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For many in the industry — and for celebrants beyond it — fashion week is something close to a religious experience. There’s an effect both visceral and spiritual in seeing those beautiful designs up close, in person and in motion, draped or stretched over models as they strut down the runway. Retail buyers, high-value customers, journalists and photographers are given a brief, hopefully glorious glimpse into the future — at least by a season or so.
But Covid has affected fashion brands beyond just the supply chain issues and impact on the in-store shopping experience: Fashion weeks have had a transformative two years. In many ways, the pandemic has accelerated a democratization of access that was already underway. Of course, livestreams and recordings of these sanctified runway shows have made the rounds for years on the web. But the invitation-only, in-person assembly was generally considered the real deal, primarily for the retail buyers who placed clothing orders after the show for the following season. Designers are embracing on-demand and livestreamed digital shows, DTC see-now-buy-now purchasing models, à la mode purchasing via retailers like Moda Operandi, and the increase of influencer and celebrity presence in lieu of buyers in the audience. In doing so, they’ve taken every opportunity to market directly to consumers, and 2021 saw a surge of activity around this theme.
And to stop the spread of the pandemic, cities across the globe shifted their safety regulations back and forth, leading fashion brands to adapt their approaches to fashion weeks and runway shows, in general. While some moved “off calendar,” in favor of dates that better aligned with more open windows in Covid regulations, others have forgone in-person shows for more Covid-friendly formats – not all of them digital, as you’ll see below. Even prior to Covid, the number of brands participating in fashion week has dwindled: 176 brands in February 2018 New York Fashion Week dropping to 70 brands in February 2020 New York Fashion Week. Covid has only accelerated the decline. With fashion week in flux, Glossy conducted a study to chart the evolution of a core industry ritual in the midst of Covid.
- Glossy selected 71 brands between four major fashion week cities: Milan, Paris, London and New York.
- Data was collected for the women’s Fall/Winter 2021 and Spring/Summer 2022 shows.
- Glossy recorded whether each show was digital-only or had an in-person fashion show or presentation format. For in-person events, Glossy noted the number of restrictions set: vaccine and mask requirements, social distanced seating, limited seating capacities, outdoor venue and by-appointment-only access.
General trends for fashion weeks
- For Fall/Winter 2021, measured European cities all required brands to only present digitally, while in NY, two of the measured brands opted for in-person shows: Christian Siriano and Rebecca Minkoff.
- Notably, the majority of shows for Fall/Winter 2021 were held between February 2021-March 2021, prior to the Covid vaccine being available to the general public.
- From Fall/Winter 2021 to Spring/Summer 2022, trends changed dramatically. The Spring/Summer 2022 shows were held between September 2021-October 2021, after the Covid vaccine was approved for the general public, but during the Delta variant’s rise.
- All cities saw a drop-off, in terms of brands favoring digital shows. Milan had the largest drop, from 100% in Fall/Winter 2021 to a mere 6% in Spring/Summer 2022.
As Covid continues to evolve, fashion has also shifted and started testing new formats and media for fashion shows, including collaborative films, Covid-safe physical supplements to shows and immersive digital experiences, to name a few.
Europe leaned toward caution for Fall/Winter 2021
The Fall/Winter 2021 fashion weeks took place between February 2021-March 2021, a period prior to governments approving the Covid vaccine for the wider population. The time period also coincided with a decrease in the average number of positive cases among the four measured countries and their respective fashion week cities.
Despite the lower number of positive cases in Paris and London, the governing bodies that organize fashion week — La Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode and The British Fashion Council, respectively — required brands to produce Covid-safe digital shows only. Similarly in Milan, despite not having the same mandate, brands avoided producing in-person shows in the city, opting for digitally streamed shows without an in-person audience. Without an available vaccine, Europe as a whole was reluctant to put attendees’ health at risk by moving too quickly back to business as usual.
New York Fashion Week stood as the only city in our set of four without 100% digital shows in Fall/Winter 2021. Unlike many European cities, New York Fashion Week did not have a main governing body that mandated the production of digital-only shows. In fact, only recently did the CFDA and IMG collaborate to produce a New York Fashion Week schedule. Without that top-down guidance, brands instead followed city protocols regulating the use of masks and social distancing, allowing brands a bit more leeway. As a result, Christian Siriano and Rebecca Minkoff, two New York brands, went on to produce in-person shows with strict Covid restrictions, including requiring guests to be masked and social distanced even when seated.
Fashion week reopened for Spring/Summer 2022
The following season, Spring/Summer 2022, took place between September 2021-October 2021, post Covid vaccine approval for the general public, but during the rise of the Delta variant. With the release of the vaccine and subsequent relaxation of Covid restrictions, fashion weeks saw a shift back to in-person shows.
Of all cities, London retained the highest percentage of brands holding on to digital-only shows, with 76% of measured brands opting to continue to forgo in-person shows. On the opposite end, Milan had the largest drop, with a meager 6% of brands producing digital-only shows. In the middle of the group, both New York and Paris dropped to 35% of brands remaining digital-only.
With the drop of digital-only shows in the Spring/Summer 2022 season, brands also shifted overall Covid precautions. In New York, in particular, designers operated their in-person shows in outdoor spaces during the Spring/Summer 2022 season. Along with vaccine availability, that reduced the need for more stringent restrictions. Of the 65% of New York brands that opted for in-person shows, 55% of them chose outdoor locations for their shows. For European brands, each fashion week city only had one brand in our sample choose an outdoor space for its in-person show; only 9.68% of all in-person European shows chose an outdoor setting as a Covid precaution.
While key safety measures for New York, outdoor spaces and proof of vaccination were the only enforced Covid safety protocols, as guests were not socially distanced or required to wear masks, regardless of whether the show was indoors or outdoors. The three European cities studied followed suit, with the majority of indoor shows only requiring proof of vaccination as a Covid precaution. As Covid restrictions eased within the country, brands followed suit during fashion week. As a note, Spring/Summer 2022 occurred during a time when science had only begun learning about breakthrough Covid cases.
A handful of brands continue to explore digital options
With Covid expected to be a constant uninvited guest at fashion shows into the future, brands have tested different media to showcase their latest seasons. For New York Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2021, some brands filmed shows outdoors in NYC specifically for digital distribution as an alternative to traditional show attendance: Carolina Herrera filmed models wearing the collection on top of an open air NYC tour bus to celebrate its 40th anniversary, while Michael Kors filmed its show on a street in the closed theater district.
Other New York brands also departed from the traditional catwalk format for their digital showcases. For instance, up-and-coming brand Collina Strada played with the medium of film and digital shows, creating a digital film and lookbook of GIFs inspired by the covers of the ”Animorphs” book series; rather than a standard runway video, the brand’s film featured GIFs of the designer-dressed models transforming into vibrant animals. And newer, younger brands weren’t the only ones to test new formats: Fashion veteran Rebecca Minkoff included NFTs in her Spring/Summer 2021 show, a nod to the continued movement toward digital innovation in fashion.
As seen above, London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2022 retained the most digital-only shows, compared to the other three cities. While those brands focused on digital showcases, many created smaller in-person, experiential supplements. For example, while Halpern collaborated on a film with the Royal Ballet in London to present its collection digitally, the brand supplemented that with appointment-only physical viewings, typically in the brand’s showroom, of the collection primarily targeted to retailer buyers. This allowed the brand both to safely show the collection to a wider audience and to provide a more intimate experience to industry professionals without the crowds. Other London brands such as Temperley, Molly Goddard and Emilia Wickstead took similar tracks.
Among brands breaking away from traditional runway formats to present their latest designs, JW Anderson stood out the most with its “exhibition in a box.” Sent to guests who would have received an invitation to a physical show, the curated boxes contained images, descriptions and instructions on how to display the images, which highlighted the newest collection. Of course, the experience was completely Covid-safe.
On the opposite end of the caution spectrum, only 6% of measured brands produced digital-only shows for Spring/Summer 2022 in Milan. As a result, brands in that city experimented far less with new presentation formats. But that doesn’t mean there weren’t exceptions: During Milan’s digital Fall/Winter 2021 show season, Marni stood out with its use of Zoom-themed showcases. The brand had three digitally broadcasted shows at different times of the day: morning, noon and evening. Each show represented one of the three main meals of the day. The idea was to gather people digitally, at a time when the Zoom platform was understood as a go-to lifeline to social connection.
Paris also had one standout digital maverick: In both Fall/Winter 2021 and Spring/Summer 2021, Balenciaga tested different formats to present that season’s collection. For Paris Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2021, the brand created a dedicated online landing page featuring an interactive digital lookbook, where users could toggle digital avatar models. At the time of the release, the page hosted a video game that allowed any user to play. The game had players traverse five levels of a future dystopian world and featured avatars wearing the new collection throughout the digital environments. Currently, a video of a recording of the virtual experience is located on the site in place of the actual game. The presentation closely followed news showing the rise of virtual reality and fashion brands trying to move toward the metaverse.
Later, during its Spring/Summer 2022 showcase, Balenciaga collaborated with “The Simpsons” to create a short cartoon where Balenciaga’s creative director, Demna Gvasalia, appears and dresses “The Simpsons” characters for a fashion show. The collaboration created a buzzworthy moment. The video now has over 9 million views on YouTube.
Brands swing back toward in-person shows in Fall/Winter 2022
To different degrees, the last two seasons of fashion week were subdued by the pandemic: Fall/Winter 2021 occurred before the release of widely available vaccines, and Spring/Summer 2022 was in the midst of the Delta surge. The upcoming Fall/Winter 2022 season is no exception, with the Omicron variant lingering as an uncertain threat. Reflexively, many brands canceled their shows due to the development of the virus, and in some cases, entire fashion weeks have been moved: London Fashion Week Men’s has shifted from January 2022 to February 2022 and merged with London Fashion Week Fall/Winter 2022, typically focused on women’s ready-to-wear collections, for a unisex showcase. Brands are once again forced to navigate new regulations and safety procedures to balance health and the experiential aspect of the showcase.
But the overall level of concern seems to have lowered. For the upcoming Fall/Winter 2022 women’s fashion weeks, New York and London have released provisional schedules for their shows. From these, we can see that, despite the presence of Omicron, both cities will see a further dip in the percentage of brands with digital-only showcases – New York decreasing to 21% and London to 36%. Similar to the previous Spring/Summer 2022 season, the British Fashion Council has not mandated that brands produce digital-only shows and has encouraged a hybrid model with both digital and in-person events. The CFDA has only gone so far as to issue a statement for New York Fashion Week detailing safety protocols for in-person shows: proof of full Covid vaccination, masks worn indoors at all times (except in designated eating and drinking areas, and for models walking the runway) and reduced guest capacity in show venues. Almost two years after the pandemic began, it’s clear that the show must go on.
While brands are returning to in-person shows, Covid continues to evolve and a handful of brands continue to innovate on their presentation options. Those that have stepped away from traditional in-person runways have used a number of different tactics:
- Inspirational short films: Creating more in-depth short films has gained traction as an alternative to traditional runways, as seen in Collina Strada’s “Animorph”-inspired short film and Marni’s Zoom-inspired videos.
- Collaboration films: Brands have also started to collaborate with other creative fields to create new alternative films. Halpern’s work with the Royal Ballet in London showed the clothes in a new creative format through the energy and grace of dancers, while Balenciaga’s collaboration with “The Simpsons” showcased the new collection as worn by iconic characters.
- Physical supplements to virtual showings: For London Fashion Week, brands gravitated toward showcasing their runways virtually, but they provided appointment-only, in-person viewings of their clothing for industry professionals. This pairing allowed the brand to both benefit from the runway as a marketing tool and provide a more Covid-safe space for retail buyers to experience the collection in person.
- Immersive experiences: Immersive experiences took diverse digital and physical forms, but the emphasis in all cases was the unique approach for using technology to make the experience feel more personal, from JW Anderson’s “exhibition in a box” to Rebecca Minkoff’s NFT collection to Balenciaga’s video game showcase. The tactic gives viewers a different, often nontraditional perspective on the collection.
Covid has opened a door for new alternatives and accelerated the conversation about whether brands need to produce runway shows to connect with both retail buyers and consumers. The tug away from the traditional approach is felt more acutely by smaller brands due to the cost of producing fashion shows. In New York, alone, fashion week runway spaces cost an average $75,000, not including the cost of the clothes themselves and other essential elements, such as models, and hair and makeup teams. So, in many ways, the newly proven ability of other approaches to make a splash has made the fashion week period more inclusive.
But the traditional runway format is far from dead. Brands have yet to step away from the traditional runway format for fashion week, as many believe the impact of the clothes best translates through in-person viewing — a special, almost intangible “aura” untransferable by video or even virtual reality. However, with Covid constantly on the horizon, brands will need to stay nimble, and these alternative showcase methods will allow them to do so.
Of course, the two can absolutely coexist: In China, particularly for Shanghai Fashion Week, brands have started returning to in-person shows. But many have included more livestream capabilities as livestreaming becomes the norm — the prevalence of consumer behaviors like livestreaming peak earlier in that market. In the same line, the majority of brands from our four measured fashion weeks (an average of 84% per city) made on-demand videos of their shows available for later streaming. Video was a lifeline for many during Covid, and with the rise of 360-degree video and virtual reality, remote experiences will continue to capture more of the aura of the real thing.