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Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, Chloé’s Natacha Ramsay-Levi, and Cedric Charbit of Balenciaga Discuss the Future of the Fashion Show

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Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, Chloé’s Natacha Ramsay-Levi, Cedric Charbit of Balenciaga, Nicole Phelps of Vogue Runway

The coronavirus pandemic has canceled fashion shows for the foreseeable future—but that doesn’t mean the fashion industry will stop, or even slow down. At today’s Vogue Global Conversations discussion, Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing, Chloé’s Natacha Ramsay-Levi, and Balenciaga CEO Cedric Charbit gathered on Zoom with Vogue Runway’s Nicole Phelps to expand on how fashion shows can and should change in the future, both digitally and in real life.

During the hour-long conversation, the group meditated on the value of virtual fashion shows versus physical ones, the inclusivity a digital-first world brings, and how this experience gives the industry an opportunity to reset and rethink how it does business. Here, the highlights from the session.

Who Is the Audience for a Fashion Show?

One of the most crucial aspects in thinking about virtual and physical fashion shows is analyzing who the audience is for each kind of event. Balenciaga CEO Cedric Charbit revealed data about the brand’s own events that illuminated the reach of both kinds of shows: Each season the brand invites about 600 guests to experience its physical spectacles at Paris Fashion Week. Over 8,000 people watch the shows live on YouTube, 60,000 watch on Instagram, and 300,000 discuss the shows on Twitter. “If you combine this all together with the replays [of the streams], we have an audience of over 10 million viewers,” Charbit said. “I think there is a digital reality that is already happening that one needs to embrace and face. Our audience has to be reconsidered. One needs to understand: Do we have guests or viewers? Or are they becoming one?”

Both Rousteing and Ramsay-Levi echoed this sentiment, delineating the different possibilities of physical and digital shows. Rousteing, for one, would like to bring his shows to the streets of Paris once confinement ends, to allow for more people to be included in the fashion narrative, while Ramsay-Levi said: “I think we all agree that we value a fashion show. It’s a moment where you can gather the community; it’s a moment where there is human sensitivity. Of course, the digital is there to amplify, and as Olivier was saying, maybe it’s the way that we experience the fashion show that needs to change and be more inclusive in a way.”

“What’s Lost by Watching a Fashion Show Online and What’s Gained?”

The panel began with this query submitted by a viewer on Zoom. Undoubtedly, this is the million-dollar question for the fashion industry—and one that each brand likely has to answer in its own way. Rousteing began by drawing a distinction between the atmosphere he might be able to create in both the digital and physical realms: “I don’t see digital as less emotional; I see digital as an experience where you can push your dreams to the next level,” he said, referencing the potential of collaborating with digital artists to create spectacular virtual realities.

“We must be aware that the audience is mostly digital, but I won’t kill the shows. The shows are a beautiful moment,” said Ramsay-Levi. “It’s only 600 in a room, but it’s more than 600 working behind the [scenes]. I think that’s beautiful and that we should be proud of it,” she continued, noting that self-isolation has made her value human connection even more. “Fashion shows are special events, I believe. They are here to inspire and engage conversation—and they have a meaning and they must feel authentic. There’s a human dimension to it which I’m very keen to keep.”

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More than likely, the future is a place where both digital and physical experiences live in harmony. “Do a physical show, translate it to a digital platform, I don’t believe in this. I think the shows have to be built from a digital standpoint, somehow, in the first place,” Charbit said. “Manage an experience that is both online and offline that is equally relevant for the people, that’s what has all my attention today: To make sure the show of tomorrow, but also the show of last season, for example, is not weaker if you watch it or if you’re in the room.”

He later drew an analogy between the music industry and fashion, pointing to live events like festivals and concerts as being just as important to music fans as the ability to consume music digitally. “Today we might enter into a phase where technology and fashion need to be in sync. It’s no longer wishful thinking. We now need to inject tech into how we convey messages to people, even in the showroom, even in the fashion shows themselves,” said Charbit. “To me, it’s very exciting to see that finally tech and fashion are merging and are in sync because they need one another.”

Rousteing added that perhaps the way we understand emotional connection needs to change too. “But emotions are changing,” he said. “Before people were clapping, now people are Instagramming, which is another kind of emotion. I’m sure that in the future that we can find a way with illustration, with digital, to bring that kind of emotion.”

Materials Are One Thing, But How Do We Ensure Creativity Is Sustainable Too?

“We don’t want to live in a planet that is going to die tomorrow. We need to protect, not only our fashion industry, but also our world,” said Rousteing. As the conversation shifted into sustainability—with Charbit revealing that Balenciaga creative director Demna Gvasalia and his design team have recently issued their own environmental road map for 2020 and 2021—Ramsay-Levi gave one of the most poignant quotes of the conversation: “We can’t waste materials because we pollute so much, but we can’t waste creativity as well.”

She continued, highlighting the disconnect between how the business side of fashion is run at odds with the creative. “The waste comes from a system that asks for new products all the time.… It’s being asked for novelties all the time,” she said, highlighting that the runway shows are a time for her team to express creativity, while the pre-collections are the ones that are giving a longer life span on the sales floor. “It’s a waste of creativity. The shapes we create have such a small time to expand, and then they go on sale and lose their value.”

Ramsay-Levi added: “I think houses have the opportunity to stop, think, and make concrete proposals for a new business.… Buying is not a meaningless act. It’s an act of being a part of a community.… I know the next product I will buy is something that has to be relevant.”

Charbit agreed, saying that he believes supporting design has to be the main goal for himself and other luxury fashion CEOs. “We’re here to support the vision. We’re not a retail- or marketing-driven company. This is a design-driven company, and if design embraces this, I think it’s really important,” he said. “We CEOs [need to] give more space and put creativity at the center. Business and results will come as a consequence, as opposed to [being] the main goal.”

How Can Smaller Brands Survive and Thrive?

At the end of the discussion, Phelps read some additional questions submitted by viewers on Zoom. One wondered how small brands can compete digitally in the future on the same scale as these luxury behemoths. “Just like today, it’s not only a matter of money. It’s a matter of ideas and creativity,” said Charbit. “We all have different identities and we need to remain ourselves and be ourselves, using more tech to express ourselves. That would be my mantra, my advice to any of us and all of you who want to exist in the world tomorrow.… If you are in sync with what you stand for in your time, you are going to be successful.”

A more inclusive and digital future applies to brands large and small. “There is a way, after the crisis, that we have a better fashion world,” Charbit continued. “I think there’s a lot of hope in this.”

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To view this week’s earlier panels on “The Future of Creativity” with Marc Jacobs, Kenneth Ize, and British Vogue’s Edward Enninful, click here, and on “The Future of Sustainability” with Stella McCartney, Gabriela Hearst, and Vogue España’s Eugenia de la Torriente, click here.

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