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.