Inside The Inclusive Future Of Fashion Shows

From private events to public gatherings.

kim shui spring/summer 2023

A steady rain falls as the clock ticks to nearly 90 minutes past the advertised start time at the third annual Balmain Festival on the night of September 28. Nearly 8,000 people — the majority of whom bought tickets in lieu of a personal invitation — have crowded the stands at the Stade Jean Bouin in Paris, undoubtedly chosen for its capacity. What began as a 1,500-person concert and catwalk event in 2019 has grown into an annual celebration, offering the best in limited-edition merchandise, food trucks, music, and the biggest spectacle of all: a more inclusive fashion show, open to the brand’s adoring fans.

It’s hard to ignore the fashion industry’s recent affinity for playing to a mass audience. An arena that’s famous for its exclusivity, the world of luxury labels has started to shift away from invite-only affairs in favor of public catwalk events. Beyond Balmain Festival V03 this season, Diesel’s Spring/Summer 2023 show publicized tickets that sold on a first-come, first-served basis. And let’s not forget Vogue World, NYFW’S highly anticipated, celebrity-studded event celebrating the magazine’s 130th anniversary. Everyone who paid entrance was treated to a star-studded runway (graced by Serena Williams, Kendall Jenner, and Gigi Hadid, to name a few), a street fair, and a musical performance from Lil Nas X.

An exigent cultural shift towards inclusion and accessibility has spurred other brands to follow suit. Over at Tibi, the team decided to invite loyal wholesale and direct-to-consumer clients from around the world to join industry guests this season. Seating was also set aside for fans and supporters of the label who expressed interest in attending via Instagram (a selection of lucky winners were drawn at random). “The decision to invite our customers was as natural as inviting our industry guests spanning buyers, media, and influencers,” Elaine Chang, Tibi president, says.

This welcoming ethos is something that Serena Williams, a fashion insider in her own right, baked into her own clothing company from the beginning. “Inclusivity in both our product and how we show up as a brand is something that we talk about often,” Chidinma Asonye, chief operating officer of S by Serena, says. “How she wants people to feel in S by Serena is a big part of Serena’s design process. In order to know how people want to feel, we need to create a space where they feel comfortable engaging with us.” So, fittingly, the tennis star’s company also takes care to invite shoppers to each show. “We made sure that we had a number of seats available to customers and fans that have supported the brand over the years,” Asonye continues. “We find a lot of value in being able to engage directly with the people that are wearing our clothes.”

Opening runway events to the public isn’t the only way to give access. Kim Shui, founder of her eponymous label, took her most recent NYFW presentation to the extreme, staging a catwalk in the bustling Grand Central Station for passers-by to experience alongside invitees. “We were a brand created because of the people who were buying our clothes and creating content and sharing them on the internet,” Shui reflects to TZR on her decision to open-call for models, stylists, and photographers for the event. “I really wanted to have that represented through this collection and how we went about it.”

Since the conceptualization of what we know as the current fashion industry, there has been an undeniable hierarchy between low and high fashion, fueled by inaccessibility and elitism. Now, brands are working to dismantle that mindset. “Exclusivity and lack of accessibility aren’t synonymous with luxury,” Asonye explains. “Luxury in terms of the quality of design, fabric, time, and care put into creating something can be shared with anyone. It has more to do with perceived value from the consumer, which can be had at any price point and is not dependent on how many people know that it exists.” But shifting to that mindset starts from the inside out, and now that even the most prestigious of maisons are catering to a larger, more diverse audience, the shift in the industry is palpable. Just look outside the buzziest shows of the season: Whereas they used to be quiet affairs, attended only by those in the business, now hoards of adoring fans gather the same way they would for a concert or movie premiere — they just want a glimpse of the action.

It’s telling, too, that Chanel is reportedly opening private boutiques for its top-spending customers to be unveiled in key Asian cities by early next year. Though there remains a sense of elitism in this — the house listed its 2021 revenue at a whopping $15.6 billion — it is a small step towards a customer-oriented mindset. Labels are learning the value in welcoming customers into their rarified worlds. Elsewhere, Prada and Gucci have adopted a more localized marketing tactic, targeting specific cities and audiences for a more meaningful approach to consumerism. And NYFW: The Experience, established in 2019, has fans paying anywhere from $500 to $3,000 for seats and VIP perks to brands including Altuzarra, Badgley Mischka, PatBO, and Christian Cowan.

Social media unsurprisingly plays a significant role in the growing industry trend of collaboration with, and interest in, the general public. “Before, if you were a fashion brand, you needed to get into all these top-tier stores. And now that's kind of flipped,” Shui explains. “If you have a really strong direct-to-consumer presence and you're sharing all these things on the internet and people love your brand, that's another alleyway to take off.” This idea is something Asonye has also adopted in her marketing philosophy. From holding Q&A sessions to live engagement try-ons on S by Serena’s socials, she has noticed an increase in feedback and interest from followers.

“Inclusivity and access to the brand — especially in the age of social media — are table stakes, not nice-to-haves. We want to speak directly to the people that we design for as much as possible,” Asonye reflects. “The more opportunities we give our audience to engage with us, the more comfortable they seem to be to speak up and tell us how they feel about our product.”

She isn’t the only one who notes the importance of modern technology in catalyzing a more intimate relationship with potential buyers. “We engage directly with customers through weekly Instagram live style classes, our team of retail stylists, and our customer care team on E-comm. These relationships are very real to who we are as a brand,” Chang tells TZR. Tibi’s founder and creative director Amy Smilivic regularly takes to Instagram for industry advice Q&As and styling Reels, and even hosts classes on the brand’s main page.

This concept isn’t new for Shui, of course, as her brand began (and took off) on the internet. “For me, that's how it started,” Shui says as she reflects on her early days promoting her work on social media. “None of the big stores wanted me. But once my internet presence grew, stores started reaching out.” She recalls relentlessly emailing bloggers to review her clothes, and asking Barneys to consider buying her garments. “Once buyers see the strength of your brand and people buying directly from you, they realize you’re going to be profitable for them as a store.” These days, that is something that can best be achieved by marketing to, and involving, a target consumer base — which is historically where the disconnect between accessible and inaccessible fashion began.

But as the lines between these two sides of the industry blur, designers are left with the option to adapt to the changing landscape or potentially fall behind. “It’s important to think about your brand and what its unique value proposition is to the market when it comes to these broad notions of ‘inclusivity’ or ‘democratization,’” Chang said. “If it makes sense for the brand to expand the runway show audience beyond the standard industry segments, then it should absolutely be considered.” So is the future of the fashion show to remain an exclusive, invite-only spectacle with a few occasional exceptions — or will it fully develop into an entertainment event for the public? All three experts agree with some version of the latter. “A lot of preconceived notions of what is the traditional way to be a successful brand have changed throughout the years,” Shui says. “So it’ll be interesting to see the next step of how the industry will be.”