High fashion’s ‘crisis’ in the instagram age

Runway: Models present Mulberry’s Spring 2017 show at London Fashion Week last year. © Getty

Is haute couture losing its power? As New York Fashion Week begins, a group of major designers in France have caved in to public pressure, and pledged to stop using size zero models.

Yesterday, as New York Fashion Week kicked off a month of runway shows around the world, the big apple was buzzing with some of the most glamorous names in the industry. Designers were putting the finishing touches to their Spring 2018 collections. Kim Kardashian-West revealed a new, ice-blonde hairstyle. Fashion bloggers and social media “influencers” took to the sidewalk to show off their “street style”.

Meanwhile, in Paris, two of the country’s biggest luxury fashion companies announced a major change. LVMH and Kering own top labels like Christian Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci. And on Wednesday, they bowed to public pressure — and new French laws — when they announced that they will no longer be using size zero or underage models.

The companies explained that they were “placing respect for and the dignity of women at the heart of their values,” and putting their models’ wellbeing first. It comes after years of complaints that ultra-skinny models promote an unhealthy body image.

The death of size zero is just one of many changes that high fashion has been through in the last few years. Before the age of social media, it was a top-down industry directed by a glamorous elite. Twice a year, designers would use their runway shows to reveal the next season’s style. Magazine editors would introduce the new trends slowly, and high street brands would take inspiration from the top.

Now, runway shows are live-streamed, their audiences filled with celebrities and instagram stars. Some brands have introduced a “see-now-buy-now” system.

The changes have sparked a fierce debate among fashion’s old guard. Some have welcomed the more democratic approach. But others are less happy. Last September, Vogue editors lashed out at the influx of bloggers at fashion weeks. “Please stop,” wrote one. “You are heralding the death of style.”

Model behaviour

“What a bunch of snobs,” say some. It is good that the world of high fashion is finally becoming more accessible to ordinary people. It means that designers are listening to their concerns about things like body image and diversity. And instead of a handful of faceless figures dictating what everybody else wears, anyone can influence fashion trends by showing off their own unique style online. Vive la revolution!

Others are less sure. The high fashion of runway shows may appear alien to outsiders — but “haute couture” is an art form like any other, and its ideas trickle down to more affordable high street fashion. In this way, its most talented designers still have a lot of power to influence the clothes that we all wear. And they should. Otherwise fashion will become what it is so often accused of being: shallow.

You Decide

  1. Should elite fashion brands lose some of their power?
  2. Is fashion art?


  1. Summarise the two sides of the argument about the “democratic approach” in fashion in the length of a tweet (140 characters).
  2. Design an outfit which is inspired by the theme of “power”.

Some People Say...

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.”

Oscar Wilde

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Many of France’s top fashion labels will no longer be using “size zero” models, or models under the age of 16. They will also have to ensure that their models are in good health. The decision has come after a bill was passed in the French parliament in 2015, which requires all models to have a medical certificate proving that they are healthy.
What do we not know?
Many ex-models have spoken out about the pressure to be thin for catwalks, and the extreme measures they take to lose weight. But we do not know whether the new rules will improve ideas about the body image of women and girls in the wider world. Multiple reports have shown that women often feel pressured to look good and lose weight, but it is unclear how far the fashion industry is to blame for this.

Word Watch

Month of runway shows
There are four back-to-back fashion weeks in February and September: in New York, London, Milan and Paris. The two months traditionally reveal the clothes and styles of the upcoming season. For example, this month is previewing Spring 2018.
French laws
In 2015 the French parliament introduced a law requiring models to have a medical certificate that proves they are healthy and able to work. It came into effect last year.
Size zero
The equivalent of a UK size four, with a waistline between 22 and 25 inches, depending on the brand. For most women, this is considered unhealthy.
Allowing customers to buy the clothes immediately after the runway show, rather than waiting for the next season.
For example, this month’s New York Fashion Week boasts that it is showing more non-white designers with more non-white models than ever before.
Haute couture
Expensive tailor-made clothes from leading designers; often used as a synonym for “high fashion”. In France, it is protected by law so that only companies which meet certain standards can use the term.

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