After a totally digital London Fashion Week, do we still need real-life runways?

As the biannual sartorial spectacle draws to a close, Olivia Petter examines whether an entirely virtual event is a more efficient, creative, and sustainable way forward

Friday 26 February 2021 16:19

Coco Chanel once said that “in order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” If this is true, then London Fashion Week should’ve been replaced a long time ago. Since its inception in 1984, the biannual trade event has followed an almost identical format. One that is largely dictated by the fashion set dashing across the capital, whether at Somerset House or a Brewer Street car park, going from runway to runway, one traffic jam and espresso shot at a time.

It is not - and has never been - the most environmentally friendly of events, which is why it is often targeted by climate activists, with Extinction Rebellion having disrupted proceedings with protests several times, most recently in February 2020. But the extravagance was always justified as a necessary means to an end: the fashion industry is worth a reported £26bn to the UK economy, and at its heart, the event is a sales pitch for buyers and consumers, one that is worthy of a spectacle.

But, as with everything in our lives, coronavirus has challenged many long held, and largely unchallenged assumptions about the way we work. Due to the pandemic, London Fashion Week has been forced to reinvent itself for a socially distanced age. Last season, when infection rates had plateaued slightly, this meant a half-digital, half-physical line-up, with some designers staging real-life shows with limited attendees, while others screened their collections virtually on the British Fashion Council’s website.

This season, though, with England still in lockdown, London Fashion Week was an entirely digital affair, featuring a series of films, live-streamed shows, and, for a handful industry insiders, one-on-one Zoom appointments with designers. Despite the fact that some of fashion’s biggest hitters chose not to partake in this diluted state of affairs - absent names on the schedule including JW Anderson, Christopher Kane and Erdem - there was still much to enjoy from the comfort of our living rooms.

Take Molly Goddard, whose trademark tulle dresses practically popped through our screens during a streamed runway show, while 16Arlington’s feathered frocks could almost be felt tickling our toes as they flounced about in the brand’s short film.

Watching the success of these events unfold in real time, the industry can’t help but have a long look in the mirror. Obviously, staging an entirely virtual event is far more sustainable: fewer fumes polluting London’s already smoggy air, less energy required to stage a show, and fewer resources used to accommodate attendees. It’s more efficient, too, given the amount of time that is so often wasted when you’re travelling across the capital to get to your next appointment. Then there’s the accessibility factor: what was once an industry-only event has become available for all to consume, given that the BFC streamed everything for free. These are all good things, which force an industry predicated on routine to rethink its old habits and make room for something new.

“Things are definitely going to change,” Alice Temperley tells The Independent, speaking over Zoom from her new Somerset studio, where she has recently relocated to from London. “When it comes to showcasing your collection, rather than simply sticking to the traditional format, I think brands are really going to consider what best suits them. It might be that they do one show a year, or a show for a special anniversary. It’s about providing something more personable.” In the end it was the pandemic that provided a flashpoint for these changes, but Temperley says they have been brewing for some time. “People are way less dictated by wholesale business now,” she says. “It’s about working direct-to-consumer, and being quicker and more reactive by working with online retailers, such as Farfetch.” 

As for the old London Fashion Week format, Temperley believes it will soon be a thing of the past. “It costs brands so much money to stage a proper show. It’s never as glamorous as people think it is, either, and so few people get good seats. I think this is an opportunity to do something more authentic and original. Simply putting a lot of the clothes on the catwalk is not going to cut it anymore.”

Physical fashion shows may create an in-person buzz and a physicality that online does not. But you’d be hard pushed to argue that everyone who attends a show can get up close and personal with the designs - it is always standing room only. “Physical shows of course allow for human interaction but few people are truly physically touching and experiencing the tactility of the clothes,” says Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion content at fashion forecasters WGSN. “They also have their limitations in terms of physical location, time and cost. Virtual shows free us up from those constraints and level the playing field with designers from different global locations and with different budgets to reach an audience enabling better access and visibility for that audience.”

These are opportunities that will only increase as digital tech evolves, ones that lend themselves to creativity, both for the consumer and the designer. This is why, fledgling gender-fluid designer Harris Reed (known for being the person responsible for Harry Styles’s dress on the cover of American Vogue), who recently graduated from Central Saint Martins and debuted his first collection at London Fashion Week this season, wasn’t too fussed about this new digital state of affairs. 

“I think the idea of a physical presentation is maybe a bit of an old way to do things,” he tells The Independent. “As a fairly new brand, we’re definitely going to try and come up with new ways of showing who we are once we can go outside and start attending events. But it might be more along the lines of a performance, or something immersive. I think the up and down catwalk format, at least for my brand, feels like it’s a bit out of touch with my generation.”

There is, of course, much value in a physical catwalk show. It is, after all, an art form, one that has led to some of the most iconic moments in fashion’s recent history - think supermodels walking the runway arm-in-arm at Versace in 1991, Yasmin Le Bon walking with her 20-month-old daughter at Chanel in 1991, and literally every Alexander McQueen show, well ever. Then, there are the unplanned spectacles. Like Naomi Campbell taking a tumble in those Vivienne Westwood platform shoes in 1993, or, more recently, Gigi Hadid escorting a crasher off the runway at Chanel in 2019.

In light of this, it’s not hard to see why some designers are still attracted to the traditional format. “I miss the physical show, as what I do is so tactile and physical, and the energy and pace that comes with a moment of togetherness,” says Simone Rocha, who is renowned for her dramatic runway shows that often feature live music, star-studded model lineups, and take place in stunning venues - factors that muddle together to create an opulent and romantic environment that matches the clothes themselves.  

This season, Rocha delivered a beautiful collection as ever, one rooted in a punkish breed of womanhood that pairs stiff leather jackets with voluminous tutus and chunky biker boots with candy floss-coloured frocks. Despite the virtual switch-up, the majesty of Rocha’s collection was thankfully not lost in translation, with an eerily empty church setting and a pulsating soundtrack. “It has been interesting creatively collaborating on film as a different way to share the narratives of the collection,” Rocha tells The Independent. “I think it will be different as the pandemic has given designers the time to give different perspectives, I don’t think it will return to the exact same format.” 

Despite the seismic changes that have occurred in the last year, industry experts are doubtful that traditional fashion shows will disappear altogether. “Instead, a more powerful ‘phygital’ version that combines the two experiences is likely to become the sweet spot for a vast majority of fashion houses,”  says Morgane Le Caer, data editor at global shopping platform Lyst. Muston agrees. “The physical show may well have a long heritage, but the fashion industry is inherently attracted to new ideas. Virtual shows will undoubtedly prove irresistible for us all.”

Whatever happens next, one thing is certain. Thanks to the pandemic, change is most definitely afoot within the fashion industry; it’s just a matter of how we watch it take its next steps.

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