The rundown on fashion weeks and how they're coping with going digital

  • Style
  • Wednesday, 24 Jun 2020

In this pandemic era of social distancing, the fashion industry has had to to reshape its famed fashion weeks. For now, runway shows have gone digital with innovative ways to showcase fashion online. Graphics: MUHD HAFEEZ/The Star

In the face of a pandemic and our new normal of observing social distancing, the idea of fashion weeks has changed.

Once, it was about the glitz and glamour – elaborate stage setups, carefully curated music, scores of models, high-profile guests crammed into a magnificent venue.

With social distancing in place, runway shows have had to adapt. Designers are now forced to present their creations online. Clothes are instead paraded on runways largely devoid of a physical audience.

To set the scene, imagine impeccably-dressed models walking in a near empty room. Of course, the skeleton crew of videographers operating the cameras would need to be there – but that’s about it.

Would the fashion week experience be just as exciting without celebrities sitting in the front row? Can a runway show even exist without all the air kisses and schmoozing? If not recorded with a selfie, did it happen?

Sarcasm aside, runways are conceptualised with the aim to inspire, excite and entertain audiences. They are often over-the-top for a reason. You don’t call it a “show” for nothing.

Read more: Fashion in pictures: The most immersive runway shows ever held

“When you attend a fashion event live – there are so many distractions. With the energy of the people and music, that’s when fashion comes alive!” comments Andrew Tan, the founder of Kuala Lumpur Fashion Week (KLFW).

“Who wants to watch a show (on screen) with models going back and forth for half an hour or even 15 minutes?” he notes, regarding how people are very used to engaging with quick content online.

Yet, fashion weeks that were converted to digital-only are doing reasonably well. They may not have conjured up the same amount of drama as in the past, but the end result is still pretty impressive.

Shanghai Fashion Week, which took place in late March, was among one of the firsts to embrace a full digital format. According to Women’s Wear Daily, it drew 11 million viewers.

The event reportedly sold a total of US$2.75 million (RM11.8 million) worth of clothes and accessories direct to consumers. This happened during the livestream of runway shows.

China Fashion Week in Beijing followed suit in May. Through online streaming, designers shared their inspiration behind their creations with viewers. Over 170 brands from 15 countries and regions participated.

Beyond runways

More recently, London Fashion Week went digital-only. There was one big difference though. While models were videoed walking to an empty audience in Beijing and Shanghai, London did away with runways altogether.

To make up for it, designers presented their designs using creative videos. Some told stories with their collections, others shot a video-log of sorts to highlight very specific messages.

Ka Wa Key’s presentation for example, was described as being inspired by The Little Prince and other fairytale and nursery-rhyme characters. It was indeed odd and quirky, but still strangely entertaining.

It wasn’t just about new clothes though. Teatum Jones, released a video featuring members of its community talking about what it means to “re-love” clothing they already have in their closets.

Marques’Almeida submitted a film documenting the goal of its reM’Ade label. The designs will be made from old stock and recycled fabrics. This addresses the issue of sustainability in fashion.

Read more: Without runways, designers get creative digitally for London Fashion Week

Another key point to note is that London Fashion Week went gender-neutral for the first time. Since 1984, it has always been held on a quarterly basis with events for each season divided by a menswear and womenswear week.

It just goes to show that fashion weeks are now treading uncharted territory. Organisers are thus free to experiment with different ways and methods to suit a changing industry.

You could say that the pandemic has forced the industry to take a breather and reconsider what it has been doing for so many years. Is it worth to continue something just for the sake of tradition?

After months of being in lockdown, fashion houses in fashion capitals such as Paris and Milan are slowly trying to resume business. There is an urge to rethink everything though, most notably the runway shows.

President of the Malaysian Independent Designers Association, Melinda Looi, believes that digital fashion shows would not have the same impact as live shows. She says it is less immersive.

“We don’t have a choice at the moment, but to try to accept the ‘new normal’ way of presenting a collection, ” she however, admits. “Time for the fashion industry to switch to digital, surely.”

A long time coming

Livestream fashion weeks are not entirely new. Digital Fashion Week, a fashion event inaugurated in 2012 (last held in Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand), offered both an online and offline platform for designers to present their collections.

In the past, major fashion houses have also live streamed their shows at fashion weeks. The intention was to give a chance to those unable to attend (whatever the reason may be) a peek at the new collections.

Burberry has long embraced the “see now, buy now” concept. In 2016, it combined multi-level lines into a single brand and began offering a limited selection from the runway show for immediate purchase.

Marc Jacobs and Calvin Klein were already hosting livestreams of their runway shows back in 2010. It was dubbed the “democratising of fashion”, where fans can watch from home as the events took place.

Then, some designers began bemoaning the loss of “exclusivity”. The reason being that the four major fashion weeks (London, Milan, Paris and New York) were created primarily as industry events.

They were originally meant for the press writing about collections, as well as retail buyers whose job was to place orders. When the pandemic hit this year, everything changed.

“It is not a matter of whether we want to or not. Everyone needs to adapt, ” comments Bon Zainal, regarding how fashion weeks in the Covid-19 age has been spurred to change.

Bon is the co-chairman of Malaysia Fashion Week, as well as the president of the Bumiputera Designers Association. He says everyone is pretty much going through a “trial and error” period right now.

“The industry has been offering a digital platform to fashion weeks, but the uptake has always been slow. Then, boom – the pandemic happened. We are now forced to adopt a different way of operating.”

“Designers in Malaysia are all going digital for e-commerce, but to do a show online, this will definitely be something we all need to learn, ” Looi adds.

Read more: Will runway shows with guests remain a mainstay of Milan Fashion Week?

Other upcoming fashion weeks are also going digital-only. A virtual couture fashion week is to be held next month in Paris. Videos and complementary content from accredited couture maisons will go live on a preset show schedule.

Milan Fashion Week is also set for a virtual format in July. It has been opened to menswear and womenswear designers who wish to present both pre- and main season collections. Although, the opening show by Fendi will be a physical event with a limited number of guests.

Bon says that Malaysia Fashion Week is looking into going virtual. It will also come up with plan for matching designers with buyers during the event, via online means.

KLFW also announced a digital format. While the calendar of happenings has not yet been revealed, it is expected to offer creative content that will help tell the stories of designers and their collections.

“Since it has been a very disruptive year, we are very open to innovative and disruptive ideas to bring Malaysian fashion brands and designers to an even bigger audience, ” Tan comments.

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