This year, New York Fashion Week persevered by embracing new technology and touting innovation to create an experience like none other.
And while the industry had been moving toward digitalization for some time, the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated this evolution. To illustrate this, data pulled from Facebook Inc. revealed a 75 percent increase in mentions of “fashion week” with the word “digital” and a 143 percent increase in mentions of “fashion week” with the word “virtual,” during the pandemic
The data is indicative of a drive by businesses to discover “what is next?” while also acknowledging a “new normal.” But this isn’t the first time that the fashion industry has faced a need to reinvent itself.
“The fashion industry has always been about reinvention and innovation,” said Karin Tracy, Head of Industry, Retail, Fashion, Luxury at Facebook Inc. “It’s in our DNA. Fashion week itself was born out of crisis when in 1943 editors and buyers in NYC mounted the first one to keep the industry alive while war raged in Europe. Now, during the turmoil of 2020, fashion has an opportunity to reimagine itself yet again.”
“The idea of live shows and their exclusive audiences began evolving years ago as influencers became the new editors and the mobile device gave the shows scale to customers — changing it from a B2B experience to a consumer-facing experience,” said Tracy. “With this, many luxury brands and retailers have begun to question the very foundation of how they’ve traditionally promoted themselves — seasons, line exclusivity, velvet ropes, and expensive product launches that in reality only a relatively small handful of people actually experienced first-hand. This coupled with the customer’s desire to see now and buy now — clothes that are in season — has changed the game.”
“As always, consumers are way ahead of us,” said Tracy of COVID’s impact on digital acceleration. “This past year, we saw transformative shifts in consumer behavior as people scrambled to find new ways to live out their lives during stay-at-home measures, including most dramatically where and how we shop.”
In light of the pandemic, Tracy applauded shoppers who are “coming out smarter, more technically sophisticated, and open to new brand experiences” post-COVID. According to a survey by McKinsey and Company, over 77 percent of consumers are trying new shopping behaviors, new brands, new places to shop, or shopping methods.
“This behavioral shift is an invitation for luxury retail brands to re-think digi- tal’s role in the omnichannel, and more importantly, rather than lament the loss of in-store/in-person environment, re-imag- ine the sensory experience of your prod- ucts for a consumer who uses the mobile device as the gateway to everything important in their lives,” said Tracy. “In this new age of digital, skill and craft in storytelling is what will really make collections stand out for consumers eager to explore what a brand has to offer.”
Nicknamed “the great quickening,” the digital acceleration that has occurred during COVID reflects nearly 10 years of change in consumer behavior happening in less than six months.
“I’m calling it ‘the great awakening’ to all the brand marketers out there that thought mobile and digital shopping was still a sideline to their main business,” said Tracy. “What 2020 revealed was an inevitable shift that’s been happening year after year as consumers increasingly turn to mobile at every stage of the purchase funnel. Mobile has become your new storefront, and If anything, what we saw this year was a contraction in the time involved with shopping, with consumers going from awareness to purchase often within the same shopping experience. If you’re going to compete moving forward, you have to put digital at the center of your universe.”
The signs of change
While the need for brands to reach the industry, and consumers, with new collections remains vital, production methods and practices to scale have undergone irrevocable disruptions.
“For creative directors, a new collection is more than new products, it’s a chance to introduce a new narrative, a fresh perspective on the brand,” said Court Williams, Creative Lead, Luxury Fashion at Facebook Creative Shop. “With the number of seasons, a designer has to create for each year having ballooned from 2 to more than 6 in some cases, having a formula for storytelling can be crucial to keeping up with the break-neck pace. Well, now the formula is broken. The system was already under close scrutiny and strain, but COVID-19 shut down access to several critical resources for designers, the most disruptive of all possibly being their own creative communities. Brand creative directors today are faced with two huge issues where launching collections are concerned: production and scale.”
Notably, with limited access to collaborators, talent, locations, and equipment creatives are having to rethink even the stories they want to tell, taking into consideration how a story can come to life and deliver the magic that traditional formats allowed under new circumstances and new mediums.
And social distancing has brought its own challenges. “With social distancing restrictions requiring smaller-scale activations, or digital-only activations, it can be more challenging to generate the earned media/halo effect labels are accustomed to having around their collection launches,” said Williams. “Elements that might have drawn attention from a broad audience, like celebrities in the front row or a picture-perfect location, are harder to come by.”
Observers have given mixed graces to recent online fashion weeks, with editors, retailers, and creative figures urging brands to be more daring, diverse, entertaining, and ultimately let a story take the lead.
Following a series of fashion films that replaced Couture fashion shows this summer, Lisa Armstrong, head of fashion at The Telegraph, London told WWD she suggests brands “think really carefully whether they need a traditional catwalk show. Even before lockdown, every publication was seeing signs of viewer fatigue when it comes to the catwalk — just putting on a big show doesn’t necessarily get you an audience and while it might score a lot of social media posts, that doesn’t always equate to engagement. Personal, quirky, something that comes from the heart — they’re all big winners. I’m excited to see what some of the small independent labels come up with and whether they can think beyond the catwalk.”
Reimagining the future
Facebook Inc.’s new playbook for brands reimagines launching collections and fashion week itself in four concise frameworks: live broadcast, collection film, virtual reality, and video chat.
“Our hope is that brands view this crisis as an opportunity to permanently expand their creative toolbox and think differently about launching new collections on social media,” said Williams. “Even before COVID, fashion audiences were increasingly turning to social media for discovery and inspiration. So, developing artistic competency in the space will continue to be important for premium storytelling. COVID-19 has made this evolution urgent but the tactics we believe in have value outside of the current crisis and can live alongside traditional approaches when the shows return in full force.”
Moreover, Williams says Facebook Inc.’s audiences of fashion enthusiasts and the creative diversity of the platform’s tools make the company uniquely equipped to lead brands through this time of exploration and discovery.
“On our platforms, fashion’s creatives have worked very hard to produce content that cultivates a deep relationship between their brands and massive audiences of fans, supporters and industry insiders,” said Williams. “It makes sense, then, for them to explore building new collection launch experiences where their audiences are already engaging most.”
Further, on Facebook Inc.’s platforms, “fashion creatives aren’t limited to a video or a picture,” said Williams. “Our platforms host a huge range of short-form, long-form, and interactive content formats that can be used to chic effect for storytelling. There’s so much creativity in fashion and now’s the time to really show it.”
The Reimagining Fashion Week playbook shows brands how tools like Messenger Bots and Playable ads can inject a bit of storytelling into the RSVP process for shows as well as how Spark AR, which is the design technology behind the augmented reality filters on Facebook Inc.’s platforms, can enhance physical invitations.
Concurrently, many of the tools can be used as proxies for traditional fashion show moments.
“We encourage creators to explore deep narratives that can be simultaneously expressed in multiple formats,” said Williams. “It’s a form of digital savoir faire we see emerging that’s quickly becoming a new standard for excellence.”
Beyond distribution and digitization, Facebook Inc.’s playbook addresses building a strategy that enables brands to tell its story on highly democratized formats while maintaining the qualities that make up a brand’s authentic identity.
“This is a very important question in fashion,” said Williams. “It’s an industry where accessibility can appear to be the enemy of uniqueness and authenticity. But this isn’t always true. Brands can strike an artful balance by clearly defining and then differentiating from one another their tools, tactics and tone.”
As brands build a strategy with Facebook Inc. that goes beyond distribution for a quality product, Tracy said to consider two things: the need to build community around brands with a consumer-centric approach and Facebook Inc.’s unique ability to help luxury brands invest and build for the future by connecting with new generations of consumers who expect a company to do more than sell products.
“Really successful brands are taking this up a notch by inviting their community into the product development process itself,” said Tracy. “If you think of the Facebook Inc. platform as a focus group of 2.7 billion people who are waiting to be invited into your brand community, the implications for product inspiration and innovation for any luxury brand becomes obvious.”
To be considered, consumers are now looking to hear where a brand stands on social good, sustainability, and how they conduct operations. “This is the time and place to start forging that brand relationship and loyalty by telling your luxury brand’s story,” said Tracy, “and with younger consumers, many of whom first look to social to gain their understanding of a brand, use this as a time to plant the seeds of loyalty with them that will pay off in years to come.”
“The best digital creative is designed to be a dialogue with your audience, not a monologue,” said Williams. “It doesn’t have to call for a response in the traditional sense, but to cut through the noise and earn their attention, it should help people feel like they’re part of your community and part of a conversation. To build this way, you need to know who you’re talking to pretty well. Facebook’s Creative Shop helps creatives think about distribution in qualitative terms by discussing ways to ideate and design content around the psychographics and media consumption habits of their target audiences rather than thinking of it in quantitative terms like reach and frequency.”
“Of course, performance is always important, but we believe building long term, qualitative content strategies can be more effective than chasing numbers from asset to asset,” he added.
New Tools for Creative Directors
Facebook Inc.’s Karin Tracy and Court Williams discuss embracing new forms of storytelling.
WWD Studios: What is the approach that Facebook Inc. is offering in its new playbook?
Court Williams: While there are a ton of different directions a creator may take their collection launch on our platforms, the tactics we’ve seen fashion use most often are live broadcasts, collection films and virtual reality. In the new playbook, Reimagining Fashion Week, we’ve outlined frameworks for using these technologies which brands can use to break down the traditional fashion show into moments and replicate or supplement those moments with digital content experiences.
The playbook also includes creative considerations for each framework from our Facebook Creative Shop and scalable solutions for brands that may want to just dip their toe in the water without completely reinventing how they do things. Maybe they only want to create an AR invitation for now; that’s fine by us. We want people to be comfortable exploring the creative possibilities.
WWD Studios: Why is it so important for a brand to incorporate social media platforms into its fashion week strategy?
Karin Tracy: You need to reframe your thinking from social media to social commerce. Smart marketers have always understood the power of Facebook Inc.’s platform to create awareness and get people sharing and talking about the brands they love. But in the past few years, with the rise of seamless mobile shopping technologies and the robust creator culture, people are increasingly turning to Facebook Inc.’s mobile platform to shop.
As this social selling behavior continues to increase, it’s the perfect time for brands to take control of the consumer buzz that happens around events like Fashion Week and use digital as an accelerator to scale retail experiences around the products. Take us behind the scenes, or launch a cinematic short film, or leverage new technologies to create a world in virtual reality that tells the brand story in 360 degrees.
Most importantly, social isn’t just an episodic place for promotional trends – social is a living, breathing platform where brands build the foundation of who they are and what they stand for. This is where you build and cultivate your best customers.
WWD Studios: How can brands ensure there is a positive impact when they invest in innovation?
K.T.: Fashion has always been about innovation. It’s important to remember that study after study has shown that sustained business growth, and real innovation happens through iteration. Putting something out there, measuring what’s important, test, repeat, iterate, and repeat.
Data is everywhere, and it makes no sense to build a brand these days without incorporating real-time insights into everything you do. We’ll look back on this period years from now and realize we experienced a renaissance in how fashion shows up in the world. In the space left by the absence of traditional shows, the fashion community will show great inventiveness, building on heritage without sacrificing momentum toward potential.
The industry leaned into digital and creative tools to include new, more expressive ways to launch collections and ultimately reached more people than ever before.
WWD Studios: How can a brand be sure to continue to communicate its authentic brand identity and traditional expressions through digital formats that are highly democratized?
C.W.: The largely democratized digital formats of the social age are tools brands can use to reach audiences. Building a reputation for featuring really great photographers and collaborating with amazing directors in content partnerships is a tactic. But the unique quality of a brand, its general character or attitude, is the brand’s tone.
Tone can and should be apparent in every point of communication, visual, written, audible, experiential, etc. and should be responsible for defining a brand’s positioning more than the tools or tactics they use. It’s clear these distinctions have broken down when a brand says, “we don’t do stories” or “video doesn’t work for us” or even “we only shoot in black and white.” It is very difficult to stay relevant to audiences who are evolving with the digital landscape and to maintain a feeling of distinctiveness when a brand’s identity relies on limiting the tools and tactics at a creators’ disposal. The key is finding a unique expression, one defined by the brand’s tone, of the tools and tactics available.
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