Over the past year, fashion shows around the world have enjoyed a renaissance period of digital experimentation. From confidently stepping off the catwalk and onto immersive digital channels, fashion houses have reimagined the way they tell their stories and represent their new collections—not only to the intimate group of industry insiders, but also the masses.
Now, FLUX—our fashion and luxury team—are pulling back the curtain to examine Fashion Week through a virtualized lens in the first of a series of bi-monthly bulletins. Titled “The Future of Fashion Week,” the May 2021 issue sheds insight on the rich innovations seen in fashion shows throughout the past year while anticipating what’s next.
Fashion Week Gets a New Look
“With the last 12 months has come an explosion of creativity unshackled from business as usual, forcing brands and creatives to think of things differently—we call it a new theatricality,” says Ben Lunt, Head of Experience Design for FLUX. For many brands, this has meant rethinking the format of the fashion show itself. Consider Balenciaga’s “Afterworld” fashion-show-turned-videogame, which takes users on a hero’s journey to discover the label’s Fall ’21 collection worn by volumetrically captured digital models.
Still, the team recognizes a yearning for in-person shows to come back. “What everyone should miss is the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint. And that’s what we mean when we talk in the bulletin also about a new intimacy,” says Lunt, discussing the overall energy and excitement of being immersed in the experience. “But I can’t imagine creative directors not wanting to preserve the level of experimentation that they’ve had over the last twelve months.”
What everyone should miss is the roar of the crowd and the smell of the greasepaint.
As consumers don their Sunday best and step back out in the world—and Fashion Weeks return to cities around the world—what will shows look like? “There’s an interesting opportunity to use real-time virtual production technology to create a physical environment that is impossible, transporting the audience somewhere else,” says Lunt, mentioning the same kind of technology we have used to supercharge production at scale.
He compares the creative opportunities that virtual production enables to something like Arcade Fire’s performance of “Afterlife” live at the YouTube Music Awards several years ago—a genre-bending display that feels less like a concert and more like a live-action drama where fantasy and reality blur together. But, he adds, “realized according to the exacting standards of the category. Imagine, for example, if the audience could experience something like Gucci Aria in real life.”
Tim Dillon, SVP Growth leading in real-time experiences, echoes this vision. “People remotely watch fashion shows as camera-driven shows, where it doesn’t matter if you’re watching on a TV screen or a window on a computer,” he says. “I expect in-person shows that are augmented live by 3D elements, so there’s a reason to show up at a time or place to watch it.”
And the use of even industrial technology isn’t too foreign for a high-fashion setting; consider Alexander McQueen’s paint-spraying robots, says Alix Pennycuick, Executive Creative Director on the FLUX team. “You now have the ability to let people experience those theatrics behind closed doors—though you must also pair that with a content piece that engages the home consumer.”
But he cautions against using shiny technology simply for the sake of innovation. “Innovation without intention is meaningless,” says Pennycuick. “Take the story and narrative that’s there, then build innovation around it to enable different levels of digital and physical experience—and then you have an interesting point of intersection.”
Capturing Tactility, Stitch by Stitch
One thing that fashion shows accomplish is they let people feel the clothes’ materials and see how they move and fall on a body. And that’s a particular challenge in how to represent fashion digitally; Lunt has previously noted how high fashion has historically favored an analog aesthetic—one that might feel at odds with digital.
Innovation without intention is meaningless.
In this sense, traditional livestreams may lack the polish and glamor that high-end fashion aims to evoke. “You can always tell when you’re watching something live—it’s a little less refined, a little too real,” says Lunt. But that may be changing: he mentions The Third Day, a British series by Sky Atlantic that is told as both a pre-recorded drama and a 12-hour livestreamed event. What’s notable is that the live segment, filmed in one continuous take, is indistinguishable in quality from the pre-recorded segments. “The aesthetic of live broadcasts are starting to become sophisticated enough that it doesn’t feel as cheap,” says Lunt.
In a strictly digital environment, there’s also the challenge of the uncanny valley, or rendering and animating garments in a way that appears realistic and believable. “Like art and film, fashion is a difficult industry to innovate because people will always be quick to argue that it’s not good enough—and in the past, they’d be right. But we’re getting right to the edge of what’s possible, and fast,” says Dillon.
Each outfit was photographed from several angles...
...and translated into a 3D object.
We know because we’ve used real-time technology to bring fashion off the runway and beyond the screen for at-home audiences. Earlier this year, NYFW: The Shows gave online viewers an intimate look at New York Fashion Week’s new collections and styles—including Rebecca Minkoff’s Spring 2021 collection rendered in augmented reality. We partnered with RYOT and IMG to build an immersive experience that allowed consumers to check out every stitch from the comfort of their home.
Tailor Your Approach for New Consumer Journeys
Of course, another big question looms over an industry in flux: what even is the role of a fashion show these days? “We’re at a moment where the traditional industry seems themselves being replaced by a more diverse, modern and faster way of viewing fashion that isn’t relegated by a hierarchy,” says Lewis Smithingham, Director of Creative Solutions. Take, for instance, how Travis Scott’s performance in Fortnite built buzz for his Air Jordan collaboration. While that example is very much built toward a mass audience, high fashion hasn’t been averse to similar collaborations, and the world of gaming in general—and it speaks to an overall shift in the way people engage with modern brands. Gucci is probably the most prominent luxury brand to play in this space, most recently showcasing a new collection within Roblox, of all places.
Pennycuick also notes that social platforms have displaced power of the conversation away from brands and toward consumers. “With platforms like TikTok, more things are happening organically, and that in itself means this conversation needs to be ongoing,” he says. “That’s where you see a partnership between the creative director and the consumer, using social listening to understand the perception and how they’re telling the story.”
And as the pace at which consumers engage accelerates, brands may break out from the traditional calendar too—using Fashion Week as a jumping point to build the consumer relationship over a longer term. “Dries Van Noten describes the show ‘as a grand finale of the creative process,’” says Pennycuick. “But if shows mark the end of the creative cycle,” he says, “then the journey with the consumer begins at that point—whether that’s in a store, in e-commerce or through some other experience.”
This approach can also prove fruitful for brands as the path to purchase evolves. Fashion shows often take place months before clothes are available for purchase, an ecosystem of digital content helps brands engage with consumers over the long term. “Brands want a life outside of Fashion Week, and can extend the experience into multiple touchpoints,” says Dillon. “How are you invited to see a show? What does the show itself look like, or the aftercare?” Each moment offers an opportunity to meet consumers in new ways.
If shows mark the end of the creative cycle, then the journey with the consumer begins at that point.
Digital and Fashion Week: A Perfect Fit?
Does a greater reliance on digital experience run the risk of losing out on the exclusivity that luxe fashion fans have traditionally enjoyed? Not necessarily, say the FLUX team. Rather, it’s about showing up for audiences more effectively, whether they’re insiders, ambassadors or mass consumers.
“I think digital is often associated with mass reach and accessibility, and I think the next phase of digital in fashion and luxury will be characterized by a return to some exclusivity—deliberately designed to be viewed by the right people,” says Pennycuick. He compares the intentional use of digital to the fashion industry’s challenge of sustainability: “Make content better and make it less—an approach that’s completely different from the relentless hamster wheel that the industry has had people running in of late.”
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