Paris Fashion Week 2023, scheduled from September 25 to October 3, promises unparalleled Glamour and chic. The usual suspects like Dior, Chanel, and Saint Laurent are set to dazzle, while the highly promised collections by Peter Do and Marni promise fresh perspectives.
Hundreds of buyers, celebrities and influencers jetted in on gas-guzzling flights for a fleeting glimpse of new collections, carefully crafted for an obsolescence that means everyone will be willing to get back on a plane and do it all again in six months time.
To be sure, the emissions and waste directly associated with these marquee marketing moments are a drop in the ocean compared to the industry’s overall footprint. And over the years, brands and fashion councils have made efforts to drive down both.
But narrowly focusing on the direct impact of the shows misses the bigger picture: at the heart of fashion’s negative environmental and social impact is overproduction and overconsumption. And what do fashion weeks do if not fuel both those things?
Take the recent roster of events in New York, London, Milan and Paris, not to mention the often more excessive cruise and pre-fall collections — every show sets in motion a marketing machine designed to drive the purchase of new products. It’s the trends these events inspire, the media value they deliver and ultimately the shopping all this encourages that fuels their environmental impact.
This is where luxury has a much bigger responsibility for environmental damage than it has historically owned up to; the millions spent on fashion shows not only drive sales of runway collections themselves, but encourage much broader consumption of adjacent and more accessible products from handbags to fragrances, as well as spurring demand for mass-market knock offs.
This is important because fashion will only hit its sustainability targets by reducing the volume of products it sells. But luxury’s brainprint — from fashion shows to the editorial shoots, ad campaigns and influencer posts they help facilitate — is currently geared to incentivise the opposite, exhorting shoppers to buy into trends that change at lightning speed.
That does not have to mean the death of fashion weeks — no more so than a sustainable fashion sector demands the end of fashion full stop. But both do require radical change.
Shows where millions are spent on momentary and extravagant displays of wealth (all in pursuit of recouping millions more in associated brand and media value) are out of touch at a time when we as an industry are helping to erode the planetary systems we depend upon for survival, and impacting millions of people largely in developing countries in the process.
Copenhagen Fashion Week is one example of an alternative approach: As of 2023, designers have to meet 18 specific sustainability requirements in order to be allowed to show. Among other things, they must not destroy unsold clothes from past collections, at least half of what is shown must be made from better materials and brands must commit to use their platforms to educate and inform customers about their sustainability practices. While there’s room for improvement, it’s a big statement to make compared to other major cities.
What we need now are those thinking bigger again about how to showcase new ways of engaging with fashion. After all, this isn’t the time for gradual change. What we need is to turbocharge transformation, developing new systems and business models — ones that don’t rely on simply selling more and more new stuff with little thought for the long-term impact on people, planet, and even profits. Rethinking fashion shows is a part of this.
Fashion itself has recognised the need for change. During the pandemic, calls grew from within the industry to reform fashion week’s relentless churn, which can be financially crippling for independent designers.
Let us also celebrate those bringing circular solutions to the fore; those turning waste into a resource and encouraging consumers to fall in love with notions such as pre-loved and upcycled fashions. A Paris Fashion Week swap shop with all of the usual front row contenders participating would not only be a huge statement, but perhaps one of the greatest kinds of fashion shows today’s industry has ever seen.
As she sees it, Stella McCartney’s job is not to sell clothes on a catwalk but “to sell sustainability to the world”. At Paris fashion week, she hosted a “plant-based, nature-positive, solution-focused” street market with 21 stalls selling and explaining sustainable produce ranging from “crochet” minidresses made from seaweed to Linda McCartney veggie burgers.
“This is honestly one of the most momentous days of my life,” said the stall-holder Tessa Callaghan, the chief executive and founder of Keel Labs, whose Kelsun yarn features in McCartney’s new collection in several boho openwork-knit summer dresses, which look like crocheted cotton but are made from renewable kelp. “Today is the first time one of our products has ever been seen in public, and this event is the best way I could have imagined that to happen.”
Seaweed, says Callaghan, is “a planet-positive raw material because it is extremely abundant and, unlike cotton, it doesn’t require fertiliser or pesticides. It involves no water consumption, no land use and no fossil-fuel reliance.”
At the Radiant Matter stall, show-goers admired a shimmering dress made from the company’s new biodegradable alternative to sequins, which harness iridescence from within the organic structure of natural raw materials to mimic the glimmer of sequins, without the harsh environmental footprint. Radiant Matter has collaborated with McCartney to produce a dress and a jumpsuit.
And just when you thought sustainable fashion could not get any more glamorous and rock’n’roll, there were handbags made from champagne. Well, sort of: the grapes used to make the vegan “leather” Frayme bags in the collection are byproducts in the production of Veuve Clicquot, which is owned by McCartney’s investors, LVMH.
Peta has disrupted a number of catwalk shows this season to protest against the use of leather, and consumer interest in vegan alternatives is growing. But the challenges facing startups attempting to go head to head with leather, the most lucrative sector of the fashion market, were shown in June when the American startup Bolt Threads paused production of Mylo, a mycelium-based leather alternative, after failing to secure the investment necessary to scale up.
Ninety-five per cent of the collection is made from materials the brand considers to be responsible, up from 92% last season and 91% the season before that, according to McCartney.
“We’re not here to make you feel guilty,” she said. “It’s just about doing what you can, taking a water bottle and a shopping bag out with you when you leave the house or whatever. And not consuming so much fashion because we know we don’t need it.”