Despite being a multi-billion dollar industry that develops new trends faster than most can keep up with, the fashion industry was long since labeled an outdated empire. With environmental protection at the forefront of the discourse, the most anticipated event in the industry, Fashion Week, has been branded as simply unsustainable––but it continued to operate as usual. That is until COVID-19 hit at the pinnacle of the S/S showcase.
But nothing will stop designers from staying on brand and making a bold statement––pandemic or not––and out came a flurry of innovative virtual runways that brought more change in the industry than anything else in the past decade. The question is: are they here to stay?
A Look at Runways Before 2020
The fashion industry doesn’t need a huge signboard in its face to tell it that it’s unsustainable. It knows––and it has known for years. Designers spend an entire year preparing for a 15-minute show, and while it does have significant cultural relevance (in fashion culture, at least) and is a catalyst for driving sales, it’s hard to look past the amount of waste a single event can generate.
The New York Times has, on multiple occasions, amplified how massive the issue is, especially on the NY front. Ordre.com, a leading fashion tech company, teamed up with Carbon Trust and found that New York Fashion Week alone was responsible for 37% of emissions compared to a sample size spanning thousands of retailers participating in similar events. Even so, very few brands steered away from participating in such a major, sales-driving opportunity.
Because in truth, what will the runway scene look like without such a coveted event? How will people keep getting excited about fashion when there isn’t a massive show to look forward to each year? Brands like Chanel and H&M have made executive decisions for more sustainable runway shows, but it’s not likely to change the situation by much.
COVID-19 forced brands to actually give alternative runways a try, this time on the digital sphere. You could argue that the preparation, filming, and level of brand strategy required to pull it off will still consume a ton of resources––but online participation among fashionistas will already cut off a large portion of the emissions. And brands were successful in this venture!
A Positive Step Toward Digitalization
Even the most uptight fashion houses, such as Prada and Chanel, embraced the all-virtual runway show with personal takes on elevating the brand and client experience to a whole new level. Balenciaga employed Demna Gvasalia to produce an iconic short film featuring a cover of “Sunglasses at Night” and, most importantly, models clad in the S/S pre-collection as they walked through the moody night and neon lights.
Moschino took things up a notch by recreating Fashion Week in the most Jeremy Scott way possible. They recreated the full collection, scaled down to the size of custom marionette dolls, plus an audience of dolls that replicated the likeness of VIP attendees. Even in smaller fashion circles in other corners of the world, DigitalAX became a thing 2020.
But here’s the catch: brands only followed through the virtual fashion experience because it was necessary. It was legally impossible for them to bring thousands of fabric connoisseurs together without putting the majority in the hospital and incurring criticism from netizens worldwide.
A Runway Show Without The Runway
A shift as large as going digital isn’t as simple as it sounds. Because fashion shows have been so ingrained in the industry, changing the meta will disrupt the way things are done on all ends––from publication to manufacturing, advertising, and even events management. Brands need to gauge the public’s opinion and find a balance between sustainability, engagement, and taking advantage of the smartphone generation.
Connection is one of the biggest tropes that’s hard to replicate. In Fashion Week––or any runway show, for that matter––attendees have an opportunity to speak with models, designers, and other industry VIPs. Fashionistas can come to have a good time, take photos, and enjoy being around like-minded people in the most organic way possible. Model scouts work around the clock to find the next big face to grace luxury. Replicating those connections online, where everything is disconnected, is going to be tough.
Because the people involved in fashion are getting younger and more aware of the concerns surrounding the industry, it’s possible to see a hybrid between shifting to more sustainable live fashion shows while also embracing the digital era. Live streaming is a powerful way to build organic engagement and attract a wider audience online, so it’s also possible for brands to start experimenting with this medium in the near future.
Embracing Accessibility While Making a Statement
Fashion is all about standing out and telling the world that something exists and is ready to conquer wardrobes. For years, runway shows have been exclusive events––open only to VIPs and people with influence in the industry. Going digital eases the barrier of entry for both designers and audiences alike. The prevalence of virtual shows is going to introduce budding designers and bigger ideas into the market.
Moreover, putting fashion shows online doesn’t mean that the industry will start adapting the way brands did in 2020, amid COVID-19. They will likely be replaced with more engaging events that excite consumers, tailored for people to enjoy on smartphones or computers. Those can be lotteries or limited luxury drops, reimagined shopping channels, or even exclusive online memberships. There’s a lot of room for growth and innovation––and it’s happening at lightning speed.
With 3D rendering, brands are likely to start creating virtual simulations of fashion shows, online stores, and even digital clothing, further elevating the digital fashion experience. Who knows? Jeremy Scott’s marionette presentation might just inspire others to take on a similar approach. Regardless, what’s happening to fashion right now is a major shift from offline dependence to a more open outlook of the digital marketplace.