RVA Fashion Week brings inclusivity, mental health to multimodal events 

The closing day of this year’s RVA Fall Fashion Week included the "Beauty Has No Limits" fashion show, hosted by Evolve at the James River Cellar Winery. Photo by Alessandro Latour

Grace McOmber, Contributing Writer 

Only a few cameras flashed as models strutted down a makeshift runway wearing tuxedos, wedding dresses and glamorous evening gowns inside 707 Fine Clothing on East Broad Street. 

This year’s Runway2Life fashion show was almost unrecognizable from past shows that usually fill hundreds of seats in Richmond’s Main Street Station.

The show marked one of many alterations in this year’s RVA Fall Fashion Week, which ended on Sunday. Since 2008, fashion insiders and fans have congregated biannually to Richmond to celebrate the vibrant fashion creatives based in the city.

“We’ve had to develop an entirely new program of events this fall,” RVAFW Director of Media Michael Hostetler said in an email. “We also had to rapidly learn new technology, such as livestreaming, all while giving our audiences a quality experience right from their home.”

Model Tracy Akers wears Evolve on the runway during Sunday’s show. Photo by Alessandro Latour

This year presented a mixture of in-person and virtual events, including panel discussions on fashion education, runway shows and mental health. The virtual technology developed for this year’s event inspired organizers to explore new ways to engage with audiences in the future.

“We are implementing a ramped up social media program starting in 2021,” Hostetler said. “Along with growing our broadcasting capabilities to help visually amplify all the amazing talents that we have here in Richmond.”

The 12th annual Spring Fashion Week, originally planned for late April, was canceled due to COVID-19. This year’s fall edition of the show was extended to a full week to make up for the canceled events.

Due to social distancing guidelines, there was a limited presence from the media and general public during in-person events. This meant shifting away from the larger events of years past and implementing more sanitation protocols. 

On Friday, RVAFW hosted a fashion show with Runway2Life, a nonprofit organization that raises awareness for mental health and suicide prevention. The theme of the virtual show was “In a Dark World, Be the Light,” which urged attendees to reach out to their loved ones or utilize the suicide prevention and mental health hotlines displayed throughout the show.

“Especially right now, with the pandemic, a lot of people are stuck at home and don’t have someone they can talk to,” said Runway2Life co-founder Jackson Scott. “And that’s what we’re here for.” 

Without the spotlights, loud runway music and audience engagement, the show lacked the same amount of glamour as past years. Despite this, the mission of the mental health and suicide prevention nonprofit remained. 

“Things might not be the same as last year, but the purpose is still the same,” said Runway2Life founding director Alicia Amsler. “And that purpose is to save lives.”

With the dual modalities of the events, maintaining the integrity of the work presented in socially distanced and virtual shows has been a challenge to designers and store owners. This was a major consideration for Emma Manis, owner of Evolve, an online boutique that sells size-inclusive womenswear.

Manis and the boutique’s creative director Amanda Villafana, both VCUarts alumni, decided against showcasing their collection on a virtual platform. 

Ashley Jefferson, owner of Very Ashley boutique, speaks at an Oct. 7 event. Photo by Alessandro Latour

“We’ve been working on this collection for almost a year now,” Manis said. “I couldn’t bring myself to debut a collection we’d spent so much time and money on a computer screen. We had to plan our show in three weeks because of that.” 

Manis and Villafana said that despite the anxiety they’ve felt while managing a small business, they believed the pandemic has led to an increase in support for smaller brands and designers.

“Everybody has really started to think about what’s important to them,” Villafana said. “It’s such a difficult time for creatives, and I think people really want to support them.”

Ashley Jefferson, the owner of contemporary women’s boutique Very Ashley, echoed this optimism and excitement for the future of the fashion industry. 

“The fashion industry is full of creatives who are ever evolving in their work and craft,” Jefferson said in an email. “I look forward to watching them and seeing what we, as a collective, come up with.”

Jefferson showcased formal gowns at the fashion week launch event on Monday and Cirque de Couture runway show on Sunday.

“I want people to at least get the chance to see the beauty of the gowns,” Jefferson said. “And maybe find a little hope in the fact that one day soon, we’ll be able to get all dressed up again.”

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