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Future of fashion weeks: Digital and on-ground experiences collide in disruptive, democratic ways

The first fashion week to go digital was the Shanghai Fashion Week, which pioneered digital pivots such as live streaming. Hosted in March, it is considered a model for how digital experiences will remain at the fulcrum of fashion weeks in 2020. The event’s streams reached over 11 million views and generated over RMB 20 million in gross merchandise volume.

October 31, 2020 / 09:17 AM IST

The future of the fashion show, and fashion weeks as a corollary, is fluid and rapidly transforming. And it is digital-meets-physical, at least for a while.

Shanghai Fashion Week 2020 Shanghai Fashion Week 2020.

The first fashion week to go digital was the Shanghai Fashion Week, which pioneered digital pivots such as live streaming. Hosted in March, it is considered a model for how digital experiences will remain at the fulcrum of fashion weeks in 2020. The event’s streams reached over 11 million views and generated over RMB 20 million in gross merchandise volume.

Soon, several fashion designers and luxury brands streamed phygital shows.

Alessandro Sartori, Creative Director, Zegna Alessandro Sartori, Creative Director, Zegna.


In July, Ermenegildo Zegna’s Artistic Director, Alessandro Sartori, experimented with the digital format.

The Spring/Summer 2021 collection, inspired by the Zegna Oasis and immersed virtually in the nature reserve, near the headquarters of the brand in Trivero, in Italy, was a moment of celebration of the brand's 110 years.

“It was almost like a digital movie. A blend of live performance with a pre-recorded environment, hosted using CGI technology where you layer frames one over the other. Live models were wearing the collection. But instead of just the normal runway, with just me in an empty space with the models, we worked towards a live experience in a really special environment,” explained the designer.

Not to be taken lightly, Indian designers, too, hosted a rendezvous with the digital medium.

Designers Rahul Mishra and Tarun Tahiliani experimented with the present-day fashion world obsession.

Rahul Mishra Rahul Mishra.

Mishra—who calls himself a purist when it comes to fashion shows—says hosting a digital showcase has been a unique experience. “Only 10 seconds of a garment fleeting past you on the catwalk can effectively be replaced with multi-dimensional fashion films that can zoom-in to all the details a designer wants to showcase. This kind of storytelling is effective and shall continue to be relevant when brands aren’t dependent on it.”

Tarun Tahiliani Tarun Tahiliani.

Tahiliani, a far bigger purist than Mishra, grudgingly offered the slightest of nods to the hottest fashion trend of the year by hosting a digital show celebrating 25 years, in July.

Tarun Tahiliani 2020 Tarun Tahiliani 2020.

“A live show is immersive; there is a scintillating buzz that emanates from a live audience. The fact that it typically involves an imposing set, elaborate lighting, multiple models, the theatrics, contribute hugely to a spectacle that can never be replicated digitally, unless your venue is an iMax theatre. Even that is replete with so much of augmented reality.”

And yet, in country after country, we saw designers and fashion week organisers walking that extra stretch to create an interesting digital experience, where everyone who registered had a front seat row (sacrilege, considering how prestigious front row seats are!). As Tahiliani says rather exasperatedly, “Given the times we live in, a virtual fashion week is far better than having no fashion week! “

From runway to the digital ramp, the evolution of fashion shows

Most global fashion weeks followed Shanghai’s lead, with Paris, London, Milan and India, which hosted the Lakmé Fashion Week in October, innovating new formats and experiences.

Carlo Capasa Carlo Capasa.

Carlo Capasa, President, National Chamber for Italian Fashion, who initially referred to the decision to host the digital version of The Milan Fashion Week as a “forced” one, says, “The development is a practical response to the moment we’re living, giving us the possibility to continue the journey that began in February with the ‘China We Are With You’ initiative’.”

Milan Fashion Week Milan Fashion Week.

Fashion Chamber’s digital platform for Milan Fashion Week contained photographs and videos, interviews and backstage footage of the creative process, besides alternative perspectives arranged across a calendar with slots dedicated to each brand.

The content was varied and rich: Webinars, live-streamed masterclasses with high-profile industry figures, and live performances. An entire section was dedicated to virtual showrooms where designers could showcase their new collections. More than 40 showcases were held digitally, offering smaller and less solvent brands a foothold at an event known for favouring established brands over young talent.

Moschino Moschino.

Moschino took the digital experience to new heights by using puppets instead of real models.

Jeremy Scott Jeremy Scott.

Creative Director Jeremy Scott collaborated with Jim Henson's Creature Shop (the special effects company founded by the famed Muppets puppeteer) to create a miniature set populated entirely by marionettes. All of the Italian label's creations were shrunk down to fit the puppets, which walked the runway in front of lookalikes of famous figures, including Anna Wintour and British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful.

Lakmé Fashion Week’s 2020 iteration followed the global lead by hosting a digital version in October. Jaspreet Chandok, Head – Lifestyle Businesses, IMG Reliance (which hosts LFW), says, “We began our journey towards including a digital platform several years ago, so some of the actions were already in the works when the pandemic hit. We were the first fashion week in the world to Live Stream on OTT networks, creating innovations in social media actions and virtual reality.”

The digital LFW Hub provides all the touchpoints that audiences will engage with an on-ground experience, including sponsor installations. The organisers created an architecture that supported multi-camera view choices, from front seat view to prime view.

If you register and log on to the LFW 2020 site, you will be able to explore several facets: Recorded shows, showcases by the designers and a virtual showcase under ‘The Runway’; fashion films made using green screen stages, real-time compositing and motion tracking; live streaming on OTT networks; and a virtual showroom for an end-to-end solution for Indian and global buyers and designers enabling B2C and B2B sales.

LFW collaborated with technology partners to set up a Virtual Showroom to support the business of fashion. The fact that the Showroom was also linked to the LFW Hub enabled buyers to seamlessly go from watching a show to placing an order. “The fact that you can “shop directly off the runway” as you watched a show, is an innovation that helps designers and consumers engage more strongly,” says Chandok. “Even when we return to a physical event, strategic assets such as the Hub, Virtual Showroom, Vantage point views & See Now Buy will become companion actions, adding to the overall product offering to consumers,” adds Chandok.

Visualising a digital show for contemporary audiences

Karishma Swali & Monica Shah of JADE Karishma Swali and Monica Shah of JADE.

The designers who showcased at LFW (many of whom approached the medium with some amount of trepidation), used the platform to get the hang of the future. Monica Shah, Creative Director and Co-Founder JADE by Monica & Karishma, says, “Virtual shows are more accessible and allow us to showcase our work to a wider audience from across the globe. It is an exciting time for brands to develop solutions that blend fashion with technology in a dynamic, engaging way.”

For their showcase, JADE brought together two art forms—couture and dance to tell an enchanting story of a bride and her journey. “It was an immersive, poetic experience and broke the monotony of a runway show which, in our opinion, does not lend itself to the virtual format.”

Anavila Misra Anavila Misra.

Anavila Misra, whose label Anavila is a force to reckon with for sustainable fashion practices, reveals that the design process remained the same, and so did the effort and thought that went into styling and presentation of the garments. “As it was a digital show, the role of the digital teams was the key. I believe they have understood the brand and presented it well.”

Saaksha and kinni Saaksha and Kinni.

The challenges posed by digital mediums are manifold. Saaksha Bhatt, co-founder of the hip label Saaksha & Kinni says, “It was a challenge to translate the textures, embroideries and feel of a garment through a lens. We had to work that much harder to produce an exciting and interesting collection that would not just captivate the viewer, but also hold their attention.”

While designing the collection, the label added an extra layer of excitement by showcasing the art of mirror embroidery in two ways. “We translated the embroidery into a print and physically hand-embroidered the mirror work on top of the print to create a 3D effect.”

The business of fashion weeks

Fashion weeks aren’t mere visual performances; they are also serious business. Engaging with buyers, in case of digital showcases, involved long sessions on zoom. “Everything has moved to virtual meetings with buyers and customers. We’re even offering virtual bridal consultation services to make the online shopping experience more personalised,” says Shah.

There is an upside to a virtual showcase. Besides reduced stock which will be available in stores, most garments will be made 'by-order'. “Essentially, customers will enjoy couture service at ready-to-wear price points. By manufacturing clothes for people by-order, we reduce the risk of store samples being tried-on by multiple people. This is a considered decision, bearing in mind the safety of our customers and limiting our exposure to anything untoward,” contends Tahiliani.

At LFW 2020, the Virtual Showroom allowed many fashion buyers to be exposed to all participating designers and their collections on a fast and fluid platform that is responsive and mobile-friendly. The organisers strategically chose the dates to collide with the festive season.

But there is no getting away from the fact that the fashion weeks will, in some part, move to their physical version as we learn how to co-exist with the virus, at least till the time there is a vaccine. While virtual shows offer an alternative, on-ground fashion weeks and shows offer buyers an opportunity to experience the touch and feel of the garment or see how the fabric flows and moves. Bhatt contends, “From a buyer point of view, it's very difficult to judge a collection purely on film without seeing its detailing up, close and personal.”

The hybrid, democratic future of fashion weeks

After experimenting with digital formats, Paris, London and Milan Fashion Weeks returned to physical shows in September. While the pandemic spurred experimentation, two divergent camps have emerged: Those wanting to embrace new formats and the creative license that technology offers, and those more committed to tradition.

Undoubtedly, digital fashion shows and weeks are a far more democratic and disruptive format. Tech-led digital experiences will continue to collide with on-ground experiences in a post-pandemic world.

“Technology has opened several avenues in the world of fashion, but we doubt it can completely replace the experience of a physical show. The audience loves to engage in the runway experience, and we will hopefully see more phygital showcases once things start getting back to normal,” says Chandok.

While we may want to get back to tactile, real, physical experiences, the industry believes that they cannot deny the existence of a new normal, which, as Anavila puts it, “has the potential to make us redundant, if we don’t respond to it, fast.”

The transformation presents an opportunity for technology and fashion spaces to collaborate on ingenious formats beyond the fashion show realm. “Soon, it will move to virtual reality. As the consumer tech space in VR gets more commercially viable, we would be able to enjoy an interactive fashion experience from our living rooms and our offices,” adds Anavila.

Strategically, physical and digital fashion experiences will continue to exist cheek-by-jowl. As Shah says, “There's a place for confluence of both mediums to create an interesting experience. We are working on innovations in-house. We strongly feel a hybrid showing would make our work more democratic.”

In India, fashion weeks have transformed into big corporate events that heavily rely on Bollywood celebrities to attract eyeballs. Tahiliani muses, “This has resulted in less-serious fashion media reportage because there is a dearth of thoughtful critique, questions about the relevance and qualitative judgement.”

The emergence of digital fashion weeks should hopefully tilt the scales in favour of serious fashion. “If we have to talk about sustainability, we also need to think about the longevity of clothes. Many brands have done that very beautifully like Max Mara and Armani, for whom it is not about absurd styling statements but collections that build upon each other. India is a classical culture heaving under her modernity. As always, there will be different strokes for different folks. We will see how this evolves,” says Tahiliani.

The tech-fuelled fluid approach will add an element of flexibility, especially for young designers who can now reach a bigger audience at a fraction of the cost, thus exploding the myth of high-fashion being an inaccessible experience.


Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
Deepali Nandwani is a journalist who keeps a close watch on the world of luxury.
first published: Oct 31, 2020 09:17 am
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