convincing use of technology, however, was the most simple—the film. Take John Galliano’s fantastical, richly romantic video for Maison Margiela. Directed by his long-term collaborator Nick Knight, it wove a narrative from the collection that no runway show could.
The new creative directors on the scene
Despite being one of the most low-key seasons in memory, there were still two big debuts to keep fashion’s appetite for newness whetted. The first came in Milan with the inaugural collection co-designed by Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons, the partnership that rocked the fashion world when it was announced during Milan Fashion Week back in February. Fans of the two designers were delighted with the end result, which blended Prada’s most memorable prints and silhouettes with a dose of the countercultural edge that defines Simons’s collections under his own name.
Just as keenly anticipated, however, was Matthew Williams’s debut collection at Givenchy. Known for his streetwear-inspired utilitarianism for his own label, 1017 Alyx 9SM, quite how the American designer would reconcile his aesthetic with the romantic elegance that defines the haute couture of the house’s founder, left people guessing up to the very last moment. The collection, released as a lookbook, offered a more refined take on Williams’s signature hardware details and punk-ish spirit, with his tailoring for both men and women proving to be an unexpected hit.
A watershed moment for runway diversity
The past six months have seen the fashion industry undergo a necessary and long overdue reckoning over its historical attitude to exclusion—in particular, when it comes to Black voices and those of minority ethnic backgrounds. And if there’s one silver lining to this season, it’s that these calls for more authentic representation were listened to, on the casting front at least.
At Versace, the inclusion of plus-size models was seen as a step forward, memorably with one of the season’s breakout faces Precious Lee. At Prada, a cast of entirely first-time models included a new name-to-know in the form of Karla Koncurat. But whether the changes promised by many of the industry’s biggest brands are being reflected behind the scenes is a more difficult assessment to make.
Ironically, one of the most authentically diverse shows—across ethnicities, body types, genders and sexualities—came far from the fashion month circuit, courtesy of Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty lingerie extravaganza, which premiered on Amazon Prime on 2 October. If fashion brands are wondering how to broaden their horizons with thoughtfulness and intelligence, Rihanna’s approach to hiring and casting wouldn’t be the worst place to look. Although the singer was criticised for using a song in the show that included a Muslim text known as a hadith—Rihanna apologised for what she called “an honest, yet careless mistake”.
Where was sustainability’s seat this season?
Few topics have dominated the discourse around fashion quite as forcefully as sustainability over the past two years. Some of the industry’s biggest houses have been forced to acknowledge their role in the global climate crisis through overproduction, opaque supply chains and manufacturing processes that are environmentally harmful. Significant sustainability pledges this season came from the likes of Demna Gvasalia, who noted that 93.5 percent of the plain materials in the Balenciaga collection were certified sustainable or upcycled.
Meanwhile, New York-based Gabriela Hearst, who was crowned womenswear designer of the year at the 2020 CFDA Awards, made her debut on the Paris schedule with a collection created from 60 percent deadstock fabric and simultaneously launched the Garment Journey, which uses QR codes in the clothes’ labels to bring about greater supply-chain transparency. One plus point of the radically different format was the dramatically reduced number of international press and buyers travelling the four-city circuit. Whether this leads to smaller fashion weeks with fewer attendees when the pandemic subsides remains to be seen—although, given the financial havoc COVID-19 has wreaked across the industry, it feels likely. Whatever the long-term outcome, for many it served as a wake-up call that there were viable alternatives to the traditional in-person show format and its significant environmental impact.
An unexpected spotlight on rising talents
Another upside of this mix of the digital and the physical was the democratisation of attention on brands of all sizes and stages in their career. No longer was a flashy and prohibitively expensive runway show required to grab the attention of fashion writers and editors, with plenty of up-and-coming labels staging pre-recorded shows or releasing lookbooks on the same scale as brands 10 times their size. In New York, this translated to the outsize attention Eckhaus Latta received on a schedule where many of the week’s usual big-hitters—including Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and The Row—all opted not to show. In London, the buzzy emerging label Chopova Lowena, who typically reveals its latest offerings via lookbooks anyway, appeared at the front of many of the week’s roundups. And even in Milan and Paris, where the bulk of the cities’ most storied houses were still on the schedule, the inventive pieces shown by designers including Ottolinger, Kenneth Ize, and Rokh, felt just as impressive as the more ambitious runway spectacles.