By Doug Schowengerdt, Cultural Correspondent, the projects* and Brenda Martinez, Jr. Strategist, the projects*

On the evening of September 13, Jason Wu presented his Spring 2021 runway collection in a flourishing jungle constructed atop the roof of Spring Studios in TriBeCa, officially kicking off the first NYFW designed for a pandemic. Other fashion cities have already tested the waters for how the industry can adapt. Back in June, London hosted a digital fashion series in a slew of mediums that overall failed to capture the attention of the public or the industry. Copenhagen Fashion Week took place in August, making headlines for its marketing agility (physical activations complemented by digital content), but still failing to garner pre-pandemic levels of media attention.

With a steep decrease in influencers and editors in attendance, questions arise: just who are fashion shows for and are we selling clothes or selling culture?

Fashion weeks have felt less and less connected to the end-consumer, and COVID-19 has only accelerated this trend. Since quarantine has killed the idea of the traditional celebrity (à la the failed “Imagine” sing-along), influencers have become critical liaisons between the glitzy worlds of brands and the lived realities of consumers. Relatability has never been so valuable. Brands have turned to socials to give this feeling of inside access to every step of their process, but amidst our new normal, how can fashion stay influential?

Reimagining the Front Row at fashion shows

In a world of social distancing, one of the most attractive qualities is a brand’s social network. The community representing a brand, as well as the community a brand represents, helps garner genuine audience excitement. Telfar, who hosted a buzzy Palazzo party for his friends and muses and whose iconic bags have become a cult phenomenon, is a prime example. For the “Not in Paris” video series hosted by Highsnobiety, GmbH turned the spotlight to their creative partners and friends — all living within their neighbourhood in Berlin. By relying on their intimate connections and creative clout, these labels are proving that the best way to make waves is to stick with their communities.

Niche over reach

Independent, up-and-coming brands have been the clear champions in these adapted fashion weeks, partly due to their ability to speak to their specific customer. While smaller brands have strong, identifiable values and ethos (and may not necessarily need influencers), bigger brands need them.

Think of Emma Chamberlain for Louis Vuitton, who invited her to Paris Fashion Week last year with seemingly little rhyme or reason. Casting is crucial; influencers must fit into the world of the brand. Those who value fit over reach are best positioned to create impactful partnerships through influencer collaborations.

Decentralising digital activations

Successful brands will be the ones that are able to recreate some of the energy and exhilarating rush of attending a fashion show in person. Going digital feels like low-hanging fruit nowadays, so it’s up to brands to discover new ways of conveying the world they’ve created for that season. Fashion weeks don’t stand out as must-see cultural moments in this climate and fashion must instead compete with the broader media landscape for the public’s attention.

It’s about finding opportunities for audience immersion, with influencers as guiding points. Whatever the experience, it’s really the influencers who will drive traffic to the content and augment the identity of the brand.

Making safety sexy at fashion shows

Working within health regulations means brands need to be thoughtful and intentional about how they show up with influencers. Brands can create exciting content while also reinforcing necessary safety measures, offering new perspectives on a fashion experience.

JW Anderson gave a noteworthy model of this with the “show-in-a-box” for Loewe S/S21 Menswear collection. Brand partners received tactile storyboards to expand upon the world of the collection, bringing an innovative take on usual stay-at-home formats. Success in this era comes when brands view health regulations as an opportunity for innovation, rather than as a hindrance to business as usual.

Deeper storytelling

A clear trend in the latest iterations of fashion week has been the reliance on conversations to push along the program. Panel discussions, IG lives and designer interviews have all played a part in the world-building process. While this is certainly a strategy for working the current limits, it’s also a sign of the need for deeper reflection within the fashion industry.

Since quarantine, there has been widespread reckoning with the problems in the current model, such as the open letter led by Dries Van Noten signed by fashion industry officials. These moments of thoughtful debrief can help re-imagine the fashion industry with a post-pandemic sensibility, creating a stronger fashion industry for the future.

The exploration of new forms of fashion week activations is part of the wider consideration of the overall purpose of fashion shows. Without the usual spectacle of a traditional fashion show, the real driving force of audience attention comes down to the creativity, the art and the forces who inspire it all. While brands work to stay impactful in highly desensitizing times, all this reckoning still begs the question: are we in the business of selling clothes or selling culture?

We see the answer as a bit of both. Authentic collaboration and marrying the art of influencer casting with the science of data is vital. By understanding the universe of the brand and its desired outcomes, you can match the right influencers with each client’s specific project. Because fashion isn’t just about creating a great collection; it’s about inviting viewers into a vision of the future that is ever-adapting, pioneering and ready for change.

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