It’s Friday night at Paris Fashion Week, and A$AP Rocky leans back into a sofa, zoned out in a cloud of blunt smoke. Just a few hours earlier, A$AP Bari had made his Paris Fashion Week debut with VLONE's celebrity-packed runway show — more on that later. Right now, Bari's messing around with a fidget spinner, while Ciesay from Places + Faces films it on his phone.
Rocky’s security guys look out over the rest of the bar, but apart from a couple of girls trying to get his attention by dancing on the tables, nobody is particularly fussed that they’re sharing a room with one of the world’s biggest rappers.
Rocky and Bari leave with their crew not long after. A few minutes later, and the place is virtually empty.
I was watching this all happen from the other side of the bar, and it was hilarious to watch the party clear out as soon as people realized they weren’t in the same room as a mega-famous celebrity anymore. When he was sat in the corner, nobody bothered Rocky — he was undisturbed by fans or flashing iPhone cameras — and the party’s immaculately-dressed guests just did their thing, dancing to Michael Jackson, free Moscow Mules in hand.
Still, this particular event was apparently pointless without him. As soon as Flacko, Bari and their boys were gone, so was everyone else.
All this got me thinking about the strange situation fashion week is in right now.
These days, people are used to getting everything — music, messages, images, anything — in an instant. Fashion shows started out a long time ago as a way for the industry to look at designers’ clothes six months before they came out. But in 2017, the age of instant gratification, the concept doesn't make any sense. Why spend thousands (and thousands) of dollars showing your clothes six months before anyone can actually buy them?
That’s not the only conundrum that the industry is facing right now. Why bother with a spring/summer and fall/winter presentation when buyers spend most of their budgets on the so-called “pre” (aka commercial) collections that are shown outside of fashion week?
Things get even more warped at the luxury end of the spectrum. The biggest houses — the Guccis and LVs of this world — get their money from accessories and fragrances, because they’re accessible to most consumers and have great profit margins (that three grand cashmere coat costs a fortune to produce, and you can get the same thing from Zara anyway). That means what you see on the runway is basically a giant marketing ploy to sell shoes, bags and perfume.
Outside of the industry, people are much more interested in photos of street style than the actual collections (trust me — I’ve seen the numbers). Shows are stuffed with the editors of print magazines whose circulations are dwindling, and will probably go out of business the minute marketing execs decide to spend their budgets on digital publications instead.
There’s a million different collections flying around at once. I spent most of the last month looking at SS18, but right now, SS17 is on sale, FW17 is starting to hit retailers, and designers are working on FW18. Sound confusing? It is. I don’t think the end consumer really cares what season it is — they just want something cool to look at on their phone — but even the guys working for the brands themselves have to stop for a second to remember exactly what collection they’re talking about.
Fashion shows are, in the age of social media, pretty much pointless.
Still, people fly all over the world and put themselves through grueling back-to-back schedules to go to fashion week, to watch fashion shows. Why? Because the people watching — either IRL, or vicariously through the million iPhones that get thrust at the runway as soon as the lights go down — aren’t looking at a designer’s clothes, they’re witnessing their vision.
The five or ten minutes of exhilaration you get from watching a show are exciting, sure, but the whole thing is becoming more and more disconnected from the way people actually consume fashion these days. Spend a bit of time on the fashion week circuit, and you’ll see that everyone knows the system is completely fucked, but nobody has any idea how to fix it.
As fashion week gets increasingly out of sync with modern consumers, it’s becoming less about actual clothes, and more about hype, buzz and what social media professionals call “shareable moments.” For proof of this, look no further than A$AP Bari's label, VLONE.
On the Friday afternoon of PFW, VLONE made its runway debut. The show was met with eye rolls and passive-aggressive tweets from jaded industry types, but it was actually a pretty amazing spectacle if you take a step back and look at the bigger picture.
The collection was small, the clothing ordinary, the styling basic. Apart from the prestige of showing in Paris, there was no need for this stuff to be on a runway, but that didn’t stop VLONE from being the biggest show of the week. Everyone was there. A$AP Rocky (duh), Skepta, Virgil Abloh, Jerry Lorenzo, Luka Sabbat, you name it. Even mega-bearded NBA mega-star James Harden showed up. The crowd of VLONE fans outside the venue was ten deep, and didn’t move even when the show was over.
What made VLONE’s show even more remarkable was the fact that the brand doesn't even do any retail business. Instead of spending years building up a trustworthy wholesale network, Bari and co go straight to the customer via a globe-trotting series of pop-up stores.
It's a much more iPhone-friendly way of selling clothes than the out-of-date fashion week format. VLONE fans feel like they’re part of something special — there’s those “shareable moments” — and Bari can just roll up in Hong Kong, LA, wherever, clear out tons of low-cost, high-margin product in a few days then move on to the next place. There's no need to invest time and effort with buyers and retailers — it's spontaneous.
Anyway, the VLONE presentation wasn’t really about the clothes, it was a lifestyle event. This was Bari’s way of telling the world that he and his crew are just as much a part of fashion week as Louis Vuitton or Dior, and that they could out-hype billion-dollar luxury houses without breaking a sweat.
VLONE didn't need to do a show at all, but Bari's squad of celebrity mates and amped-up following of streetwear heads proved just how little the clothing, concept and business matter when it comes to fashion week. At the end of the day, it's all about making noise.
The brands that win at fashion week aren't the ones with the most original ideas or highest-quality collections, they're the ones who are using the runway as a way to get people talking online. Balenciaga has become the must-see name in Paris by showing what are essentially runway memes — Bernie Sanders shout outs, luxury mountain bikes, that kinda thing. You can’t help but think the “controversial” Dapper Dan rip Alessandro Michele showed at Gucci Cruise 2018 was just a cynical attempt at making headlines as well.
Basically, designers know that if they put something completely ridiculous on a runway then they’ll be all over social media. Rick Owens has been playing this game for years.
At the end of the day we still need something to talk about, a way for designers to tell their story, and a way for clothing to entertain, inspire and provoke — that’s what the industry is all about. So, what does the future of fashion week look like?
The biggest brands are investing millions of dollars in their own off-schedule extravaganzas. The Cruise (or Resort, whatever you wanna call it) season has evolved into a way for Dior, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and the like to out-stunt each other with lavish spectacles in far-flung locations. They all come with their own hashtags of course — for the shareable moments.
More interestingly, some brands are breaking the fourth wall and getting the general public involved — they're the ones actually buying the stuff after all. Balenciaga’s recent pop-up at colette nonchalantly dropped a severed Porsche onto the Parisian store’s first floor and offered customers the chance to customize their own versions of Demna’s irony-laden norm-luxe (shareable moments!).
Less extravagant (and less expensive) is 424’s “open day.” Once they’re done showing their collection to press and buyers at fashion week, Guillermo Andrade will open up his brand’s Paris showroom and publicly post the location on Instagram. Anyone and everyone is welcome to come hang out, listen to rap and look at 424’s collection. It doesn't cost them a penny, and gives them a real, genuine connection to the guys buying their clothes. Shareable moments.
Fashion is, of course, a frivolous (and really fucking expensive) form of entertainment, but at the end of the day, it’s a reflection of what’s going on in the rest of society. Demna Gvasalia knows that irony trumps creativity in 2017, and Alessandro Michele knows that in the age of social media, culture is one giant remix — that’s what makes them the two most influential names in the industry right now. Fashion’s cultural relevance is what separates it from tailoring — one is a never-ending cultural conversation, the other is just a bunch of really expensive clothes.
When attendees watched Haider Ackermann’s SS18 show last week, they weren’t just looking at a bunch of silk shirts and robes. We were lost in a breathtaking Parisian palace, hypnotized by a parade of peacocking masculinity and assaulted by strobe lights and grinding noise.
It’s the same with that party on Friday night. We’re not just at a party, we’re at a fashion party, and A$AP Rocky is here.
Fashion shows might be pointless, but without all of the spectacles, circus tricks and controversies that come from them, fashion itself is pointless.