The cast of Ffixxed Studios' online fashion presentation.

Shanghai Fashion Week’s online experiment in partnership with Alibaba’s Tmall came to an end Monday evening. As the first purely digital fashion week, it provides valuable insights and lessons for brands and fashion week organizers around the world to rethink their strategies amid the coronavirus outbreak, especially when fashion weeks over the summer have all been canceled.

Some 150 brands showcased their fall 2020 collections while selling items from the current season via livestreaming to Tmall’s 800 million active users. Over 2.5 million people watched the fashion week’s opening ceremony, and 6 million watched the shows on the first day. Women from the ages of 26 to 35 living in first- and second-tier cities made up three-quarters of the audience.

Bringing a fashion showcase online has some obvious benefits. One does not need to worry about seating capacity, it can be done at a very low cost, and brands can cash in instantly.

“There is no limit to the number of fans, clients, press and new eyes that you can have on your work with this format. We had a little more than 3,000 tuned into ours, and it’s helpful to imagine what a stadium of that many fans would look and sound like in real life,” said Joshua Hupper, cofounder of Babyghost.

The brand also included a makeover session and a panel talk following the showcase. Their effort seemed to pay off. Sales coming from livestreaming jumped 450 percent from the brand’s daily streaming.

Screen shots of livestreaming from Private Policy, Shushu/Tong and 8on8 during Shanghai's online fashion week.

Screenshots of livestreaming from Private Policy, Shushu/Tong and 8on8 during Shanghai’s online fashion week.  Screenshot

But those looking for a total replica of the physical experience will be deeply disappointed. The online fashion week, which happened under very specific circumstances in a very short period of time, went with a consumer-facing angle. Most brands tapped into Tmall’s mass-market focused livestreaming ecosystem with little modification. A small number of them managed to come up with innovative, entertaining and well-executed livestreaming experiences.

Short films, chat shows, performances, and models walking down the virtual runway while a salesperson interacts with the audience, like what one sees on QVC, were some of the most common formats for brands to fill their streaming slots, lasting from one hour to half-a-day.

Some kept it highbrow. Shushu/Tong was the only one that skipped the selling part, putting its well-produced fashion film, which was only shot a week ahead of the streaming time, on repeat, while Ffixxed Studios arranged a group of friends to dress up in its fall 2020 collection to fully bring their quirky fashion presentation experience online.

Fiona Kain of Ffixxed Studios told WWD that they looked at a bunch of different livestreams from different brands to understand the format before deciding what direction they are heading.

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“We didn’t see a lot of people deviating from the more traditional livestreaming format but we thought it would be an interesting thing for us to try. We chose not to go down the path of hardcore selling, and instead, we wanted to do something more fun and entertaining, and a little more unexpected, a bit like a parody,” said Kain.

“There were of course still some products for sale in the Tmall store, but we sort of integrated the selling part into the ‘show’.’ I think for the technical side it’s worthwhile getting a good production team that has experience with livestreaming, and as for content, we at least feel it’s really worthwhile actually thinking about how to represent the brand, or how to do something a little bit differently. It’s a really good opportunity to connect with your audience as well as a whole new, much larger audience in China,” she added.

Gong Li of men’s wear label 8on8 thinks going digital is a significant step for independent designers to understand the Chinese online retail system. “For me, selling is the main goal. It will be a waste of resources if you cannot generate any revenue,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sans Peng, cofounder of Untitlab, a designer shoe brand, believes accurate casting and a good script are key to the success of a good livestreaming session. “Don’t skip rehearsal and don’t just sell goods. It’s a good opportunity to convey brand identity,” he said.

Knitwear designer Xiao Li sees the streaming slot as a vehicle for storytelling. “Our price point is too high for Tmall’s audience at the moment, but it is a good platform to share stories behind the scene. In the future, however, I believe having a Tmall presence will be essential,” she said.

Behind the scene of Ms. Min's livestreaming during Shanghai's first ever online fashion week.

Behind the scene of Ms Min’s livestreaming during Shanghai’s first online fashion week.  Courtesy Photo

Ms Min, a Xiamen-based designer brand started from Taobao by Liu Min 10 years ago, kept the selling experience unique, genuine and on-brand.

Instead of hiring generic presenters who had no idea what the brand is about, a mistake a majority of the brands made, Ms Min gathered a set of women who embody the essence of the label, and built the set with a grass-covered floor, dried coconut tree leaves as the background and professional lighting and filming equipment, setting itself apart from those who streamed via phone in front of a white wall with bleak indoor lighting.

Ian Hylton, chief executive officer of the brand, said: “Streaming is not about standing on an elevated stage looking down or projecting fantasies. It’s about sitting beside them listening to their needs and creating a respect-based dialogue. It needs to have a combination of brand integrity and technical integration. When the client can not touch, they need to feel the message of the collection and understand the emotion of the collection and the designer’s vision. When people feel, they engage.”

All is possible, thanks to Tmall’s mature ecosystem bridging livestreaming, e-commerce, consumers, brands, technologies, logistics, financing and entertainment in one mobile application. Anyone can have access to the online fashion week by simply searching “cloud fashion week” in the app.

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Livestreaming is a common tool available in a wide range of social media platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, but there is no other app that matches the capabilities and ease of use of Tmall.

“It cannot be easily copied outside of China. You can borrow the format, but the sheer number of viewers and buying enthusiasm are elements unique to the China market,” said Siying Qu, cofounder of New York label Private Policy. The brand invited industry friends to host its session in Shanghai, while she and her business partner Haoran Li stayed in New York self-quarantined.

“Livestreaming fashion week is definitely worth the time to carefully research and test for. It is the most low-carbon fashion presentation we ever could achieve, but also the most intimate we have ever experienced with more than 12,000 fans at once within the one-hour event. This was just unthinkable before, without a huge budget, unaffordable for a newly established brand under such harsh economic conditions due to the COVID-19 impact,” she added.

That being said, livestreaming is also a challenging format for designers. The competition is transparent and immediate. Your event popularity and sales report are for everyone to see live, and you will be competing with other countless livestreamers, selling everything from designer knockoffs to real diamonds.

Alice Xu, founder of fashion jewelry brand OOAK, advised that “brands need to have a narrative and stay focused on the key points, as the viewers’ average time spent in your livestreaming room is only less than a minute,” and “keep an eye on the comments section and be interactive with the viewers.”

Le Fame replicated a classic China household's interior from the Eighties for its livestreaming.

Le Fame replicated a classic China household’s interior from the Eighties for its livestreams. 

For Shanghai-based fashion brand Le Fame, the COVID-19 outbreak has been a catalyst for online expansion. On top of asking professional TV anchors to host their well-curated livestreams, Le Fame also recently launched on the WeChat mini-program.

Manxiu Wang, cofounder of the label, said: “The city lockdown, factory closure, cancelation of orders in the past three months have forced us to execute our digitization plan for the next two years within two months. I think many brands in the West will have to do the same now, or they won’t survive.”

Despite a structural difference in the digital ecosystem between East and West, Bohan Qiu, founder of communication agency BOH Project, who hosted several livestreams for designer brands, believes Western brands can learn to adapt what has happened on Tmall to social platforms like Instagram, YouTube or even Tik Tok to create new and engaging content in the coming months.

“I do feel that instead of resisting it, we need to take more of a leading role. Obviously it’s still tricky to retain the full artistic vision of a brand’s creative universe in this format. But the matter is not about how most average brands do it, but about how much better, more creative and engaging you can make it. Perhaps a more artistic approach combining CG, AR or VR technologies to showcase true design, creativity and the fantasy aspect of fashion needs to continue to create, should still be something we work collectively towards,” he added.

Tasha Liu, founder of Labelhood, which organized 42 livestreams for 31 designer brands during the online fashion week, said: “I can assure you physical fashion shows won’t be replaced by the online showcase. What matters is the quality of the content. Livestreaming is a tool. I am glad to see that our designers are being super innovative and keep pushing the boundary on what a virtual fashion experience can be.”

Ian Lin, founder of trade show Shanghai Showroom, and a fashion critic, offered his take after a week of browsing through fashion livestreaming via his phone: “I used to complain that it’s such a waste of time to catch one show after another. Now, with physical shows gone, I miss them terribly. What’s missing is the sense of ritual and commitment, the ceremonial aspect of it, the fact that you have to sit through the whole thing, whether you like it or not.”

Tera Feng, an influencer who also hosted several livestreams, believes eventually online and offline fashion experience will form a symbiotic relationship.

“It’s just like online and offline retail or print and digital media. They are not enemies, but two sides of one coin. The online showcase demonstrates new possibilities that can empower the physical fashion experience, and help brands to reach a far wider audience. Eventually, it helps the industry to evolve and survive this difficult time,” she concluded.

Read more from WWD:

Coronavirus Pressure on Media Spreads From Alt-Weeklies to Digital News Outlets, Magazines

Where Fashion Stands in the COVID-19 Crisis

How China’s Beauty Business Is Rebounding Post-Coronavirus Crisis

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