LONDON — No one knows quite what to expect this weekend as the British Fashion Council lifts the veil on its new digital platform, and the first virtual version of London Fashion Week begins to unfold.
This is a high-profile experiment with an online fashion week and not everyone was up for being the guinea pig: There’s a visible absence of some of the city’s more established names in the lineup, most notably British stalwart Burberry, which has chosen to stay mum about its show plans for the moment.
But the city’s younger clan was up for the challenge and decided to band together to give the event more visibility.
“We collectively agreed that by all doing it we would be able to make more noise and, in turn, support each other,” said Daniel Fletcher, who is returning to London Fashion Week to show his fall 2020 see-now, buy-now collection.
He is joined by peers including Charles Jeffrey, Bianca Saunders, Nicholas Daley, Ahluwalia and Per Gotesson, as well as a small range of women’s wear players such as Preen by Thornton Bregazzi, Marques ‘Almeida, Palmer//harding and Rixo.
The platform shifted to a gender-neutral format earlier this year, as a response to the wave of change brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the first showcase featuring women’s and men’s wear designers together — and it comes with a free-for-all attitude, too.
Whether you have a new collection, an upcycled capsule or simply a story to tell, everyone is welcome.
Some designers will be presenting new spring 2021 collections created during lockdown, while others are going seasonless or favoring limited-edition capsules made of fabrics lying around their studios. A few forewent product all together, choosing to host online exhibitions, Instagram conversations with friends, or podcasts instead.
Could this mishmash of mediums and seasons translate into an abundance of new ideas and mark the start of a new era, where designers are hosting these presentations on their own terms? Or will the hodgepodge come across as chaotic?
The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle.
It’s definitely going to be a lo-fi affair. Given both the time and budget constraints of lockdown, which is only now starting to ease in the U.K., London designers have mostly been resorting to short videos or to simply uploading look books online for this virtual showcase. This could be underwhelming to some or simply not enough to capture the attention of the online fashion audience, which has already been overwhelmed with confinement content the past few months.
Then again, the new online format could help level the playing field of fashion week.
London has always been praised for the creativity of its niche, small-scale labels, but so far it has been outshone by fashion weeks in Milan and Paris, whose schedules are filled with mega brands hosting high-budget spectacles.
“Part of [the shift online] is leveling the playing field, but part of it is also about re-thinking what a show looks like. At YouTube, we know that bigger budgets don’t mean better performance,” said Derek Blasberg, head of fashion and beauty at YouTube.
Launchmetrics’ chief marketing officer Alison Bringé added that bigger brands still have an obvious advantage with bigger budgets at their disposal to create a virtual fashion show, which at the end of the day boils down to content creation. But there will now be a new set of metrics of success: “Is success going viral with a digital gimmick? The brands that really succeed will be those that do something really creative and relevant to who they are and then get the right press coverage to help them sell their collection,” she explained. “Doing things for the sake of just driving media impact value isn’t always the right strategy. Sometimes just doing something simple is more powerful.”
Some designers expressed relief, having broken free from the time constraints of the traditional fashion cycle and the pressure to compete for buzz and attention on the catwalk.
“The shift in the new fashion system is actually liberating. It’s allowed me to move to an on-demand product system that reduces waste and the environmental impact of the design industry,” said Matthew Miller, who will be presenting a new body of work with a film dubbed “Merchandise for the Impending Apocalypse.”
“It’s a satirical take on what the industry will be like in 2027, during Presidents Trump’s third term in office. Product has been shifted to facilitate dystopian survival elements against the dictator’s brutal regime,” said the designer.
There will be plenty more statements on both sustainability and politics throughout the weekend, especially as the online shows take place at a time when anti-racism protests continue and the world confronts systemic racism.
To that end, British Vogue editor in chief Edward Enninful will be hosting an online conversation with London mayor Sadiq Khan to discuss the topic and how the city can address inequalities when it reopens after coronavirus restrictions.
Designer Priya Alhwalia, an LVMH Prize finalist, will be releasing a book she has been working on for over two years in lieu of a collection. Unveiled via an online exhibition, the book — titled “Jalebi” — starts with “a love letter to diversity” and explores “what it means to be a young mixed heritage person living in Britain” through family letters and photographs made around Southall, Britain’s first Punjabi community.
Her aim? “To represent the beauty of diversity and how immigration enriches lives and community,” said the designer, adding that at this moment, working on a book project felt more relevant than designing new product. “As well as the [logistical issues], I actually didn’t feel like I wanted to release a collection. During a pandemic I found it hard to think about what clothes to sell. ‘Jalebi’ is a project I have been working on for 18 months, it’s heavily influenced by community and I just felt like it was a more useful message and body of work to put out at a time that so many of us are isolated from one another.”
Designers are also choosing to use this moment and the new platform to highlight sustainability as one of fashion’s ongoing and most pressing issues.
Christopher Raeburn is going back to his roots and repurposing old military garments into a capsule he will be presenting this evening through a live discussion, while Marques’ Almeida will be introducing a whole new brand under its umbrella, dubbed ReMade and dedicated to upcycling.
“ReMade is a space for unlearning, for experimenting and — most of all — for putting responsible fashion into practice. We want to nurture direct action, even if we don’t have all the answers,” said Marta Marques. The brand will introduce the collection via a documentary film and make it immediately available to preorder on its web site.
In the spirit of slowing down and reducing waste, a number of designers are also embracing the season-less concept: Preen by Thornton Bregazzi will release a film by filmmaker Turkana Faso and her sister featuring a new season-less capsule.
“We love the story of sisters collaborating and the idea of a pause in time, a reset, for a seasonless campaign,” said Justin Thornton.
Charles Jeffrey is taking a similar route, with a seasonless capsule featuring portraiture captured during the lockdown. Proceeds from the capsule, which will be sold at the end of the year, will be going to the Kaleidoscope Trust, an organization dedicated to the rights of LGBTQ people.
Later on Saturday night, Jeffrey will also livestream a party harking back to his early “Loverboy” parties that formed the foundation of his label.
“This pandemic has definitely opened up a path for designers and brands to decide for themselves, to self-determine, what it the best timing, medium, and way for each to present collections thoughtfully. It has made quite clear that there is no one acceptable or best way to do so, but a variety of possibilities,” said Bergdorf Goodman men’s fashion director Bruce Pask.
Pask added that even though factory shutdowns inevitably impacted sample production and the showing of complete new collections, there’s still a value in tuning in to discover the brands’ worlds through these online projects and anticipate future collaborations.
“I am looking forward to seeing the directions that designers are taking, what has inspired them and what we can look to see from them in the near future,” said Pask, who will also be taking part in the virtual showcase by hosting a conversation with Savile Row label Drake’s London. It is meant to recreate the conversations at personal studio visits or showroom appointments he takes during London Fashion Weeks.
These online conversations, films and events will also be available to the public at the same time as industry professionals for the first time. Long gone are the hierarchies, tickets and the idea of fashion week as a right of passage for industry figures.
Does this now render the role of fashion editors, critics and influencers irrelevant?
Not so fast: The general consensus is that even though fashion federations are building these new digital platforms, it doesn’t mean the public will come running or sit in front of a computer for three days straight streaming fashion content.
Curation by trusted voices, still plays a big role: “The idea of consumers being your end-all be-all target is relevant, but the biggest underestimation that a lot of these fashion weeks have is that because they’ve built these virtual hubs, eyeballs will just come. Just because you have great content doesn’t necessarily mean someone will engage with it, you have to drive people to it. So in our eyes, media, influencers and these other voices will still be critical in amplifying the excitement around these shows,” said Launchmetric’s Bringé, adding that continuing to spread the word with the right packaged content post-event will be key in determining its success.
Blasberg at YouTube, another BFC partner on this new online venture, added that YouTube creators will also continue to play a role, with the physical front row potentially now shifting to some of the platform’s popular channels.
“I’m curious to see what a digital front row looks like. I think we’ll see some channels review the collections and some creators be the first to test drive the new designs or experiment with re-creating the looks from the runway. This is all new turf,” said Blasberg, who is working with the BFC and individual designers to help them map out and optimize their content strategies. “We’re sort of like a Broadway theater. We can offer a stage and an audience, but the show is up to you. With our massive global reach I think that, to be a modern brand, you have to engage with YouTube in some capacity.”
Maintaining close ties with these big social media platforms is key for fashion organizations like the BFC, to help streamline the distribution of content and overall experience of its digital showcase.
“You’re going to be sitting in front of your computer all day long watching content. And it can be quite frustrating to be on Instagram then on YouTube, then TikTok, then a brand’s web site,” said Bringé.
Launchmetrics, which also measures brands’ performance in terms of the Media Impact Value their shows create across all different platforms, has been noticing that smaller labels with a powerful message on sustainability and diversity were beginning to become more visible within the fashion-week conversation — a trend that the effects of the pandemic is bound to accelerate during this round of online shows.
“Consumers were already aligning themselves with brands that they had a personal or societal value connection with. COVID has absolutely amplified that because people are really tuned-in to what’s happening in the media and what these different voices are saying. When brands are not saying the right thing, they’re more than ever willing to call them out, to stop following them and supporting them. So brands need to be really clear in their messaging for these shows and not try to all of a sudden start aligning with values that they’ve never cared about,” added Bringé.