Are traditional fashion shows archaic next to the promise of digital?

Fashion weeks have been a professional highlight for editors and buyers since New York created the very first one in 1943. Their sense of identity and self-importance were cemented by which shows they were invited to attend and in which rows they sat. The New York-London-Milan–Paris circuit became a whirling social calendar which secured them access to the hottest restaurants, most exclusive hotels, spas, and celebrity-filled parties, as well as international networking opportunities. New fashion weeks were emerging–– Copenhagen, Sao Paolo, New Delhi, Tokyo––to challenge the four main capitals and expand their globetrotting.

Then a global pandemic hit. Everything shrunk, except for the digital sphere which suddenly gained prominence. The wastefulness of fashion shows and the huge toll international travel inflicts on the environment became headline-making. All this conspired to leave a sector of the fashion community with a sense of foreboding. If fashion goes digital, are we losing more than we gain?

Unpacking a packed fashion calendar

R Scott French, co-founder of events and public relations firm, VERY New York, and a key figure of NYFW ever since he presented his menswear collections in Bryant Park in the mid-00s, believes how we respond this September will determine everything. He foresees no return to traditional shows for Spring 2021, even questioning the legality of such an undertaking. “I fail to see how we’re going to convince legions of editors to gather together in one small room, sitting hip-to-hip with only inches between rows, only to be repeated over and over all day long,” he tells FashionUnited.

Typically, fashion shows can have up to 150 people crammed backstage, excluding attendees and the heaving photographer pit. In New York’s heyday there were close to 300 of them in one week, costing between 30–100 thousand dollars to stage, and lasting about 15 minutes each.

The Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana announced only a digital menswear lineup for Milan Fashion Week which is scheduled for 14-17 July but said September’s fashion week will go ahead as scheduled, merging both digital and live events. This comes on the heels of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode announcing that Paris Fashion Week will proceed with physical shows in September. “In my opinion, Paris is being irresponsible and ultimately will pay the price for their activities, both in terms of health and public perception,” says French.

This year’s digital fashion weeks

As the global pandemic was hitting in March, Shanghai Fashion Week responded by moving swiftly to digital with 150 designers and brands presenting their collections via livestream during which 2.75 million dollars worth of goods were sold to a reported 11 million viewers. This resourcefulness amid Covid panic set a precedent, but the rather disappointing digital London Fashion Week that has just passed undermines those gains.

It was a three-day experiment which FashionUnited’s Don-Alvin Adegeest, who attends Paris and London Fashion Week, believes deserves a pass. “They had 8 weeks to create a new digital format,” he says. “From a commercial perspective it was difficult to quantify.” While he understands the need for a greater commitment to sustainability and a more manageable calendar, he also acknowledges the energy and adrenaline which can turn fashion shows into once-in-a-lifetime theatrical events. “I've attended some memorable runway presentations like Alexander McQueen's AW2001 Merry-go-round in a South London bus depot, and seeing a live Prince set during Matthew Williamson's LFW show. None of that buzz can be translated to a digital format. While it is entirely possible to make visually stunning films and video, it's not the same.”

The Italian fashion body’s decision to merge digital and physical is an attempt to straddle the glorious past of Adegeest’s recollections, the uncertain present, and the unknowable future. The word “phygital” has been coined. But French sees fence-sitting as a transformative opportunity squandered. “Fashion is a reflection of the times and these are unusual times. It is a time for fashion to lead and America enjoys a reputation for being innovative and fresh in its approach to marketing and commerce. The pandemic gives us the ability to rise to the occasion and make the best of a new situation and, in the process, discover new ways to communicate our message.”

Are traditional fashion shows archaic next to the promise of digital?

New messaging is the calling card of the Institute of Digital Fashion which launched last month billing itself as “an emblem for change in this broken system.” In a recent IG Live discussion co-founders, Leanne Elliot Young, and self-taught digital designer, Cat Taylor, bemoan the limits of the traditional fashion landscape which has always been confined within four walls––walls which they are determined to break down. “Livestreaming is such a flaccid part of digital,” says Young. “And briefs that are coming in demonstrates that brands still have no understanding of the potential.”

Young, like French, insists this is not a moment for hesitating but for toppling hierarchies and charging forward with a merging of IRL and URL which will reinvent the stodgy old fashion system. She views Paris Fashion Week’s decision as “archaic,” adding that “It’s just fear of not knowing what else there is so let’s just carry on with how it’s always been.”

Digital technology restores humanity to fashion

Despite brands’ skepticism about the virtual realm, it’s not as if an authentic human connection to the physical is celebrated either, notes Taylor, placing the blame for this on the male gaze of the industry’s decision makers: “Fabric and flesh are largely ignored in fashion.” Having worked with Alexander Wang, Balenciaga, and A Cold Wall, and created an iconic 3D animated wet look T-shirt complete with the sort of boob jiggle that is largely absent from Paris runways, Taylor predicts gendered fashion weeks will soon be a thing of the past and digital will draw the industry into validating more diverse body types. “The tone of fashion is going to massively change. It can’t fit into the norms from before. Any option of a human that can exist can be explored creatively. Really long arms, shapes coming out of human form, a rectangle…” The message seems to be that if you can dream it you can digitalize it. So dare to dream.

Sustainability is the default of the digital space

“It’s about pushing technology and solutions, not selling more clothes,” says Young, whose vision incorporates AR and VR, ideation and poetry, and weaves in mood boards and show notes with filters and GPS, even pieces from the designers’ archive for a more complete and transparent designer message. “It feels like a new universe but these are all things that seem really obvious.”

FashionUnited’s Kris Fraser, admits his identity is wrapped up in attending the shows. “FashionUnited brought me on board three weeks before New York Fashion Week and I was thrown into learning how to cover shows. Even during the most hectic of times I considered it a privilege to attend,” he says. “I am looking forward to a world where traditional fashion shows come back.” He doesn’t foresee editors changing their ways despite discussion of the environmental impact of travel, and once restrictions have been lifted believes they will come and go as they please. But nonetheless, he thinks something has to give. “The old way of doing things was exactly that, the old way. It's 2020, if anything good comes out of this catastrophe of a year, let it be a new model for fashion in the 21st century.”

Digital brings democracy

That new model, that something good, looks set to be democracy. Emerging designers can be halted in their tracks by the cost-prohibitive element of staging even the most low-budget show, so their talent is what’s really getting lost. Taylor advocates for designers to follow her lead and teach themselves the software so that they can show their collections however they wish, heavy on artistic expression and inclusivity, light on environmental damage and gatekeepers. “The live aspect is afforded to such a small niche of players,” agrees Adegeest. “For many, fashion shows are no longer about clothes, but about front row attendance, megalomaniac productions, and social media impressions, and the removal of this excess is no great loss to anybody.”

Pay-per-view has been floated in some circles as a digital option. At VERY New York, French and his team are already working on tools to make the upcoming digital fashion week experiential and tactile, but won’t reveal any details just yet. However he doesn’t think a pay-per-view idea has legs.

“I actually see opportunity in selling tickets to live events,” he says. “If a 600-person venue could be partitioned off to allow 200 paid seats and 400 press seats, then the designer can use this situation to significantly off-set the costs of show production.” As a show producer, he acknowledges this is not without added headaches on show day, but he finds the democracy of it energizing, recalling the heady days of cable channel, Full Frontal Fashion, which aired 24/7 coverage of NYFW broadcast in real time to the public. “NYFW was never more relevant,” he says. “Public actually gaining access to the live shows is the next logical step.”

But whatever final decisions fashion’s governing bodies make over the next few seasons, it seems that fashion weeks will never be the same. The forces of change are swooping in on from all sides. “While it may be a stop-gap season,” says French, “if properly executed, it will ultimately prove an integral part of the overall strategy for the future.”

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Header image of Digital garment render, The Institute Of Digital Fashion; Portrait Cattytay, Co founder of The Institute Of Digital Fashion.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.