Fashion weeks are back in full swing, with the revered New York version beginning on Friday. And, for those who feel there's a different runway event in a different city every week, there often is.
The year is divided into two halves — spring/summer and autumn/winter — allowing designers to target specific wardrobe needs. For example, spring/summer collections are lighter weight, while autumn/winter collections are more focused on warm layering and coats. The names refer to the seasons the collections are for, not the seasons they are shown in.
The very idea of a fashion show, however, is something of a relic from decades past, long before the internet was invented. They hail from an era when a few all-powerful fashion editors were invited to view new collections, and then decipher and decant for readers what trends, shapes, hemlines and colours would prevail in the next six months.
What is the purpose of a fashion week?
Today, live streaming could easily surpass in-person fashion shows entirely. Many brands learnt during Covid-19 it can be easier and cheaper for designers to simply take an online audience through a new collection. Yet there remains a reason why brands are so reluctant to give them up.
A fashion show remains the single most potent method a designer has of communicating the feel, mood and atmosphere of a collection. It is where, for the first and last time, the designer has complete control over his or her collection, how it is styled, what music accompanies it and how the story underpinning it all unfolds.
Additionally, given the cultural cache of hosting a fashion season, not to mention the economic boost of press and buyers flying in en masse, staying in hotels and eating out in restaurants, fashion weeks also make economic sense for those in the industry.
When does the fashion week season begin?
The official fashion calendar begins in early January, with the men's autumn/winter ready-to-wear collections showing in New York, London and Milan, before finishing in Paris around the third week of the month.
Immediately after the men's shows finish in Paris, the spring haute couture collections begin. There is then a gap until the women's autumn/winter shows begin in New York around the first week of February, before running back to back in London and Milan, until the season closes in Paris four weeks later.
In May, brands start showing the resort/cruise collections. In June, the entire cycle begins again, starting with menswear, which runs straight into autumn haute couture.
In September, the women's collections begin again in New York, rotating through London and Milan before finishing in Paris.
Which designers and brands take part in fashion weeks?
For a brand or designer to be part of the schedule, they must at least have two shows that cover spring/summer and autumn/winter. Smaller brands will participate in only those two, while as brands grow in size, they may choose to be part of all of the segments.
Dior is part of everything, for example, showing for men's, women's, pre-autumn, haute couture and cruise, while Hermes shows men's and women's fashion weeks, but no longer takes part in haute couture. Valentino, meanwhile, although an Italian brand, shows a unisex show in Paris for both ready-to-wear and haute couture. The Belgian label Viktor & Rolf only takes part in haute couture.
Where are the top fashion weeks held?
Multiple cities around the world are vying to join the official fashion week circuit of New York, London, Milan and Paris, which are the traditional drivers of innovation for the industry. The order of these four, incidentally, never varies.
Copenhagen now has a respected fashion calendar as too does Berlin, Shanghai, Tokyo, Madrid, Stockholm, Sydney and Mexico. In addition, modest fashion weeks are on the rise too such as in Istanbul, Miami, Riyadh and Jakarta, while there is even a Vegan Fashion Week now, which supports entirely vegan labels.
In the UAE, meanwhile, there is the newly launched Dubai Fashion Week, formerly known as Arab Fashion Week, that will debut in March, as well as International Fashion Week Dubai and Middle East Fashion Week.
The biggest shows every season are for ready-to-wear. These are revealed six months before the clothes hit the stores — meaning autumn/winter collections are shown in February while spring/summer are shown in September.
"Ready-to-wear" comes from the French term "pret-a-porter", meaning clothes that are bought from a shop and can be worn straight away without the need for tailoring or resizing.
Men's Fashion Week
Men's share of high-end fashion is growing.
However, the popularity of men's shows has ebbed and flowed with the cultural mood. A decade ago, the number of shows dedicated to only menswear rose. However, when Alessandro Michele took over Gucci in 2015, he mixed genders together on one runway. No doubt thankful to save some money — a single show in London can start from about £100,000 ($120,000), which can double in Paris — many other brands followed suit.
Now, eager to target specific audiences once more after the upheaval of the pandemic, menswear shows are on their way back.
In contrast, if a show is described as co-ed, this means that both genders are sharing the same runway.
Cruise and pre-autumn
Other categories that are becoming increasingly important for brands are pre-autumn and resort or cruise (the latter names are interchangeable).
Initially created for those jetting off on holiday during the cold European winter, today resort or cruise retains that sense of decadence. But in reality, it is a tidy way to offer a less seasonal collection that will hit stores halfway between the ready-to-wear collections. It is a second, smaller collection to entice customers who have bought everything they want from autumn/winter collections, while they await the spring/summer clothes.
When this proved successful, a second iteration was added to bridge the gap at the other end of the year, between spring/summer and autumn/winter, giving rise to the new name, pre-autumn. At Chanel, an elevated, more elaborate collection is offered for this segment, called metiers d'art.
Haute couture, meanwhile, is a unique category of fashion. Aimed at the ultra-rich, it is more about showing off the skill and creativity of the house, than about everyday wearability, and where prices run into the tens of thousands of dollars for one item.
For these shows, the main difference is that while ready-to-wear shows take place six months in advance, haute couture ones are for that season. In January, the collection is for spring, while in June, the collection show is for autumn. This is because the pieces are entirely handmade, require several fittings, and, for the most lavish pieces, can take up to six months to complete.
Haute couture is a legally binding term and is bestowed rather than self-appointed. To achieve this vaulted status — the very highest in fashion — a designer must maintain an atelier, or specialised studio, in France that employs at least 20 highly skilled artisans, who specialise in different handwork techniques. The very essence of haute couture is to keep alive these unique skills, so it is tightly regulated by the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, which has the sole power to award, or remove, the title.
However, it is a much overused and misunderstood term, which has led to considerable confusion. There are makers of couture — perhaps a one-off wedding gown, or occasion dress, that are hand made, and require multiple fittings. While this is skilled, precious work that deserves to be safeguarded and celebrated, if it is not sanctioned by the federation, it is not haute couture.
The number of companies that can legitimately call themselves haute couture is very small and includes the likes of Christian Dior, Fendi, Maison Rabih Kayrouz, Elie Saab, Chanel and Valentino. Dolce & Gabbana, meanwhile, is not a member, but instead has created its own version to celebrate Italian workmanship — rather than French — called Alta Moda for women and Alta Sartoria for men.
The new scheduling
Although the whole system is meant to adhere to one unified timetable, the arrival of Covid-19 pretty much threw that out of the window. Unable to stage physical shows, many labels moved online, running shows when the collection was ready, rather than when the previous timetable dictated.
While most brands have returned to the schedule — after noisy demands to relax their rigidity — not everyone has followed suit. For example, Maison Margiela, led by John Galliano, is essentially an avante-garde ready-to-wear brand, yet unveiled its most recent collection during Haute Couture Week, to make the most of the world's media in town.
Azzedine Alaia, who died in 2017, was another who famously ignored the schedule, instead showing where and when he wanted to. As the industry becomes more crowded, some brands are showing off schedule as a point of differentiation, while some big brands are also unveiling their collections at the time and place of their choosing.
Many also seem to switch lead designers with alarming regularity, with a major reshuffle taking place every few years, bringing confusion as to who is leading what. Two brands that do not have a fixed creative head in place — AZ Factory, whose founder Alber Elbaz died in 2021, and Jean Paul Gaultier, whose eponymous founder retired from fashion completely in 2020 — invite a different guest designer each season.