The exclusivity that has come to define Fashion Week around the world has been stripped away by the pandemic. With London Fashion Week AW2021, which finished yesterday (23 February) going fully digital, everyone took a seat on the front row – without having to dress up or even get off the couch.
But the Fashion Week experience shouldn't stop at the front row. Fashion brands have to rethink how they stand out, lead the conversation, engage communities and communicate their brands, ideas and creative output. Beyond showcasing and selling their collections, they now need to consider how to create ongoing, lasting and culturally relevant conversations, both online and on social.
Let's celebrate, virtually!
This year, as well as live-streamed shows from designers such as Bora Aksu, Simone Rocha and Molly Goddard (images above), there were accompanying playlists on Spotify from artists including Little Simz and 16Arlington. There was a dedicated Fashion Week podcast as well as fashion films and interviews with designers on everything from diversity to sustainability.
TikTok also provided streaming support not just for shows but for mentoring sessions and fashion masterclasses through its new partnership with Newgen, the British Fashion Council support scheme for emerging talent. Up-and-coming brands were showcased in a new digital experiential space provided by London Fashion Week's DiscoveryLab.
Additionally, LFW partner Vanish continued its global mission to let clothes live many lives through a fashion film. The Reckitt Benckiser brand created a shoot featuring three-and-a-half tonnes of clothing waste, called the “Rewear Edit”.
Other highlights included Roksanda's beautiful and moving three-minute fashion film, featuring Vanessa Redgrave and Emilia Wickstead's collection.
Haven't we been here before?
The digitisation of fashion is nothing new, of course. Burberry has streamed its show online for a decade and Farfetch has been saying for some time that the future of luxury fashion is online.
We've seen how virtual reality and 3D technology provide opportunities for designers to elevate their collections and let their imaginations run riot. Leading the way was last year's fully digital Helsinki Fashion Week, with fantastical CGI settings, such as an underwater paradise, a giant celestial chessboard and a "Vatican in the clouds" complete with graffiti-covered pillars.
So why are some designers choosing not to get involved with this digital evolution? Michael Kors and Tom Ford stepped down from London Fashion Week and New York Fashion Week, pledging to show their collections at a later date.
Understandably, capturing the attention and feeling the buzz of a show is not the same online as on-site, and neither is seeing the clothes on screen. Reaching those demanding levels is expensive, too – so many fashion brands decided to watch and wait. Already hit by brutal drops in revenue, they are being careful with their costs and focusing on one-to-one calls with their biggest individual clients and top buyers.
Many have also questioned whether we really need fashion weeks to take place at the current time and whether it shouldn't wait until the health crisis is over. There is concern that designers are feeling pressured to create new collections in order to remain relevant when they may not be in the best position to do so.
Learning from the 'new normal'
It is often said, however, that the greatest creative movements happen in dark and difficult times. Caroline Rush CBE, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, stressed how London Fashion Week is an opportunity to share more than new collections: "We hope that as well as personal perspectives on this difficult time, there will be inspiration in bucketloads. It is what British fashion is known for."
Opting out and waiting for a return to normal will not spell success. It's time for fashion to step up. We know people want to discover and share online – performances, gigs, clothes, kittens. Why wouldn't fashion brands want to get in on that action? Why stop with the people present at the show, when you can create diverse and culturally relevant conversations afterwards online?
Unless fashion brands invest in strategies that make experiences both digital and live, they cannot survive. Live experiences no longer mean in person; they take place across many platforms – physical and digital – truly hybrid.
There's an increasing realisation that luxury fashion brands need to be where the customer is. And that's online – watching, talking, sharing, participating, as well as buying. Careful curation of digital and live-streaming content can still focus on buyers and key collectors, as well as reaching a wider, enthusiastic and powerful audience.
Mike White is chief executive and co-founder of Lively