Hubert Burda Media

Gender Bending On The Runway

As more men and women share the runways, we explore how the new power coupling can be good for business.

Once a staid British heritage label, Burberry is now recast as a luxury powerhouse leading the charge to fix a fractured fashion system, where seasonal offerings are presented on runways months before you can purchase in stores or online.

With the rise of social media in recent years, this disconnect meant lost opportunity, with brands unable to convert the initial buzz into tangible sales. “You create a lot of energy when you do the shows and the broader these have become — whether it’s live-streaming, Instagramming, or showing online — you’re creating all this energy around something and then you close the doors and say: ‘Forget about it now because it won’t be in the stores for five or six months.’ And then you’ve got to create that energy again,” Burberry’s Chief Executive Officer and Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey explained to Business of Fashion.

As Vetements’ astute Head Designer Demna Gvasalia added: “Digital speeds everything up because the information is available so fast. We can shop online and we see things online and want to have them as soon as possible.”

“You know, there are pre-orders online and people buy things that have never been produced. We didn’t even buy fabrics yet for some of the pieces at Vetements that have already sold out on the online stores, which is quite crazy,” he confessed.

It wasn’t unexpected when Burberry announced in February 2016 that it would break rank with a radical overhaul of how it produces, presents and retails its runway collections. Part of its revitalised modus operandi, conceptualised for global consumers who live in different climatic patterns, merged menswear and womenswear presentations into two season-less shows a year (February and September), instead of the annual four (Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter shows for each gender).

Burberry officially merged its men’s and women’s collections with the September collection

While co-ed catwalks aren’t new for the company — boys have shown up in Burberry’s women’s presentations since Spring/Summer 2005 and vice versa — and collections for both genders have followed the same creative direction, it was the first time the brand showcased its seasonal offerings as one cohesive collection in September 2016. Known as The September Collection, the dual-gender runway presentation served up a whopping 250 pieces (for 83 men’s and women’s looks), a number of which in gender-fluid styles — a perceptive mirror of how people live and dress today.

Even its new bag of the season expresses the view. Called the Bridle, it is a practical equestrian-esque satchel whose guises give it unisex appeal. After all, as Bailey pointed out to Vogue.com: “Genders are not as defined anymore.”

The idea of mixed-gender runways isn’t revolutionary. Fashion houses such as Givenchy and Prada have included women in their menswear shows as far back as Autumn/Winter 2010. But what makes it such a strong statement now is the collective nods from a successive string of designers across the four fashion capitals, almost as though it’s a quiet conspiracy to regain control over the fashion calendar.

Women are often featured in Prada’s menswear shows

On the heels of Burberry’s announcement (later that same day, in fact), Tom Ford declared his intentions to skip his initial February date in favour of New York Fashion Week in September, so he could stage his Autumn/Winter 2016 menswear and womenswear shows together.

Meanwhile, Vetements planned to introduce a men’s collection for Autumn/Winter 2016. “Due to our aesthetic that has a very masculine origin, we have a lot of male customers that buy our clothes, which are not really made for male customers. We are fitting on girls, we’ve never fitted clothes on guys before. At the end of the day, we decided to do it at the same time as women. So we are going to have a show that is half/half women and menswear,” Gvasalia told Business of Fashion at the time.

Likewise for Gucci, whose Creative Director Alessandro Michele made a co-ed debut in Autumn/Winter 2015, it was only a matter of time that its men’s and women’s collections
were unified into one runway show each season. “It seems only natural to me to present my men’s and women’s collections together. It’s the way I see the world today. It will not necessarily be an easy path and will certainly present some challenges, but I believe it will give me the chance to move towards a different kind of approach to my story telling,” said Michele.

Gucci is a proponent of mix-gender runway shows

Many would agree — the ability to reinforce one singular message makes sense to designers who create concurrently.

“As I’m going through the process of creating a collection, I have a spirit in mind — I don’t really ever think in terms of what’s specific to a gender. We’ve shown men with the women’s collection and the last year, we’ve been putting women in the men’s collections. It feels like it’s a natural evolution. You’re able to create more of a story when you get your men’s and women’s collections together, because it reflects one mood and one season. We often have women buying the men’s coats and some of the men’s pieces. Everything just feels a little bit more blurred, rather than having things in little boxes,” Bailey reasoned.

In an interview with Prestige, the duo behind Dsquared2 talked about sharing inspirations between its menswear and womenswear collections. The identical twins usually start from the men’s, adding a dose of glamour to the women’s. The contrast gives them another opportunity to throw a twist into the mix. “Just to make it look fresh,” older brother Dan Caten added. The Milan-based brand paired its men’s and women’s collections for the first time during its Autumn/Winter 2017 presentation in January.

Bottega Veneta, too, marked its 50th anniversary last year, by staging a mixed-gender Spring/Summer 2017 show encompassing 76 looks. “Our universe is built on both genders — showing both collections together is an organic move that follows the evolution of my creative vision,” Creative Director Tomas Maier said at the time in an exclusive interview with Prestige. “I believe this approach may be continued, moving forward into 2017 as a natural evolution, if Bottega Veneta remains committed to a timing of presentation and launch that gives production the time necessary to create a sophisticated handcrafted collection that conveys a dream.”

Bottega Veneta first showed both men and women on the same runway for Spring/Summer 2017

Two months after the spectacular showcase, the Italian house confirmed that moving forward, it would streamline its four women’s and men’s shows into two seasonal events in February and September, starting this year. That takes Bottega Veneta, along with Burberry, Gucci and Saint Laurent, out of the men’s fashion week calendar.

However, with more mixed-gender show entrants the likes of Dsquared2, Vetements, Vivienne Westwood and Kenzo to fill the gaps, men’s fashion week is still kept abuzz. But there are fears the inclusion of womenswear will dilute what should be men-centric presentations.

Miuccia Prada, who has featured women in her menswear shows — leading her husband Patrizio Bertelli to once suggest dual-gender presentations — is, interestingly, a fervent opponent to the divergent trend. Even as she mines ideas from womenswear for her men’s collection, she feels strongly against combining their presentations. “To do two creative shows in one is a massacre. And it has to be a huge show, if you want to do it seriously,” she told WWD.

“Last time, someone complained that there were too many women [in the men’s show] and that it distracted from the menswear — and this is somewhat true, because women are showier and swallow up the rest. Together, it could be very beautiful but I would shoot myself. The way we work, at the last minute, with things arriving the day before if not the same day…many designers have things ready ahead of time.”

In spite of concerns over design disparity, Givenchy has always slipped couture confections into its men’s collections, without eclipsing its main offerings or suffering any criticism. In fact, it would seem that it would continue as such had Riccardo Tisci not depart the brand.

Dolce & Gabbana goes co-ed with its #DGMillenials show for Autumn/Winter 2017

Most designers, though, subscribe to the dual-gender concept because both collections can speak the same language and convey the same message. In turn, that clarity fortifies the brand identity, especially when the two are merchandised together on the retail floor. There’s also the perceived cost-effectiveness of sending two collections down the same runway, though some houses dispute the actual savings. Sending the women’s collections out earlier will not subdue consumer appetite — on the contrary, the new format is timed to coincide with store delivery, which affords more time to sell.

The biggest takeaway from this gender-bending business is relevancy. Judging by the powerful show of mutiny, fashion heads are taking progressive steps towards recalibrating archaic systems into one that actually works for the industry — just as how the runways are on point in reflecting and recognising a wider cultural shift away from stereotypical norms.

Who joined the co-ed club?

•          Burberry

•          Tom Ford

•          Vetements

•          Gucci

•          Public School

•          Vivienne Westwood

•          Dsquared2

•          Paul Smith

•          Bottega Veneta

•          Calvin Klein

•          Kenzo

•          Saint Laurent