When fashion month kicked off in New York in February, critics cried that the city was facing an existential crisis. Tom Ford, chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, elected to stage his show in Los Angeles, to coincide with the Oscars date being moved forward this year. Tommy Hilfiger upped sticks to London, while Ralph Lauren decided to show his collection in April, and Jeremy Scott postponed his to July. Some of New York's most exciting young brands, such as Pyer Moss and Telfar, were missing from the schedule too.
By the close of fashion month yesterday, another crisis had gripped the capitals: the threat of coronavirus. In London, Chinese press and buyers were noticeably absent from the front rows, particularly at Burberry, where consumers in the Asia-Pacific region account for 40pc of revenues. In Milan, Giorgio Armani cancelled his show and instead live-streamed a collection presented in an empty auditorium. By the final day of Paris fashion week, many international attendees had returned home early, while many of those that remained wore face masks - one notable example was customised with Mademoiselle Chanel's favourite flower, the camellia. The Washington Post's fashion critic Robin Givhan described the mood in the city as "practically dystopian".
Outside of concerns for public health, it raised questions about the efficacy of flying hordes of journalists, models and buyers from all over the world to take in a bloated, self-important fashion parade, not to mention its toll on the environment. Is it time to start planning a future beyond the catwalk?
The autumn-winter collections were designed long before anyone had ever heard of covid-19, but there was plenty of other cause for anxiety.
The climate emergency has prompted more designers than ever to start taking sustainability seriously, from Eckhaus Latta's second-hand shoes to Richard Malone's prize-winning ethical knitwear to Marni's collage of repurposed fabrics, an attempt to "find beauty in the leftovers".
Guests at Stella McCartney's show on Monday were greeted by a team of animal mascots - a cow, a rabbit and a horse, among others- who later joined the models for the finale walk, a gimmick intended to hammer home McCartney's eco-friendly ethos. No word yet on whether those onesies were created from biodegradable materials.
Balenciaga staged its own climate crisis with a cinematic show that incorporated flaming-earth graphics, a gaseous scent and a flooded catwalk that submerged the first three rows of seats. Models had to wade through, some wearing wellies and some without. It made for a frightening and very potent spectacle, triggering a sense of peril that show notes alone are unable to convey. The clothes, too, were striking: fashion as armour, with fierce, sharp-shouldered coats to shelter inside, and monastical robes for walking on murky water (designer Demna Gvasalia initially wanted petrol).
Likewise, political unrest has seen fashion week vying for attention with the US presidential campaigns, Yellow Vest demonstrations and the fallout from Brexit - perhaps this state of instability explains the vast swathes of black on the catwalks this season.
Under Pierpaolo Piccioli's creative direction, Valentino has become known for its vivid use of colour, but for autumn, the designer took a more somber approach, with a collection that was 70pc black, navy or charcoal. "Fashion must be relevant," he explained afterwards.
For Piccioli, that also means greater inclusivity on the catwalks, and this season the shift was clear across the four capitals. There were older models, trans models, plus-size models, non-binary models, disabled models, models of all different races - and, in a refreshing change, brands weren't bragging about it. They didn't broadcast the models' names or proclaim their diversity credentials in the press releases; the models walked, and that was that.
There's still a long way to go - see Celine's procession of rail-thin women, almost a throwback to the days of "heroin chic" - but hopefully, it signals that inclusivity on the catwalks has become more than a mere trend or a buzzword.
As Paris fashion week was kicking off, the Harvey Weinstein trial reached its conclusion, when the Hollywood movie mogul was handed a conviction for rape and sexual assault. It was the same day that Maria Grazia Chiuri presented her #MeToo-inspired collection at Dior, and the whole concept, from the flashing neon signs reading "Consent" and "Patriarchy = Repression" to the now-familiar Dior-branded bras, sheer skirts and feminist slogan T-shirt ("I Say I"), rang hollow. What was it trying to say? What does it really mean to "fight the patriarchy"? Or was it just an empty gesture at some passing thoughts, without actually engaging? In any case, it made a good Instagram photo, and maybe that's enough for the brand.
The shadow of the Weinstein verdict hung over Saint Laurent's show, too, where Anthony Vaccarello's big idea was latex, rendered in leggings so tight that the thought of tugging them on makes you squirm. With his rich colour palette of violet, fuchsia and cobalt blue, they looked sensational, and confirmed latex as a surprising trend: London-Irish designer Richard Quinn continued to use the face-obscuring latex bodysuits he has made a signature, while just days after Balmain debuted latex suits on the catwalk, Kim Kardashian was spotted wearing one to church (that is to say, Kanye West's Paris instalment of his Sunday Service).
For some, the shock of latex, and its association with subcultures and fetish, makes it ripe for feminist reclamation. For others, it is so closely tied to the male gaze - and in these three instances, produced by male designers - that any claims of subversion merit an eye-roll. For most, though, this is a clear case of for-models-(and Kardashians)-only: the rest of us are just trying to get dressed, and we'd rather not require talcum powder to do so.
This season also marked a small but significant departure in the staging of shows, frequently designed for maximum Instagram virality. Gucci eschewed the traditional catwalk for a carousel that brought guests behind-the-scenes (the entrance literally brought them through the "backstage" hair and makeup area to their seats): an ode to the ritual of getting dressed, with members of the Gucci team on stage dressing the models as the platform slowly revolved.
Marc Jacobs, meanwhile, enlisted choreographer Karole Armitage and her troupe of dancers to join the likes of Bella Hadid on the catwalk. Between the models and the dancers, attendees didn't know where to look (or what to snap), creating some delightfully chaotic photos but also an exhilarating portrait of the designer's memories of growing up in New York city, or any big city, and trying to stand out and make your mark.
It was a reminder that for all the anxiety around the environment, and coronavirus, and pressing political issues, and whether anyone can even have an original idea anymore, a fashion show is still the best distillation and showcase of an artist's vision. See the "working-class couture" of Richard Quinn's "House of Quinn", or Simone Rocha's dark romance (complete with haunting brides), or JW Anderson's "nouveau chic", rooted in craft yet thoroughly modern. Fashion can and will embrace change, but the show must go on.