When Helmut Lang decided to shrink the audience of his fashion show for his Fall/Winter 1998 collection from 800 to 150, the fashion world was incensed that one of the season’s most hyped showings would be so exclusive. But the designer wasn’t trying to be exclusionary; he still planned to present the 81 looks from the collection, but in a way that had never been done before—by distributing the images on a CD-ROM and on his website. ”I said it was now or never,” Lang said at the time. ”This is the first step in the future.”
Well, it seems that future is now as COVID-19 continues to ravage the globe with the fashion industry no more protected than any other. Major houses like Prada, Max Mara, Hermès, Ralph Lauren, Chanel, Burberry, Gucci, and Versace have canceled upcoming shows, while fashion weeks in Shanghai, Melbourne, Beijing, Seoul, Moscow, and Tokyo decided to cut their events, as well as recent announcements from London, Milan, and Paris canceling upcoming men’s and couture shows. With social distancing encouraged and gathering in large numbers banned in all of the fashion capitals, designers are forced to look toward non-traditional ways to show their clothes.
Ten years ago, when designer Gareth Pugh wanted to forgo the typical catwalk experience for his Fall/Winter 2009 collection he tapped Nick Knight. The photographer had launched SHOWStudio earlier in the decade to push “the boundaries of communicating fashion online,” and together the duo conceived a fashion film by Ruth Hogben that starred model Natasa Vojnovic. “They can shoot [it] wherever they want,” a representative from SHOWStudio tells CR, explaining the capabilities a film offers designers over the limits of the runway. “Designers have more control over what footage is released…plus, as every garment is designed with movement in mind, their pieces can be shown from whatever vantage point is best.”
Lang may have pioneered the unattendable fashion show, but it would still be a little over a decade until they would regularly take the digital stage. Louis Vuitton and Alexander McQueen would be among the first, with the French fashion house launching its Spring/Summer 2010 show on Facebook and the latter streaming his pivotal Atlantis collection online, complete with the premiere of Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance,” that same season. Tragically, it ended up being the designer’s last show before he committed suicide the next year. Alexander Wang, Marc Jacobs, and Burberry followed in 2010, along with the British Fashion Council’s announcement of a digital London Fashion Week schedule, where viewers could live stream shows from the city’s Somerset House. By the next year, a number of designers were live streaming their runways. Suddenly, fashion shows were no longer exclusive, VIP-only events meant for the industry; anyone with a computer could join in on the lavish spectacles.
“It keeps brands in the minds of potential customers across the work in real time,” says Russel Quy, CEO of B Live, a company that specializes in production, live streaming, and digital events for brands like Dior, Tom Ford, and Thom Browne. “Live streaming has really become more of a marketing effort than an industry event. That being said, brands that think about the audience not in attendance have much better results.”
By the mid-half of the decade the See-Now, Buy-Now phenomenon became a runway norm, with brands like Opening Ceremony, Tom Ford, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, and Burberry dipping their toes into the direct-to-purchase model. The latter stirred quite the buzz in September of 2016 for being one of the first major luxury labels to not only introduce the quick-buy option but also completely change the way it revealed its collection to the public. The shift disrupted how magazines and buyers traditionally previewed the clothes and allowed customers to purchase pieces straight from the runway, rather than months later off the rack. While brands maintained that the format met their expectations at the time, the trend has surely faded from fashion weeks in recent years.
As live streaming became not only an option but the norm, eventually Instagram emerged as the go-to marketing platform for fashion. Influencers arrived on the scene, along with their power to convert posts into sales. Brands started vying to place their collections on those with the largest followings. In September 2015, Misha Nonoo decided to eschew the traditional runway to present her Spring/Summer 2016 collection as an “Insta-show” with each look presented over a number of squares on her grid. “It’s so strange to me that [fashion] touches everyone yet we have these location-specific events that touch just a rarefied few. To me that doesn’t make sense,” Nonoo said at the time. “I love the inclusiveness of Instagram.”
Now, with New York Fashion Week’s Resort shows canceled, Milan Men’s Fashion Week in June postponed to September, and the upcoming Paris Fashion Week Men’s and Haute Couture recently canceled, brands are in a period of uncertainty, scrambling to conceptualize new ways to present their collections without large, live events. “We are working on new digital formats and new ways of encounters in order to create a new storytelling,” the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, the group that organizes Milan Fashion Week said in a statement. “We are aware that great efforts will be made in order to have the new collections ready by June to start an innovative selling campaign.”
As labels look for alternatives to the traditional fashion show, production companies like B Live and SHOWStudio will prove to be useful resources in the coming months. According to Quy, there has been an increase in requests about how to promote brands in new ways since the coronavirus outbreak. “There will be a lot of new ideas and we are hoping to help create some innovative digital experiences that respect the past but also evolve,” he says. “It’s not just fashion shows. Everyone is reaching out to our teams about turning traditional events into virtual experiences.” At the same time, SHOWStudio admits that strict orders to stay-at-home have also affected inquiries to produce films. “You can’t legally or morally assemble a team and work on one,” she says, “All PR offices and design studios are closed, there is no real access to the clothes needed to shoot, but we are talking to a lot of people about how and what can be done remotely a bit down the line.” So for now, it’s all about the ideas, but as for when they can actually go into production depends on the trajectory of COVID-19.
With no end in sight to the coronavirus shutdowns in the fashion capitals, and the future of fashion weeks in jeopardy, brands will surely capitalize on the technology to show their collections remotely in the coming months. Whether it will be through Instagram fashion shows, influencers taking photographs at home, or live streams from the ateliers, we have yet to see.END
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