The question on all our minds these past few months has certainly converged on where the future of fashion is heading as uncertainties ebbed and flowed. With air travel being curtailed, the ideas of both holding and attending physical shows halfway across the world are being put on hold for now. However, that has not stopped the industry’s valiant efforts to bring us on an exciting sojourn, albeit via the digital space.
With its fashion week scheduled in March this year, Shanghai gave the world the first glimpse of what a digital fashion week might entail and offer experientially. The special-edition Tmall Cloud Fashion Week, held from March 24 to 30, drew more than 150 brands and over 10 buyer shops and platforms for the online fashion-cum-e-commerce fest to showcase their fall/winter collections, together with the live-streaming of “See Now, Buy Now” sales, makeover sessions and panel discussions to Tmall’s 800 million active users.
Shanghai Fashion Week (SHFW) was the first purely digital fashion week of its kind, comprising a compilation of several formats, from the partnership with tech giant Alibaba’s Tmall that took a consumer-centric approach to other more exclusive events organised by fashion design incubator Labelhood to promote young designers with “cloud after parties” thrown in for good measure. In addition, the off-schedule initiative by BOH Project on art and fashion presentation platform XCOMMONS curated a concept-rich virtual runway that utilised AR and CG technology to create an immersive and 360° experience.
Then it was onwards to London Fashion Week’s menswear shows (LFWM) in June—a testament that the fashion wheel may slow down but it never stops. In the city that has spawned a high proportion of the world’s most accomplished designers, courtesy of elite establishment Central Saint Martins and other top UK design colleges, could we have expected any less than the most creative of presentations from there? The end result was a multidimensional discourse that was experimental and intimate.
With LFWM held at the height of the furore and protests surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement, it became a platform for political and cross-cultural statements which were interwoven within fashion narratives, as seen at Charles Jeffrey Loverboy and Daniel W. Fletcher. Jeffrey’s digital platform congregated a coterie of creatives of colour, from dancer-choreographer to singer-songwriter, spoken poet and fashion designers, whose performances brought awareness to racial and gender issues.
Fellow London-based designer Bianca Saunders’ zine collaboration involving art, poetry and fashion championed the blurred lines between the masculine-feminine sartorial aesthetic.
Meanwhile, Priya Ahluwalia’s presentation took the form of a digital 3D exhibition shown with her photography book, Jalebi, offering a cultural exploration of her Punjabi-mixed heritage roots as well as championing diversity and the struggle of immigrants.
A bold move by Osman Yousefzada’s film, Her Dreams are Bigger, gave a voice to Bangladeshi women garment workers by recording their words as they imagined the white women customers of the clothes they make. Not neglecting the urgency of social responsibility and sustainability, Marques’ Almeida unveiled their upcycled collection, ReM’Ade, which promises to right fashion’s wrongs through transparency and fair pay.
Springing a delightful surprise, Jonathan Anderson gave an absolutely whimsical and memorable “show in a box” for the JW Anderson Spring 2021 menswear and Resort 2021 women’s presentations which sparked joy and optimism in dark times. He was filmed on video unboxing and explaining the collections using the contents in the box, replete with lookbook photos, fabric swatches, pressed flowers, paper masks and motivation cards. This concept was repeated for Loewe with a more extravagant box of objects that portrayed the collection and brought it to life, supplemented by a 24-hour festival of Instagram Live series showing craftspeople and other creatives from around the world giving talks, demos and workshops.
As London’s round of menswear shows concluded, next on the fashion calendar was the Paris digital couture week and its menswear presentations in the first half of July. While Chanel’s haute couture undertaking relied solely on a straightforward lookbook photography-based presentation that came with a short video, it didn’t diminish the collection’s rock-andromance allure.
Turning to her Italian filmmaker friend, Matteo Garrone, who created a short surrealist movie, Le Mythe Dior, for Dior’s Fall/Winter 2020 haute couture collection, Maria Grazia Chiuri took a leaf from Théâtre de la Mode, an exhibition of the couture created in doll-like proportions due to the scarcity wreaked by World War II in 1945, to showcase her collection in the same miniature one-third size.
It was Pierpaolo Piccioli’s “phygital” haute couture show for Valentino in the form of a dialogue between Pierpaolo Piccioli and Nick Knight, titled Of Grace and Light, that debuted a hybrid concept straddling the IRL and virtual formats. Staged in a pitch-dark Cinecitta movie set in Rome and attended by a small local audience, the digital spectators’ live-streamed experience of the romantic fantasy was spliced in a video showing Knight’s creative clip portion and the physical runway show-cum-installation of an all-white collection. Despite the limitations of a pandemic, these designers have found one way or another to keep the fashion dream alive, tapping on an artistic, theatrical or cinematic approach, among others.
Taking the spotlight next were the big menswear players of Milan and Paris (MFWM and PFWM), who kept the momentum going with their highly anticipated Spring 2021 collections. Showing ahead of the PFWM schedule, Hermès live-streamed its presentation in partnership with experimental director Cyril Teste of Collective MxM fame to deliver a minimalist, paredback production that looked unstaged and as if it were shot in a single take.
Prada’s Multiple Views Spring/Summer 2021 virtual showcase raised the bar for its sleek and modern art direction in a strong reminder of Mrs. Prada’s prowess in story-telling and world creation through the evocation of emotions and moods that are graphic yet nuanced. The back-to-basics fashion collection was portrayed in multiple views of five chapters by five global creatives, image-makers and artists: Terence Nance, Joanna Piotrowska, Martine Syms, Juergen Teller and Willy Vanderperre. Each of them created a distinct interpretation of the Prada man and woman by capturing a facet of the collection in the dramatic transformation of purity to radicalism, and simplicity to complexity.
In Kim Jones’ seminal effort for Dior Men, art and fashion convened in a calm and collected collection that was not short on uplifting print and colour. This collaboration with Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, who specialises in massive portraits of Black individuals, was juxtaposed with Dior’s craftsmanship and told through a lookbook and a dreamy documentary. Virgil Abloh and his team, meanwhile, worked remotely to bring Louis Vuitton’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection to a real-life dockside presentation in Shanghai that was shown to local guests, while being live-streamed to the rest of the world.
Noteworthy were two out-of-the-box projects by one, John Galliano in his filmmaking endeavour for Maison Margiela’s Artisanal collection—a part documentary, part reality show of the entire process behind the making of the collection which made for insightful and stimulating viewing. On another route, Olivier Rousteing took Balmain’s new collection with archive pieces onto a barge down the Seine to celebrate the brand’s 75th anniversary. He got the luminaries to help, from Beyoncé’s art director, Andrew Makadsi, to choreographer Jean-Charles Jousni and host Yseult, and the show was sent straight to TikTok to be shared with the world.
The season where far-flung destinations are cherry-picked for the biggest cruise season shows had all been cancelled or postponed, from Chanel in Capri to Prada in Japan, Giorgio Armani in Dubai, Max Mara in St. Petersburg, and Versace and Gucci in the US. With the exception of Dior, who went ahead with live-streaming its originally planned production, alongside a physical audience comprising the models, a pocketful of clients and the locals.
Back in May, creative director Alessandro Michele announced that Gucci would be limiting itself to showcasing two coed shows per year, a sharp reduction from its annual calendar of five shows. He unveiled the men’s and women’s Gucci Epilogue collection on the last day of Milan Digital Fashion Week in lieu of the traditional Resort 2021 show.
The finale in a trilogy dedicated to a behind-the-scenes backstage look of the multilayered ritual of putting together a fashion show, from designing, production, staging and viewing, the Epilogue visual narrative was live-streamed over 12 hours. Staged in Rome’s Renaissance-era Palazzo Sacchetti, enveloped by its natural surrounds and sounds, the show was lensed in a raw, gritty format. The collection, modelled by Michele’s team of designers and others, was revealed in a presentation that felt authentic with an expected and welcome dose of Michele-brand idiosyncracy.
In London, Burberry also jumped on the bandwagon of getting its design team to model the resort collection outside their London abode. The effect was fresh and appealing, emanating warmth and community. While Chanel retreated to YouTube to broadcast its resort collection, Dior bravely made its way to Piazza del Duomo in Lecce, Puglia, to stage its cruise show, which was made more personal by the fact that Maria Grazia Chiuri’s father hails from the region. Again, Chiuri shone the spotlight on the region’s crafts and craftspeople featured in the collection in her mission to celebrate these local creative wares traditionally made by women.
Delivering virtual experience after virtual experience, global fashion’s tour de force pushed ahead with novel ways to communicate and deliver in a new normality within a rapidly reconfigured world. The digital space and its communication tools and platforms are definitely here to stay and it’s a matter of time before brands and their followers get acclimatised to the eclectic ways in which fashion can be presented, besides straight up and down a runway or a frolic and dance in front of the camera.
Using the myriad of platforms to broadcast fashion through formats such as podcast, documentary, conceptual video, short film, illustration, animation, CGI, performance art and others, we can definitely expect creativity to flourish, along with the power to inspire, empower and attract.
What the last few months has shown is a hopeful glimpse of a fashion world that has the capacity to change—to reset and regenerate—for the better, even in the midst of great challenges, yielding results that breathe new life and give birth to a new moment that is perhaps more kind, inclusive and sustainable without losing all of its magic and wonderment. Jonathan Anderson captured it succinctly with the printed cards found in his “show in a box”, two of which read, “The future is unwritten,” followed by “The end is the beginning.” Indeed.