Tweets and Tribes

tweetsandtribes

NEW YORK, United States — As another fashion week season comes to a close, we’ve seen everything from intergalactic armour to a full-fledged ’80s revival on the runways. But when it comes to covering and commenting on the collections, one trend stands out. This time around, we came closer than ever to capturing and transmitting the real experience and energy of the shows thanks to fashion’s growing love affair with Twitter.

Editors at New York Times fashion blog The Moment, Women’s Wear Daily, SHOWstudio and our very own The Business of Fashion, among others, took to the “micro-blogging” service with enthusiasm, using their iPhones, BlackBerrys and laptops to broadcast haiku-length updates on what they were doing and thinking at presentations and parties from New York to Paris. For fellow insiders and fashion consumers following their  “tweets” this amounted to a captivating play-by-play delivered with immediacy and intimacy like never before.

Twittering from both backstage and front of house at the Marc Jacobs show in New York, editors at Women’s Wear Daily and The Moment broadcast the following tweets:

At Marc: photogs swarm Anna Wintour and then Rachel Zoe. Is this as big as it gets?
7:45 PM Feb 16th from TwitterMail

Mother daughter double date at Marc: Anna and Bee with new BFF Desiree Rogers and her daughter Victoria.
7:52 PM Feb 16th from TwitterMail

“ladies and gentlemen please take your seats.”
7:54 PM Feb 16th from TwitterMail

Lights down. First look out. High hair, gray cardigan and pants.
7:59 PM Feb 16th from TwitterMail

Punk. Lace. Studs.
8:01 PM Feb 16th from TwitterMail

Metallics. Neon coats, ponchos and hooded jackets.
8:05 PM Feb 16th from TwitterMail

At Marc Jacobs, serious club kids on parade, including Stephen Sprouse [sic] and Lydia Lunch! Each one crazier than the next! AC #nyfw
8:31 PM Feb 16th from web

Fun backstage moment: Marc Jacobs pulling up his kilt after Carine Roitfeld asked him if he was wearing underwear. (He was.) HS #nyfw
8:32 PM Feb 16th from web

Ingrid Sischy telling Marc that he is the new Armani for starting on time. (Show actually started-get this-one minute early.) HS #nyfw
8:32 PM Feb 16th from web

Marc just said backstage: “It was all things New York” ! AC #nyfw
8:33 PM Feb 16th from web

Marc Jacobs was very Gloria von Thurn und Taxis and Diane Brill, first time at a punk debutante ball in the late 80s East Village. AL #NYFW
8:46 PM Feb 16th from TwitterBerry

What’s most interesting about the stream above is that each individual update offers only a fleeting glimpse of Marc’s show (tweets are short bursts of realtime information, limited to 140 characters) but taken together, the little bits of information come together to form a surprisingly vivid and multi-dimensional picture of the event, as if one were seeing the show from multiple angles at the same time.

While they certainly don’t transmit the same definition or depth of information as images on Style.com or a Cathy Horyn article, what tweets do capture uniquely well are raw impressions that coalesce into a rather sophisticated picture of ambience, or mood. It just so happens that fashion (and fashion shows) are also remarkably good at producing a stream of instant impressions that conjure mood. In this sense, there is a real affinity between the medium (Twitter) and the message (fashion) that suggests this is a love affair with longer-term potential.

What’s also interesting is the sheer volume of activity in the Twittersphere that’s related to fashion. Measured by monitoring the hashtag “#nyfw” voluntarily appended to Twitter updates about the shows, New York Fashion Week actually became the 4th biggest trend on Twitter, prompting Real Time Trends to tweet: “#nyfw – has risen to the #4 trend on twitter.”

Indeed, references to the new technology are popping up everywhere. In her review of Emporio Armani, Suzy Menkes makes a rather poetic reference to Twitter that almost makes it sound like a beacon of hope: “The sweet bird of youth twittered through the Emporio Armani collection. You could imagine the girly couples on the runway with their short skirts, knee-high socks and just slightly daring punk-studded bags working their thumbs off later on as they shared with each other, via their mobile phones, comments about each cute item.”

Sadly, it’s no secret that the rise of Twitter comes at a very difficult time for fashion. Fashion is often called a tribe. But by many accounts we are a tribe in crisis.

It’s never good news when Women’s Wear Daily publishes a piece that invokes survival of the fittest: “Darwin’s theory of evolution, which argues that only the fittest survive in a given environment, seems to have newfound currency in today’s grisly marketplace… [It's] more like evolutionary warfare than retail, but the once genteel competition that typified the apparel business has become a life-or-death contest, a game where the winners take all and the losers get a pat on the back and a bill from the bankruptcy lawyers.”

It’s true that the current economic climate has amplified the sudden crash in exuberance for luxury fashion. But it is not the underlying cause. While some in the industry saw this coming, many more preferred to ignore mounting evidence of major shifts in consumer psychology and values (especially among the truly affluent, as opposed to the aspirants) away from disposable luxury and towards greater authenticity and longevity.

This season, nothing dramatized the current reality with greater impact than Alexander McQueen’s brave and provocative show for Autumn/Winter 2009, which prompted apocalyptic headlines like “McQueen Leaves Fashion in Ruins.” Underscoring the seriousness of the situation, Guy Trebay compares the fashion tribe to revelers on the Titanic: “the people who make fashion, faced in many cases with their own imminent disappearance, seemed to have concluded that if the ship appears to be sinking, the best thing to do is to ask the band to play louder and dance till the end.”

So what does this have to do with Twitter? It’s clear that the fashion tribe needs new ideas. New technologies can help.

In Seth Godin’s latest book, a fragment called “Improving a Tribe” says that tribes can increase their effectiveness through “tools to allow members to tighten their communications.” This thesis has been proven in the past. For example, in the 1990s, the arrival of email shook up the calcifying tribes of corporate America, creating a freer flow of information and ideas between professionals and across business units, resulting in better product or service design. It also gave voice and recognition to people with ideas or specialized experience and undermined the power of hierarchy, creating a flatter and more flexible overall organization.

To effectively face the challenges ahead, fashion needs a new narrative: a story about who we are and the future we are trying to build. We need to turn our  “closed” and “insider” tribe into a collective movement that reenergizes consumers. But it seems clear that leaders at the world’s biggest fashion groups (who engineered the period of unrestrained rapid expansion and marketing-driven desire that has in many ways led us to this predicament) cannot create this movement alone.

What the fashion tribe needs is a collective dialogue. While it clearly has major limitations, Twitter (and other technologies like it) can help us to facilitate (or at least imagine) a multi-dimensional dialogue across the tribe: from leaders to tribe, from tribe to leaders, from tribe member to tribe member, and from tribe member to end consumer.

And maybe. Just maybe. If we are willing to listen hard enough to the chatter, a new narrative might start to emerge.

Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.