A digital London Fashion Week is set to go ahead later this week, with all shows and presentations either being pre-recorded or live streamed – and with no guests present.
When the spring/summer edition of London Fashion Week – considered one of the top four events of its kind alongside that of Paris, New York and Milan – took place in September last year, it went fully digital. Big events were cancelled, and continue to be cancelled, due to restrictions around social distancing. But with the roll out of Covid vaccines hitting 20 per cent last weekend, will digital fashion week’s be a thing of the past when in-person events can resume safely?
“Over lockdowns, we’ve changed how we consume, so the need for fashion week has changed, too,” said Victoria Prew, co-founder and chief executive of the fashion rental platform Hurr.
“It’s likely that the fashion week format will change, however the physical element holds a social aspect that’s more difficult to replicate online.
“Fashion week is all about storytelling and up until now, the emotion and response that a physical show can create is yet to be replicated by mainstream virtual formats.”
Deloitte retail director Gillian Simpson argued that as with physical retail spaces, fashion shows would continue to have a place in providing consumers with an experience and brand engagement.
“In-person runway shows are an extension of this, facilitating the fashion industry’s need to ‘see and be seen’,” she told Retail Gazette.
“As a result, we’re likely to see greater innovation and accessibility of shows as brands continue to embrace digital.
“Even before the pandemic, many were changing up the standalone show, be it live-streaming to wider audience or enabling consumers to buy directly from the catwalk.
“Looking further out, the traditional twice-yearly fashion calendar could switch to a brand-led one with shows throughout the year.”
“Technology has the potential to shorten the gap between runway shows and having collections on the shop floor, ready to buy”
As changes are implemented, Prew stated that digitally-focused fashion retailers that have made the shift to digital by using 3D fashion shows and interactive live streams will now be able to showcase their latest collections to a larger audience.
“When Copenhagen Fashion Week went digital, Ganni was one of the first brands to stage a virtual version of its seasonal show and party,” she added.
“Forward-thinking brands are likely to best capitalise on the shift to digital.”
Yet as the London Fashion Week turns digital again for its autumn/winter edition, can the event still be as profitable?
“This will all depend on how many brands decide to take part,” Birmingham City University fashion business lecture Sophie Johnson said.
“The digital acceleration has enabled businesses to make fantastic cuts to travel, production, marketing etc. So brands may now see the benefit of that on their cash flows.
“Many luxury brands will have been severely financially affected by the pandemic, takings hits in their largest markets such as China in the first part of the pandemic and a lack of tourism means many brands are reporting loss of profit.
“The question is will brands have the budget to take part. There could be a wider opportunity for digital based sponsors and online content that could be more engaging and relevant.
“It would also depend on how accessible digital fashion week platforms will be. Could there be opportunities for online memberships and how accessible will it be to non-fashion practitioners, influencers and the public.”
Prew said: “With sustainability becoming the centre of every conversation, fashion weeks fundamentally exist to sell clothes.
“At a time where conscious consumption and minimalism have gained considerable mainstream popularity, it seems probable that the fashion industry will shift to focus on the importance of sourcing, producing and selling sustainably, all of which may come at a higher cost.”
With a week of digital events, how can high street retailers get involved this year?
“The cost of digital-only productions, without some of the theatrics of in-person events, has certainly lowered the barriers to entry,” Simpson explained.
“There is little to stop anyone from putting on a digital show now.”
Prew added: “This year, H&M Studio joined Copenhagen Fashion Week, showing the direct-to-consumer SS21 collection.
“It’s an interesting move as fashion weeks work to stay as relevant as possible yet directly contradicts the traditional fast-fashion method-replicating streetwear and fashion week trends as they appear in record-speed time.”
In previous years, Sir Philip Green always involved himself in London Fashion Week. But in the wake of the collapse of his retail empire, Arcadia Group, will there be an inevitable void left behind by Topshop?
“Topshop has changed hands but it has not disappeared and it is still an important brand for some consumers,” said Mike White, chief executive of creative agency Lively.
“Eva Pascoe who ran Arcadia’s ecommerce operations in the 90s is quoted as saying that Green ran things like a ‘fan club’ – decisions came right from the top.
“With younger management and more inclusive management style we could see more risks and inventive ideas coming from different parts of Asos that will not only fill the voice but possibly evolve into something entirely new.”
Luxury retailers suffered amid the pandemic as tourism numbers dropped significantly due to lockdowns and flight restrictions, but as fashion events turn digital, can they capitalise on this and become more accessible?
“Many brands were live-streaming their shows even before the pandemic to reach a wider audience, with some also having the innovation in place for ‘click to purchase’,” Simpson said.
“What we’re going to see, post-Covid, is a continuation of this.”
On the other hand, White believes fashion weeks will forever be changed by the way we live now.
“New tools have arrived for social media engagement, advertising and shopping which brings all brands luxury and otherwise into the home and wherever we are via mobile,” he said.
“Luxury label limited edition drops, digital environments and management of access to online events can replicate this while the international nature of being online will mean that access is something anyone with connectivity could achieve.”
Simpson said there were still lessons to be learnt from other big fashion weeks which have taken place over the last year, almost all of which took place online.
“The fashion industry is embracing innovation at speed,” she explained.
“There will always be face-to-face engagement, especially in the luxury segment of retail, but it won’t be at the detriment to the continued innovation in digital.
“Just as fashion shows have switched to digital-only, we’ve also seen fashion brands introduce virtual shopping experiences as physical stores temporarily closed in response to Covid-19.
“An extension of this, further down the line, will be the immersive shopping experience where consumers can peruse in virtual boutiques.
“For the fashion calendar, this could extend to virtual shows – perhaps even modelled on personalised avatars.
“More immediately, though, the digital runway may have accelerated sustainability ambitions for some brands.”
Johnson agreed: “Sustainability is high on the agenda of all fashion weeks across the world.
“It is unknown just how costly the physical fashion weeks are on the environment and industry sustainability front.
“Providing a future of digital platforms will help support more sustainable practices such as carbon footprints, reducing travel, but also the mental health and wellbeing of staff who work tirelessly to support the efforts of seasonal fashion weeks.”