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How Covid-19 Killed Fashion Week

And what the brands are doing to give a new lease of life to their runway shows.

How Covid-19 Killed Fashion Week
Ermenegildo Zegna

As we embrace the new norm of social distancing, we have had to cast aside some old habits. But none broke hearts like having fashion week cancelled. Haute couture (July) and menswear shows (June) in Paris and Milan were the first to go, with digital alternatives as temporary replacements. Meanwhile, menswear shows in London would be combined with womenswear and digitised.

Fashion week isn’t just a theatrical production; it’s also an excuse to bring together buyers and editors. As Pascal Morand, executive president of the Federation de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, explains: “Empty seats at shows are not the problem. It is what is happening in showrooms, the holdups in the supply chains and what they might mean.” It is in these showrooms where buyers and editors gauge product quality and understand brand values. Such engagement is integral to helping designers sell their products to the wider audience.

While designers like Natacha Ramsay-Levi of Chloe appreciate fashion week presentations as “special events… to inspire and engage conversation”, others have criticised these spectacles as less about artistry and more of showboating. Let’s face it: When was the last time you bought the outfit on someone brisk walking past you in the supermarket or museum?

Physical runway shows may soon become a thing of the past, as more brands opt to take their showcases online in response to coronavirus fears. (Image: Fendi)

It could be said that the end had been some time coming. Fashion week adds unnecessary strain to the environment. For every instalment, a brand flies in upwards of 500 people from the world over and ferries them between venues in luxury limos. Oh, don’t even get us started on the light and sound equipment required to dress up every runway, and power generators to keep after-parties running for hours.

If there was a silver lining behind this dreadful pandemic, it’s being able to reinvent the fashion week model.

Shanghai Fashion Week is an example of how designers can thrive in a virtual setting. In March, amid nationwide lockdowns in China, its entire Autumn/Winter 2020 roster moved online. By tapping into augmented reality and special effects technology, brands succeeded in creating deeply immersive and multifaceted experiences that reflected their creative vision.

Angel Chen, for one, streamed her show across five different platforms — including Instagram, Weibo and shopping portals such as Tmall. Filmed in front of a green screen, models were then superimposed onto imaginative landscapes that ranged from smoky dust clouds to a motocross stadium.

On Tmall alone, the show garnered approximately 40,000 views. Retailers could also quickly place orders from her livestream. It negated all worry that fashion week would upend manufacturing cycles; if anything, early responses from digital shows allow designers to more efficiently project the focus of supply chains.

“The virtual show really allowed me to go all out creatively,” said Chen, after the show. “In the future, with more time, the possibilities are endless.”

Is this real life? No, it’s Angel Chen’s fantasy world made possible through special effects and VR tech, where leather-togged models confidently stride across a racing arena. (Image: Angel Chen)

Others like Xu Zhi and Roderic Wong conjured up virtual showcases to equally impressive effect. Upon logging in, users enter a cavernous hall, then visit a showroom. Here, the collection’s theme is revealed through a 360-degree approach comprising runway shows and conceptual videos.

Which brings us to the point: For fashion week to go digital, it needs more than a few cameras to track the models strutting. It must be a complete experience with refreshing formats and cutting-edge technology.

Little wonder Balenciaga CEO Cedric Charbit says “it’s very exciting.” Although Balenciaga invites about 600 guests to its physical show every season, its livestreaming videos on YouTube and Instagram rake in 68,000 attendees in total, Charbit reveals. “I think our audience has to be reconsidered. Do we have guests or viewers? Or are they becoming one?”

Several brands have already taken things into their own hands. Saint Laurent will stage its showcases independent of the fashion calendar in 2020. Meanwhile, with its Spring/Summer 2021 menswear collection, Ermenegildo Zegna will be the first luxury brand to commit to a digital show. As Gildo Zegna, CEO of Ermenegildo Zegna Group, states: “This is the time to think differently about the next future.”

Likewise, Michael Kors has also announced his withdrawal from the New York Fashion Week calendar in September. From a media release, the brand noted that “the Spring/Summer 2021 Michael Kors Collection will be presented sometime between mid-October and mid-November 2020, with the format of the presentation still currently under exploration”.

“I have for a long time thought that the fashion calendar needs to change,” Kors says, through the same press release. “It’s exciting for me to see the open dialogue within the fashion community about the calendar…about ways in which we can slow down the process and improve the way we work. We’ve all had time to reflect and analyze things, and I think many agree that it’s time for a new approach for a new era.” 

Designers are also re-examining the necessity of churning out a collection each for four seasons every year. Bruno Sialelli, who helms Lanvin, proposes that “we won’t need extended collections anymore”. Lanvin will skip the Cruise season in favour of a smaller capsule collection.

Lebanese designer Rabih Kayrouz, whose A-list clientele includes Celine Dion and Jada Pinkett Smith, is giving Pre-Fall and Cruise the pass too. Never mind that traditionally, both seasons have better sell-through results as they stay on the racks longer than Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter.

“This pandemic has brought to light that fashion seasons are kind of nonsense,” opines Emily Gordon-Smith, director of consumer product at trend analysis firm Stylus. The fashion industry’s focus should be on “what consumers need right now, which are items that will have lasting relevancy,” she says.

With widespread unemployment and redeployment, it also doesn’t feel feasible or prudent for customers to embrace wardrobe overhauls four times a year. What’s more, streamlining output will help eliminate over-production and waste pollution, when unsold inventory gets dumped in landfill sites.

Italian maestro Giorgio Armani, who converted his factories into production lines for personal protective gear like medical overalls and donated €2 million ($3.1 million) to Italian hospitals, penned an open letter recently in which he cited the global healthcare crisis as a “unique opportunity to fix what is wrong, to regain a more human dimension”.

Should We Stop Obsessing Over Trends?
Giorgio Armani, flanked by actors Stellan Skarsgård (left) and Taron Egerton (right). (Image: Giorgio Armani)

Besides lambasting the industry’s fixation on mandating designers churn out four collections a year — which he deemed a “meaningless waste of money” — he also revealed that he would show his next haute couture collection only next January. From now, his collections will also be designed and released for current seasonal weather.

That’s not all. Armani’s even availing his tailoring team to clients, so they can customise outfits to better suit their lifestyle. With summer sales extended to September, they now have more time to peruse collections.

“Luxury cannot and must not be fast,” he adds. “A careful and intelligent slowdown is the only way out… and that will make customers perceive [fashion’s] true importance and value.”

Now that’s worthy of a standing ovation.

This story first appeared in the June/July 2020 issue of A Magazine.

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