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Fashion Week Is Not Inclusive
Should that change, or should we stop pretending it's something it's not?
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For all the talk about “inclusivity” at fashion week in recent years, the event itself is still designed to be as exclusive as possible. This doesn’t seem like a huge problem, necessarily. I’m sure the industry is largely fine with this and the general public may be, too. However, it makes the industry look a bit ridiculous given all the talk over the past couple of years about how inclusive both it and fashion shows can be.
Here’s Women’s Wear Daily:
The Daily Beast:
The “inclusivity movement” has largely focused on representation on the runways and in fashion imagery of not only people of all skin tones and ethnic backgrounds but also people of all ages and sizes and physical abilities. That was and still is necessary and both the runways and fashion images have become more diverse, sure. But the runways still don’t resemble, as I told beauty Substacker Jessica DeFino recently, the scene at your local mall.
Size inclusivity was entirely absent from the runways of big shows like Proenza Schouler, Jason Wu, and Tom Ford; it was barely evident at others like Michael Kors. Despite a number of headlines about disabled models appearing in fashion week, they were barely cast outside of the show put on by Open Style Lab, “a nonprofit organization committed to making style accessible for everyone, regardless of their cognitive and physical abilities.”
Vogue.com, which has published a slew of articles promoting the idea that fashion needs to do more to include people with disabilities, did recap that show, which was great, but it does not appear, as of the time of publication of this newsletter, to have published a slideshow of the looks in Vogue Runway, where inclusion alongside the Tom Fords of the world could have made a meaningful statement. (This may seem like a small thing and could just be understandable oversight by overworked, underpaid digital editors — Vogue.com publishes a ton during fashion week — but Vogue Runway does function as a list of All the Noteworthy Fashion Shows, so it matters what does and doesn’t get featured in there.)
Yet, unsurprisingly, New York Fashion Week has served as a reminder that there are limits to how inclusive the fashion industry can be.
Not only do the runways not represent the scene at your average mall or anywhere else the general public roams free, but also, fashion week itself doesn’t represent the scene at your average mall. Great pains are undertaken to ensure this is the case. Managing fashion week invites and show seating is a tentpole of the fashion public relations industry. And the process of curating the group of people who get to witness a runway show in-person is much the same as it has ever been. Invitations must be requested from the PR department; the PR department sorts through the requests and decides who should be invited, making those who do get in feel special and those who don’t feel FOMO; those who accept the invitations are then painstakingly seated according to their rank in the industry, as each particular label sees it. For instance, for her entire 34-year reign at Vogue, it has been accepted that Anna Wintour gets the “best” seat at every show she attends, provided Vogue wasn’t in some sort of spat with a designer (see: Armani circa 2002).
Fashion week remains an elite industry event for a small group of industry people. It is notoriously averse to letting new groups of people in, though over time it must. When a new group of industry people is deemed worthy of access — like Instagram influencers or, this season, TikTokers — great fretting ensues over why THEY now get to go. (I have seen complaints on social media that just because you post runway images on TikTok, that doesn’t mean that you should get to go to fashion week. Counterpoint: if tens of thousands of people consistently care about what you say about those runway images, you should get to go to fashion week.)
This season, the public had more access to fashion week than it usually does since tickets were sold to a number of shows. However, they were, for the vast majority of people, prohibitively expensive. Vogue World, the street fair-slash-fashion show, sold tickets ranging from $150 for the cheap seats to $3,000 for a “front row package.” This seemed downright cheap compared to tickets to fashion calendar staples like the Badgley Mischka show, which started at $905, or Altuzarra, where a front row seat cost $5,650.
Despite the media acting like fashion week “includes” all kinds of people now, this isn’t really the case. Not only are there limits to representation on the runway, but also, the average person can’t just walk in and enjoy it. You can’t just buy a ticket to go see a show, like you can at a film festival. Many in fashion have long been perfectly fine with this. Seniority and hierarchy exist within any industry, and this is one way it manifests in the fashion industry, exclusive though it may be.
This is a defensible way to run things. This is a trade show for members of that trade — in this case, fashion press and buyers — and those who are not actively involved in promoting and building the economy of that trade, you could argue, don’t need to be there. However, there is cognitive dissonance between the industry pushing its newly inclusive direction and operating in the highly exclusive way it always has. Fashion might be better served by acknowledging that what it does is about profits, and while keeping in step with cultural demands and representing a broad array of people is important, what this is actually about is making money.
And yet, you could also argue that it’s time to open fashion week up and treat it more like a film festival or, say, BravoCon — something that a large number of people can buy tickets to. After all, there aren’t nearly as many magazine editors to seat anymore. Plus, fashion shows are prohibitively expensive for many brands that would like to have them, and tickets would help recoup some if not all of the costs.
As I often say, fashion is entertainment. The splashy New York shows we’re seeing this season, like Fendi’s Baguette bag promotional spectacular and Vogue World, embraced that principle in that they were designed to be theatrical spectacles. Why not sell tickets and run them repeatedly, like movies or theater productions? I realize this completely changes the nature of fashion week from a logistical point of view. The argument that there aren’t enough models to go around, for instance, would surely be a logical one — however you could also just hire way more models, which might make the runways… even more inclusive!
Besides, as the media has noted, New York Fashion Week operates as a grotesquely commercial enterprise. You have luxury brands like Tom Ford on one end of the spectrum, and at the other, Alo Yoga and Boohoo. Fashion week shows aren’t just about marketing the world’s most expensive clothes — the ones modeled after art — and justifying their four-figure price tags; they’re about marketing everything between those and $18 Kourtney Kardashian Barker Boohoo blazers. After all, this season’s top-billed sponsor was Afterpay, a service that enables people to buy things they can’t afford. The whole idea of wanting material goods that one can’t afford is just about as mass as it gets!
Many in industry would likely recoil in horror at the idea of fashion week being something the general public can participate in. I get it. It’s fashion’s special thing that reinforces the industry’s special-ness. That’s fine and even nice at times. But let’s not pretend to believe in this fantasy that fashion shows are a great festival of celebrating the beauty of the general public, old and young, big and small, tall and short, disabled and able-bodied. Putting on that front is just bad business. As TikTok’s Chanel advent calendar takedown artist Elise Harmon showed, consumers have pretty finely tuned bullshit detectors. And once those activate, the first thing they’ll do is take out their phones and tap record.
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