The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The fashion industry wants to disrupt the runway. It’s missing the real problem.

Models present the Altuzarra Fall 2016 collection. (Jonas Gustavsson/MCV for The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — As fashion week began, a polar wind was howling through the city’s Midtown canyons. Mayor Bill de Blasio was issuing public warnings about a deadly wave of cold air that was going to flash freeze the city like something out of “The Day After Tomorrow.”

And as usual, editors and retailers sat swaddled in parkas and shearlings, as designers sent thick wool coats and fluffy sweaters down the runway — their vision for Fall/Winter 2016. On Sunday, Public School offered up layers of anoraks and overcoats, worn with ski caps, ponchos and biker boots that made one want to pull out a credit card and buy the whole look right off the models’ backs.

But fashion works months in advance. So all those clothes that look so perfect, so desirable right now, won’t be in stores for six months.

[Thom Browne’s new purses look like dogs — and could be a woman’s best friend]

That lag time, however, has now been called into question by a fashion industry in a new lather of panic. Designers have become convinced that they are losing business because by the time customers have seen these collections in newspapers, magazines and social media, they are bored. They are done with shopping before they even get started.

So this has been the season of grand announcements from design houses such as Hilfiger, Burberry and Tom Ford, that they will no longer torture their customers. They will alter their schedules so that what customers see live-streamed on the runway is what they will be able to buy immediately.

Designer Rebecca Minkoff was among the first in New York to alter her schedule. So on Saturday afternoon, when the temperature outside registered 23 degrees and falling, the first garment down her runway was a sweet white summer dress. It was soon followed by a shoulder-baring peasant blouse and pedal pushers. Doesn’t that make you want to race out and shop? Brrrr.

Do consumers really want to buy summer clothes in the winter? Or do they want to gaze at winter clothes that they can’t have anytime soon? Are they willing to pay full price for fresh-off-the-runway clothes? Or would they rather wait until the clothes gather a little dust on store racks and then go on sale? If you are a customer who covets a frock shown on a designer’s runway, would you be satisfied with a quickly produced knock-off? Or do you crave the designer’s name and whatever that might represent? Will you pay designer prices for it when it’s finally available?

These are the questions roiling a fashion industry that was already in upheaval as it debated whether a fashion show was even the best way to present a collection to the public.

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This season, designers who once mounted large shows with a front row filled with celebrities changed course. Diane von Furstenberg showed her clothes in her Meatpacking District headquarters where models wearing her 70s-style jumpsuits, floral-printed dresses and sequined evening pants twirled and danced in a kind of silent theatrical performance.

Tracy Reese decided to present her fashion not on a runway but with a film entitled “A Detroit Love Song,” an ode to her hometown. At the post-screening reception, models wearing the film’s vintage-inspired garments posed in a tableau vivant.

Designers are searching for ways in which they can offer viewers a more intimate or more interactive way of seeing and understanding their work. Wes Gordon, for instance, introduced his collection on Instagram with a series of mini-videos that showed his models atop a windy roof, waiting for a subway or simply having a quiet tete-a-tete all the while looking pretty and sophisticated in his refined sky blue dress or trim trousers.

Shows have been live-streamed. Collections have been shown in the midst of a dinner party. They have been unveiled on Tumblr.

But all the questions designers have been asking have centered around logistics — how to show their clothes, when to show them. There’s been little conversation about the clothes themselves.

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Film lovers are willing to wait for the release of a movie after being teased with a dynamic trailer. Why won’t fashion consumers wait for a garment that has been teased with a breathtaking runway show? Isn’t something extraordinary worth waiting for?

The greater problem may simply be that the fashion industry is not giving customers clothes that hold their attention. Designers too often are creating forgettable collections. And too often stores are more interested in which labels they can brag about carrying than in crafting an aesthetic message that speaks to individual customers. Everyone is busy trying to make life frictionless for shoppers, but who is wooing them?

[Sailor pants and captain’s coats — really, Tommy Hilfiger?]

If the clothes that come down a runway are only fair to middling, it makes sense that no one would be excited about them six months later. A nice sweater, a pair of high-waisted trousers, another pair of track pants are not worth marking one’s calendar for and the reality is that a consumer doesn’t have to.

[This Rosie Assoulin top looks like a gladiator’s breastplate — but prettier]

But clothes that are boldly creative or that are presented in a way that stirs the emotions might remain in a customer’s dreams. The designer Sophie Theallet showed a gilded collection of lace skirts and sequined trousers on models who ranged from sample size to plus size. Her presentation made a statement about the beauty of diversity and because of that, a customer won’t forget them so quickly.

Joseph Altuzarra’s collection was wonderfully eccentric and elegant with mix of patterns in a black-and-white palette that was inspired by the films of Jim Jarmusch, the style sense of his female friends and the customer of his imagination. The clothes were beautifully cut and managed the delicate balance between being delightfully artful and who-do-we-call-in-case-of-emergency manic. There were paisley patterns and yarn-like trim, patchwork shearlings and floral boots. And each of these things was so unusual and specific that the wait is worthwhile.

A Derek Lam coat is an investment in aesthetics, whether in patterned fur, winter white with glistening metal closures or fur-trimmed leather.

Victoria Beckham’s skirts have a burst of airy volume just above the knees and her ribbed knits — sometimes slashed open across the torso — are precisely executed. She gets the proportions right, which is why they look so good.

Public School’s strengths are not so obvious. But designer Maxwell Osborne and Dao-Yi Chow pay attention to details — a split back on a coat that makes a bicycle commute a bit easier, a pair of motorcycle boots that slouch just so, an overcoat that is distressed to heirloom quality. The distinction is in the wearing.

Certainly, there are those brands that have no business teasing consumers. Many of them never belonged on the runway to begin with because they had no bold message. In fact, they had very little to say other than: We will keep you from going naked. They should make and advertise their clothes in real time.

Still there is no doubt that the fashion system is transforming. More shows will become accessible to the public — either by invitation or by ticket. Companies will realize that there are other ways to elevate their brand than with a runway show. And perhaps more designers will close that gap between preview and purchase.

But let’s hope that every designer will give more thought to what they are selling and not just how they are selling it.