Vogue Runway covered 952—and counting!—fashion shows this year. Of those nearly 1,000 shows, the first 250 or so were “normal”; my colleagues and I traveled the world to sit on the hard benches, trading notes, gossip, and camera phone snaps of our favorite looks and moments.
You know what happened next.
Yes, there have been IRL runways from Valentino, Balmain, Rick Owens, Chanel, and Louis Vuitton since the pandemic hit, but not more than a couple of handfuls of them. Instead, we’ve unpacked Loewe’s “Show in a Box,” screened films made by directors like Nick Knight for Maison Margiela and Gus Van Sant for Gucci, and watched puppets work a runway at Moschino and a virtual Bella Hadid come to life at Mugler. We’ve even played video games from Balenciaga and Collina Strada.
Still, amidst all this change the release of new, seasonal collections billed as fashion shows remained a constant. In fact, a week has barely passed since July when there hasn’t been a collection published on this site, proving that the fashion show remains the key method of transmitting new ideas for brands large and small. More marketable than a trade show and more buzzy than most standalone product drops (Telfar’s weekly drops being a notable exception), a fashion show holds cultural and industry cachet.
“I still see the fashion show as a grand finale of a creative process, so for me personally and also for my studio, it’s a very normal thing that when you have worked six months on a collection, that you end it with a fashion show,” Dries Van Noten told me earlier this year. Suffice to say, the world seems to agree with Van Noten. But exactly what constitutes a fashion show and who gets invited will continue to evolve into 2021.
Let’s Agree That Phygital Is the Way Forward—and Then Let’s Find a New Word For It
We first heard the word phygital on June 24, when Ermenegildo Zegna announced that its show would take place July 17 at Milan Fashion Week Men’s. For the menswear label, phygital meant pre-recorded films screened alongside a physical runway at an outdoor location in Trivero, a small village outside Milan. Since then, the word has come to define a fashion show experience that’s part IRL, part URL, from physical shows paired with virtual effects to at-home mailers coupled with social media content.
For the spring 2021 collections, digital content and assets became as important as physical presentations to luxury brands. Obviously, “there are actually a lot more people that consume fashion content online than there are going to the shows,” says Iolo Lewis Edwards, the founder of High Fashion Talk, a thriving discussion group for fashion diehards on Facebook.
Sam Lobban, the senior vice president of designer and new concepts at Nordstrom, rejects the divide between physical and digital, too. “I don’t think anyone lives in one world or the other,” he says.“The most engaging experiences of the last six to nine months have been those that have really shown up for the customer with a real understanding of their lives, rather than taking a singular approach. How Jonathan Anderson handled both JW Anderson and Loewe, delivering physical assets that connected people to what was going on digitally was super clever because he was really reaching into people’s homes, as well as connecting them on the internet.”
Many others have followed suit, finding ways to make a physical show feel special, while offering exclusive online content, or delivering products to editors’ homes while offering behind-the-scenes breakdowns online. Among the most buzzed about integrations were Louis Vuitton’s green-screen show that projected Wim Wenders’s Wings of Desire to viewers at home and Balmain’s LED screen front row of physical people applauding Olivier Rousteing’s spring 2021 collection virtually. The potential for experimentation here feels endless, and brands would be wise to harmonize their real and virtual approaches even in a post-vaccine world.
Innovation Without Intention is Meaningless
The brands that made headlines this year did so with Posters! Video games! Avatars! And VR Headsets! But the clothes and the ideas behind them must outshine the flash of technological advancement.
“Everybody has gone crazy for the Balenciaga video and video game,” says Iolo Lewis Edwards, the founder of High Fashion Talk, a thriving discussion group for fashion diehards on Facebook. “Of course that’s also where lots of people have gone wrong with fashion films: They don’t consider the customer or the audience that’s going to watch it. Balenciaga, for example, know that people watch music videos online, and created their own film that emulates that. When you do sort of a pretentious fashion film, even when it’s models dancing or something, it just doesn’t do it. It just feels like: This is not for you.”
An experience “for you,”—the user, the viewer, and ultimately the customer—is an ideology the industry should really take to heart. Demna Gvasalia, the creative director of Balenciaga, is blunt about that fact. Speaking about his video game for fall 2021 to Vogue’s Sarah Mower, he said: “Today’s customer does gaming. It’s an important luxury customer base. They project so much onto their character. It’s a parallel world.”
Brands don’t need a Balenciaga budget to make an impact either. Designer Anifa Mvuemba launched her collection in May via an Instagram Live virtual show with invisible 3D models. A virtual unknown, she gained global attention for her use of innovative technology to represent different body types and celebrate her Congolese heritage. “We know that some people may never experience a fashion week or Hanifa showcase, so we wanted to show up for our audience where they show up for us on a daily basis,” she told Teen Vogue after her springtime launch. Since then she has appeared in the pages of Vogue and celebrities from Beyoncé to Zendaya have begun wearing her pieces.
Virtual shows also offer limitless opportunity to express a brand’s message. Collina Strada’s creative director Hillary Taymour produced a green screen video for her spring 2021 collection and a functional video game for her pre-fall outing as a part of #GucciFest. The process of creating these virtual realities was “the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” she says, but notes that poring over hand-drawn avatars, working to layer 18 clips at a time for her video, and shooting over five days paid off. “We made a 14-minute video that didn’t feel like a 14-minute video—and people watched it to the end.”
What about a 52-minute film? Nick Knight’s mini-documentary for Maison Margiela Artisanal’s fall 2020 collection has nearly 121,000 views on YouTube—though Edwards estimates the user engagement goes far deeper than views alone. “When you give viewers more information like Margiela did in the mini documentary, then that’s going to be successful. People really liked seeing what happened; it goes back to this idea of an artisan and attracts people who want to know about fashion.”
Margiela creative director John Galliano seems firm in his opinion that these types of docu-films are the best path forward. “This is my proposal for how I’d like to show my collection. We’re just not creating a runway show. What I want to message now is that this is just the best medium,” Galliano told Sarah Mower this summer.
Like Fashion Week? Try Fashion Year
Would you rather watch fashion shows during unified fashion weeks—#NYFW, #LFW, #PFW, #etc—or tune in all year long for standalone single brand drops? Best make time for both.
Dedicated times of year for fashion weeks seems to work in the broadest sense. Google searches for “fashion show” peaked around late February and early March of 2020 and then again the first weeks of October, times that align with Paris Fashion Week. As a result, smaller and independent brands that partake in official weeks can receive much more press than they would with a standalone show.
Even TikTok, a platform with nonstop fashion content posted by both creators and brands, has created TikTok Fashion Month to offer a streamlined and singular fashion experience for users. “Fashion is happening every day now,” CeCe Vu, the director of TikTok’s fashion partnerships says. “But I would say without a defined week it’s hard for people to understand when the celebration is. That’s why we want to come in and introduce TikTok Fashion Month, to truly consolidate and celebrate with the community together in a different way.”
With contributions from brands like Prada and Celine alongside models like Coco Rocha, TikTok’s Fashion Month goes beyond what a traditional fashion week can offer. “There are a lot of conversations going on, and it’s not just about the brands, but also about aspirations and the topics that the community actually cares about,” says Vu. That’s an idea that mainstream fashion weeks have picked up on: London Fashion Week offered Instagram Live Q&As and podcasts alongside lookbook reveals and streamed shows, while brands like Loewe, Gucci, and Prada have hosted conversations on their own platforms.
Still, brands that want to truly dominate the conversation may find it best to set their own timelines alongside participation in traditional weeks. “When a brand does their show off calendar, they get the full attention [of the internet]—and not only for that day either,” says Edwards, citing the recent content rollout of the Dior Men pre-fall 2021 collection as an example of a weeklong content rollout. “When you’re talking about fashion that is a bit more millennial and Gen Z, you have to keep them stimulated all the time.”
In the end, the solution seems to be a perennial fashion calendar hubbed around key fashion weeks, but offering content all year round. That certainly puts a lot of responsibility on brands to keep things interesting for followers and fans. “You have to find a way to create that content and make it manageable rather than breaking down and saying that the system or the solution is wrong,” Edwards warns.
Truly Embracing Digital Means Having a Conversation…
If there is one giant, smack-in-the-face take away from 2020, it’s that power really lies with people. For much of its existence, fashion has handed the public items, trends, and ideas from on high. That’s just not the case anymore—and for the proof, check out TikTok’s ever growing fashion influence.
“We’ve seen stuff coming way more from TikTok, which is sort of the digital version of the proverbial street, where things happen more organically by osmosis,” says Edwards. On the app, users are encouraged to react, respond, and even recreate popular videos, using soundtracks or voiceovers to parody or pay homage to original creators. It creates an endless feedback loop where brands can play with influencers on the same scale.
Vu, the head of fashion at TikTok, says, “over the course of last year, we’ve seen an influx of interest and engagement from the community for fashion content. From my experience, whenever I go to these fashion shows, they always felt exclusive. There is a lot more benefit to really being inclusive and inviting the audience into the experience.” If some insiders might disagree, favoring the intimacy of private events, the numbers don’t lie: The #MakeItVogue hashtag on TikTok, launched only last week, has over 940 million views.
“Brands are definitely branching out and leaning in toward the TikTok communities more. Social listening will be key to these brands because they need to understand what is the perception right now for the brand. How can they join in or how they can correct the perception, how they can accentuate it?” Vu continues. “That also becomes a thing with fashion shows; they need to be interactive.”
Vu points to the Gucci Model Challenge, a creator-generated meme about styling a Gucci look with items in your own closet, that Gucci promoted on its channels. “Gucci has clearly seen the value in the community and really opened up their brand image, to allow the community to come in and help them with their creativity as well. Celine and Balmian, she says, have also found success on the platform by creating original sounds that users can incorporate into their own pieces of content. The same goes for JW Anderson, who offered the pattern for a check cardigan worn by Harry Styles for free to creators after TikTokers started DIYing their own versions.
“We feel like the brands are really opened up and being more authentic and creative in their way to really adapt to this Gen Z mindset,” Vu says. “Post-consumer experience is real. The community will Google what they’ve just seen in a fashion show video, how to do it, how to make it. Brands are aware of these post-consumer experiences, and they can really capitalize on relevant calls-to-action that generate trends within the community.”
…Yes, Even the Hard Conversations
Not all content is created equal, and empty attempts at greenwashing and virtue signaling are subject to intense scrutiny and feedback. Call outs and comments can actually help shape the future of fashion, brands just need to be paying attention. “Gen Z cares a lot about the environment and that’s why we’ve seen how fashion houses are now surfacing these conversations about sustainability and what they stand for, like how Prada is adopting recycled nylon,” says TikTok’s Vu. “Thrifting, vintage shopping, sustainability, those are the big trends within TikTok itself right now. We’ve also seen that brands are working with creators that have both style and substance. They work with activists who care about social issues, who are vocal about anti-racism, and who talk about social injustice. Those 15 second videos may seem like little [pieces of content], but actually they contain a lot of powerful information.”
Digital Fashion Shows Must Come With Digital Fashion Vibes
It might sound silly, but the energy in a room or the happenstance of bumping into someone on the way in or out of a show can reframe an entire collection. “What we’re not doing is having organic in-the-moment conversations,” says Lobban. “Digital shows are definitely missing something because there isn’t that element of everyone together in one physical space.”
Those happenstance moments—who takes a photo of whom, who is seated beside one another—can translate into real results for brands. “Everybody’s got a camera phone and during backstage and in the front of house, people are taking selfies—that all contributes to brand awareness, and, at the end of the day, to the bottom line: the sales,” says Edwards. “A social story by somebody even in the fourth row could sell a bag that is thousands of [dollars]. There is nothing that has really replaced that online… You need that human aspect.”
High Fashion Talk’s first zine, out later this year, celebrates these interpersonal stories. Working on the project, which came together after the Fall 2020 shows felt like “the last fashion week ever,” has further proven for Edwards just how interconnected all the facets of the industry are, from street style photographers to makeup artists to the assistants hand carrying samples to shoots. Everyone has a story; potlighting them helps make fashion matter.
Sustainability Means Making Less Clothing, More Content
For spring 2021, Coach combined pieces from its archive with re-issues and a new collection designed by Stuart Vevers. “There’s something beautiful [combining], pieces that are from different seasons, bringing them together, and putting them back together in a way that feels fresh,” Vevers said over the summer.
Fashion’s overproduction problem is only growing. Remake, an organization that promotes a more fair and environmentally conscious industry, estimates that 200 million pounds of garments are dump in New York City’s landfills alone—saying nothing of the global impact of textile waste. Collina Strada’s Taymour says, “fashion houses are going to have to evolve in the next 10 years about product, because we’re not going to be able to make 90-piece collections that are going to be for sale in stores. The question is: How do we create shows that keep our customers engaged, but without showcasing a product to buy because we’re not making a product?”
She sees potential in digital content experiences, which could also serve as a revenue stream for brands. “Will you tune in to a runway show on Patreon and pay to watch it? That money could go to designers or to a charity. I think you’re going to see that a lot in the next couple of years,” she says. “We are also experimenting with visual things, like a filter, that you can use online and we could charge for. Selling experiences rather than products offers a more sustainable path forward.”
Can the industry jump off the hamster wheel of constantly producing new stuff in favor of more meaningful digital experiences? That will be the big question fashion must grapple with in 2021 and beyond.