This New York Fashion Week proved that fashion is capable of change — to some degree.

Despite fewer resources available, ever-increasing questions around the event’s reason for being and the uncertainties around entering uncharted ground, designers showed up for NYFW — around 70, according to IMG’s official announcement. They rethought the traditional, plug-and-play options of a runway show or a presentation. They leaned into the video format by telling stories. And they played on without the earned media value that comes with mega-influencers lining their front row, in their clothes. 

Based on insiders’ reviews, there were pros and cons to the experience, as to be expected in any first stab. But even to spectators, it was apparent what worked and should stick around to best serve the industry and engage audiences. 

Those I spoke to for this story — including seven participating designers and one of the event’s producers — mostly agreed that, for brands, that includes the following: taking non-cookie-cutter approaches to shows, having the option to take part without investing in a costly event and hosting more intimate shows versus filling spaces to standing-room only. 

Some designers tried to avoid straying too far from their usual setup. That included Rebecca Minkoff, who held a limited-capacity presentation at Spring Studios, as the format has worked well for the brand. “You can’t buy that kind of earned media,” she said. Designer Cho Cho Cheng, behind the brand Chocheng, opted to feature an audience-less runway show in his video “to maintain consistency,” he said.

Others moved further from the norm. Jane Siskin, founder and CEO of contemporary brand Cinq a Sept, called the brand’s digital show, which read like a behind-the-scenes look at its lookbook photoshoot, a “learning experience.” The brand “experimented with technology” when it was determined for safety reasons that its video would be shot inside, rather than at the Manhattan locations that were scouted: Projected images of the spots were used as the backdrop.  

Libertine’s Johnson Hartig said his L.A.-based company produced its standout video in two weeks, after one day of filming. It features a staffer and her boyfriend as models, and another staffer was the director and editor. The video is best described as visually stimulating, featuring graphics and clothes with high-impact prints. 

“Now that we’re all in a moment of crisis, it’s just forcing us all to be more creative,” said Hartig. “And it’s separating those who are from those who aren’t.”

Dominic Kaffka, vp and managing director of IMG Focus, official production company of NYFW: The Shows, said creativity is key to making a digital fashion week work. 

“There’s an infinite amount of content on social media channels — you need to have a strong vision to get people’s attention,” he said. “It can’t just be a lookbook or what you’d see in an advertising campaign.”

For Kaffka’s part, getting creative meant facilitating shows on Spring Studios’ rooftop, which both appeased Governor Cuomo’s safety rules and worked to open possibilities for future fashion weeks. 

Wei Lin, founder and CEO of knitwear brand PH5, said her choice to shift gears — by taking advantage of the opportunity to story-tell — paid off. In prior seasons, PH5 consistently invested in a seasonal presentation, though Lin had always wondered if it was worth it. This season, she said, efforts paid off, for sure. 

She worked to avoid just putting out a marketing campaign completely focused on clothes, hoping to instead educate people and say something meaningful. The PH5 team produced a video highlighting the rebirth of Australia following the 2019 bush fires, calling out the need for nature preservation.

For the video, the brand received immediate, positive feedback from editors and viewers on social media — more so than for any show, said Lin.

The takeaway for PH5 was to stop taking seasonal inspiration from an artist, for example, and instead focus on “what is happening now” and “things people care about.” And, Lin said, future shows will be for brand building versus pushing sales.

Unexpectedly, the forced limited capacity of IRL shows this season had its strong points. Minkoff said she wished more editors and buyers had attended her presentation, which saw around 200 attendees over its two hours, but the smaller group allowed for more engagement with guests.

“Many designers enjoyed having more exclusive, more private events — and being able to give the attending guests and press a much more customized, white-glove sort of service,” said Kaffka.

One thing most everyone interviewed could agree on was that not paying for a live show was a breath of fresh air. Lin simply shared that the cost of PH5’s video was comparatively “less,” while designer Moon Choi called her digital lookbook this season “very economical to manage,” compared to her usual live presentation. 

It was a pleasure to not have to pack everything up and take five people to New York for a week, and rent a space to do castings and fittings, and another space to do the show,” said Hartig. “It was a much more casual pace. And the expense of not having to pay for a show was fantastic — I would say we spend 70-times more on a runway show.” 

Cheng echoed the sentiment, calling out the “clear benefits” to a digital show: “less stress, less traffic, less supplies, less waste and less CO2,” he said. 

To make a go of a show, moving forward — especially as brands gain their footing post-pandemic — more outside-the-box sponsorships, like Lowe’s of several shows this season, will likely need to come into play. 

Minkoff said she may not have been financially capable of hosting a show this season, if not for her brand’s Lowe’s sponsorship. “I don’t blame designers that didn’t have those opportunities for not doing a show,” she said. “Things are tight.” 

Hartig said Libertine will likely need any show it does in the future to be sponsored. In the past, its shows only had sponsors for hair, makeup and nails. But now, “I’m not interested in going and spending my own money on doing a show,” he said. “Because we just can’t we just can’t afford it.”

As for whether others will return to the runway, designers’ thoughts were mixed. 

Siskin said she plans to return, post-pandemic, in order to go back to offering guests a “full sensory experience,” with food and music, for example.

Cheng said he hopes to do both a digital and an IRL show next season. Though he was “pleasantly surprised” by the viewership on the brand’s Instagram channel, he said, “I have a suspicion that IRL shows generate more press.” 

Not everyone has that luxury. “You can’t get a video like [ours] on-site at a presentation,” said Lin. “We’ll have to pick and choose: a good video or a good presentation. There are pros and cons to both.”

Choi, meanwhile, believes digital shows receive more attention, so she plans to release future collections via short videos. And Nicole Miller said she expects many designers to flee the old model. “I don’t foresee a majority of brands and designers returning to the original format,” she said. An IMG representative said it does not yet have a tally of the week’s viewership on NYFW.com and Runway360.

But if they can host a show in their own time, with a supporting platform, designers hellbent on sticking to digital may change their tune. Just as designers have changed their processes, fashion week organizers are fluctuating to accommodate new needs. 

“Everything that will happen in real life will also happen online moving forward,” said Kaffka, referring to aligning live shows and NYFW.com. “The challenge will be to create for our viewers at home an experience that is as near as possible to the real-life experience.”

And, he said, the platform will be “year-round,” in that designers can show when they want, rather than wait for designated weeks throughout the year.