The British Fashion Council’s (BFC) first foray into digital-only show territory – a magazine style e-platform housing content from more than 120 of its stable of designers, both directly placed and embedded from other media platforms – was not an unqualified success. Well, not based on the fast-fire press critiques bemoaning a lack of live buzz, new collections and largely low-fi content. But to benchmark the gutsy initiative – a speedy digital riposte to the Covid-induced muting of its annual June menswear shows, created while most production is still in stasis – against a legacy system of catwalk shows that already feel jaded in a season-less world of consumption as entertainment, and where numerous megabrands are already advocating a decentralized fashion calendar, is to miss some essential strategic future gazing.
According to Stephanie Phair, chairman of the BFC: “Regardless of how imperfect, you have to think about a totally new world of new possibilities, not what fashion used to look like, because the reality is that’s all changed, and fashion cannot live in a vacuum.”
Lynne Murray, director of the Digital Anthropology Lab, London College of Fashion, University of the Arts, concurs: “Our sense of time, geography and entertainment across all creative media is eroding and in flux. Fashion’s native state is not digital, and fashion’s problem has never been creativity. But the challenges of intelligently combining both mean the moment of the catwalk spectacle and beyond have been amplified to a new place beyond imagination by Covid-19.”
With the September shows already front of mind, from enhancing interactivity and bridging incoming URL to IRL gaps, to facilitating fan-community conversations, ‘leaning into live’ and personalized platforming, here are key learnings from LFW digital and glimpses into where it may go next:
Colliding Mentalities Behind In-Progress Platform
The platform, created in just two months, was conceived as a marketing/discovery platform for multiple audiences – consumer-fans, press and buyers – with the capacity to be recrafted (extensively) in future. Content on the still-live platform includes streamed panels, films, music playlists, photography slide shows and even virtual exhibitions. Affirming the value of the mixed bag, the BFC reveals that the most viewed content to date, from 159k+ site visits (approx. 60k unique visitors) and counting, has been (“to our surprise”) the class of 2020 university shows; Jalebi – a VR exhibition by Indian-Nigerian Londoner Priya Ahluwalia; a music video style film by Scottish-Jamaican designer Nicholas Daley and an expert panel session on heritage and innovation in retail.
As Kayvan Moghaddassi, founder of technologists Red Apple Digital, which created the platform, explains: “The aim was to build something we could augment at any time, including pulling from [social media] platforms that may not even exist yet, aggregating from anywhere.”
As yet, it’s something of a jumble – lots of content, a problematic lack of navigation (more on this later), ripe for UX innovation: “But fashion has always been the perfection-centric industry,” says Phair, “whereas the technology sector, while not averse to perfection, believes in an iterative approach. Merging those two cultures is extremely exciting.”
Digital Natives Demand E-Accompaniments (Including for IRL Experiences)
Phair insists that despite a return to IRL shows already surfacing, the desire for digital is here to stay because, “Fashion Weeks are becoming more consumer-driven. Social media has meant that it’s no longer just for trade, and arguably, trade has better ways to do business than these formats,”. Additionally, a new generation of designers, and their fans, view the role of the fashion creative via a vastly different set of lenses to their predecessors; one designer’s PR holy grail is another’s anathema, catapulting the traditional catwalk template into freefall:
“For younger audiences and designers that are digital natives it’s a different world of self-expression and communication, and very individualised,” says Moghaddassi. For the designers it was extremely important to be able to produce content that they could be in control of. These mini entrepreneurs want to present themselves in a way that specifically fits their brand.”
For bigger brands where budget is no obstacle, and for whom the physical spectacle will drive digital reach, tech that bridges/and or merge those realities will be key. Burberry, for example, has just announced a closed physical show for September, with an as-yet undisclosed public-facing digital component.
As such, Moghaddassi reveals they are already working on developing the platform’s capabilities to reflect that URL meets IRL demand: “We’re looking at how people can feel involved if they’re not actually in the IRL space, such as making it clear who’s in the front row if you’re watching remotely; creating a sense of the live buzz online. Part of that will be exploring the experience from mobile [which accounted for approximately 50% of the platform’s viewers this time around] if you’re wearing headphones, which is potentially so much more immersive than watching via desktop.”
Community, Conversation & Collectivism
The community factor holds significant mileage, too, with an increased consumer audience. According to Moghaddassi, “because so much of these events are actually about the conversations that unfold as they’re happening, we’re considering how to create hubs to acknowledge those connections.”
Such conversations underscore the power of the collective showcase. Despite the loud debate around decentralizing the fashion calendar and disbanding the core Fashion Weeks (Gucci, Saint Laurent, Michael Kors) the tribal vibe of fashion, where discovery connected to movements and groupings as well as individuals still holds considerable appeal: “People still pay attention to a moment and there is a lot to be said of creating a moment in time that gives oxygen to all brands, particularly where the bigger brands bring their star power to shine a light on emerging designers,” says Phair.
Notably, the bigger designers were largely AWOL this time around, as were the superstar content creators (designers but also filmmakers, tech and musical talent) necessary to deliver wow-factor content akin to the halcyon days of McQueen and Chalayan and their coterie of boundary-pushers. It’s a situation Phair anticipates will change as the platform evolves and the role of new-gen Fashion Week is most broadly appreciated: “I think that as people understand that fashion week is genuinely open to all, designers will understand that they need to create powerful content that is much more consumer-led.”
Leaning into Live
To deliver on those moments will also demand a greater focus on live – an emphasis on appointment viewing and the buzz of drop culture style countdowns, see next-gen American TV-app NTWRK for a prime example. As a consumer appetite exponentially accelerated by lockdown, from one-to-one virtual consultation tools to one-to-very-many live-streamed versions of commerce (Burberry’s mid-lockdown trials in China with Alibaba saw audiences of 1.4m, based on an anticipated 50k) it’s an opportunity not to be missed.
Phair believes it is on the cards (“by September a lot of designers will be able to get their post-Covid supply chains back together and will be able to show actual newness”) affirmed by the platform’s currently subtle existing embrace of shoppable content technologist Smartzer. So far Smartzer’s been deployed to make the daily digital highlights reels interactive – clicking a designers’ content connects users to their profile, a tool that’s generated huge (78%) engagement rates – with the creation of shoppable links, or at least pre-ordering, eminently possible.
Cultural Context to Shape New Navigation
What is certain is that in the era of raised consciousness regarding consumption and brand alliance, cultural context will be king in terms of creative vision but also knock-on commerciality. It’s another sentiment amplified by lockdown, with fans affronted by brands pushing pre-planned content, regardless of shifting cultural mood.
“Fashion has moved way beyond the clothes,” says Phair. “It’s part of the cultural conversation and it’s increasingly important for consumers to also buy into the purpose of the designers and what they stand for. And you can only do that well when you have other art forms mixed in. A digital platform will enable those other mediums to more easily participate.”
The most outstanding example arguably came from Charles Jeffrey and his label LOVERBOY, which saw the cult Glaswegian designer repurpose the privilege of his platform at late notice in light of the Black Lives Matter protests via SOLASTA – a showcase live-streamed by his basement studio/club showcasing Black creatives including recent fashion graduate Catherine Hudson, singer-songwriter Rachel Chinouriri and poet and activist Kai-Isaiah Jamal. Audiences were asked to donate to UK Black Pride if they felt they’d ‘learned or felt something’. “In structuring our approach to this Fashion Week, we recognised that creating anti-racism fundraising mechanics was vital,” says Jeffrey. “None of this work would have felt right otherwise and diverse casting was never going to feel ‘enough’ – because diversity and showcasing new talent is already who we are.”
According to Sophie Jewes, founder of PR agency Raven, which represents LOVERBOY: “It’s going to be really important to determine the balance between what audiences – not brands – need and want in equal measure. I personally don’t think live-streamed fashion shows in the traditional sense work. Fashion can absolutely feel like entertainment; I think that what we achieved with the Charles Jeffrey LOVERBOY showcase is a really compelling, authentic example of that.” Jewes also cites Londoner Bianca Saunders’ panel discussion on collaboration on experimental film platform SHOWstudio and Swedish designer Per Götteson’s surrealist thirty second animated campaign as “flickers of scheduling brilliance.”
Moghaddassi suggests creating groupings of content, on-site topics, will be key to the next iteration of the platform, echoing core e-commerce mechanics: “There will be more personality and structure moving forward; more recommendations tools, related and interconnecting content, which is only really possible when you’re dealing with repeat visits.”
Such personalization will also redefine the B2B experience, with the portals for buyers becoming far more differentiated from the consumer journey. It’s already in place via buying tools such as Joor Passport – an app that allows brand to determine which buyers see their collections and how (which products and also which prices), recalibrating the webpage infinitely. Affirming the benefits of a multi-media, personalized showcase designed for review, 443 unique buyers used the Joor app during LFW Digital, 50% post-event. The top brands? A Cold Wall, Alexa Chung, Ahluwalia, Axel Ariagato and Anya Hindmarch.
Mindful of the incoming roar of immersive engagement tools, it’s already partnering on 360-degree video tech, which will include embedded talk tracks, as well as a move into virtual showrooming.
Evolving A Fashion Week Like No Other
It’s an experiential maelstrom that may unleash a major industry renaissance. As Jewes says: “We’ll reflect on 2020 as the year that ‘experiential’ evolved faster than ever before. Practically speaking, there isn’t going to be another fashion week like June – so the takeaways need to be centred around what accurately captured the cultural consciousness, what actually made audiences feel something?”