How to Improve Digital Fashion Shows

Think beyond the regular runway. Think about greater diversity. And let technology follow, not guide, your concept.

Oh, and please entertain and surprise us.

Those are among suggestions for designers and brands plotting digital fashion presentations for the coming spring-summer 2021 season. For the first of a new, recurring featured called Suggestion Box, WWD reached out to a sampling of top editors, retailers and creative figures to evaluate the summer’s digital fashion weeks, which were hinged mainly on creative films.

Among those nonplussed was Laura Brown, editor in chief of InStyle.

“To be honest, I didn’t really watch a lot of the pre-done presentation videos — with the exception of Dior — because they don’t make me feel anything,” she told WWD. “Live presentations like Valentino, captured on video, feel different. Also something like Gucci showing the prep for a shoot had a real-time feeling, and the kids love all that behind-the-scenes stuff.

“That said, fashion still needs its moments,” she mused. “Otherwise you might as well just be looking at an ad.”

Most say the digital presentations largely met their expectations — with Dior, Prada and Jonathan Anderson receiving many plaudits — while few awarded grades higher than six out of 10 overall.

Here’s what they had to say:

Lisa Armstrong, head of fashion, The Telegraph, London:

Overall impression: I didn’t have any preconceptions. If anything, I was surprised by how many [digital shows] there were. It’s hard to give an overall rating because the results were so variable. Some, like Maria Grazia Chiuri at Dior, had put a lot of thought (and money, presumably) into creating a new kind of experience. Others couldn’t seem to get beyond the format of a lookbook.

Highlights: Dior, both the mermaids film and the Lecce show for pushing the boundaries of the medium and reintroducing us to the concept of dolls in couture, which became a real talking point; Valentino, for the breathtaking optics and the way Pierpaolo [Piccioli] combined a small, live audience with what looked like an art installation; Victor & Rolf, for wit, and J.W. Anderson’s show in a box, for sheer charm and imagination, everything was so beautifully thought through; Gucci for taking the public backstage; Prada 3-D, for making us all feel a bit futuristic. They’re all established names, with budgets. But I did one Zoom appointment with a designer called Hanna Fiedler, a 29-year-old based between London and Switzerland, who talked me through her collection, with a PowerPoint and an accompanying box of sample fabrics and illustrations. It was tiny but on point. I’d love to see more of that kind of thing.

Room for improvement: If you’re used to seeing [fashion shows] live, then they definitely lacked the communal experience. I watched one as part of a spontaneous WhatsApp group and it was interesting to see how different it was when you could see and respond to your colleagues’ comments in real time. It brought much more energy to the experience. For the wider public who don’t get to travel across the globe to watch them, I think these shows were quite an interesting novelty. One lesson came through loud and clear: Simply pointing a camera at a catwalk and hoping for the best doesn’t work. And moving lookbooks, however beautiful, aren’t very engaging either.

Suggestions: To think really carefully whether they need a traditional catwalk show. Even before lockdown, every publication was seeing signs of viewer fatigue when it comes to the catwalk — just putting on a big show doesn’t necessarily get you an audience and while it might score a lot of social media posts, that doesn’t always equate to engagement. Personal, quirky, something that comes from the heart — they’re all big winners. I’m excited to see what some of the small independent labels come up with and whether they can think beyond the catwalk.

Thom Bettridge, editor in chief, Highsnobiety, Berlin:

Overall impression: The digital fashion weeks completely met my expectations, because I wasn’t expecting much. When our team first surmised that the men’s weeks were going to go digital back in April, it was clear to us that a digital runway or a digital showroom is not what our audience wants. Over the past years, the fashion show has become a contemporary form of opera — in which music, art, fashion and design meet in one venue. Becoming immersed in that brand universe is what makes teenagers in Atlanta or Seoul care about what happens in Paris at a Dior show. This idea was the fundamental thesis behind why we decided to do our own digital exhibition called “Not in Paris,” in lieu of focusing too much coverage on the official digital fashion weeks.

Highlights: What we’re seeing now is a schism between brands that make clothes and market them, versus brands that are cultural institutions that happen to make clothes. For the brands that participated in “Not In Paris” — from Daily Paper to GmbH to Rick Owens — making something for an exhibition and not just a fashion show was innate to how they work. A great example of this is Prada. The brand and Mrs. [Miuccia] Prada have been working like curators for decades — there’s an entire foundation dedicated to this — so putting together this quintet of video commissions for their digital was natural and perfect.

Suggestions: Try something new. Because the rules are out the window and the world is listening. A “normal” fashion show in fall 2020 is going to feel like those depressing sidewalk seating areas they’re setting up outside New York restaurants. Either accept that the world has fundamentally changed, or order delivery.

Karl Templer, KTCS Inc., New York:

Overall impression: I think a lot of brands thought outside the box and adapted, while still staying true to their brand identity. That being said, it’s extremely hard to translate the energy and excitement of seeing a fashion show in person digitally.

Highlights: I was most struck by houses that took advantage of either a small in-person audience or no audience at all to put on a cinematic show in spite of the traditional obstacles that come with putting on a show: tight schedules, accommodating location, and audience. Transporting their collections to fantastic locations like Dior and Jacquemus did created a unique environment and contextualization of their collections while also translating beautifully digitally. I also enjoyed Prada’s films and the Maison Margiela film as I felt Prada was quite honest to their aesthetic and impressive at the same time and the Margiela one was quite emotional. Each was a true representation of the houses.

Room for improvement: I think the absence of the experience of the show and catering to and courting celebrities and influencers which result in an added layer of engagement for houses was evident. It seemed like there wasn’t as much pickup on online channels as one would hope.

Suggestions: Brands will continue to need to think outside the box in scale and approach. From a marketing perspective, the spectacle of a show was once a great investment giving you months of content and clout. As that evolves, I think we will need to create many more smaller-scale events to feed an audience at the same rate. I think there needs to be a curated Internet channel or somewhere that presents the experiences and shows and can comment on them almost like the way there is live sports commentary so that there is an added layer of engagement. It would be enjoyable to hear what WWD thinks immediately and compares or critiques the looks, presentation, etc.

Laurent Coulier, men’s wear merchandising and buying director of Galeries Lafayette and BHV Marais:

Overall impression: I had two main expectations. Have a global overview on spring-summer 2020 men’s collections and discover new designers. The digital format was perfect to have a look at all shows, which is absolutely not possible when the fashion week is physical because I don’t have time to attend all collections. I was a little bit disappointed as some brands decided not to show any collection, or only a few styles. In terms of new designers discovery, this format was really interesting as I could have a look at many new names I was not able to see when they had a physical show. I would rate this digital fashion week 6 out of 10.

Highlights: I think Casablanca, Dior and Lemaire were perfect presentations to show their new collection and designers’ intentions, each one in a different way. Y/Project’s presentation was also very interesting as it showed how clothes can be worn, which is a true part of the brand DNA and is less easy to show on a runway.

Room for improvement: For some brands, products were lacking! Of course my buying team had the opportunity to watch the whole collections online, but I didn’t. Usually shows are very useful to have a global eye on designers’ work. Also, when the show is digital, you can’t feel the usual atmosphere that is given by the venue, the loud sound and the thrilling waiting for a new collection discovery.

Suggestions: I think brands should consider agreeing on a calendar so that all shows are more or less presented in the same area. I remember a time where many shows took place at Le Carrousel du Louvre and people did not have the necessity to cross all Paris within 30 minutes. This would help people to save time and to reduce the ecological impact during the fashion week. Why not dedicate a huge space in Paris to show many collections during the fashion week in the same area?

Robin Givhan, fashion critic, The Washington Post:

Overall impression: I really had no expectations other than wanting to get a sense of the clothes and how designers see themselves fitting into our new reality. I was surprised by how often the clothes were really overwhelmed by the technological shenanigans.

Highlights: I found Jonathan Anderson’s show-in-a-box to be a very human way of presenting his work. I thought it captured the mood of the moment but practically speaking, you got a very good sense of the collection. I also found the Maison Margiela Artisanal film to be quite compelling as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the collection. It really showed a lot of what goes into making a collection without overly romanticizing the ateliers. The Valentino couture show had the most magnificent, high-quality camera work I’ve seen.

Room for improvement: Some of the multipart presentations, I think, overestimated how interesting the making of a collection really is to most people. And again, technology is great, but it really should be in service to the collection.

Suggestions: I don’t know that it’s my place to suggest to designers or brands how to show their wares. However they choose to do so, I’ll be happy to see it and write about it.

Donald Schneider, founder and creative director, Donald Schneider Studio, Berlin:

Overall impression: I would give the digital fashion weeks 6 out of 10.

Highlights: The one show which really stood out was Jacquemus. Every aspect of it was mesmerizing: Watching it live on screen almost made me forget that we’re in COVID-19 conditions. Starting with the digital countdown to excite his global community for that one moment. Then the choice of the stunning location, an endless unbelievably beautiful untouched wheat field in the countryside outside Paris, reinforcing that Simon Porte Jacquemus “owns” forever this concept of an epic landscape staging. Then despite all the logistical challenges, actually inviting the exact right crowd-of-the-moment to sit front row, which is crucial for a live-show feeling. And a stunning casting. The whole show, the long, beautifully winding wooden catwalk from horizon to horizon. The summer sunlight, the somber music, the innovative live video-editing and the stunning camera angles with drones. The models walking with such serenity. The beautiful collection. It was that one moment where everything came together, one of those unforgettable moments in fashion history.

Room for improvement: The challenge seems to create fashion-show magic at the same time for the physical audience present and for the global audience watching.

Suggestions: Most of all, a fashion show or presentation needs a unique creative vision and idea. Technology has to follow that idea, not the other way around. And unlike before, it now needs to create an “unforgettable live moment“ for both the front-row guests and everybody around the world watching it on-screen live. In this new world, we not only need to reinvent fashion shows, we also need to reinvent the campaigns and communication. As a campaign creative director, I see a lot of unused potential to create something much bigger out of that fashion show moment. To actually extend that magic storytelling around this collection much more directly into the campaign and 360-degree communication for all channels and touch points for the whole season, to create a mega-experience.

Katie Grand, editor in chief, Love magazine:

Overall impression: I’m not sure people had huge expectations for digital fashion weeks. As Marc Jacobs put it so well when he was in quarantine at the Mercer he was in mourning for what had gone before. We were and still are in the middle of a pandemic and huge sociological change and to be rejoicing or even talking about fashion whilst there are much bigger and more important events in the world seems well, glib and morally incorrect on one side but people have jobs to fulfill. Having said that, I think anyone who managed to get anything together deserves a 10 out of 10 for effort. The most simple things which previously would have been easy like getting fabrics, thread to match the color of the fabrics and then a zip to match the fabric and the threads was near impossible. To photograph or shoot anything was also near impossible: My personal feeling was it was “too soon” but fashion is an “industry.”

Highlights: The Loewe show in a box was charming. It didn’t pretend to be a fashion show or replicate what we had previously known. Prada was very chic and also devoid of any pretense and was purely “the show that never happened.”

Room for improvement: One word: diversity.

Suggestions: Take it easy, be gentle with yourselves. We are grieving for the fashion calendar as it was, even though it had become a circus for designers, journalists, models, everyone. But to expect it to have some miracle, enticing replacement within six months is impossible.

Riccardo Ruini, Riccardo Ruini Studio, Rome:

Overall impression: My expectations were not very high because everything happened very quickly and the brands had to take decisions and produce in incredibly difficult times. I think that everyone tried to propose something, but the result wasn’t really exciting. My expectation was 7 out of 10 and my evaluation of what I’ve seen is 6. It was not easy to do something really outstanding in these conditions.

Highlights: I had the feeling that none really managed to get out of the rules. Even the best attempts were very constrained. I expect fashion to break the rules, to create new ways of communicating to their audience and to a greater audience also. It’s not an easy task, so every attempt was honest, but nothing I’ve seen was taking the opportunity to go really beyond.

Room for improvement: It’s a very difficult task to find the balance between the goal of the content, presenting a new collection, and the form to do it. Fashion brands are masters at what they have been doing forever, but when they have to confront new areas, they are struggling. I think that what was lacking was the awareness of what they were really doing: not presenting a collection to a small group of people in a real space but to a wider audience on a screen. It was the very first time, because until now the shows were still designed for the fashion audience at the venue. Most of them were lacking the entertainment and engagement ingredient that is needed when you are broadcasting an event.

Suggestions: I don’t think that they need my suggestions, because there are great personalities and professionals in the fashion world. I’m sure that they will learn from the mistakes made for these “emergency” presentations. And do what we expect from fashion (and why we love fashion): to be able to talk to the audience in a way that touches emotions and minds in a way that only fashion creatives can. Free, contemporary, creative, innovative. But they must understand quickly the media where they are playing and create content designed for the media and for the way that people will watch it, with creativity, storytelling and digital innovation. Entertaining is absolutely necessary to involve the audience in the new media.

Vanessa Friedman, fashion director and chief fashion critic, The New York Times:

Overall impression: I would say 4 out of 10. I didn’t really know what to expect, but ultimately I was hoping that brands might try to really wrestle with the whole purpose of a presentation and redefine the medium; Instead, I felt like what we got was largely a random group of efforts to jam fashion into pre-existing forms – the music video, the perfume commercial, the short fantasy film – rather than create something new and relevant. Maybe that was inevitable given the short time frame most designers had to work in, but if this is going to continue, I think a paradigm shift needs to take place.

Highlights: The pieces that worked best for me were those that felt the most transparent, and least styled, that invited viewers into the process of creation: the part of the Dior couture video that focused on the petites mains (rather than the mythic film that followed); the Margiela documentary of a collection creation; Gucci’s 12-hour livestream because they offered something most people who may have watched a livestream of a show never get to see. And they reflect the confusion we are all experiencing now, and instead of trying to dress it up, simply offered a view into a brand trying to manage and keep going and honor its work (and workers) during the crisis.

Room for improvement: Most lacked a sense of surprise or of immediate absorption that keeps you glued to a screen to see what happens next. They lacked the high-wire risk that live shows provide, where there are no do-overs, no air-brushing, and only a runway to get a point across. Far too often, it was easy to look away. They also often failed to connect to this particular moment in time, either to share the confusion or provide a solution (Prada being an exception). And when they were streamed films of actual shows themselves, the cutaways and camera angles were often frustratingly limited.

Suggestions: I think honesty and integrity are going to be incredibly important to consumers and employees as we all struggle through the next period together, and doing something that fashion has historically avoided pulling back the curtain to invite customers and fans in on the creative process, in all its lumps and bumps and imperfections will be increasingly important, as will allowing customers to know and connect not just to the boldface names on the top of a brand, but to all the individuals who go into making the products people eventually buy. It’s that human interaction, and touch of the hand, that makes fashion special, and that will buoy it going forward. I also think, if we are trying to get past the old show system, then pushing out of the classic fashion box and thinking about alternate ways of using clothes in the world creating a video game; making a mystery series will be more effective than simply mimicking the old way in a new form. Products are often referred to as the “hero” of a fashion story, but the fact is, in life they are more like a tool. So why not treat them as such?

Federica Montelli, head of fashion, La Rinascente, Milan:

Overall impression: The digital fashion weeks met our expectations, considering the overall difficulties in creating a real engagement with the public throughout a digital platform yet managing to communicate a clear concept with often positive messages related. Every city presented a different approach to this new digital concept of fashion shows and presentations. General rating: 6.

Highlights: London was the first one and the one revolving mostly into a more artistic approach: the designer and the inspiration behind [the collection] were the real focus, with a general message linked to the concepts of diversity and inclusivity as milestones (and the Black Lives Matter movement, which was experiencing a peak at that time). We also really appreciated the positive commitment in sustainability with brands such as Anya Hindmarch and Marques’Almeida as great examples.

Paris put the spotlight on the collections themselves and the specific features of each one of them as J.W. Anderson and Loewe demonstrated through their videos and show-in-a-box.

Lastly Milan, which is easily associated to tradition and techniques, surprised us with interesting and young content such Magliano’s presentation with contemporary poetry on the background, Sunnei’s engaging video and Gucci’s presentation featuring the real creative team behind the collection. Zegna has also been one of the most inspiring and complete collections presented.

Room for improvement: The digital fashion week format, as seen up until now, is lacking mostly in interaction with the public. The more obvious concern is the difficulty in perceiving the physical qualities of every product and collection: a modern VR experiential tool could be a good improvement for the future, as Ahluwalia for LFW did.

Bosse Myhr, director of men’s wear and women’s wear, Selfridges, U.K.:

Overall impression: Brands and fashion organizations were quick to react to the situation and limitations imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic with imagination, creativity and sensitivity. I would rate the experience 7 out of 10 caveating that there is much opportunity to build on learnings from this first digital season, likely as per many other facets of our industry, toward a physical/digital hybrid that capitalizes on the best elements of each. I also think that as lockdown progressed people became more inventive, with an evolution to the formats. For example, Jacqumeus right at the beginning of lockdown created an entire lookbook via FaceTime. And then when lockdown measures were eased he staged a fashion show, but outside, in the countryside in a wheat field.

Highlights: I think Jacquemeus stood out as one of the masters of creativity during lockdown. The collection also provided a positive break from the constant news of the impact of the pandemic. Simon’s creative way of presenting the collection was a great example of how a brand is able to adapt. I also thought that Kim Jones’ Dior fashion film during the men’s collection was a great example of how a film has played an integral part of the way that designers are able to showcase collections. Before we started on the selection to buy the new Rick Owens SS21 collection (via Zoom appointment), we were allowed a look behind the scenes into Rick Owens’ studio, and the shoot of the lookbook of the collection. That video was also available for everyone to view on the Paris Fashion Week web site. In general, the fact that most collections were either films or livestreams meant that the access to new collections was very much more democratized than ever before everyone who logged on had a front-row seat in their living room.

Room for improvement: It is very hard to describe the feeling of the build-up of anticipation and excitement before attending an actual fashion show in person. There is always an energy in the air that contributes enormously to the overall feeling when attending an actual show that simply can’t be re-created in the same way online. Much the same as attending a theater premiere is compared to watching a movie on a Sunday night. Or watching a football game in the stadium and experiencing it firsthand compared to watching it at home; emotion isn’t there in the same way.

Suggestions: Sustainability must play a central role. Our customers are demanding this more and more and buying sustainable products is a huge part of our buying decision. This is for the production process as well as other mechanisms such as materiality, repair processes etc.

Exciting designs I think customers want to be inspired by fashion and really desire certain pieces. This does not have to be a showpiece necessarily, it can be a great coat or knit. But it does need to be desirable.

Seasonality we don’t really pay attention to whether a collection is called spring-summer or autumn-winter. We evaluate each collection depending on what week or month they are actually delivering to be super relevant to our consumer at that point.

Daniel Todd, buying manager, Mr Porter, London:

Overall impression: It was certainly a change to what myself and the industry are used to, but I appreciated the dedication and spirit from the brands to keep things moving and create new platforms to showcase the collections.

Highlights: The creativity and quick digital response was what stood out the most. Whether it was a live digital show from Dior or a 24-hour online showcase of talks and workshops from Loewe — brands were searching for ways to provide global interest and cut-through whilst staying genuine to their roots.

Suggestions: I think this is a great opportunity for brands to do something new, the old established order of fashion weeks has been shaken up which provides a platform for change. I think designers need to use this as an opportunity to think about what works for them and their business model right now, which might mean thinking less about the seasons and more about the right kind of product at the right time.

Editor’s Note: Suggestion Box is a recurring feature in WWD in which assorted experts weigh in on how to improve newfangled — and longstanding — practices in fashion.

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