The Paradoxical Existence of Fashion Shows

Author: Rohan Godara, Graphics: Irina Sakharova

The BRB Bottomline

Luxury fashion shows are costly endeavours fashion labels must undertake in order to maintain their brand image and showcase their creative vision. But when the clothes themselves aren’t for sale, why do these shows exist, and how does a company make back its money?


Fashion, more so than other mediums of art, is ingrained deeply in our very being, even though it may not appear so to the average consumer. While music, paintings, dance, and theater—traditional forms of art—can be considered supplementary bonuses to life, clothing would instead be considered a necessity, not art, by many. However, there is a line where clothing and fashion become art. Luxury fashion is where this distinction is made evident, and luxury fashion shows are a celebration of this difference. But an appreciation of this celebration is still niche: most either cannot afford to indulge in it or don’t care to. So why do fashion shows exist at the scale that they do? Why do companies pour the amount of money that they do into what is essentially a creative announcement, especially when the clothes on display are not for sale, and it is in a company’s nature to make money?

The Evolution of Fashion Shows

Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2021 Tokyo Men’s Show

I recently saw the Louis Vuitton Men’s Spring/Summer 2021 fashion show that took place in Tokyo. The extravagance was what we’ve come to expect from a luxury label such as Louis Vuitton—a cruise port decked out with giant parade-like floats of original cartoon characters, LV branded red shipping containers, music from the famed jazz saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, a film directed by the legendary Takashi Miike, and not to mention the fashion line up itself, showcasing the second half of their line up as a follow up to their show in Beijing, which displayed an equally flamboyant curation and set.

“Fashion Parades”

The modern fashion shows, and all their exuberance, can be traced back to 1860s Paris, where Charles Frederick Worth, an English designer, decided to use live models to showcase his pieces as opposed to mannequins which had been the norm. This led to a spread of events known as “fashion parades” in London and New York: private events with affluent spectators to convince them to buy the latest designs. The events were exclusive, and photography was banned for the fear of having designs stolen—quite the contrast from the aforementioned LV Tokyo fashion show. 

What Changed?

The soundtrack of the LV Tokyo show happens to be one of my favorite tracks to listen to while studying, yet it isn’t available on music platforms. The film is thought-inspiring yet exists only as an accompaniment to the show. The clothes are gaudy and covetable, yet they can not be bought. Somewhere along the line, the purpose of fashion shows became murky. While the client base became wide as events were broadcasted to millions, the clothes became more abstract and avant-garde, and the budgets increased. Fashion shows evolved to theatrical performances, an apotheosis of all mediums of art with no expenses spared on the music, set pieces, venues, directors, all for the creative vision of the fashion label’s creative designer. These elements exist in a bubble, seemingly impenetrable due to the exclusivity of the shows. I’m all for art for the sake of art, but it begs the question: how do these companies make their money back?

Return on Investment?

The Cost

According to an article in Forbes, a 15-minute show can cost anywhere from 200K-1M USD, though the biggest fashion houses spend a lot more, only they don’t disclose how much. The largest expenses lie in the set design and hiring models. Other expenses include lighting, transportation for models, sound, and filming. The most expensive fashion show to date is the 2016 Victoria’s Secret show, costing around 26.7 million USD from hiring the world’s most famous models decked out in lingerie containing Swarovski crystals. Fittingly, the musical accompaniment for the evening was The Weeknd. 

The Reason?

Creative Vision

Though there are fashion shows which showcase ready-to-wear and ready-to-buy clothes, the most cost-intensive ones often do not feature such clothes. The fact of the matter is that such fashion shows do not exist to make money, at least not directly. Rather, they are created for the purpose of showcasing a designer’s creative vision. According to Paris-based journalist Renaud Petit, “they actually aim at providing the public with an overall feel, a theme, a mood, an artistic background and atmosphere of the collection that will be available on shelves.”  There is a reputation to be upheld when it comes to a luxury brand, and simultaneously a tradition to be followed. 

The Ostensible Reason

Fashion adapted to the age of social media. It is less about what is being worn, but rather who is wearing it. The ostentation at fashion shows is a means to have celebrities in attendance, and inevitably have them wear the pieces that are actually to be sold, and feature them in ads and campaigns. According to Forbes, the buzz generated by celebrities accounts for 89% of social media engagement compared to 11% from the brand’s own marketing. When the market is niche, and consumers operate via the economic principles of upmarket goods, such are the strategies needed to grow and maintain one’s market share. Yet, it isn’t even the clothes that contribute to one’s market share. Marc Bain of Quartz states that “For luxury brands, selling clothes is basically a marketing expense.” The most accessible items from luxury houses are their fragrances, accessories, and handbags that rely on the brand image to be sold. From a financial standpoint, a company executive would seek to sell more of these items from a successful show. 

Take-Home Points

  • Fashion shows define cultural movements in clothing, art, music, and film. They’ve evolved to be extravagant, exclusive, expensive, for the sake of conveying creative visions, but also to create buzz in the age of social media.
  • A fashion show can cost anywhere from 200k to a couple million dollars, where the bulk of the costs goes to set design, models, and location.
  • What’s more important than the clothes on display at a show, is the people in attendance. Luxury fashion consumers are heavily swayed by the words and looks of their favorite celebrities, thus making a brand’s collaborations its very identity. 
  • The most commonly sold goods from luxury labels are their footwear, perfumes, and accessories, which rely on brand image to be sold. To maintain said brand image, extravagance and collaboration with celebrities is a necessity.

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