“This is a global business, yet the way we communicate is still very old-fashioned in many ways,” Helmut Lang told WWD back in 1998. “We’re in the midst of a technological revolution. We all know it, we talk about it, but we have to live it. The most difficult step is just to go for it.”
That was the year the Austrian designer went for it, showing his fall collection on the Internet, and via CD-ROM.
He was hailed as the first designer to do so, showing 81 looks on models including Kirsten Owen, Tatjana Patitz and Stefan Armbruster striding across a vast concrete floor. Editors could discover the collection in photos or on video posted on the Internet, or stored on the disc. They could also visit a showroom and inspect the clothes on racks.
While the collection was hailed as ravishingly modern, reviews of the Internet foray were mixed. WWD dubbed the presentation at helmutlangny.com a “great idea” at a time when the term “fashionista” had yet to be coined.
“But Helmut, we missed the show! For all the whining fashion-ites do about having to sit through so many collections, it’s not the great shows we’re talking about. A video just isn’t the same. On the other hand, fashion is about the buzz, and Lang’s no-show has been the talk of the week.”
In her review for The New York Times, Constance C.R. White pointed to fashion’s curious lack of tech savvy.
“From computer-assisted design on textiles to using computers for sales to ‘staging’ virtual fashion shows in the way Mr. Lang has done, fashion has been slow on the uptake,” she wrote. “It is odd that in an industry that lives by changes every season, the method of presentation has not changed in almost 50 years.”
Communications executive Pierre Rougier of PR Consulting, who had Lang for a client then, called the online show “very, very far ahead of its time” and encountered surprisingly little resistance to it.
“I think people of influence just saw it as an experiment by an extremely brilliant inventor of fashion and went with it,” he said. “I think, somehow, it went unnoticed until recently. It was, as many things Helmut Lang did, way forward, ahead of the game and revisited by fashion after he did it.”
Rougier noted that the decision to show online was precipitated by “the impossibility to find a show venue Helmut Lang liked — besides one that canceled very close to the date. The visionary digital show was a last-minute occurrence, a ‘born out of an accident’ decision, so no long planning whatsoever went into this.”
Which somehow makes his feat all the more incredible. “Mr. Lang, the emperor of the ‘You had to be there to really experience it’ show, pulled that one off in a few days during the analog age,” Rougier marveled.
Twenty-two years later, the industry is being forced to explore digital options with the coronavirus pandemic scuttling June and July fashion weeks, and possibly September’s, too.
Lang ultimately returned to IRL shows before making his final exit from fashion in 2005.
Contacted by WWD last week, the Austrian-born designer, who has since dedicated himself to art making, reflected on that seminal and prescient fashion experiment.
WWD: Did you set out to be the first designer to unveil a collection on the Internet? What were your motivations for this?
Helmut Lang: The intention was not to be the first. I decided at the time to cancel the announced runway show, which was the first women’s and men’s runway show to be held in New York after I moved my headquarters from Europe to New York. The much-appreciated hype, which became nearly overwhelming, was consequently threatening the “séance de travail” presentation format I introduced in Paris in 1988. So I thought about moving it to the Internet and open it up even more, which meant including the end consumer in a more direct manner.
WWD: How technically difficult was it to achieve? To whom did you turn to for help?
H.L.: It was technically a prerecorded livestream as the press was really not widely equipped to view online material at the time, so if you want, it was kind of a prototype run of a livestream. It was solely an instinctive decision on my part, and I executed it with technical help. I could do this swiftly as I owned the company. In any case, we provided the most important reviewers and fashion critics at the time with a printout version of the silhouettes, as well as the VHS tape or CD-ROM. We also held showroom appointments to ease everyone into this new medium and had about 1,000 taxi-top advertisements circulating New York at the time promoting the new web site, and did the same in print advertisements.
WWD: Did you come up against much resistance from press and/or buyers?
H.L.: Everything was happening so fast, as the decision was made only four weeks before the official show date. Everything just happened, and the curiosity for the event outdid any resistance that might have been lingering.
WWD: You only showed online that one time. Does that suggest it was a failure? Why did you stop?
H.L.: Actually we showed online-only again a second time after 9/11 as it seemed appropriate also at that time. We continued in-between and after with the traditional “séance de travails” sessions, but showed at the same time the entire collection on our web site, and I continued to do so until I left fashion for good in early 2005. It had major influence, and changed fashion forever going forward as it set in motion online platforms such as Style.com and others that followed suit.
WWD: How did you measure the success and reach of this experiment?
H.L.: I only remember that it was very successful, and that everyone, including our customers, had a direct impact in terms of what they wanted to see in the stores as the online viewing allowed them to become immediately familiar with the runway looks that would show up in the stores a few months later. They were demanding to be able to purchase the showpieces instead of edited selections by buyers, as was the case prior. Also, at the time, there was not that overload of in-between and pre-collections. What customers saw in the stores actually maintained the core identity of the brand and brought the actual runway clothes to the streets, as it was important for me to always treat basics, prêt-à-porter, high-end and couture pieces in equal measure as a mix within the collections.
I cannot remember how many CD-ROMs were distributed, and I don’t think we measured the traffic to the web site. CD-ROMs were only distributed to the fashion professionals we worked with on a continuous basis. At the time, it was more about introducing a medium without exploring or manipulating all its possibilities. People still very much liked going to stores and having that experience.
WWD: More than 20 years later, physical fashion shows still reign supreme. Are you at all surprised your prophecy was not fulfilled?
H.L.: I think you are wrong there. Although it was not intended to be a prophecy, it set the wheels in motion for what has become the modus operandi of today.
WWD: If you were to create a fashion collection today, how would you show it?
H.L.: That is something I am not thinking about, and it is a question which I do not have to dwell on. Although I am sure the entire industry is evaluating how the fashion system as a whole, and the presentation of it, will make sense going forward.
Editor’s note: This is the first of an occasional series looking back at seminal moments in fashion history, and gleaning fresh insights.