Fashion shows are a staple of the St Andrews social and event calendar. With five shows taking place in 2020 – Don’t Walk, CATWALK, Sitara, FS, and VS, St Andrews leads most universities in quantity. Despite being popular events, not all opinions on university fashion shows – or fashion shows at that – are positive. This article will explore fashion show culture at universities across the UK and what the organisers consider, or at least state, their motivations to be. Why hold a fashion show in the first place? My expectation was to find a similar answer everywhere – that fashion shows are an easy way to sufficiently entertain and interest students in order to raise money for charity, as well as justifying expensive ticket prices because “it’s for charity!”
The presence of “charity” in the title of these shows is commonplace – and if it is not a charity fashion show, some money has been donated somewhere along the line, which is fantastic. How much money each show raises for their selected charities is very often plastered across social media, probably because this feels like an easy indicator of success. Certainly, I was astounded by the £170,000 sum Durham University Charity Fashion Show’s (DUCFS) announced for their 2020 show, and I unfairly did not bat an eyelid at the £1,600 that Exeter’s Fashion Society Re:Claimed show raised this year. The one thing I will say – these figures are not to be compared against one another because the shows are vastly different. Some deliberately place an emphasis on charity and fundraising, others have thousands of attendees to another’s hundred, they are incomparable. The amount raised is not a clear sign of success. We should commend these shows on raising money for charity, but not pit them against each one another with that metric.
Having said this, there are some fashion shows that pride themselves in raising money for charity and then donating 100% of their revenue to do this. CATWALK (St Andrews) is a fine example of this. They donate all of their revenue to the three charities elected yearly by the Union Charities Campaign. They have the absolute right to be called “charity” fashion shows because every single penny goes to charity. CATWALK is fortunate to be affiliated with the university through the Union and the Charities Campaign, which makes their budgeting and finance a little easier to manage when it comes to raising money for charity – Isi Webb-Jenkins, the 2020 director, explained to me that the CATWALK committee will apply for a budget from the Union, taking away the need to budget for the next year. This very much works in their favour, because any money raised from ticket sales, raffles, auctions and bake sales, goes straight to charity. You can see the success of this – since its revival in 2015, CATWALK has raised over £45,000, with around £10,500 of that in 2019 alone.
I was not able to find another fashion show like this anywhere else – the closest is Exeter’s Fashion Society’s show, Re:Claimed, which donated 100% of its £1,600 revenue to charity. Re:Claimed is unique because it is affiliated with a fashion society, and instead of focusing on fundraising, Re:Claimed concentrated on promoting its Fashion Society’s three values of diversity, creativity and sustainability. Their charity fundraising was almost a by-product – and their choice of charity, Remade, promotes sustainability and gender equality in the fashion world, reflecting these values further. Unlike CATWALK, Re:Claimed did not have a budget given to them, and they instead needed to use money generated from ticket sales to book the venue, designers, goody bags and more. Luckily, Mark Evens and his committee were able to get the venue for free, with 95% of designers lending their items to the show, meaning all the more money going to charity. The theme was “green tie” (wear something you already own), while the designers and brands featured were from student, independent or sustainable brands or charity shops. They even held workshops to create accessories used on the models. Mark also told me that the show had absolutely no waste, with all materials recycled, reused or sold on. While Re:Claimed and CATWALK both donated 100% of their revenue to charity, their motivations were entirely different.
I was interested to investigate some of the newer and less traditional fashion shows in St Andrews – namely VS Urban and Sitara – because they differ significantly from Don’t Walk and FS which have been around for years. VS Urban held its inaugural show this year, so was able to invent themselves entirely from scratch. The show itself was definitely more atmospheric than your standard fashion show – the focus on the combination of streetwear and hiphop certainly made a splash. When I talked to the committee, they cited their goals as furthering arts and culture in St Andrews, which felt very refreshing. Like Exeter’s Re:Claimed, there felt to be a genuine interest in fashion and in the arts – Versus Music already explores new and upcoming performers that other events have not necessarily found yet, making their fashion show seem super cool and alternative. Again, like Re:Claimed, charitable fundraising felt like a positive by-product – the VS team definitely put more of an emphasis on their show and its contribution to the arts. Given fashion shows are expected to be the same – skinny models parading around in skimpy clothing – VS’ independent spin on it made all the more sense.
Sitara is another show that has definitely found its own path in the St Andrews fashion show world – as a “celebration of Asian cultures”, there’s definitely a style there. The motivation here is definitely fashion and culture, similar to VS Urban, but with a more direct focus Asian culture. Given St Andrews is such an international university, it is really exciting to see that fashion shows are taking advantage of that. Sitara definitely balanced this cultural dedication with the aim to raise money as well – in 2019, they raised £4,500 for SOS Children’s Village Pakistan, and matched any donations to BLM charities in the past few months up to £350, something I have not seen with any other fashion show.
Some fashion shows, like Glasgow University Charity Fashion Show (GUCFS) cited their main motivation as raising money for charity, but in the past they did not donate 100% profit every year. I was shocked to discover in the Chancellor’s Fund Newsletter from April 2015 that £3,000 pounds was donated to the Beatson Pebble Appeal, whereas £10,915 was spent on hiring an events management team. For this the show was highly criticised and accusations of “student vanity” where fired at the committee. Since then it is evident that the financial efficiency of the show has improved massively. In the past six years, GUCFS have raised over £85,000 for their chosen charities.
Aidan Vernel, the current President for GUCFS 2020 was incredibly detailed in his response to my questions – particularly about the budget for their show. He explained that GUCFS have chosen to focus on Scottish-based or local Glasgow charities because that is how they feel they will gain the most sponsorship and fundraise the most. For 2020-21, this was Glasgow’s Golden Generation, Glasgow’s leading charity for the elderly. Vernel definitely shares a similar sentiment with me about how much goes to charity – in his words, “it is critical to donate as much as possible” to the chosen charities, so much of the planning for the shows encompasses how to raise the highest amount for charity. This year, this included cutting the price of sponsorship packages by a third in order to become accessible to local business in Glasgow who were hugely interested in supporting a local charity as well. This led to a 900% increase in sponsorship, overall increasing GUCFS’ ability to raise money for charity, as well as providing an enjoyable event for students.
I definitely got the impression that GUCFS, in addition to supporting a local charity and wanting to include local businesses and sponsors, wanted to provide a local experience for students as well. Their venue is SWG3 – somewhere I have been to for gigs a few times now – and their ticket prices reflect value for money as well as being competitively priced against the extensive nightlife already present across Glasgow.
Durham University Charity Fashion Show (DUCFS) – “the largest UK student run fundraiser” – is executed in a very similar fashion to this and has been since 1983. Their budget is “historic”, in the words of Odi, the current VP, reminding me a little of FS and Don’t Walk. Finances are modelled off the year before, taking into account inflation and risk. Income comes from ticket sales, pre-show events, sponsorship and donations, with an estimated two-thirds of each pound from ticket sales and events going directly to charity. Durham was probably the biggest student fashion show I researched – with 3,000 guests (spending between £40 and £80 on a ticket) over three nights and an additional 9 pre-show events, it’s no wonder that they manage to raise so much. Exeter’s Re:Claimed show had 120 guests, while many of St Andrews’ shows barely tip 1,000.
However, although they raised a whopping £173,000 in 2020, I felt that there was a genuine connection with fashion displayed through their website and social media. DUCFS 2020 supported STOP THE TRAFFIK, and Fashion Revolution this year. The latter aims to end exploitation in the fashion industry, and promotes fashion sustainability, demonstrating a connection between method and outcome. This, to me, took away the feeling that charity was an excuse to put on a big show. In addition to this, DUCFS have a podcast and a magazine, called THREAD, both of which discuss fashion and the cultural scene in Durham. Again, I feel like this adds another dimension to the standard “charity fashion show” idea than just being a good fundraiser.
Some fashion shows follow a more business-minded approach – and usually because they have to. Two such examples in St Andrews are Don’t Walk (full name: Don’t Walk Charity Fashion Show) and FS (full name: St Andrews Charity Fashion Show), which are probably the two biggest fashion shows in St Andrews – and for good reason, given their fairly historic presences on the events scene for 19 and 28 years respectively. To be running that long, you have to be successful – and let us not forget that legend has it that Kate Middleton first caught Prince William’s eye on the runway for Don’t Walk wearing a see-through dress in 2002. Both shows have raised some pretty hefty sums for charity – Don’t Walk raised approximately £300,000 since 2001, and FS raising around £500,000 since their genesis. Interestingly, FS placed student experience in the industry above charity as their motivation. I am still a little divided on whether you are then able to justify a “charity” fashion show if your main motivation is not indeed charity. Samantha Chinomona, head of FS press, told me that 96% of the budget comes from ticket sales and the rest from sponsors – meaning that this then goes into planning the show as opposed to fundraising for charities. Given that FS can be placed on par with some of the major fashion shows across the world, it does make sense to put industry experience above charity.
Don’t Walk was another show that featured charity in its name but not so much in its game. This is not to say they had no charity engagement – but that perhaps they considered other things more important. The name “Don’t Walk” arose because students “decided not to walk past issues, instead to take action and raise awareness for issues which affect all communities on a global scale” (DW Mission Statement). In 2020, their theme was “Another World is Possible” which focused on making the world a more sustainable place. 80% of their fashion was sustainable – and there was a huge focus on making sure as many aspects of the show and afterparty were sustainable too such as biodegradable vegware, a recyclable event carpet and front of house decor made from old bin bags. Just glancing at their post-event risk assessment, you can clearly see the effort made to “not walk past issues” that affect the world today. The fact that this was so publicly shared on their social media pages also demonstrates a genuine engagement with their motivation. I am still divided on whether shows like Don’t Walk and FS, who actively show their central motivation is not necessarily fundraising for charity, should include “charity” in their title. This would especially assist in situations where a smaller amount of money is raised for charity than usual – for example, in 2019, Don’t Walk needed to reschedule its show due to weather concerns. Due to this, there was a need for insurance claims and as a result, the 2019 show raised £12,500 for charity compared to the £24,000 the year before. By not calling themselves a “charity fashion show”, Don’t Walk could have avoided what some might call a disappointing year for their fundraising, even though they still raised a whopping £12,500.
The bottom line? Fashion shows should be more transparent with their intentions and motivations. There is nothing wrong with holding a fashion show for reasons other than charity – as Exeter demonstrates, donating to charity as a positive by-product but putting on a show for entertainment and for an event should be celebrated. The research I’ve done just demonstrates that there is no right way to run a fashion show – that giving students incredible experiences in organising or attending a show are equally important in a society where your experiences can define your success later in life. I think fashion shows in St Andrews have a bad reputation because they are seen as elitist and expensive, with “charity” feeling more like an excuse for students to get drunk than a genuine reason. There is definitely a long way to go in breaking down the elitist culture in St Andrews and in making it more accessible – and a wide range of fashion shows exploring different cultures, giving students industry experience and just offering a great evening is a start to this. We have a wonderfully unique event culture here in St Andrews that we should be making the most of – and fashion shows are a part of this blueprint.