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What do co-ed runways mean for the future of fashion?

I remember walking into a Gucci presentation in 2015 with a brand representative explaining that it Alessandro Michele’s first show. A relative unknown at the time, Michele’s name struck little until I entered the menswear section, and the garments I saw became the manifestation of a turning point in luxury fashion. Pussy bow blouses, a sheer red embroidered top, and models revelling in androgynous languor formed the blueprint of Gucci’s new identity, marking a split between traditionally feminine and masculine models for fashion.

co-ed runways
The start of something new. | Credit: Getty

Michele utilised male and female models on the runway for the FW’15 Gucci show, introducing the concept that gender was but a binary enforced by construction to an audience greater than industry insiders. The eclectic designer approached Gucci with the intention of re-establishing the house’s identity from ground zero. “When I started to work at Gucci, I tried literally to destroy everything,” said Michele at the press conference for Gucci’s No Longer/Not Yet exhibition in Shanghai. This childlike fervour became a source of inspiration for many other designers to venture into co-ed runways, even if only spurred by the massive success Michele received.

From Gucci to greater heights

Though Michele’s FW’15 Menswear show was the catalyst, the brand wasn’t the first to officiate co-ed runways. That accolade goes to Burberry. The storied British house made the announcement earlier this year that they would not be aligning themselves with the traditional, four-times-a-year show schedule, and would instead show twice a year. Menswear and ready-to-wear would walk the same runway, evinced by their September 2016 show at Hyde Park.

co-ed runways
Burberry’s September 2016 collection. | Credit: Burberry

Burberry’s collection by Christopher Bailey wasn’t just co-ed, but decidedly gender-fluid thanks to Bailey being inspired by Orlando, Virgina Woolf’s 1928 novel. The book charts the journey of a British aristocrat who becomes a woman and a poet, eventually surviving for centuries. The collection was rife with pussy bows, Elizabethan silhouettes, ruffs and plunging necklines for both sexes, enforcing Bailey’s new direction for Burberry.

“I spoke to the teams about peeling back the layers of time and going from the past to the future,” Bailey explained in an interview with Vogue. “Genders are not as defined anymore.”

co-ed runways
Public School SS’17. | Credit: Vogue

Soon after, brands like Tom Ford, Bottega Venetta, Public School, Club Monaco, Vivienne Westwood, Vetements, and most recently, DSquared2 declared co-ed runways as fixtures in their coming seasons. Gucci also announced that their shows would be co-ed in 2017, with Michele explaining to Business of Fashion that “it seem[ed] only natural to [him] as it is the way [he] sees the world today.”

Fashion at large

While this destabilisation of binaries is a marker of societal growth, fashion has always been close behind the vanguard of progress, championing androgyny and a blurring of boundaries. Yet, the need to demarcate between men’s and ready-to-wear fashion shows has been imposed to facilitate sales, and to flesh out differing calendars for fashion weeks and make buying schedules more convenient.

The new wave of co-ed runways is set to shake up this long-standing prototype, with a number of advantages. Costs are saved for the fashion houses, allowing for greater investments in production value and model castings. For designers that conceptualise their lines from one central idea, hosting co-ed runways allows for a more organic approach to design since there’s no need to force differences between their men’s and women’s ranges. Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion council also remarked to Business of Fashion that co-ed runways allow for designers to “build a cohesive brand”. Instead of having four shows a year, designers can now spend a longer time focusing on two shows instead of churning out collections like rabid machines.

co-ed runways
Archetypal menswear by Thom Browne at NYFW:M | Credit: Thom Browne.

The flipside to this breakaway is the challenge it poses on an already limited menswear market that has recently gained its footing with the establishment of London Fashion Week: Men’s in 2012 and New York Fashion Week: Men’s early last year. These small-scale fashion shows depend on buyers and major editors to attend these runways, and their attendance is influenced by the pull that larger brand names like Burberry and Tom Ford effect. The thinning line-up for dedicated men’s fashion weeks may pose a challenge to the attention menswear attains, especially since the advent of men’s fashion weeks occurred so recently.

Steven Kolb of the CFDA. | Credit: StyleCaster
Steven Kolb of the CFDA. | Credit: StyleCaster

However, President and CEO of the CFDA, Steven Kolb heartily disagrees. “The validity of New York Fashion Week: Men’s is still strong. It might not be the giant animal that other men’s fashion weeks have been or are — or might not be much longer. But it has a valid purpose and I don’t see that going away. I see a shift to ‘seasonless’ ideas. What I think is going to happen is you’ll see men’s shows now having women’s collections, you’ll see men’s and women’s together, you’ll see men’s going into women’s, you’ll see brands going off Spring and Fall and into Pre-Collections.”

To early to call?

This burgeoning change in fashion is but a bud in the greater forest of luxury fashion. A trend is still a trend, and whether the praise-worthy introduction of mixed gender fashion shows will become a sustainable feature as the years go by remains a question yet to be answered. Though the foreseeable future is uncertain for the fledgling men’s fashion weeks in New York and London, there’s always the security net of Pitti Uomo as a platform for menswear-only labels. It’s been around since 1972, and given the prolific market for menswear and fine tailoring across the pond, it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere just yet.

What do co-ed runways mean for the future of fashion?

Beatrice Bowers

Features Editor

Beatrice Bowers writes about beauty, drinks, and other nice things. When not bound to her keyboard, she moonlights as a Niffler for novels and can be found en route to bankruptcy at your nearest bookstore. Don't tell her boss.

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