At the start of the AW2020 shows this week in Paris, renowned set producer Alexandre de Betak announced his 'Ten Commandments', standard procedures established to offset the carbon footprint of his company Bureau Betak. Among them? 'Integrate sustainability into the design and production of all fashion events' and 'implement operational carbon compensation'. In light of the revolutionary move, we publish a piece questioning the relevancy of traditional fashion shows, originally featured in Frame 132.

It’s hardly necessary to remind anyone that the fashion industry is a leading culprit when it comes to climate crimes. More concerned about the social and environmental stance of brands than ever before, consumers are standing tall as activists for change in their own right, challenging the relevancy of ephemeral, footprint-heavy events like fashion shows. Set design and production are reflecting this social shift, but is it happening fast enough?

Nearly a decade on, Chanel’s AW10 set is regarded as one of, if not the most, spectacular of those overseen by the late Karl Lagerfeld. Over six days, 35 people worked to install a 265-tonne iceberg imported from Sweden into Paris’s Grand Palais – all for a 15-minute show. Lagerfeld’s intended takeaway message, as reported by Vogue? ‘Global warming is the issue of our times,’ he stated. ‘Fashion has to address it.’

Lagerfeld’s words were – and are – painfully true, though they highlight the hypocrisy of the show itself. ‘It was incredibly tone deaf, the perfect example of what is wrong with fashion today – excessive expense, excessive consumption and excessive folly at the peril of the planet,’ explains journalist-author Dana Thomas, who recently published the fast-fashion exposé Fashionopolis. ‘Everyone was horrified.’

Title image and top: Dior SS20 show, courtesy of Dior | Bottom: Stella McCartney SS20 show, courtesy of Stella McCartney

But perhaps people weren’t horrified enough. The imprint of the industry’s environmental footprint has only deepened, largely exacerbated by the wasteful impermanence of spatial design from fashion weeks and months. Saint Laurent’s SS20 menswear show, held on a Malibu beach, is one recent example. City officials and residents allege that, after circumventing a denied show permit from the local government, the French fashion house violated several environmental regulations protecting the California beach’s ecosystem by building a boardwalk along the surf. Parent entity Kering – named the second most sustainable global corporation across all industries in the Corporate Knights Global 100 index at the start of the year and spearhead of the Fashion Pact coalition – declined to comment on the matter, according to Vogue Business.

Nine in ten Generation Z buyers believe companies have a responsibility to address social and environmental issues

Optimistically, though, impassioned protestors gathered outside shows are no longer the only ones challenging the ethicality of such shows – consumers care more about social and environmental responsibility than ever. McKinsey’s The State of Fashion 2019 report states that nine in ten Generation Z buyers – together with millennials, representing $350 billion of spending power in the US alone – believe companies have a responsibility to address such issues. The report goes on to explain that two-thirds of consumers worldwide, not limited to the younger demographics, would switch, avoid or boycott brands based on their stance on controversial matters and that half of these consumers regard themselves as activists. ‘Fashion cannot lock itself in the so-called ivory tower anymore,’ Balenciaga’s CEO Cédric Charbit tells McKinsey. ‘We need to be conscious of the world and reflect what’s happening.’

Prior to the SS20 shows in London last September, environmental group Extinction Rebellion asked fashion to do just that, writing a letter to the British Fashion Council demanding that LFW be done away with in favour of ‘a people’s assembly of industry professionals and designers, as a platform to declare a climate and ecological emergency’. Later that month, designer Stella McCartney held a small-scale assembly of her own before her Paris show, inviting Dana Thomas and Extinction Rebellion’s Clare Farrell to speak at an hour-long roundtable dedicated to discussing climate change and the fashion industry. McCartney has long led by example, championing sustainable and ethical practices since starting her eponymous house in 2001 and working with entities such as the Amsterdam institution-cum-innovation-platform Fashion For Good and consignment retailer The RealReal. (Formerly owned by Kering, McCartney’s fashion house is now part of rival LVMH’s roster of luxury brands.)

Top and middle: Marni SS20 show, courtesy of Marni | Bottom: Saint Laurent SS20 show, courtesy of Saint Laurent

As the universal discourse surrounding the climate crisis amplifies day by day, fashion’s biggest names now must pay heed to that agenda and are slowly but surely taking steps in the right direction. Gabriela Hearst and Gucci made news early on in the SS20 show circuit – first, Hearst for producing fashion’s ‘first ever’ carbon-neutral show during NYFW. Gucci followed suit in Milan. Marni made a sustainable statement in the Italian capital, too: German artist Judith Hopf was asked to use her interpretation of upcycling to design the set, and then chose to build artificial palm trees from PET polymers. The source? Plastic waste gathered from Marni’s menswear show months before. The company comments that, while the set is not zero-impact, it reflects a growing commitment to operate business with a ‘conscious’ approach.

Shortly after, in Paris, Dior broke soil on its ‘inclusive garden’, a ‘place of co-existence and diversity’ inspired by the avant-garde ideas of the early 20th-century Swiss community Monte Verità and driven by the idea of finding balance in the Anthropocene, according to a spokesperson for the brand. The Bureau Betak-produced scenography was designed in collaboration with Coloco, a Paris-based atelier composed of landscapers, urban designers, botanists, gardeners and artists. By now, each tree that appeared in the Dior show has been planted in one of three ongoing eco-projects in France. And, possibly in an attempt to make (small) amends for the year’s earlier offence, Saint Laurent used 100 per cent renewable energy produced by biofuelled generators to power the 414 lights that illuminated its Eiffel Tower-facing catwalk.

I don’t think fashion shows in their current form are still relevant – or modern

Digitization, of course, promises a more radical means of restyling the fashion industry’s ongoing presentation cycle. A season before Chanel took Paris polar, Alexander McQueen was thinking about creating spectacle in a much different way – the late designer’s SS10 show, Plato’s Atlantis, remembers Thomas, was the first-ever to be livestreamed on the internet. ‘If he were still with us, I’m sure he would have changed the “show” even further – maybe abolishing it as we know it for something decidedly more modern and democratic.’ She continues, ‘I don’t think fashion shows in their current form are still relevant – or modern. And I am not alone. I keep hearing from my fashion editor friends that they are bored with the cycle – there are too many shows, the clothes presented are rarely for sale, it’s all for Instagram moments and the audience are now props, and the entire exercise is unsustainable from A to Z. One editor I know told me: “We were sitting in the front row this season saying to each other, ‘What are we doing here?’” If the editors are having an existential crisis, it is definitely time to change the model.

A totally revised fashion show model may be a while in the making, but there’s no time left to wait for radical conscientiousness. To quote Caroline Issa, CEO and fashion director of Tank magazine: ‘Fashion is in serious danger of becoming deeply unfashionable.’ Designers and brands need to critically consider the impact of set design and production and the consequent message it communicates with audiences. In doing so, the industry may realize the full potential of its creative force as part of the solution rather than the problem.

This piece is featured in our Jan—Feb 2020 issue, Frame 132. Get your copy here.