The Ganni exhibition at Copenhagen Fashion Week spring / summer 2021. Courtesy Copenhagen Fashion Week

The Fashion Shows of the Future Will Be Phygital.Or Perhaps Not.

Nothing can be as unpredictable as the future-and for fashion an industry that relies heavily on predictions and trends, the post- Coronavirus era has been a catalyst for radical changes. Social distancing and health regulations meant the idea of a fashion week as we knew it had to change-with first being the fashion shows. The most recent Copenhagen fashion week showed us that the buzz word of the future would be “phygital” – physical space and digital technologies combined.

Copenhagen Fashion Week was redesigned both as a hybrid format of virtual showrooms which allowed buyers to review the clothes and as a newly designed digital platform to host the shows that would take place both in a digital and phygital format. The advisory board made up of Ganni’s founder Nicolaj Reffstrup; Stine Goya’s CEO Thomas Hertz; Holzweiler’s creative director Susanne Holzweiler; Hope’s creative director Frida Bard; and the creative agency MOON’s CEO Martin Gjesing decided on a series of installments that included almost everything: from presentations, runways exhibitions to installations.

The experimental format performed well-that is, for a compromise. However, the organizers knew right the start it was a challenging choice. “We know from other fashion weeks that the numbers haven’t been crazy high” Cecilie Thorsmark, chief executive of Copenhagen Fashion Week told Vogue Business. Vogue Business also reported that according to Traakr, the best performing Copenhagen Fashion Week brand was Ganni, which hosted an exhibition-by-appointment instead of a runway gathering with 208 posts and over 156,000 engagements, thus  suggesting that people still want to engage in physical events,

Now that Copenhagen Fashion Week is over, the conversation about how the fashion show will evolve becomes more relevant than ever. If the fashion show is based on the shared experience-a communal feeling of participation, then how this could be reproduced in the non-physical world? How would we get the excitement, the thrill, the show? And how can consumers want to actually buy without the fantasy offered, without the immediate reaction?  “If I’m a buyer I’m not going to spend tens of thousands of pounds of my budget on a collection I haven’t physically seen. The digital platforms are great for discovering brands and great for re-orders for instance, but if I was buying from a new designer or spending vast sums, I would want to see and touch the collection first,” notes Lauretta Roberts, CEO & Editor in Chief of The Industry.fashion media.

She is not the only one who sees radical changes coming. For Evelyn Mora, the founder of Helsinki Fashion Week, the fashion industry will embrace interdisciplinary collaboration to the fullest. “It is a new start for the fashion industry and I personally see it as a positive opportunity to reinvent ourselves and our industry. “ she notes. She also feels digital shows do have a future-in a complementary form. “Digital shows might replace the physical shows as we know it but I do think that digital can never replace IRL interactions and socializing. Digital is an essential tool for the fashion industry to embrace. I don’t think that it is an either-or question. Digital compliments physical and vice versa.”

Katie Baron is an author and the Director of Brand Engagement at Stylus. For her, the future of the fashion show will be a mixture of gated, industry-only content like debates, and public-facing experiences from shows to further discussions. “One of the most significant changes will be the introduction of not only live-streamed shows that we’ll comment on akin to watching sport but also, slightly further down the line, the capacity to enter virtual environments with digital models allowing even smaller brands to showcase worlds more closely aligned with their creative vision than at present when even a basic show requires significant funding.”

For Lauretta Roberts, the catwalk, and the showroom experiences are vital. “The catwalk or runway is a device used by a designer to market their collection and present a coherent and compelling creative vision for their collection – they are important and often just joyous to watch. Yes, they are expensive to produce but the marketing benefit and the content created from it endures long after the show has ended. But the buying, from a retailer perspective, happens in the showrooms afterward when they really get a chance to get up close and personal with the collection.” She predicts the new fashion show format is here to stay. “I would not be surprised to see brands investing more in digital presentations” she notes, “either through the digital fashion weeks or through their own channels to cover off the marketing and creative vision side of the equation. “

If phygital is to stay as the new fashion show format, then technology will be vital in securing a future for the industry. “Tech will certainly put consumers in the picture to a greater extent, making shows much more of a ‘tentpole’ moment, but not necessarily bound to the conventional seasons.” remarks Katie Baron. “Consider too, she adds, a greater play on the components that constitute great shows, such as (AR)-trialling of catwalk make-up – straight to fans’ faces – allowing their audiences to continue generating the buzz.”

According to Lauretta Roberts,the change is coming-and will most likely affect both smaller designers and big brands. “There does need to be some sort of physical presentation of a collection for trade but I don’t think it needs to be four times a year and we need to give clothes a chance to sell in-store before they are discounted and moved on to allow space for new deliveries. It’s a bit insane that all the summer stock is cleared in June and the stores are full of coats and chunky knitwear in August. That has to change.”

Virtual fashion weeks are a fact. But how do you review a digital fashion show?

The COVID-19 pandemic has completely transformed the way we live and work-and expedited the world’s digital evolution into forms and structures that haven’t been everyday reality a short time ago. The fashion industry has been hastily digitized like no other. Traditionally based on interpersonal relationships forging around physical fashion shows, organizers worldwide are experimenting with the digital versions of fashion weeks.

Back in late March and April, Shanghai and Moscow offered a digital version of their subsequent fashion weeks; it was London Men’s Fashion week though that placed the digital fashion show as something that is here to stay for good. The British Fashion Council delivered its latest London Fashion Week 2020 Men’s under the telling hashtag:  #LFWReset. But it is something of a test case for what will follow: a digital schedule from Paris (couture and men’s wear) from July 6 to July 13, and Milan, from July 14 to July 17. In New York, Mark Beckham, vice president of marketing and events for CFDA, affirmed that they will be launching a digital platform to feature designers traditionally showing as part of the original schedule.

With physical distancing rules excluding the traditional fashion show format, digital presentations have taken the form of short films; live-streamed physical runways with no audience present, and virtual showrooms. In that sense, the question for the fashion expert is crucial: How do you approach a fashion show as a critic? Is a new format calling for a new approach- and a new toolset to evaluate, interpret, analyze the designer’s vision, its delivery, and predict the success-or no-of his offerings? And most importantly, are digital fashion shows replacing physical ones?

Bella Gladman is a freelance writer and editor and has also chaired many panel discussions reviewing fashion collections. For her, a digital film- like show can sometimes be more accurate in presenting the designer’s vision. ”Is more of the designer’s original vision in collaboration with the filmmaker, she notes. “Digital shows might not have the physicality but can showcase the vision best-and allow for more experimentation –shown in context with other cultural products such as music clips.”

So how do you evaluate a digital fashion show? Gladman notes that interpreting a digital formatted show begins with applying nothing else than the traditional editor’s skill set: “You do apply your critical toolbox, she says, but in a more abstract way-you get to feel an atmosphere rather than fabrics”.  Indeed it’s this very essence of things that makes digital fashion shows a part of the future. ”Fashion shows will reemerge, she notes, as big fashion brands will continue to stage big productions with huge PR campaigns beforehand as usual. That being said, there has been much talk about sustainability in the industry-and digital shows can really benefit smaller brands that want to communicate their vision to their fan base.”

For Filep Motwary, the Editor-at-large of Vogue Greece, and a fashion exhibition curator, reviewing a digital fashion show in the traditional way is problematic. “I am not sure how accurate, how valid a review as such will be», he notes. “When attending a show in person, the experience I value greatly as it offers me a literal way to examine one’s work within my own mindset while I am using all of my senses. Watching a collection on a screen could be as well interesting but most probably not as fulfilling. There are so many elements to look at like the materials, the construction, the embellishment and you need to have a closer look to truly appreciate.” For him, the actual physical presence is by itself the very essence of the fashion experience-and part of the thrill. “The feeling you get when at a show is exceptional, it’s exciting! Nothing can replace that feeling, at least for the moment.”

Motwary believes shows can efficiently work in a complementary mode- and serve as an inclusion tool. “Hopefully digital will be an extra door for others who were left outside. Why not?”, he affirms. “A pandemic as such cannot stop creativity, it’s impossible to block humanity from dreaming, to be desirable or optimistic, to dress and feel alive. This is who we are. COVID 19 is not human” concludes.

For Philippe Pourhashemi, the freelance fashion writer, consultant, and stylist, the challenge with a digital show is that you lose out on all the live elements.” Elements such as the music, the attitude of the models, the general mood of the presentation, and the audience reaction, can be defining when it comes to elaborating your review” adds. In his mind, a fashion review is all about the clothing and the references at play within each silhouette.

“Using your instincts and imagination is probably the best way to achieve that, hoping that the collection touches or inspires you”, he admits and further elaborates on how physical fashion shows and digital presentations can in fact coexist. “I think we’re going to see a mix of both, shows made for a much smaller or absent audience and digital events aimed at the consumer and social media exposure. It’s going to be difficult to replace the ritualistic and performing dimensions of a fashion show using only digital, and I still believe people will want to gather in a place to experience beauty, but at the moment it’s hard to say when this will happen.”

Amy Odell is the writer of the successful book “Tales from the Back Row” and a regular contributor for BoF and The Cut. She agrees fashion shows aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. “Physical shows will probably be reduced in number for many years to come, she predicts, but I don’t think they’ll go away entirely. I could see a future where fashion shows are organized like art fairs, where consumers can buy a ticket and then see a slew of fashion exhibits/shows in one day. That way, consumers are subsidizing physical shows, which makes them easier to put on for labels that don’t have much money to do so.” For her, there is always a place for the fashion show as long as big fashion brands have the means to produce it-and share the experience with the audience.

“Big labels with deep pockets will always want to put on a show, and the industry will always want to go to them. But I think they will be choosier about which collections they show physically and be forced to think harder about why they’re asking people to come see their clothes in person versus looking at photos at home. Just look at the Balenciaga A/W 20 show; it was the kind of moment that had to be seen in person, that made people feel something, and that made a powerful (and perhaps eerily prescient) statement about our times” she concludes.