Fashion Weeks connect design houses to retailers and media. They are critical events in the fashion calendar. Fashion event organisers could and should use their position to influence the industry's behaviour in a positive way.

Why is Fashion Week so influential?

Design labels show their work at fashion events for two major reasons: PR and orders. After a fashion show, Alison Bringé, chief marketing officer at Launchmetrics calculates something called "media impact value". "Okay, I spent, I don't know, a million dollars on the show, I had 1,500 people come — what was the ROI (Return On Investment) on those activities?'"

A Fashion Week may look like an exhibition of performance art, but it's also a trade show, just like a trade show in any other industry. Buyers and sellers get together with the industry media so the sellers can show their stuff to the buyers and journalists who buy and write about it. 

Elyse Walker, Fashion Director at Forward, describes her activities during Fashion Week. "I travel with a team that includes our online and in-store buyers, plus an analyst… We spend our days attending shows and buying appointments, then once we've eaten, our evenings are taken up working out potential orders."

All this means that the organisers of fashion events, especially the big four fashion weeks (London, New York, Paris, and Milan), have influence and power within the fashion industry. The buyers at fashion events make decisions that affect us all as consumers and as participants in the economy.  

Fashion Week in its current form

The tales of excess at the shows are legendary, celebrity models, show stock slashed and burned, and extravagant sets destroyed after one use - Dior erected a man-made mountain blanketed in 200,000 royal blue and purple flowers within the Louvre grounds in Paris. 

Although these things are only a drop in the bucket compared to the industry's irresponsible behaviour as a whole, they are important signals. Fashion Week organisers do not have unbridled power to control brands, but there are things they could do, things that could have a big material impact as well as a symbolic one.

Dior 2015, Paris

Fashion Week reimagined

The Copenhagen Fashion Week (CPHFW), labelled the "fifth" fashion week by The New York Times, have spent the last few years trying to reimagine fashion week into an event that uses its industry power to reduce the climactic and social damage of the fashion industry. The CPHFW promotes responsible practices at the show itself and takes concrete steps to affect the behaviour of the brands who show their clothes.

When Cecilie Thorsmark took over as CEO of the show in 2018, overseeing its growth in influence, she made sustainability the main focus of the show. The CPHFW website states: 'Sustainability is the core focus for Copenhagen Fashion Week, striving towards making substantial changes to inspire and encourage the industry to accelerate their sustainability efforts'.

The Copenhagen Fashion Week crucially requires participants to adhere to a concrete set of 18 written requirements for sustainable and ethical manufacturing practices. The requirements cover the entire value chain, not just the collections and shows at CPHFW. Participants must first state their adherence to the requirements (effectively self-certifying), then be reviewed by a panel of experts and a consulting company with experience in sustainability issues (Ramboll). This is not a bloodless process. In the run-up to the 2023 events, one designer dropped out of the assessment process, and one was denied entrance. (CPHFW didn't give names)

This is a big deal. This is companies changing their behaviour in order to be considered for inclusion in the event on a specific date in the present not just some vague date in the future. The standards require more than just a commitment to change; they lay out specific numerical requirements in the here and now that must be met.

The list of requirements does contain some of the familiar 'commitments' but in the mix are other much more concrete items such as:

  • 'have at least 50% of its collection either certified, made of preferred materials or new generation sustainable materials, upcycled, recycled or made of deadstock.'
  • 'do not utilise single-use plastic packaging in store or for online orders'."
  • 'do not destroy unsold clothes from previous collections.'
  • 'set design and show production is zero waste.'

See the full list here:

The existing 18 requirements were first developed in 2020, and companies were given until 2023 to demonstrate compliance. Cecilie Thorsmark (CEO) concedes that concrete change takes time and plans to introduce one new requirement each year, as well as continually reassess the existing requirements to make sure they are strict enough. "If we rewind three years ago, not a single brand met any of the 18 requirements. Now they do, so we will push them again to continue improving." 

As well as the catwalk events, the week features "small talks, big conversations - championing change for underrepresented voices." A discussion series that brings together industry professionals and experts to talk about sustainability and ethics issues in the fashion space. 

The big four fashion weeks have not followed suit with sustainability and socially focused requirements. If they are scared that placing restrictions on their exhibitors will drive them away, they may be backing the wrong horse. Copenhagen Fashion Week's growing success and recognition demonstrates the power of responsible behaviour. The big fashion event organisers are in a position to influence the fashion industry. So far, only the Copenhagen Fashion Week is availing itself of that power; hopefully, the others will follow. 

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