Fashion weeks around the world are usually a time of excitement, fun and an opportunity for designers to showcase their upcoming collections. It is a time to network and connect with fellow industry movers and shakers – a hedonistic week for fashionistas. But that wasn’t the case in 2020. Instead of a flurry of excitement, fashion weeks were preceded by uncertainty, apprehension and caution. There was a sense of reservation and everything was far more subdued. For most of the year, we wonder
wondered if the events would even go ahead. While Australia and New Zealand cancelled, in the rest of the world it was business as usual. But was that really the case? This year saw a change to the way fashion shows were executed, with social distancing in place and reduced numbers of attendees. In the days and weeks before the events, I seriously question the viability of such elaborate plans. It is an expensive exercise for designers to showcase at any of the four major global fashion weeks. Even to showcase locally in your own city is expensive, and with the impacts of Covid, if I were a designer, I would have been wondering, “What will be the return on my investment and is it worthwhile for me to participate in fashion week?” Business globally is tough, and retail has taken a massive hit. With overstocks, a decrease in sales and profits, and store closures everywhere, one would surely have been wondering, will the buyers even turn up? And then, what about industry publications? Will editors be there? How do I engage my audience when the likelihood of reach is compromised? Do they rely even more on influencers? Do the shows open more to the general public? Paris is invitation-only, but does this need to change? Do the shows need to become more accessible but then, how would that work with social distancing? There were so many questions that needed to be asked and answered. Digital creativity So, what was the new normal for a fashion week? It was a combination of both live shows and virtual shows, with some organisers and designers opting to do either or both. Some shows were livestreamed with an audience, while others were live-streamed without. Other designers opted to pre-record their shows. Alessandro Michele from Gucci, for example, pushed the boundaries once again by presenting a 12-hour live-stream show on the last day of the inaugural Milan Digital Fashion Week in July. During London Fashion Week this year, there were barely any runway shows, but there were plenty of exclusive live events. According to The Guardian, it was “fashion as Ted talk, fashion as group therapy – and fashion as entertainment”. Instead of having models walk down the runway for example, designer Roksanda Ilinčić had high-profile women share their views on the state of politics and current affairs. Designer Edeline Lee created a one-minute lockdown-themed film of a model in 21 different outfits. It will be a very crowded digital space in the future and with so much choice at the fingertips of the audience, cut-through and engagement have become paramount. Time for a shake-up Just days before New York Fashion Week, I spoke with Elliot Carlyle, the director of cultural diversity and inclusion at NYC Jewellery Week and a CDFA (Council of Fashion Designers of America) consultant. Carlyle admitted that even though the industry loves them, fashion shows are a lot of work and immensely expensive. Everyone involved in both larger and smaller productions is facing similar issues all over the world, he said. “There is a rush to install this ‘new normal’ but it is not going to happen as quickly or as conveniently as most people would prefer,” Carlyle pointed out. “We have known for some time now that fashion shows and the fashion industry at large needed an upgrade, and now we’re here. As we embrace digital presentations and virtual experiences in a way that has been ignored, we’re seeing new levels of creativity being inspired and engaged. This is a good thing. Fashion is an art as well as a business, so this is an opportunity for artists to express in new ways.” Melissa Shea, CEO of global networking organisation Fashion Mingle, commented: “New York Fashion Week has changed a lot in the past few years and Covid-19 has just accelerated those changes. Designers were starting to accept that fashion week is no longer a way to get a buyer for your collection, and their number one priority needs to be a direct-to-consumer strategy. Now, that is true more than ever.” As an example of how things are changing, Shea spoke of how Fashion Mingle is co-producing Times Square Fashion Week, a new event that was planned prior to the pandemic and has pivoted to reimagine what Fashion Week could be in the future. The team has held live photo shoots at Times Square, as there are now fewer tourists in “the crossroads of the world”. Shea and her team are also launching a digital fashion show for designers and brands on the digital billboards in the heart of Times Square. Global Fashion Channel will be filming the event to stream in their apps on Google Play, Apple TV, Roku and more. “Since we do not know how long the virus will restrict our activities, it’s more critical than ever to rethink business models and marketing to take advantage of technology to promote your brand. Now is the time to think outside the box and give designers and brands a way to be a part of the thrill that is New York Fashion Week, virtually, from anywhere in the world,” she said. “Fashion shows, product shoots, and events are the lifeblood of the fashion industry, so we have to reimagine ways to make fashion week more inclusive and intentional. How do we use digital tools to connect designers to the customers they need? How does the fashion-conscious consumer find their perfect fit virtually and shop the runway?” I believe the new normal of fashion weeks is still to be determined but one thing is for sure – they will never be as they were. They will be changed forever. For now, they may be a combination of live and virtual shows but in the future, who knows? I think the next few years will see a lot of innovation and experimenting. Ultimately the consumer will decide based on what they want to see and, as always, how quickly they can purchase what they see. Fashion weeks still very much have a place on the fashion calendar, at least for the foreseeable future. As a regular attendee of many fashion weeks over the years, I still love a live show. You simply can’t replicate that kind of atmosphere through a digital platform. Let’s hope things will change again next year. In the meantime, the show must go on. This article was originally published in the Inside Retail Asia November quarterly magazine.