Back in February, as Milan found itself at the epicentre of the first major western outbreak of COVID-19, the city’s biannual women’s fashion week was coming to a close. While the virus had yet to be named a pandemic, many began recognising the existential threat it posed to Italy’s €65bn-plus fashion industry as buyers and editors, especially from the lucrative east-Asian market, steered clear. More interestingly, perhaps, was the rapid response to adjusting the format of the fashion show. While some chose to withdraw their collections altogether, others, most notably Giorgio Armani, opted to live-stream the show without a physical audience.
In the weeks that have followed, the situation has escalated so dramatically that shows planned many months down the line are now being cancelled or rescheduled. These include the theatrical spectacles of the annual cruise shows, where brands such as Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton fly a small army of press and buyers to far-flung locations to show their clothes against breathtaking backdrops.
More importantly, for the ongoing survival of small businesses within the industry, is the announcement last week that both Paris Fashion Week Menswear and Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, scheduled for June and July respectively, were cancelled, while Milan Fashion Week Men’s was to merge with the womenswear shows in September. While the two other major men’s fashion events this summer, London Fashion Week Men’s and the Pitti Immagine Uomo trade fair, are still planned to go ahead, it feels inevitable at this point that both will follow.
Where do we go from here?
The most obvious answer is to establish a digital platform for designers to show their collections, allowing the press to cover the collections and retailers to buy them remotely. An issue here is the unprecedented nature of such a format, with no guarantee of success. Much has been made in the past of the need to overhaul the traditional fashion week model with its bloated schedules and significant environmental impact, but there is only so much a buyer can do without being able to see and feel the garments in person.
Perhaps the best place for the ‘Big Four’ fashion weeks to look for cues on how to navigate this new normal comes not from within their own ranks, then, but their smaller equivalents. While cities such as Paris, New York, London and Milan enjoy the presence and undivided attention of top-tier buyers and press, other less-known style capitals including Shanghai and Lagos have long harnessed the ability of the internet to get the word out about their thriving fashion scenes, and are currently leading the charge when it comes to the next steps the industry should consider to ensure its survival.
For Shanghai Fashion Week, which wrapped up this week, the solution was obvious. Its organisers enlisted the help of Chinese e-commerce juggernaut Alibaba to provide a platform for the shows on its Tmall live-streaming channel, with many of the clothes available to buy straight off the runway. “It would have been a great regret if the coronavirus outbreak posed a challenge for these aspiring brands and talents, limiting what they could accomplish,” says Lv Xiaolei, vice secretary general of Shanghai Fashion Week. “As a platform long dedicated to supporting Chinese creative talents, we knew we had to take action.”
While it’s a model that works well for a specific tier of brands, to capture the nuances of craftsmanship presented by the world’s leading luxury houses is altogether more tricky; a potential solution would be the accompanying showroom presentations Shanghai offered to viewers also, where designers were invited to talk through their collections piece by piece and showcase the details in a more web-friendly format. The most important takeaway, however, is that for the upcoming fashion weeks to transition to the digital sphere smoothly, they will need to emulate Shanghai’s openness for collaboration with the world of technology.
Rethinking decades-old models
It’s this innovative energy that the bigger fashion weeks will need to look to as they enter the uncharted territory of a fashion week no longer reliant on the conventional, decades-old model. For some, the challenges are more profound, particularly for Pitti Uomo, whose unique model of a wholesale trade show alongside runway shows featuring starry guest designers requires a more finely tuned equilibrium between physical and digital to work successfully. “History tells us you need to have that personal contact when it comes to fashion,” says Raffaello Napoleone, CEO of Pitti Uomo. “For sure, digital gives you more options, but I don’t think the fashion show or the trade show will go away. The most sensible changes are the ones that come with a variety of possibilities.”
For Steven Kolb, president and CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the current situation also offers an opportunity to accelerate the steps they had already begun taking to make the fashion week template more socially responsible. “The use of digital platforms is something we have considered for some time, and we are continuing to look into options for future seasons,” says Kolb. “Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, we started a study with Boston Consulting Group on ways to make fashion week more sustainable, and I think this will become even more important in the future.”
Notably, Vogue Fashion Fund and the CFDA have established A Common Thread, a fundraising initiative intended to support the American fashion industry during this tumultuous time. While still in its early stages, the significant donations it is currently receiving will likely go, in some part, towards a rehaul of the recently cancelled resort season in New York this summer and moved it into the digital sphere.
An opportunity to reassess how the fashion week model operates
While Arise Fashion Week, an annual showcase for the best of African design talent held in Lagos, Nigeria, postponed their event from April to October this year due to COVID-19, there are many lessons to be learned from their masterful harnessing of social media to get the word out about their rich crop of emerging designers. Last year’s splashy event included shows from international labels including Pyer Moss and Mowalola, with the standout moment arriving when Naomi Campbell walked for the Lagos-born designer Kenneth Ize, who used the platform as a springboard to stage a widely acclaimed show in Paris back in February.
It’s their philosophy that we don’t need to be rushing to find an instant solution to make things run as normal this summer, but instead take the opportunity to step back and reassess how the fashion week model operates more broadly. “I feel like we need to be constantly asking, ‘Why?’” says Bolaji Animashaun, Arise Fashion Week’s producer. “If anyone puts clothes out now, people will ask, ‘Why am I buying clothes when people are trying to survive?’ It’s an opportunity for us to slow down, reset, and really ask what is important and where the excess is within our industry.”
While Arise will still be showing in October, Animashaun is committed to ensuring it will be in a new and more innovative format than the fashion weeks of decades past. “We’re not trying to show anything in April or May because for us, it just doesn’t add up. Whatever we would do wouldn’t be as simple as putting a show online, but about opening up conversations and asking our community about how we can move beyond the physical show platform.”
Given the proven ability of these less-established fashion cities to remain one step ahead of the curve, the powers that be in the industry’s capitals would do well to keep one eye firmly trained on their next steps.
So what could a future fashion week look like?
For labels confident enough to be pioneers on this front, there are also plenty of opportunities to mobilise some of the more forward-thinking marriages between fashion and tech that have recently emerged. One need only to look at the rise of digital avatar influencers such as Lil Miquela or Noonoouri; the nascent digital clothing phenomenon through apps including Drest and Ada, where collections are rendered as 3D models to download and wear over images of yourself; or even the potential of augmented and virtual reality to recreate the fashion show experience. This new realm of possibilities for showing fashion remotely could be a powerful statement for those bold enough to step into uncharted territory.
Many have said for a long time that the fashion-month model needs a reset, and now it seems a global crisis has come along to make that choice for them. But the measures introduced to ensure the show goes on this summer won’t be just quick fixes. With the projected long-term economic impact of COVID-19 on the fashion industry, the decisions made now are likely to reshape the fashion-week model for many years to come—and it will be those willing to take the time to think deeply about these new opportunities and harness them to their full potential that will emerge at the other end stronger than ever.