What Would A Digital Fashion Week Actually Look Like?

Models wearing orange outfits walking on a runway during digital fashion week

The Met Gala was cancelled this year; both the CFDA Awards and the Cannes Film Festival were called off; and the 2021 Oscars have been postponed. But for the fashion industry, there's a chance for innovation amid COVID-19. Ahead of September’s fashion month, brands are navigating how to translate live runway shows to a digital fashion week format for the Spring 2021 season. While Paris Fashion Week and Milan Fashion Week have confirmed they’ll be going forward with some in-person events with limited audiences despite continued border closures, many are instead opting to sit out completely or go entirely digital with virtual shows. Fashion weeks in Japan and Moscow were some of the first to explore digital options, and other cities are following suit.

The pandemic has forced brands to go digital, cancel, or rethink plans entirely — but in reality, this shift may allow for wider access, a more sustainable platform and a slower fashion cycle. “The fashion industry is archaic and has been doing things the same way for years,” explains event producer, Brittney Escovedo of Beyond 8, who produces Pyer Moss' iconic shows. “Furthermore, [the] calendar has never been sustainable. The current climate of this global pandemic has forced the industry to take a moment to think about how it can function more efficiently and sustainably.”

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London Fashion Week combined mens and womens' designers for a virtual fashion week in June, the men’s and couture shows that typically take place this summer in July will go digital. But in addition to nixing traditional runway formats, brands including Gucci and Saint Laurent have stepped away from the traditional fashion show calendar, instead promising fewer shows and collections. “I’m passionate about fashion shows, but maybe we can be open to seeing them in a different way,” Gucci’s Alessndro Michele said in a virtual call with fashion journalists.

In some ways, the fashion industry was already initiating larger structural changes. In summer 2019, The Swedish Fashion Council cancelled Stockholm Fashion Week to focus on launching an alternative, pushing some brands to consolidate in Copenhagen. In time for the next season, Stockholm Fashion Week will launch a digital platform August 26–28, created specifically for consumers rather than the fashion industry insiders. Designers will show new collections via digital live streams while also putting an emphasis on current, shoppable collections and adding live events including designer interviews and panels.

Going mostly digital could actually mean that fashion week finally becomes more democratized, bringing shows to people who normally wouldn’t have access to see them live while also putting editors, writers, buyers, customers, and fashion fans on a more level playing field. When Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Moscow posted its shows and lectures to TikTok in April, it reported more than half a million views, which is arguably more visibility than if they would have gotten at a traditional fashion week. In June, the Russian Fashion Council also launched Global Talents Digital, showcasing new collections along with 100 percent-virtual ones, reporting more than 1.5 million views in its two-day span on social media via Facebook, Instagram and VK (a Russian-origin social network).

Previously, the focus for live streaming fashion shows was always put on major designers. Brands like Gucci, Chanel and Dior typically live stream their shows for fashion week, and fans who aren’t able to attend in person tune in. At the current time, though both brands are still planning to move ahead with some sort of IRL runway presentation, increased movement towards virtual experiences give emerging brands with less exposure a greater platform for exposure.

“The social media numbers of Global Talents Digital just proves the format of digital fashion events,” explains Alexander Shumsky, President of Russian Fashion Council. “If properly produced and designers are well-selected, the online streaming event could attract enough attention globally.” New York Fashion Week has now announced a online-only shortened NYFW for the Spring/Summer 2021 season with plans to launch a digital platform. “We can fit the same amount of shows in to three days because of no need for travel time in between the shows," Mark Beckham, vice president of marketing and events for CFDA tells WWD. "The three days of shows is only for this season as a result of COVID-19.”

“For most brands this will be the first time they will be inviting everyone in and each person will be on the same playing field experiencing the show in real time - the same way,” adds Escovedo. “They may find that opening doors, shifting their mindset and inclusion as a whole will serve the industry abundantly.”

Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs have both announced that it will not be showing during NYFW this coming season, instead they're among brands preparing digital content, like films or photographs to be dispersed socially, with the possibility of later events that follows safety guidelines. In addition to forcing brands to reevaluate its priorities, digital-only content allows all labels to be part of the schedule, rather than forcing them to vie for a prime time slot and venue.

Pyer Moss will be premiering a film dubbed American, Also, a feature film documenting the two years leading up to the brand's Kings theater show last September. “The doc will be premiered as a drive-in theater experience in multiple cities,” says Escovedo. “Community, art, giving back and overall awareness are at the forefront of what Pyer Moss stands for so it’s fitting that despite the global pandemic the brand would find a way to come together.”

It’s still yet-to-be-determined whether or not Paris and Milan fashion weeks scheduled for September and October 2020 will adapt their traditional formats. But in the meantime, there are others who are trying to figure out a solution for digital shows to be more cutting-edge. While videos, designer Q&As, and content is interesting, there’s still the question of whether not seeing the clothes and the way they move in real life is a problem or not.

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“Lots of collections are currently being presented via Zoom or other digital platforms, which comes with certain challenges especially as it is so important to be able to see the garments physically,” explains Liane Wiggins, Head of Womenswear Buying at MATCHESFASHION. “But brands are working in innovative ways with digital showrooms and pre-distributed presentation packs, so we are learning together a new way to communicate and buy. The positives are that there is less time spent traveling and being continually on the move, but it can be difficult not holding face to face conversations, seeing the physical product, or immersing ourselves in the culture of each brand at a physical presentation in their home City, as this always translates into the way we buy.”

Production veteran Sara Blonstein, who has produced some of the top fashion shows for London Fashion Week (Roksanda, Molly Goddard, Ozwald Boateng, Oliver Spencer, A-Cold-Wall*, Charles Jeffrey Loverboy to name a few), has already made the move to working with VR. She has begun by partnering with the LA-based creative studio Actual Objects to create a system for virtual fashion shows, which includes everything from casting to specialty fabricated locations and motion-capture suits which mimic model characteristics. The end result will be a digital show that an audience can watch on different platforms. Part of the inspiration behind the partnership was Actual Objects' 2019 virtual campaign for Marine Serre, in which they envisioned a fantasy fashion world through CGI.

“The offering is something that does not mimic what we have grown accustomed to,” explains Blonstein. “Even when we return, maybe to a slightly different reality in the return, as the whole fashion merry go round is up for transformation it seems. This idea of the Virtual Imagined Digital Show can only add another fantastic layer to a brand, be part of a traditional live offering, or stand alone in its own beautiful right.”

Likewise, as another alternative plan for digital shows, Helsinki Fashion Week (July 27 to Aug. 1) will be digitizing its participants as well as its shows. Guests will browse the “events” with their own avatar. “Via interactive live streamed media, our designers will be documenting Sustainable Fashion’s journey from idea to product,” reads a statement from Helsinki Fashion Week.

“For this first sustainable and now first digital fashion week we want to create something that is recognizably from the fashion industry, real models, catwalk shows, realistic garments ... but also want to use the capacity of the 3D innovative way of traveling through worlds and visual universes that is unique to each creator. It is not because it’s sustainable that it should be boring, tech is exciting and as an ally of a brighter future can serve fashion,” says Melvyn Bonaffe, of creative studio NDA Paris, who is creating the 3D universe.

From a buyer’s perspective, the future of fashion week could also allow for a more thoughtful reflection for each season. “I think in the future as buyers we may spend less frequent time traveling and instead plan more meaningful trips and travel, visiting brands once or twice a season versus the very regular trips we have been used to,” adds Wiggins. “There are interesting conversations at the moment around how fashion shows and presentations will evolve and for a buyer it is exciting to be continually inspired and see new ways of working and viewing brands present their collections.”

As fashion weeks widen their audiences with new, innovative platforms, only time will tell if we fully transition to a fully digital fashion calendar post-pandemic.