The Covid-19 virus that brought the world to a standstill also brought commerce to its knees, forcing businesses to adapt or be rendered extinct. It was no different for fashion, with the pandemic forcing the industry to evolve at hyperspeed—in fact, by the time this article was researched and written, some developments in the industry had already changed; that’s how fast-paced fashion is.
Related article: Nga Nguyen, Covid-19’s First Fashion Victim
As entire economies collapsed, the pace at which fashion works to recuperate its losses is alarming. It has birthed a smorgasbord of presentation formats as well as unusually complex media strategies and new online platforms that have resulted in a constant influx of content. Naturally, the production surge exacerbates pre-Covid-19 problems: conflicting deadlines, unrealistic timelines, exhausting manpower and a general lack of unity between various parts of the industry. “As the world seems to be splitting along the seams, the bare inner workings of something new will be exposed,” wrote Jeremy Scott on the Moschino spring/summer 2021 invitations. Against the backdrop of such an incredibly complex battlefield, where is creativity headed in the future?
Related article: How Fashion Is Adapting And Responding To A New World Order
THE SHOW MUST GO ON… OR MUST IT?
Despite the various critiques of flying thousands of editors, influencers and buyers across the world to watch a 10-minute show, fashion shows are still happening. In mere months since the first big brands announced their exits from the fashion calendar— namely, Saint Laurent and Gucci in April and May respectively—the divide between brands and their stance on physical fashion shows is clear. The variety of the spring/summer 2021 shows is testament to this. Moschino cleverly used puppets to stage its show, replacing humans entirely with dolls (although designer Jeremy Scott makes a brief real-life cameo). Balmain might have put its 58 absent attendees on front-row flat screens, but it still staged a traditional show nonetheless—and a big one at that, with 103 looks. Burberry staged a 20-minute presentation sans audience in a forest and streamed it on Twitch, a popular gaming service.
Brands that did not host physical shows produced videos instead, as was the case for Dries Van Noten, MSGM and Salvatore Ferragamo, to name a few—to various degrees of success. The experience of watching fashion presentations online was still nothing special for most, as it lacked the energy of an IRL interaction. At a physical show, you interact with fellow invitees, take in and explore the venue, attend a re-see after. So that begs the questions: How do you meaningfully engage with audiences, on top of overcoming logistical issues and being creative? How do brands stand out? Can digital presentations do justice as a substitute for physical shows? What makes physical shows so unique in the first place?
Related article: Review of Salvatore Ferragamo Spring Summer 2021 Collection
RISE AND SHINE
Prada’s spring/summer 2021 show, the first of Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons’s partnership, provided possible answers. Via Instagram, the brand asked its audience to send in questions for both designers to answer in a conversation that took place after the show. Having two equally iconoclastic designers working together is something practically unheard of—and so the occasion called for a new, different format for engagement. We were witnessing, and taking part in, history. The result? Forty-eight million views on social sites Douyin and Weibo, 2 million views on YouTube and 706,000 views on IG TV. The collection was unanimously, critically acclaimed.
Related article: Highlights from Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons in Conversation
“During the lockdown, [I] realised how important technology is and how [it allows] an extension [of] ourselves,” Prada said post-show. “We [now] have the occasion to really show clothes… because we’re doing a small film, we hope you can enjoy the clothes better.” Simons shared that the show was “about emphasising humanity. It was about women and everything around them that supports them, showcases their characters.” The set, with dozens of cameras and monitors recording the models from countless angles, was an eerie mirror of how much scrutiny we are under, especially online. Prada, in particular, should know—the brand has paid the price of refusing to adapt digitally before.
The digital landscape is not an easy one to navigate these days. Digital media engagement has plummeted considerably since physical fashion shows have not been taking place: According to brand performance cloud Launchmetrics, London Fashion Week in June had 55 percent less social media engagement than it did in January this year. By comparison, the gaming industry has benefited well from people staying home. According to Rolling Stone, Travis Scott’s in-game concert for Fortnite, the wildly popular battle royale game, led to an increase of 26 percent in Scott’s listening stream in just one day and as CNET reported, was ultimately seen by 28 million over a course of five days. For Prada to be able to top 16 times its views of its last womenswear show demonstrates how a multi-platform strategy is essential to solidifying a new experience.
YOU’RE DOING AMAZING, SWEETIE
Naturally, alternative formats call for even more complicated productions, but risk-taking, all the more scary in these times, has paid off for some. Back in July, the couture shows in fact achieved a good balance between engagement and creativity.
Maison Margiela premiered a documentary-style film directed by Nick Knight that documents Creative Director John Galliano’s rigorous creative process in developing the collection with the atelier under new circumstances. The film utilises Google searches, Zoom conference calls, surveillance footage from drones hovering in the studio, and GoPros attached to various members of the atelier, including his models and even one of their dogs. Such transparency and voyeurism is fitting, coming from Margiela—its Artisanal label has practically demystified couture savoir faire. To see a full picture of how an atelier adapts to such a heavily digital process so candidly is comforting and sobering—and somehow completely relatable. “Modern couture today is more than dressing the elite. What it does is it fuels the house—that’s the purpose of a couture house today: To show what we’re capable of.”
Alas, most of us still want to dream when we see couture. Dior’s collection was presented as a fantasy film, which followed two travelling porters carrying Maria Grazia Chiuri’s trunk of couture dolls throughout a land of nymphs, centaurs and other mythical creatures. It’s definitely a new format for Chiuri. While Dior created miniatures, Valentino made towering giants. The Italian house staged a “heightened” physical event at Rome’s Cinecittà, which screened a glitchy film by Nick Knight, after which the curtains drew to reveal models hovered above audiences like circus performers. The gowns were almost 4m tall. As we’ve seen time and time again, in times of austerity, fashion brings its exuberance. It’s exciting to think that we’re living in a time that can possibly birth a New Look.
But perhaps the most innovative attempt in reconciling physical barriers during that socially distanced period was not from the three days of couture shows, but Loewe’s spring/summer 2021 menswear collection, by Jonathan Anderson. The “show in a box” format, inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s La Bôite-en-valise (which translates roughly as “box in a suitcase”), gave editors a portable, intimate experience of its collection like no other. It came with fabric swatches, a pop-up book of what would have been the runway set, a manual record player, mini printouts of accessories, inspirations and cutout paper silhouettes of the team.
What set this presentation apart was not only its sensorial experience, but also its solid digital activation, with video content being released hourly for 24 hours on IG TV and then aggregated on the Loewe site to enjoy at any time. So while only editors received the complete box, everyone could enjoy the idea. Downloadable, DIY content was also released, including patterns of a paper pineapple toy and Look 23, which can be printed and assembled.
Anderson has since repeated that format for subsequent collections, and with his spring/ summer 2021 womenswear presentation, even evolved it into a “show on the wall”—where recipients of a gargantuan Loewe box set (which included life-size cutouts of the looks, wallpaper, brush, scissors and glue) can mount its contents on the wall à la a museum exhibition. At a time when brands are struggling more than ever to form meaningful connections with their intended audiences, it was a brilliant beacon of potential and ingenuity.
Over several conversations with Tim Blanks for The Business of Fashion, Anderson said: “I think it’s going to be very difficult to go back. Everyone is wearing themselves on their sleeves. If you’re a brand now and you have no humility, no honesty, you’re completely screwed.” The designer also added that “fashion is meant to represent a moment… but I don’t see the moment anymore. The whole thing has become fractured. It’s not even about clothing anymore.”
If there’s one thing we’ve learnt from the recent shows that have struck a successful chord, it’s that the clothes must still be the stars. We’ve seen really good clothes in recent months, and perhaps contrary to our expectations, physical limitations have helped ideas thrive. As viewers, sure, it’s harder to keep up with what all the brands are doing and surely, the brands are finding it harder to stand out. As Pierpaolo Piccioli explained of his decision to move Valentino’s spring/summer 2021 show from the usual Paris to Milan, “the current situation has forced us to make an unusual decision. I feel energised when I can work on ideas, and this is the time for ideas to spread and grow.” And if those unusual decisions are what make fashion more interesting and of higher quality, we should rise up to the challenge and forge a better standard for the future.