Not a firm thumbs up, but not a definite thumbs down either.

That was the retail reaction to the first online edition of the Pitti Uomo men’s trade show. While some regular attendees of the Florence-based fair enjoyed the virtual treasure hunt that the organizers created, others felt overwhelmed by the sheer depth of the content. Everyone said they missed the energy of the actual physical show.

Pitti Immagine, owners and operators of Pitti Uomo, are planning to return to an in-person version in January that will also incorporate some of the digital components it has employed for this edition. It is also partnering with Dolce & Gabbana on Sept. 2 and 3 of this year to unveil the brand’s bespoke tailoring and haute couture collections with runway shows in Florence at the Palazzo Vecchio and Villa Bardini, respectively.

Until then, the group is banking on buyers and editors visiting the new Pitti Connect digital platform, which went live on July 16 and will continue through October. Among the projects that are featured are 15 short videos by Olivier Saillard featuring Eighties and Nineties models interpreting iconic men’s wear pieces. The group also shined a spotlight on sustainability through the “Sustainable Style” initiative, which showcases 13 emerging brands focused on delivering eco-friendly collections. In addition, ANDAM winner Glenn Martens’ Y/Project’s special Evergreen collection is the special guest of the sustainable fashion section.

That section was a favorite of Bruce Pask, men’s fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman and Neiman Marcus.

“What I admire is that they’re trying to replicate the grounds and buildings in a digital format,” he said. “They have brands listed in the buildings they’re always in. As a longtime attendee, we know those buildings by heart. So it’s successful.”

Pask said he prefers to navigate the virtual site like he would a physical show, so he knows which “buildings” to visit and which to skip. “It’s curated rather than just making us go through one giant list of brands,” he said. He also said “The Billboard,” which highlights daily updates, is also useful.

He especially liked browsing Y/Project and the other brands in the Sustainable Style section including Nanushka, a new addition. “It’s nicely curated and has a sense of purpose,” he said.

But he admitted that “discovering new brands is the hardest thing, but I’ve actually managed to find a few. Our customers still want newness.”

“It’s got to be tough for a brand trying to break in,” he admitted. “When you walk a show, you can make a quick scan of a collection and make an assessment if it’s right for you, and then do a deeper dive.”

And while the organizers have identified new additions to the fair, it’s not as easy as being there to touch and feel the collection. “We’re hoping we can get back on a plane soon,” he said. “I miss running into people who tell me I have to check out a certain brand, and having impromptu meetings.

“There’s no perfect substitute to being at a show in person, but given the circumstances, this was done very well.”

Louis DiGiacomo, senior vice president and general merchandise manager of men’s at Saks Fifth Avenue, was also impressed with how the virtual show was handled — but missed being there in person.

“What Pitti Uomo has done to bring a mega men’s trade fair to life on a digital platform is amazing,” he said. “The platform is well organized and easy to navigate, and they did a great job keeping the momentum going for the fair in the digital world.”

But what’s “challenging from a merchant’s perspective,” he added, “is losing the human interaction that is so important to trade shows. On the digital platform, we can’t ask designers about the heritage of the brand, who they do business with, and their vision for the future. Pitti has always been such an inspiring place to discover emerging brands and new trends for men’s, and it’s difficult to do that when you can’t touch the clothes and speak to the designers.”

Dan Farrington, gmm of men’s for Mitchell Stores, also praised Pitti Connect but like the other merchants, misses the in-person show. “It’s well done — I’ve been impressed with what a lot of people have developed digitally, but it’s not the same. It’s really time consuming. When you walk into a show, you can look at the rigs, touch them and quickly navigate — and you can’t do that digitally. You have to look sku by sku on the computer and it’s a real grind.”

So Farrington said he has basically been sticking with brands the stores have worked with in the past. “That way, we know the fit and the details without being able to touch anything. It’s harder to prospect for something new.”

It’s a bit easier to navigate new brands in accessories than apparel, he admitted. “Certain categories such as shoes, belts and bags are easier, but with apparel, you really need to see it live, touch it and see it on someone.”

Considering the fact that Mitchells has very little open-to-buy to spend for spring anyway, it’s working out. “We’re not buying our regular amount,” he said. “We packed up a ton of this year’s spring and deferred some.”

Federica Montelli, fashion director of Italy’s Rinascente, said of Pitti Connect: “The platform is very well constructed, clear and intuitive. The brands are well identified, lookbooks, videos, and also mood images are available for most of the brands and they present the essence of the label and the collection effectively.”

Like Pask, Montelli liked how the digital site was similar to that of the physical show layout. “The format maintains the same structure of the physical trade show, making it easy for buyers with their existing points of reference.”

She also pointed to the length of the digital fair as a positive. “It’s convenient to find all information on the trade show and brands for a longer period of time, examining all of it in the comfort and calm of the office or home. There are many brands — both established and new — that in the digital format are more aligned in terms of visibility and importance.”

Even so, she said that no digital show can rival an in-person event. “Walking and browsing the collections is sometimes quicker and more effective. But ultimately, the vibe and the energy you experience during the physical trade show is so unique that it is difficult to transfer through a digital platform. It’s good to have the platform for a longer period of time, but nothing can substitute the moment of exchange between all of the peers and in this industry and colleagues, that is so central to the Pitti experience.”

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