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Fashion Weeks: Digital & Physical Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

A fashion show is an artistic expression of a collection, which creates exposure and an emotional impact that entices audiences.

fashion + TECH

Fashion Week – A Much Needed Transformation

by ELVIA BROWN 17 sept 2020

Fashion Week events run consecutively in four major capitals around the world called the “Big Four” – New York, London, Milan and Paris. The events take place twice a year where well-established brands and upcoming designers present the season ahead to the media, consumers and buyers ranging from large to medium sized retailers. Collections Autumn/Winter are presented In February/March, while Spring/Summer collections are strut down the runway in September. In addition, Haute Couture and Men’s Fashion Weeks are held in Paris, and Bridal Fashion Week in New York.

Despite Fashion Week being of paramount importance for the fashion industry, there has been in recent years controversy about its impact not only to the industry but also to the needs and demands of fashion consumers. A survey conducted by the fashion search engine Tagwalk in April 2020 concluded that 70% of consumers follow street-style trends rather than runway-style trends. This shift in consumerism has given power to social media platforms and created the influencers. 1

This controversy has been strongly debated after Covid-19 erupted in Northern Italy in the midst of Milan Fashion Week, which at the time was considered the worst outbreak outside China. Reporters, editors, buyers, public relation professionals, high-net worth VIP customers and influencers from around the globe were frantically trying to book flights or purchase train tickets to return home in fear of potential travel bans. Fear quickly amounted amongst attendees of contracting the virus since some events were attended by as many as 1,000 guests, with many stranded and unable to leave Milan. Paris Fashion Week was still scheduled and took place just a few days after most events in Milan were canceled.

It has been established that at the end of all Fashion Week events, buyers return to the “Big Four” to attend meetings with designers at their showrooms to finalize the buying process. Due to the virus, all meetings were cancelled. The negative impact went further, forcing brands to cancel or postpone their International Resort 2021 shows. Paris Men’s Fashion Week and Haute Couture Fashion Week were announced to be cancelled, but soon after it was decided to move both to a later date to become a week-long digital event.

The History

This is the first time that Fashion Week events are impacted by a global pandemic. However, wars, financial crisis and social and political events have disrupted Fashion Weeks in the past, impacting the very strong role they play to keep the fashion industry strong.

It is believed that the origins of Fashion Week began in the late 1800s when English fashion designer Charles Frederick Worth for the first time ever, presented his creations on live models in France and across Europe. He is credited as the first haute couture designer and for reforming the luxury fashion industry. His events were private high-class and sophisticated affairs for an elite clientele.

The trade association, The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture, was created in 1868 in France to protect the high-fashion business. In 1945 it implemented new specifications required to earn the right to be titled Haute Couture Designer or Haute Couture House. That same year, the association started holding fashion shows.

In America, the first fashion shows took place in 1903 held by designers at their boutiques and at department stores.

World War I and World War II made it impossible in some European cities for fashion houses and department stores to present their shows. During WWII, American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert saw the opportunity to support American designers by organizing the “New York Press Week” which was the beginning of New York Fashion Week.

World War I and World War II made it impossible in some European cities for fashion houses and department stores to present their shows. During WWII, American fashion publicist Eleanor Lambert saw the opportunity to support American designers by organizing the “New York Press Week” which was the beginning of New York Fashion Week. Another outstanding achievement from Eleanor Lambert was the creation of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1962 which supported the growth and international recognition of American fashion.

The Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne did not have any influence on what we know today as Fashion Week until 1973 when it created the current governing body for the French fashion industry: The Fédération Française de la Couture, du Prêt-à-Porter des Couturiers et des Créateurs de Mode (French Federation of Fashion and of Ready-to-Wear Couturiers and Fashion Designers). The opening took place with a fashion event where five of the most renowned French designers presented a show to compete against five American designers unknown in France. The show was called Battle of Versailles Fashion Show. Such title was well suited since there had been long-time tensions among Parisian and New York designers. That was the beginning of Paris Fashion Week. 2

The Italian Chamber of Commerce founded Milan Fashion Week in 1958 and almost 25 years later, London Fashion Week was founded by The British Fashion Council, a non-profit trade group in 1984. And that’s how the “Big Four” were born.

Modern Times Before and After Covid-19

The “Big Four” Fashion Weeks have been powerful marketing events for the participating brands. Presenting a collection in Fashion Week provides the designers notoriety and prominence in the industry and a great dollar-value in digital media publicity, and the opportunity to meet with buyers from around the world. But it all comes with a high-price tag between participating and production fees, fashion shows can range between $200,000 and $1,000,000 USD. 3 Balenciaga, Louis Vuitton and the late Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel are a few of the designerswho have presented some of the most memorable and over the top shows of our time.

The events provide countless jobs for many professionals in the industry such as models, photographers, make-up artists, DJs, organizers and many more. The benefit goes beyond the fashion industry and the economic impact in New York, London, Paris and Milan is significant.

Christin Parcerisa reported in 2018 that “A study by NYCEDC revealed that in New York, Fashion Week generates close to $900 million US dollars each year for the city. London Fashion Week revealed that during the dates of Fashion Week, the British capital receives over 5,000 people from over 70 countries, among buyers, influencers, journalists, and other industry insiders.

On the other hand, as much as the events benefit the tourism industry and local businesses, there are serious concerns about the environmental impact. It has been reported by The Carbon Trust and Ordre, who did a research project to measure carbon emissions from travel of 2,697 retailers and 5,096 designers participating at the shows, emits 241,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide. The travel impact of fashion editors, journalists, influencers and clients was not taken into account. 4 In addition, buyers fly 9 months a year with an average of 19,214 kilometers every year in order to attend showrooms at Fashion Week events.

The BoF Team reported that “Leading brands in the industry such as Saint Laurent, Gucci and Michael Kors are questioning the efficiency of the Fashion Week schedule’s incessant pace. Gucci and Michael Kors have officially announced that they will not participate in Fashion Week any longer and that they will create two “seasonless” collections a year instead of five. Most brands produced 4 to 6 seasons a year prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.” 5 Implementing this change will be of great benefit for the environment and will reduce the intense pressure on designers and their production teams.

An additional concern that designers have been conversing on is the timeframe of when runway collections are presented to industry insiders and influencers and the latency of when collections are available to purchase in the marketplace, which tends to be four to six months delay. In an interview Tom Ford said “In a world that has become increasingly immediate, the current way of showing a collection four months before it is available to consumers is an antiquated idea and one that no longer makes sense.” 6

Burberry was the first brand that dared to challenge the existing production-sale pattern cycle by launching “See Now-Buy Now” in the years 2016/2017 which are “seasonless” collections that are available right after the runway. It has been one of the biggest disruptions in the industry that has taken place in Fashion Week. One of the main challenges of this ambitious system is strengthening channels to sell to international consumers directly which leaves retailers out of the sale process. Not to mention the disruption and pressure to the supply chain. Other designers adopted the innovative instant-sale-system, but it backfired due to unforeseen challenges. Burberry dropped its practice, then implemented it again but potentially will drop it once again. Despite the unfavourable results for some brands, at least thirteen luxury designer brands offer SNBN in the hopes to recover from the negative impact of the pandemic.

Covid-19 has been a devastating disruption to Fashion Week Events in 2020, that designers and brands have been forced to desperately find innovative ways to launch their collections. Several brands decided to veer towards digital events, which included documentaries on the creation of their collection, videos, musical videos, virtual runway shows and podcasts. The first one to announce the adoption of an online format was the British Fashion Council with the Men’s Fashion Week in early June 2020. In July, Hermès livestreamed a digital experience tied to its Spring 2021 collection. In Paris, the Fédération de la Haute et de la Mode hosted its first ever virtual couture fashion week. Gucci premiered its men’s and women’s resort 2021 collection in a form of digital fashion as well. On August, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana announced its official men’s and women’s phygital fashion week 2021 with 28 physical shows and 24 digital ones.

The result of merging digital shows including women’s, men’s, couture, resort, cruise, see-now-buy-now is confusing and difficult to navigate. It is important to mention that digital and live-stream shows have been tested in the past with outstanding results. Burberry’s Fall 2010 collection was the first ever “global” fashion show, that was live-streamed online through seven different websites and projected in 3D in theaters in five cities. It gave the brand the ability to reach over 100 million users, a record for any luxury brand. 7

Because the transformation of fashion shows happened so quickly, some innovative ways tested to present the collections such as streaming video and virtual runways were overshadowed by the somehow inferior quality of the virtual shows. As Vogue Business reported, “Insiders say the digitisation of fashion week comes with the loss of emotion… getting it right is proving tough: London’s digital fashion week in June, spearheaded by the British Fashion Council, received mixed reviews and failed to draw significant attention online.” Launchmetrics estimates that the coverage for the London Fashion Week online-only event was 55% less in attendance than in the previous season prior to the COVID-19 outbreak in January 2020. 8

But not all digital fashion events have floundered. The Shanghai Fashion Week that took place at the end of March 2020, drew in 11 million viewers and sold £2.2 million ($2.82M) in merchandise to consumers during the live streams, despite the fact that some brands participation was intended to be a marketing exercise instead of a sales exercise. Making it the biggest See Now Buy Now Fashion Week ever. 9 The show was hosted by Chinese Tmall and Taobao platforms, the second one has a reach of over 711 million active users.

Tmall livestream format presented an increase in both exposure and sales for some brands. The brand Icicle earned over 238,000 views within the two hours of its livestream. Visitors as well as “see now buy now” sales on its Tmall store increased by 100%. The average customer unit price exceeded about $563 USD. 10

Balmain is another brand that benefited by testing digital initiatives. Just a few weeks ago, the house reached its 10 million followers on Instagram, as opposed to the 600 people attending a regular fashion show. 11

But buyers have expressed the importance of in-person fashion shows for industry insiders to connect, communicate and socialise, not to mention the importance to see and feel the fabrics characteristics, drape and how they look on a real model.

Alexander de Betak, founder of
fashion show production company
Bereu of Betak, explains that “digital
shows not tied to a live event lack
energy.” 12

Digital formats and virtual technologies cannot and should not fully replace the in-person fashion events and runways. Caroline Louise Hamar, a fashion writer from London, reported that Fashion Week Russia was innovative with the use of virtual models, but a basic 3D-second animation has costs starting from $10,000. Digitization as a route alone would be far more difficult for smaller designers who lack the name recognition on finances to draw audiences and drive sales.

Incorporating the best of digital, innovative virtual technologies and in-real-life elements (considering sanitary measures) has proven to transform and revolutionize the Fashion Week experience by providing to all participants the excitement and amusement of new technologies and the warmth of the human connection, while reaching global audiences who before Covid-19 felt they could not be part of such exclusive events.

There is no doubt that Fashion Week is a platform that for decades, with the collaboration and support of a myriad of industry experts invigorated the growth of the industry. But rapid growth, market competitiveness, consumer trends, and environmental concerns have been changing its direction and reshaping its form.

We never imagined that a global pandemic would shake the core of a complex but powerful industry despite of its many obsolete patterns and practices. This is its opportunity to reshape and reinvigorate its image and luster. Modern Mirror’s first-class technologies serve luxury designer brands and consumers by providing one-of-a-kind experiences in safe environments. Supporting the luxury industry every step of the way to reach that transformation is what is needed now and future years to come.

  • 1 (Hama C,”The Relevance of Fashion Weeks: Weaknesses, Covid-19 and The Future”
  • 2 (Jana R, “A Brief History of Paris Fashion Week” Vogue, UK)
  • 3 (Parcerisa C, “The Impact of Fashion Week: Beyond the Runway”
  • 4 (Danigelis A, “Major International Fashion Week Emissions Tracked for the First Time”
  • 5 (BoF team “The BoF Podcast: Michael Kors on Why He Left Fashion Week” BoF)
  • 6 (Hama C,”The Relevance of Fashion Weeks: Weaknesses, Covid-19 and The Future”
  • 7 (Cora A. “The Fashion Week History and Its Evolution” September 2018.
  • 8 (Reader N.”Fashion Weeks: Digital and Physical aren’t Mutually Exclusive” LinkedIn)
  • 9 (Hama C,”The Relevance of Fashion Weeks: Weaknesses, Covid-19 and The Future”
  • 10(Gemma Williams and Ruonan Zheng, “The Verdict on Shanghai Fashion Week” April 2020. www.
  • 11(Martino Carrera, July 2020 “As the Runway goes digital, Stylists Muse on Their Process” WWD)
  • 12(Guilbault L. “Paris Fashion Week wiil Return in Person with some Adjustments”
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