Fashion Week is one of the most important set of events for professionals of the clothing industry and fashion aficionados across the globe. Alone, it is responsible for millions in revenue and hundreds of thousands of visitors to New York, Paris, Milan and London every year. But when the British Fashion Council, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, and the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana started announcing the postponement and cancellation of various shows, the impact of COVID-19 on this trillion-dollar industry, could no longer be denied. The business of fashion had been brought to a halt and the ramifications are, still, uncertain. However, in the face of adversity, the industry is starting to rethink its decade-long traditions, and, as it reinvents itself, there might be new ways for designers to bring their collections to an eager audience.
Since the pandemic makes physical distancing a necessity, the solution moved fluidly towards its juxtaposition; the virtual world. With China being at the epicentre of the pandemic in March, Shanghai was the first to adopt a new digital format by showcasing a series of livestreams on Tmall, Alibaba Group’s e-commerce platform. Despite the unforeseeable logistical hurdles, Shanghai Fashion Week was a feat of digital collaboration; gathering over 11 million views and generating over 2.82 million in gross merchandise volume. London and Milan have since decided to embrace this new digital venture by announcing their respective Digital Fashion Weeks. What can we expect from them and could this mark a permanent change to the face of luxury fashion as we know it?
At the moment, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how these digital shows will be formatted. Carlo Capasa, President of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, himself pointed out the uncertainty, saying “It’s very difficult today to set a fixed strategy”. But, the latest technology such as Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality and 3D rendering holds a lot of promise for those who were disappointed by Shanghai’s livestream-focused and “QVC-like sales pitches”. The new Digital Fashion Weeks are slated in for June and July which could give designers more time to push the bounds of fashion to create virtual experiences like we’ve never seen before. Kerry Murphy, founder of digital fashion house, The Fabricant, disclosed; “Nobody has said, ‘This is how digital fashion week or a digital fashion show has to look like.’ And there won’t be an answer because a digital fashion show can be anything. You just need to make it a creative exercise.” For Murphy, whose whole ethos is about digital fashion in the form of 3D technology, Digital Fashion Week represents the unique opportunity to build a “future where fashion transcends the physical body, and our digital identities permeate daily life to become the new reality.” His company has made digital clothes for fashion labels the likes of Puma, A Bathing Ape and Tommy Hilfiger.
The latter himself has a reputation for dabbling into virtual reality since 2015 with the launch of his very own digital sales showroom. The platform is a kaleidoscopic world of mountains and mirrors that bedazzles as you shop the latest Tommy Hilfilger pieces. This already gives the fashion magnate a competitive edge to the rest, especially considering that, according to WWD, 65% of Tommy’s designers are already trained in 3D design. A similar advantage can be found in designer Iris Van Herpen’s work. As a pioneer in 3D printing and cutting-edge techniques, her clothes move with psychotic grace and already feel holographic in their perfectionism. With most of her design files being already fully-detailed in 3D, and a large portion of her audience experiencing her work through digital channels such as Youtube and social media, virtual reality feels like the natural step. She is, however, open about the challenges that a digital Fashion Week would represent, admitting; “In the virtual world, it’s really hard to capture the movement, transparency and the intricacy [of a garment] in all its detail. But it’s getting there. The technology is evolving…” But, she is also excited to be working on her own immersive virtual reality experience where there is “tons of possibilities and a certain creativity and freedom to transform reality in the digital sphere”.
For the industry overall, a digital Fashion Week could have many positive effects. Inclusivity is an undeniable one. Brands will be sharing the same virtual space, therefore giving smaller ones more exposure in an industry that is often criticised for its elitism. With pricey venues out of the equation, designers can pour their full attention into their collections, which is especially important as, for the first time, the number of viewers will no longer be limited by seating capacity. Digital Fashion Week will also make luxury fashion more inclusive for consumers. No need to travel to expensive destinations, clad in thousands of pounds worth of clothes to learn and appreciate the art of fashion. Almost anyone can log onto a computer, and you can be dressed in tatters without anyone batting an eyelash. That said, lucrativeness remains a key aspect of high-end fashion with Kerry Murphy already contemplating visitors creating avatars for themselves to dress in virtual luxury. With the online video game Fortnite raking $300 millions in revenue in the lapse of one month (60% of which comes from the purchase of “skins”), the concept of digital fashion certainly seems promising. Matthew Drinkwater, head of the Fashion Innovation Agency at London College of Fashion says,“People are beginning to question the reason for a physical show and the value of a physical show when the technology exists to reach a much bigger audience through a digital space”.
If this digitalisation has been welcomed with enthusiasm, its challenges haven’t been overlooked either. According to the Financial Times, technical glitches and low-resolution videos will be part of the hurdles that designers will have to learn to overcome in this new creative exercise. Not to mention, fashion week is not just about models walking down the catwalk. For designers, influencers, buyers and retailers, fashion week is about networking and building those points of contact. Seeing these happen in livestreams and via chat will be interesting. While the digital world has crossed many communication bridges, expecting complex projects like garment construction (which often involves intricate and technical work) between couturières and designers on software like Slack or Zoom does not sound exactly viable. The “working from home” aspect will be another spoke in the wheel during this COVID-19 phase.
Capturing the attention of the audience and making sure visitors are still engaged in an eternally-distracting digital space won’t be easy either. Designers are worried about the less tangible aspects that their shows usually comprise of. Iris Van Herpen explains the essence of the problem beautifully, “It’s really the human aspect of it, the impact of a physical presence, of being all together. It’s like a live concert, the magic of how you feel the music. It’s comparable to how you can actually feel a garment when you see a fashion show. It’s chemical I guess, it’s a chemical interaction and that’s something that of course will be different in virtual reality.” Will digital shows be able to inspire a similar awe in their audience? Can we be moved by a virtual experience? We certainly caught a glimpse of it in Angel Cheng’s Augmented Reality show during Shanghai Digital Fashion Week. The futuristic, cyberspace catwalk felt like something straight out of Blade Runner and was indeed inspired by the Japanese, post-apocalyptic, cyberpunk film Akira.
So, what will the future of luxury fashion look like post COVID-19? Fashion experts predict a happy marriage between digital fashion shows and the more conventional physical ones. As the two realms merge and start making up for each other’s shortcomings, a more symbiotic relation is expected to arise. The world of avatars and holograms might be tantamount to a more innovative future, but not at the demise of real life interaction.