So, fashion is changing. Again.
Surprised? Neither am I. It is impossible to divorce the concept of change from fashion, yet in light of the pandemic, fashion has needed to reconfigure itself altogether in order to adapt to a world turned on its head by Covid-19.
Arguably, the most critical limb of the fashion industry that has undergone substantial change is fashion week. The post-Covid digitalisation of fashion week has raised eyebrows and questions across the fashion world. How will designers communicate their collections? How will fashion journalists and junkies get that all important sartorial scoop? And, most essentially, what is the future of the fashion show?
Since its creation in the 1860s, the fashion show has become the love language and apparatus of the fashion designer. Originally conceived by pioneering designer Charles Frederick Worth, who used models instead of inanimate mannequins to present clothing, the fashion show has evolved into a vast display of artistry and consumerism. Infamously criticised for their excessive, wasteful nature, modern fashion shows have been aching for change - hankering for a more mindful approach to the business of creating clothes.
Cue Covid-19, which has distressed the fashion industry more successfully than Marques Almeida distress denim. High streets have depleted, changing rooms have been barricaded and models confined to their tiny bunkbed-lined model apartments.
However, the birth of the virtual fashion show has sparked an intriguing conversation regarding the fate of the fashion spectacle. Many believe that the absence of the fashion show allows designers to explore and transcend the perimeters of fashion in entirely new ways. Jonathan Anderson is a prime example of demonstrating such creativity. His ‘Show in a Box’ concept which reincarnated the wonders of seventeenth-century cabinets of curiosities for Loewe Spring Summer 2021, proved a hit amongst recipients. These portable shows consisted of fashion photographs, fabric samples, pressed flowers and patterns which could be downloaded, printed and used at home – a totally pandemic-proof fashion show. Anderson stated that he wanted the boxes to act as vehicles of escapism - each one a rabbit hole leading to Wonderland. A rare example of a designer openly rejecting digital modes to present their clothing this season, the boxes celebrated and reinvigorated the craft of fashion – paying homage to the portfolios of fashion students who pine after the success Anderson has and continues to achieve.
While designers such as Anderson deservedly received praise for their intimate innovations, such creations still can’t nip that nostalgia for the fashion show in the bud. During a conversation between BoF Editor-at-Large Tim Blanks, GQ’s Rachel Tashjian and BoF Executive Editor Laura Sherman, Robin Givhan highlighted the importance of the fashion show for networking:
‘As a reporting tool, I don’t think there is anything better than being at a fashion show and walking into the room knowing that anyone in the industry that you need to talk to - you will be able to hunt them down in person and they won’t be able to flee.’
Not only does Givhan’s statement ring true for established fashion individuals, but also for overly-zealous fashion students who each year have to sneak into shows. Fashion shows are not a purely aesthetic affair, but an integral crossroads for both students and professionals who want to expand their networks within the industry. By all means, ring up Condé Nast in the hope of asking Edward Enninful to comment on the future of the fashion media. Sadly – somehow, I think your responses may be limited. Corner him at a fashion show however? There is hope.
The truth is, the digital runway radiates disconnect. Emotional response to the clothing is limited and there is no way of gaging an instant response from the audience. The whole process lacks tangibility and feels like more like an ode to the advancement of technology rather than fashion. Additionally, by viewing the show through a screen, the multi-dimensionality of the fashion show is diminished. You can’t turn around to gawk at the fashion royalty on the front row or monitor the thrill-factor of a collection depending on its location.
Location is key when staging a fashion show and many designers have toyed with the concept. Alexander McQueen famously staged his February 1997 collection ‘It’s a Jungle Out There’ in Borough Market as he wanted the smell of rotting vegetables to permeate the show as trains thundered overhead. Karl Lagerfeld went so far as to parade models down the Great Wall of China in 2007 for Fendi’s most extravagant fashion show to date. No matter how unorthodox a show location may be, it is hugely influential in shaping an audience’s emotional response. Without such intimacy and proximity, the role of the viewer becomes acutely voyeuristic and impersonal.
As we have gleaned from the response to a digital fashion week, a fully virtual approach to the fashion show is a bleak prospect. So, what can we expect for Autumn Winter 2021 in February?
My guess? Film.
Film – a marriage between technology and artistry. Maison Margiela and Marine Serre already tested the waters with film by composing fantastical fashion documentaries and short films for their SS21 collections. Galliano, who teamed up with British photographer Nick Knight for the house’s ‘co-ed’ collection, even claimed that film is ‘the best medium’ to explore this season.
Plus, film is for all. For their graduate shows back in June, the BA Fashion students at Central Saint Martins curated showcases of their work through the medium of film. The designers were encouraged to test their creative license whilst remaining firmly rooted at the helm of their own vision. For emerging designers this is crucial for preserving the identity of the brand. When participating in online showrooms and runways, very often the designers have to answer to their PR Agencies and sponsors as to which pieces are shown in the collection. Through resurrecting the historic relationship between film and fashion, the designer can function as the director, producer and entire costume department. Narrative is essential to both film and fashion, which creates a harmonious power balance between the mediums. It is not a question of tech dictating fashion. It is a partnership that centres the perspective of the viewer and enables the democratisation of the lived fashion experience - one which has so commonly been defined by exclusivity.
Yes – we will still mourn the physicality of fashion week and the irreplaceable buzz of attending shows. But for now it’s simply not viable. Yet, there has been one glaringly positive outcome of the digital fashion show which should not be ignored. Shows are more mindful than ever. Designers have been forced to take a back-to-basics approach to fashion and recognise the futility of fashion show frivolity. Sustainability is an inescapable term in today’s day and age yet moving forward it could not be of more paramount importance in order to establish longevity for both the fashion and natural world. Greenwashing and virtue signalling are not so easily tolerated anymore. Ultimately, designers have had to reconsider what is truly necessary and focus on, in the words of Giorgio Armani, ‘the need to do less and to do it better.’
The runway is not obsolete. If there’s anything we have learnt throughout the trajectory of fashion history, it’s that fashion comebacks are inevitable - and the fashion show is certainly not exempt from this. Fashion is a gargantuan system and with approximately five-hundred collections being shown every fashion month, there are still endless possibilities as to how to acclimatise to a post-pandemic industry. As for me, I will continue to wallow in the nostalgia of the pre-Covid fashion show. But, the show must go on, and when it does you will find me scrabbling to get into fashion week alongside my fellow fashion students who will never underestimate the power of the fashion show again.
I am an aspiring fashion journalist and have recently graduated from The University of Bristol with a first-class degree in History of Art. Having previously interned for companies such as Fiorucci and Hemsley London, I have decided to pursue a career in fashion journalism and will be starting a MA degree in Fashion Journalism at Central Saint Martins in January 2021.