But in a landscape revolutionized by the coronavirus pandemic, and with a large chunk of the front row missing, the most successful will be those who manage to amplify their events digitally.
WWD spoke with brand advisers and strategic consultants on how to achieve maximum impact online. They agreed that while influencers will continue to play a key role, brands must extend their reach to different cultural personalities and bring their fashion shows to platforms across fields as varied as gaming and music.
That may seem ambitious at a time when some houses are still wondering whether their shows will go ahead as planned, given the recent tightening of official measures to contain a renewed flareup of coronavirus in Paris and other parts of France.
The new rules include a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people in public parks, though Dior and Koché said their shows on Tuesday — to be staged in the Tuileries Garden and the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, respectively — had been approved by local authorities and would go ahead as planned.
Ralph Toledano, president of the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, said French fashion’s governing body has worked closely with health officials, Paris City Hall and the city’s police to make sure the event goes off without a hitch.
“Safety is our first priority,” he said. “In addition to the government guidelines, the federation has established a detailed safety protocol for Paris Fashion Week to be shared by all the participants. Every house has prepared a plan B in case of necessity. But, anyway, the federation’s online platform is inclusive and can welcome any format.”
Paris Fashion Week, which runs until Oct. 6, has the most ambitious physical program of the season so far. But the fast-changing health situation, which prompted Versace to switch its planned physical show with guests at Milan Fashion Week to a livestream, means that brands will by necessity be straddling the physical and digital worlds.
The event features 84 labels in total with roughly 20 physical fashion shows — including Dior, Hermès, Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Chloé and Balmain — and 20 live presentations, by the federation’s count. The remainder will be showing their collections digitally via the online platform parisfashionweek.fhcm.paris.
“It is an unusual season indeed, and we keep on innovating,” Toledano said. “We have set a coherent framework respecting the rhythm of the official calendar and the format selected by each participant.”
The site, developed with data research and insights company Launchmetrics, has been fine-tuned based on the results of the first men’s and haute couture digital fashion weeks in July.
“Globally speaking, we have developed our competence and expertise in the digital area and reinforced our relationships with brands. Paris stood up again as the world capital for fashion, creativity and diversity,” Toledano said.
“Our July platforms have been perceived as functional and practical. We have stuck with the same principle and brought incremental innovations such as for digital design, the highlighting of the homepage and a facilitated circulation between the different parts of the platform,” he added.
With strict travel restrictions still in place in many countries, key foreign editors and buyers will be missing from the Paris shows, making the stakes even higher when it comes to amplifying physical events.
“There is no reason for the excitement to peak during 15 minutes, and then everyone moves on to the next thing,” said Patrizio Miceli, head of Paris-based creative agency Al Dente. Instead, brands should put as much effort into the buildup and the aftermath of the show as they do into the event itself, he argued.
“For me, brands should treat their show as Act One of their media plan for the season. Once it’s over, they should immediately switch to a different platform and kick off a fresh chapter that is just as exciting and that gives the clothes more of an editorial spin,” he said.
He cited the example of Travis Scott’s virtual concert on gaming platform Fortnite, which was followed by an extensive rollout of exclusive merchandise sold online. As a result, Miceli believes the production agencies which have traditionally organized fashion shows are no longer adequate for the task.
“They know how to manage the storytelling aspect of a brand for a physical event, but they don’t have any idea how to amplify events and create buzz online,” he argued. “The physical show should no longer be the driver. You need to have a global multichannel strategy, and then work out how to amplify each of the channels.”
Key to those efforts are differentiation and segmentation, experts agreed. Brand adviser and strategic consultant Helen Nonini believes fashion should evolve from its reliance on influencers and turn to key opinion leaders such as artists, musicians and athletes, among others.
“The goal is to identify the company’s true values and what distinguishes a company in its market and differentiates it from its competitors. Based on this, brands should choose consistent key opinion leaders who become their sounding board to develop new contents, through different ways of communication, to release on their social media and the companies’ digital platforms,” she recommended.
Furthermore, Nonini believes that industry tools like look books are obsolete, except for market insiders. “Brands should instead develop a 360-degree experience that, starting from these pictures — maybe even through postcards that could be sent to the customers — involves all the five senses,” she suggested.
“Through touch, sight, taste, smell and hearing, these different contents would create an immersive experience, across all the different channels. This would be especially valuable at a time when, with all the restrictions, we are less willing to enter physical stores, unless we are determined to purchase something specific,” she said.
In terms of digital content, one size doesn’t fit all, especially when it comes to different geographies, said Stella Song, founder of digital marketing firm Socialight, based in Shanghai and Beijing.
“The content should consider two factors: branding and localization, and localization means catered to different markets and different digital channels,” she said, noting that China’s principal channel WeChat requires a specific format of materials. “When you go digital, you’re not just facing the industry people at the traditional shows. You’re facing the whole world, so there’s more potential opportunity for branding.”
Another key piece of advice was for brands to relinquish control — both to the influencers they work with, and to their audiences.
Lavinia Biancalani, founder and creative director of Milan-based digital creative agency The Style Pusher, said houses should seek out digital personalities who do more than just recount a physical event from the front row.
“Influencers should be actively involved in the show, as if he or she were part of the brand’s team, not necessarily walking down the runway but maybe tasked with recounting different steps of the process leading to the show, by documenting the casting sessions, attending fittings, doing interviews with designers about their pre-show feelings, and so forth,” she said.
“The more a talent is given freedom to recount the event and the show, the better the outcome is. This would also allow for diversified and more engaging contents,” Biancalani said. “If you ask talents to use ‘safe’ and controlled contents, the engagement could be potentially impacted.”
She said fashion films should be designed as part of a series of content to be shared across platforms. “Thinking about the success of such platforms as Houseparty or Zoom during the months of confinement. I think today a brand should think out of the box and explore new platforms and social media to deliver its content, as Valentino did for example by partnering with Animal Crossing,” Biancalani said.
“In addition to this, I think VR should be taken into high consideration. I believe it will make a difference in the coming months if we are forced to keep hosting digital events instead of physical ones. Virtual reality would allow [brands] to establish a more direct interaction with the audience that is enjoying the show or the event from home, with viewers allowed to interact with the physical event,” she added.
Linda Saieb, founder of influencer marketing agency LHS Consulting, suggested that brands could engage in TikTok Duets “displaying a split screen of the show and the influencer’s reaction to it, while wearing product from the new collection at home or having refurbished their home design to align with the collection’s theme.”
She added that digital assets have a short shelf life.
“As the fashion community moves away from its traditional calendar to create more space for each collection, brands should think about shifting their communications strategies to build out more evergreen interpersonal assets that maintain advocacy post-launch and limit apathy. This could include a niche community of customers and direct relationships with brand representatives,” Saieb said.
Bohan Qiu, founder of Shanghai-based creative, p.r. and digital content agency BOH Project, agreed that audience involvement is key.
“From our experience during Shanghai Fashion Week, if the audience can have the chance to explore, whether it’s through VR experience or interactive livestream, the average time spent on the channel is much longer than simply asking the audience to watch a video in a passive way,” he said.
But despite the profusion of digital alternatives, the pull of the traditional show is hard to shake.
“Fashion shows are the testimony of our passion for fashion,” Toledano said. “They are unique, as they stimulate creativity, generate emotion, excitement and buzz.”
Sergio Salerni, show producer and founder of Milan-based production company Urban Production, is seeking to re-create that emotional high even for Asian and American guests who are unable to travel this season, by staging simultaneous viewing parties with all the trappings of a show.
“They include the hard copy invitations, the security guards escorting guests inside the venue, a backdrop for guests’ pictures, a setting that faithfully reproduces the one of the original show venues,” he explained, though he declined to name the brands that have adopted the format.
“Videos are a great communication asset, [but] I think the transition from physical to digital-only shows is still a long way to go. For a long time, the two components will definitely coexist,” Salerni added.
Toledano likewise does not see digital events usurping traditional fashion weeks. “All the fashion community aspires to see, feel, touch and exchange in real life, and we do not see for the moment any digital formula even close to replacing a physical event,” he opined.
And while some brands have opted to go it alone this season, he believes the digital revolution also has the power to stimulate collective action. “Paris Fashion Week is and will remain a collective strength for French and international creative brands,” he affirmed.
A frontier has been crossed, and a strong digital component will remain even when a vaccine is eventually developed for COVID-19, Toledano added, citing the example of virtual showrooms.
“We live in a digital era and the COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the digital transformation. Physical and digital features will be combined with each other,” he said.
“We can also expect innovations in the near future by way of new visual experiences and augmented reality. Our world is becoming more and more ‘phy-gital’ and it represents a great innovation and creativity potential. This is also why our platform will live on and develop. Like in any segment of the economy and society, we are building a new world,” he concluded.