LONDON, United Kingdom — For many fashion companies, 2009 was the year the internet arrived. In the face of an unprecedented economic crisis and overwhelming evidence that affluent consumers are highly active online, senior executives across the industry are finally starting to embrace digital media with a new strategic seriousness.
There was no better sign of this than the impressive gala held during London Fashion Week to celebrate fashion website SHOWstudio and its groundbreaking exhibition at Somerset House, "Fashion Revolution."
When it was launched by photographer Nick Knight in November of 2000, SHOWstudio was ahead of its time. Indeed, "Fashion Revolution" celebrates nine years of restless experimentation and digital innovation. But for the majority of brands, retailers and publishers, who are still struggling to understand the radical impact the internet is having on fashion communication, the retrospective also offers urgent lessons for the present. We think it's a must-see for executives, creatives and editors alike.
The exhibition is organised around three main themes – Process, Performance, and Participation – that are each integral to understanding how digital media is different and what that means for the future of fashion communication.
The openness of the internet has given consumers access to the behind the scenes of fashion like never before. From the beginning, SHOWstudio understood and embraced the transparency inherent in the new medium, inviting their online audience to consume the creative process of fashion, not just the end product. Many of these early experiments are documented in "Fashion Revolution."
As far back as 2004, a SHOWstudio project called Power of Witches, developed in collaboration with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garçons, laid bare the entire creative process around a shoot for the Autumn/Winter 2004 issue of AnOther Magazine in a live three-day webcast.
In Phonecarte, another project in the exhibition, SHOWstudio asked models Karen Elson, Lily Cole, Irina Lazareanu and Lily Donaldson to record voicemails as they shuttled between fittings, shows, after-parties and hotel rooms during the hectic fashion week season. Streamed on-demand over the internet, the recordings gave consumers unprecedented personal access to the first hand experiences of the world's top models at work and play in New York, London, Milan and Paris.
As increasingly influential bloggers armed with laptops and web-enabled cameras follow in the footsteps of SHOWstudio's experiments, expectations amongst consumers are evolving. No longer content to merely purchase finished products, they want more immediate, insider access to the people and creative process of the fashion industry. We think it's time for forward-thinking brands to open up their organisations and deliver.
According to Nick Knight, SHOWstudio's live fashion shoots sometimes became more conscious "performances," with the photographer, the stylist, the designer, and the model all taking part. As part of their exhibition at Somerset House, SHOWstudio has placed an active photo studio inside a room-sized glass case and invited the public to watch the action unfold, as imagemakers including Jason Evans, Alice Hawkins, Craig McDean and Sølve Sundsbø shoot fashion editorial and portraits.
During the course of the exhibition, Mr. Knight himself will appear in the live studio space to photograph "100 of London's Beau Monde," including models, actors, musicians and artists. But what's perhaps most interesting about these "performances" is the crucial role they played in the development of a new kind of fashion experience: the fashion film.
Between 2005 and February 2009, Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben, then his assistant, documented Mr. Knight's shoots for magazines like British Vogue and uploaded the results to SHOWstudio. Ms. Hogben was charged with capturing and editing the footage. But with Mr. Knight's support, she soon started experimenting with her edits and adding music to the visuals.
In 2008, at the side of a landmark shoot for British Vogue's December issue, they filmed models Lily Donaldson and Jourdan Dunn in some of the most sensational clothing of the decade. Called "Fantasia," the final edit was simple, but provocative. It appears in the exhibition alongside a selection of captivating short films that use movement and music to communicate fashion in a way that static editorial simply can’t.
What began as simple documentation is, today, on the verge of becoming something much bigger. Pioneered in experiments like "Fantasia" and powered by video sharing sites like YouTube and Vimeo, fashion film has emerged as the most influential new format for fashion communication. Powerful brands like Yves St. Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Chanel have used the format to complement runway shows and accompany advertising campaigns. But that's just the beginning.
Bringing together fashion, film and music, this new format is going to explode. According to ABI Research, by 2012 the number of broadband video consumers will surpass one billion. As viewership skyrockets and marketers continue to move dollars online, we predict the industry will see a seismic shift away from stills towards short fashion films, with brands competing to create compelling video content of their own. This will be especially true as companies set their sights on millennials, an entire generation of young fashion consumers who expect their world to be instant, dynamic and online.
The internet is also an inherently participatory medium. While magazines were essentially one-way monologues to mute readers, the internet allows dialogue and exchange, with and amongst consumers.
Right from the beginning, SHOWstudio gave their viewers a voice, encouraging them to respond, discuss and contribute. In a project called In Camera, SHOWstudio let a global audience pose live questions to interview subjects like Kate Moss, Björk, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, giving users rare and privileged access to engage with key creative figures at the top of the industry. Another project called "24 HRS" let consumers influence the narrative of a short film for Stefano Pilati's Edition 24 collection for Yves Saint Laurent, while "Dress Me Up, Dress Me Down" invited viewers to style model Liberty Ross for a live photo shoot.
Today more than ever, people want to be part of the action. And according to a study by market researchers Forrester, luxury fashion consumers are more active than most. Not content to be passive spectators, they are twice as likely to participate online. We think fashion companies should take a more open and collaborative approach with consumers and create interactive content that lets them participate and engage with the brands they love.
"We are in the midst of a revolution," says Nick Knight. As fashion brands study and seek to capitalise on what Burberry CEO Angela Ahrendts calls the "digital tsunami," we think understanding the three P's – Process, Performance and Participation – is an essential precursor to effective action.
An afternoon at Somerset House is probably the best place to start.
SHOWstudio: Fashion Revolution on view until 20 December 2009 at Somerset House, Strand, London WC2R 1LA.
Vikram Alexei Kansara is a digital strategist and writer based in New York.