Is Fashion Week as We Know It over Forever?

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Poised at the precipice of a great metamorphosis, the fashion industry cannot miss this imperative opportunity to lean into the community that has been building online. United in crisis, we face a new future, and the ability to emerge from the shelter of our homes, eyes blinking toward the sun, ready to rebuild.

The future does not arrive all at once; it comes in stages and phases. Things are not one way, and then suddenly, the next day, another. Horse-drawn carriages are not replaced overnight by automobiles; automobiles aren’t suddenly swapped for autonomously driven smart cars.

However, in a rare moment where the equilibrium of modernity was punctured by global crisis – one that united us all by placing the entirety of human civilization into survival mode – change did happen overnight. One day, you are driving into work, eating lunch with your colleagues, heading to an after-hours event, and planning the day ahead, and the next, you are locked in your home, loading up on supplies, watching the news, and monitoring every cough for signs of worsening developments. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept the map, entire industries, seemingly stable and robust, faltered, failed, and crumbled. The Dubai Chamber of Commerce reported in late May that 70% of Dubai companies are expected to go out of business within the next six months. In the United States, where there was no federal #StayAtHome mandate, the pandemic spread to epic proportions. In that time, more than 100,000 small businesses closed their doors forever.

The new fashion epoch we are currently in is one of experimentation, of seeing what sticks and what prevails.

Without a workforce surging to the office, taxis and rideshares were suddenly obsolete. Restaurants were forced to adapt to take-out or curbside-only models. Malls shut down, while hospitals were overrun. With no one on the streets, local flora and fauna returned, sniffing out new homes for their offspring. Smog cleared, planes were grounded, toilet paper evaporated from shelves.

Like many titanic industries, fashion scrambled to adjust. With nowhere to go but the couch, no one was buying clothes, shopping for luxury products, or planning their seasonal wardrobes. Furthermore, Fashion Week, the month-long travel slog through the fashion capitals, was postponed or cancelled. As the physical representation of what the industry is producing, Fashion Week provides the trends we’ll be wearing, the creative direction, the zeitgeist. Without a traditional Fashion Week presentation, brands had a lot of answers to come up with in a very short amount of time. 

The new fashion epoch we are currently in is one of experimentation, of seeing what sticks and what prevails. Much of this depends on how the consumer responds to the changes. New methods and methodologies are tried, and then discarded according to how accessible they are to the mainstream. For companies that are focused on digital fashion, accessibility is a key issue. Not everyone in the world has a cellphone, and not everyone who has a cellphone has one whose operating system is compatible with the advanced technology used to create virtual Fashion Weeks or augmented reality experiences. 

Facing a brave new world and the dire need to adapt, we are left with the overwhelming question: What is the future of Fashion Week?

London Fashion Week Toni and Guy archival footage
Photo: Courtesy of @londonfashionweek

Necessity is the Mother of Invention

Before addressing the future of fashion, it’s logical to question whether or not Fashion Week is really needed or necessary. A strong argument can be made that the traditional fashion system didn’t serve its constituents well. Fashion shows by major luxury brands cost millions of dollars to stage, but what kind of return on investment could be promised after the fact? Furthermore, fashion shows at the scale necessary to catch the attention of retail buyers left smaller, emerging brands in the dust. 

Decades since its origin in the small salons of Paris, the traditional Fashion Week model hasn’t changed much. The scale of the shows grew larger, but they still revolved around models, dressed in the collection, walking one at a time down a runway in front of an audience. The front rows, originally populated by clients, became replaced by media entities, who were then swapped for celebrities and influencers. The show stayed the same, but the guests changed. 

One of the Middle East’s most powerful businesswomen, Ingie Chalhoub, who is herself the fashion designer behind the brand INGIE PARIS, questions the traditional fashion model. In an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair, Chalhoub said, “It’s true that Fashion Week is not sustainable anymore. It did not allow new brands and startups to lead the way – unless they had a fortune to spend on it. It was something closed, except to the very few who could afford that. There was no space for creativity. It was about the one [designer] who put more money on the table.” 

Having said that, Chalhoub is the first to admit that she was in a position of privilege to stage her shows in Paris, but recognizes that the exhaustive effort was simply not worth the investment of time, money, and work. “I was one of the fortunate ones,” she explained. “But, it’s because I’ve worked very, very, very hard to reach the point where I could afford to do this.” Months of designing, creating, manufacturing, and staging go into showing a collection, and the moment is gone in the blink of an eye. After so much sturm und drang, the show is over in a matter of minutes, and then the cycle repeats itself. It’s no wonder that the fashion industry is so infamous for chewing up and spitting out its creative talent. 

Chalhoub points out, “This is a destructive world. This kind of destruction has happened and it is like a signal of something that was not working. It’s not necessary to do such heavy logistics, or for it [to be] so inconvenient for customers. This pyramid has collapsed overnight. A lot of brands are going to have to reinvent themselves, the way they communicate, and the way they showcase. They must be more realistic, because people are going to be seeking more purpose from what they buy.”

 

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There is no mistaking the fact that the current model is unsustainable. Designers like Raf Simons and Alber Elbaz have been pointing that out for years, but the industry has been slow to make the right changes. The pandemic, however, has forced its hand. Recently, Gucci and Saint Laurent have announced that they were leaving the traditional calendar and showing at their own pace, and it’s predicted that many other luxury houses will follow suit. 

But more than just changing the calendar, fashion houses must look inward to find their purpose. Chalhoub was correct in assessing the changing demands of the consumer. People are looking for purpose, they are requiring accountability from the brands they buy, and they are seeking authenticity.

The good news is, the possibilities are endless. In the virtual world, there are no rules.

In a live Zoom discussion with Business of Fashion’s Tim Blanks, designer Jonathan Anderson stated, “[The pandemic] will atomize the landscape into a flat page. If we can get away from building too many forms of hierarchy in the creative industry, it therefore might open up to collaboration more. I don’t mean collaboration like me collaborating with a brand, but us collaborating with each other – a cross-pollination of different things… Now is a moment where we can forge a new type of reality, understand why we make things.”

There are other issues with the Fashion Week model that are overdue for a redress. Since inception, Fashion Week has followed the print media cycle, which means looks are shown six months ahead of their retail availability. This made sense a long time ago, where those six months were used both for production of the collection and for magazines to shoot them editorially to promote them. However, with condensed cycles, faster supply chains, and the immediacy of social media promotion, the consumer is now saturated with product images right after they hit the runway. Suddenly, a new “It Bag” is all over Instagram, worn by influencers, and just as suddenly, you’re sick of seeing it. This common response is known as “fashion fatigue”. 

By the time the promoted product is available for retail, consumers have seen it so often that it no longer feels fresh or new, so they no longer have a desire for it. In other words, the digital landscape created a real-time effect, which negatively impacted consumer perception. Fashion fatigue became a catalyst for the “see now, buy now” movement taken up by brands like Burberry and Tommy Hilfiger, who created “in-season” collections and made their products immediately available for purchase following their runway shows. 

It was treated like a panacea, the end-all solution for addressing all of fashion’s issues. “See now, buy now” represented one of the few times the industry really engaged in an attempt at solving its problems (at least as far as those problems concerned retail).

Bella Hadid - TommyLand Tommy Hilfiger Spring 2017 Fashion Show - Runway
Bella Hadid walks the Tommy Hilfiger Spring 2017 show | Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images

Picture This

On the designated day, you open an exclusive virtual invite to a luxury fashion show and slip on a pair of Oculus goggles. A throbbing beat immediately enters your ears, and over it, you hear the buzz from the crowd around you. You look down at your virtual self, and you’re decked in a stunning designer outfit, complete with dazzling of-the-moment accessories.

Across the aisle, there’s an avatar of Tim Blanks in his signature printed shirt, André Leon Talley in a regal, royal purple kaftan, and Anna Dello Russo in a skintight Dolce & Gabbana dress. You are at a fashion show, but you’re not at Fashion Week. In fact, you never even left your house. There’s been no sinus-drying flight to Paris, or wrestling your way up the steps of the Grand Palais in the shivering cold. No rain on your coiff, no traffic, no pressure. 

This could very well be the brave new world of fashion, but as Kerry Murphy of the digital fashion house The Fabricant assured Savoir Flair in an exclusive interview, “It’s one possibility, but it’s not the only possibility.”

He explained, “There are multiple ways of doing it. Going to Paris and sitting at the catwalk is one experience, but what digital allows for it is to be multiple experiences.” By that stroke, the future of fashion is yet to be written, but there are many people in the industry racing to figure out solutions to fashion during a pandemic, during lockdown where you can’t leave your house or shop for products in-store. 

If fashion can be tailored to your exact measurements, why can’t fashion shows?

The good news is, the possibilities are endless. In the virtual world, there are no rules. “The true value of digital is creating situations that cannot exist in real life,” Murphy shared. “Where else we can cross physical boundaries, be in control of the lighting, make avatars that can’t exist in real life, make clothing that can’t exist in real life, and define a new language for doing that?” In other words, if fashion can be tailored to your exact measurements, why can’t fashion shows? 

The Fabricant has been at the forefront of this movement, having created digital fashion campaigns for brands like Tommy Hilfiger and A Bathing Ape. As the need for digitized fashion collections and fashion shows has surged, their talents have been in high demand. The reality is, the clothes for fashion shows are tweaked down to the last minute, which doesn’t fit the structure of creating a digital collection in advance. “It’s a completely different way of working,” Murphy shared. “There are a few different cases on our website… there’s one called ‘Digital Denim’, and it took us one month to work on that one garment to get all the details right, to get movement there. We can also make garments within a few minutes, or few hours, and an extremely complex garment can take us like one day. But, with all the details, photo-realistic representation, and animation [of a full collection], then you’re looking at weeks and weeks of production.”

To produce a virtual fashion show, production could take as long as four months, which is roughly the same time it currently takes a fashion house to create a physical one. But, the fully realized virtual version is predicated on the notion that the details and finished looks would be finished in advance. This effort will take a rewriting of the fashion system, and realistically, for some brands, this method will work perfectly and match the DNA of their house, and for others, it won’t.

Let’s go deeper into the idea. Picture Fashion Week without the limitations of, say, gravity. Or the need for clothes to be presented on a human body, or in an environment that is built by hand. That is exactly what Anifa Mvuemba achieved with her pioneering 3D virtual reality ‘Pink Congo Collection’ for her brand Hanifa, which famously went viral in late May when social media went wild over her brilliant presentation. 

Although Mvuemba had been designing her collections with 3D technology for some time, the pandemic caused a serendipitous turn of events. “When COVID-19 occurred, I realized it was the ideal time to introduce this design style to our audience, since they would be more understanding concerning the Stay-Home order,” Mvuemba explained in an exclusive interview with Savoir Flair. Shaped on a human female form, her gorgeous collection strode confidently through a saturated black atmosphere, allowing the viewer to understand the curvaceous fit of her silhouettes and the beautiful drape of her materials. By representing her collection in the digital space, Mvuemba created a visual concept that allowed the viewer to really imagine the clothes on themselves. 

The more we live our lives online, the more it makes sense to think about digital fashion as the coming norm.

It was a feat of genuine genius, coupled with epic timing. It’s an understatement to say it caused a global sensation. “I knew the collection would do well visually,” the Congolese designer shares. “But, I honestly did not imagine the impact or audience reach we experienced. We’re still navigating through interviews and collab requests. It’s truly a blessing, but very unexpected. My team and I are still shocked.”

Shanghai Fashion Week in early April also hosted a variety of streaming solutions, one of which included Angel Chen’s virtual fashion show for Fall/Winter 2020. Inspired by Akira, the collection was achieved by shooting the clothes on models against a green screen, and then the background was manipulated to create different virtual environments. A few technical difficulties aside, the collection was beautifully conceptualized and well received. 

However, it’s London Fashion Week that became the first of the big four Fashion Weeks to answer the call of the future. Launched on June 14, 2020, the virtual event is being watched by more than just fashion lovers; it has the attention of the entire industry, which is looking to London’s leadership to see how feasible the pivot will be long term. 

Stephanie Phair, the Chair of the British Fashion Council (BFC), spoke to Savoir Flair exclusively about the Council’s approach to the future of Fashion Week. Phair  pointed out that BFC had always emphasized digital and that LFW has had an enduring relationship with virtual formats. “The decision to host a digital-only event in June was made due to the current pandemic,” Phair explained. “However, digital will continue to remain a big focus moving forward. The new platform, launching in June, will be a permanent fixture for Fashion Weeks, but with new content continuing to be published in between. By launching a digital platform, London Fashion Week now becomes available for everyone, everywhere.”

Phair was also keen to develop the virtual Fashion Week format beyond the presentations. She described her all-inclusive vision, saying, “Our designers have the opportunity to engage in a different way, with the focus lying more around storytelling and creative content. The scope will be broad as the audience will be trade as well as consumer. From live Q&As to designer diaries and the use of AR to digital showrooms for buyers, the options are endless with this new way of presenting their vision.”

Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was Fashion Week. While we’ve had the opportunity to speak to some of the key people in the industry who are embracing and creating the brave new world of digital fashion and virtual Fashion Week, the truth is, it’s still in its infancy. This moment in time represents the proverbial wheel not only being reinvented, but being digitally rendered, and then cast into an augmented reality landscape. The success of this experiment will rely on how it is received by the public, and how eager the consumer is to invest their time, energy, and money into it.

The more we live our lives online, the more it makes sense to think about digital fashion as the coming norm. Our virtual self-representation could eventually overtake the physical, thereby creating a demand for dressing our avatars in the latest looks. There is ample proof that a real-money economy backs this idea. Games like Second Life and Fortnite have retail markets where you can dress your digital avatar, and people have spent millions of dollars to do so. While this is something that sounds like a far-flung sci-fi plot, it could actually make sense by the time society inevitably arrives at that point. Instead of investing in a real Chanel ‘2.55’ bag, you might be buying a virtual version for your digital self.

This isn’t a “remains to be seen” situation. The future isn’t waiting to be written, it’s happening right now.

This isn’t a “remains to be seen” situation. The future isn’t waiting to be written, it’s happening right now. Come what may, the fashion industry has been poised for earth-shattering change for a long, long time. Beyond developing how we view Fashion Week, change still needs to happen in the manufacturing and production sectors, at the highest levels of economic investment, and most importantly,  in the boardrooms and changing rooms. What good is all this change if there isn’t diverse representation of the population taking place within the retail sector? What good is virtual Fashion Week if you can’t also virtually try on the clothes? Or shop the collection easily online? Many luxury brands were caught unprepared when the pandemic happened, and were left without e-commerce or omnichannel solutions (although many, like Louis VuittonDior and Bvlgari, adapted quickly, and launched e-commerce sites for the UAE market very rapidly).

Fashion Week, as the trade arm of the industry, is evolving, but retail has to evolve alongside it. Furthermore, there is a great cadre of insiders who strongly believe that physical fashion shows will still happen, after the pandemic is over. What we’re seeing now is a trillion-dollar giant grappling with new growth, and change, that for many, doesn’t come easily. Regardless, the vanguard of the future believes in the endless possibilities afforded by the digital universe, and there is nothing more exciting than bearing witness to such a historic undertaking. 

As strange as it sounds to say, the pandemic united humanity. Poised at the precipice of a great metamorphosis, the fashion industry cannot miss this imperative opportunity to lean into the community that has been building online. United in crisis, we face a new future, and the ability to emerge from the shelter of our homes, eyes blinking toward the sun, ready to rebuild. Let’s build something better, something inclusive and accessible to all, something that rights the wrongs, and gives future generations hope. Things might have changed overnight, but it don’t have to go back to the way they were. It can be better. It must be better.

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