In the first few days of the SARS-CoVID-19 pandemic, it seemed as if the fashion world would remain unscatched.
Fall/Winter 2020 shows had just wrapped up and the industry’s biggest nightmare was wearing sweatpants to work every day. Like many other unspoken problems in the fashion world, it seemed like the pandemic would be swept under the rug, over with soon. Out of sight, out of mind.
Ateliers were only just beginning to feel the weight of supply shortages in factories abroad and silent whispers of “what if,” could only faintly be heard. Like most people, those in fashion thought the pandemic would only last a few short months, if not weeks. Maybe men’s fashion week would be iffy, but surely autumn’s hectic schedule wouldn’t be affected, right?
As the chaos unfolded around the world, it became clearer that the pandemic wasn’t slowing down– especially not for some pretty clothing.
At the end of April, legacy house Saint Laurent announced it wouldn’t show a Spring/Summer 2021 season at Paris Fashion Week later that year, citing growing concerns for the virus. Marc Jacobs revealed he wouldn’t be showing in New York either, amid a strained supply chain.
“Conscious of the current circumstance and its waves of radical change, Saint Laurent has decided to take control of its pace and reshape its schedule,” the brand wrote in a release posted to Instagram.
Soon after, statements began emerging from the woodworks.
Creative Director Alessandro Michele announced Gucci would be following the footsteps of Saint Laurent and showing twice a year, prompting the industry to rethink its long established calendar.
Italy’s massive uptick in cases in March prompted physical cancellations from Chanel and Dior, who were both set to launch their Cruise 2021 collections in the European country. Chanel’s Creative Director Virginie Vard opted for a video presentation to showcase her holiday imagationation, aptly titled Balade en Méditerranée.
The industry hadn’t seen postponements and cancellations of this scale since the September 11 attacks during New York Fashion Week in 2001. That day, designers opted for simple showroom presentations rather than elaborate celebrations. Nearly 20 years later, public fear concerning the virus called back to those terrifying days in New York, begging the question: now what?
In a space that values beauty and aesthetics, how is it possible to show off hours of creation behind plexiglass panels, if at all?
Fashion has always been about handmade creation, whether it be constructing garments, attending fittings or watching an elaborate runway presentation that ties a collection together.
Those who have been to physical shows can recount the rush it brings. The energy of a presentation is unmatched, models whizzing by and music blasting throughout the venue. With each look that emerges from the runway presents another creative vision that comes alive down the catwalk. Without a live audience, models are forced to walk in silence, a stark contrast to the jubilant celebration every September.
In the digital age, how do we continue a no-contact world for something so fundamentally physical at its core?
The answer is simple– fashion has always been digital.
To those not afforded the luxury of jet setting to Paris every season, presentations are only a click away. Runway shows are watched through YouTube streams and accessories are viciously analyzed on social media boards by fashion lovers.
In reality, the fashion world has always been online, hidden away by lock and key. Runway presentations have often been only accessible to elite buyers, high-profile editors, and well-connected PR professionals; for the rest of the young and hungry fashionistas, the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed a thing. If anything, the crisis has made immersive runway experiences available to a broader audience.
After the Instagram boom in the mid 2010’s, maisons began embracing a new way to connect with consumers. Social media livestreams hosted runway recaps and influencers posted every moment of a presentation on their platforms. If it weren’t for a raging pandemic keeping fashion lovers in the pyjamas all day, not many would notice fashion week is different.
Today, dreams of sitting in the front row are materialized in the form of vision boards or retweets– most of us can’t even step foot in the Grand Palais.
The Spring/Summer 2021 season brought a jarring change to the traditional standards, forcing fashion week regulars to experience a show on the same level as the plebeians back home, albeit dressed a bit better. To elevate the experience, several brands sent out innovating and exciting invites to their virtual presentations. Fendi mailed its attendees a box of logo-shaped pasta while Loewe sent out a paint brush and life-sized posters featuring Creative Director Jonathan Anderson’s latest season.
The “phygital” merging of fashion this Spring/Summer 2021 season felt innovative at best, chaotic at worst, a misguided attempt at normalcy– only if you were so lucky to land on a PR list.
Legacy houses paraded right along with in-person shows, masks and social distancing mandatory in the physical audience. Many showed were scaled back due to international travel restrictions. Balmain‘s Creative Director Olivier Rousteing streamed audience members on televisions opposite a small crowd. The scene felt reminiscent of American sports fans buying cardboard cut-outs of themselves to place in stadiums– intentions a bit questionable in an urgency to return back to the good old days of exclusive, high luxury.
Nearly a month after Paris Fashion Week, Creative Director Alessandro Michele announced a Gucci film festival, set to showcase the Italian house’s latest collection in a series of episodes. The film, Ouverture of Something That Never Happened, stars Gucci regulars like Harry Styles and Billie Eilish in a collaboration between Michele and acclaimed cult-cinema director Gus Van Sant.
Aptly named GucciFest, the digital event runs between November 16 and November 22. A digital festival acts like a consolation prize after Coachella’s rescheduled October date being canceled– another grand affair in for the fashion world. Kering’s other labels like Saint Laurent and Bottega Veneta have yet to release their off-schedule plans.
While gamers and fashion lovers may not always be in tandem, Mugler’s Spring Summer 2021 collection transforms a VR futuretopia into Bella Hadid’s runway. Yet again though, the first part of the show could be accessed through Instagram at the click of a button– no exclusive invite needed.
If these innovative plans are any indication, labels are realizing their consumer’s attention has been stripped dry. Kicked into evolution, high fashion brands have no choice but to stick their heads out of the mud and change their ways.
It remains to be known what next season holds: the pandemic isn’t stopping anytime soon. With the Fall/Winter 2021 season just over four months away, it’s a toss-up to imagine what brands will stick with the status-quo or embrace the new normal. For those on the sidelines, digital has always been the name of the game, but are uppity houses ready to embrace it?
Online presentations are just a means to an end to the traditional fashion calendar, which has already undergone enormous proposed change over the last few months. Brands working at their own pace on their own time has become an enormous value. Showing less and showing digital cuts back on environmental emissions and burnout that often occurs for designers who struggle to keep up.
In May, a little over two months after his Fall/Winter 2020 show, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten penned an open letter to the fashion industry with calls to rethink it’s outdated logic. With signatures from top dogs like Marine Serre, Gabriella Hearst, and Tory Burch, the letter urged the industry to use the newfound time as ” an opportunity for a fundamental and welcome change that will simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable.”
In a time of reckoning with our planet’s environmental future, embracing inclusivity and diversity, and transitioning online, it would be remiss to say the industry remains the same.
Fashion is changing, of course. No amount of custom-shaped pasta will reverse the impacts that have already been made– accessibility for once. While market editors and professionals dressed in all black may cross their fingers to return back to normal, we have to ask ourselves what normal truly represents. For a long time, normal has represented a gatekept circle, closed off to those unable to afford it.
With a world more conscious than ever before, are we willing to look past that? To embrace monumental change and keep up with trendsetters on the cutting edge of conscious consumption, there isn’t a way without a digital future.END
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