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Who Will Win the Digital Fashion Week Battle?

Even after physical shows return, many in the industry expect the use of digital communication tools will permanently shift the schedule, cadence and strategy of runway shows. Which platforms will emerge dominant?
Chanel's cruise collection video on YouTube | Screenshot: YouTube Chanel
  • Chantal Fernandez

PARIS, France — The first major fashion presentation of the pandemic landed in social media feeds on Monday, when Chanel released its Cruise 2020/2021 collection imagery and videos.

Originally intended to be shown in a much more elaborate, real-life setting — the island of Capri, where the luxury house would have undoubtedly pulled out all the stops to lavishly entertain fashion's biggest names and a host of celebrities — Chanel was forced to go all digital, unveiling what was essentially a nice lookbook.

Though the brand did its best to create anticipation for Monday’s release under the limited circumstances by teasing it in the days ahead of release, its 7-minute video film only garnered about 217,000 views on Instagram and 12,000 views on YouTube in the first eight hours online. Not much, considering Chanel has 39.9 million followers on the former and 1.59 million subscribers on the latter. The #chanelcruise tag generated $437,000 in earned media value in May 2019, compared to only $27,000 in the first week of June 2020, according to Tribe Dynamics.

With so much social media focused squarely on the Black Lives Matter protests over the last two weeks, the chances of Chanel’s secondary collection breaking through online may have been vastly reduced even if they had opted for something more elaborate, such as a livestream video or a virtual reality experiment.

It's still early in the game, but Chanel's misstep makes it clear that whether you're a global megabrand or a local indie label — like those showing during London Fashion Week, which launches online Friday — it's going to be a challenge to get people, both inside the industry and out, to pay attention without the structure and built in-media that traditional, in-real-life runway shows afford. With their army of photographers, rows of Insta-celebrity guests and pre-planned mainstream media coverage, global fashion weeks were set up to succeed.

With their army of photographers, rows of Insta-celebrity guests and pre-planned mainstream media coverage, global fashion weeks were set up to succeed.

So, what happens now that live-action events are simply not possible? A slew of platforms, including Instagram and YouTube, but also new ones created by industry trade organisations — and even some media companies — are battling to become the premier destination for viewing fashion shows online for both consumers and industry insiders alike.

First up is The British Fashion Council's London Fashion Week website, which goes live on Friday. The brightly colour-blocked page aims to appeal to both consumers and retail buyers by publishing both written and video interviews with designers, podcasts and webinars on a set schedule, as well as linking to digital showrooms via buying platform Joor. There will also be space dedicated to the fashion week's sponsors including Mercedes Benz, which usually pay to have their logos and products prominently displayed at show venues.

The schedule is dominated by lesser-known independent and emerging brands like Charles Jeffrey's Loverboy and Ahluwalia, while Craig Green (who started showing in Paris in January) and Martine Rose are sitting the event out.

In Paris, Executive President Pascal Morand said the Fédération de la haute couture et de la Mode is building its own platform that will host any sort of content participating brands want to share during the couture and men's weeks in July, which will also be organised around a set hourly schedule. Like the London Fashion Week website, the platform will connect with digital wholesale partners.

Morand said the platform’s consumer-facing design is “something new for us,” and the Fédération will continue to keep close control over which brands get to participate.

“The principle of the calendar is that ... it is very selective to get in,” said Morand. “Once you are in, anybody and any brand and designer is respected the same way. That has always been crucial for us.”

To be sure, the trade organisations are focused on keeping the curation and schedule of fashion week under their control. But without the need to show when international buyers and editors are in town, major designers in the main fashion capitals may decide to present digital-format collections outside of the confines of these scheduled digital fashion weeks. Even after physical shows return or become safe to host again, many in the industry expect these digital experiments will have long-term ramifications for the schedule, cadence and strategy of runway shows.

Several leading luxury houses have already said they will follow their own individual approaches from here on out. Gucci will only show twice a year, and not necessarily in the traditional format. Saint Laurent will skip Paris Fashion Week in September and "lead its own rhythm" moving forward.

The unbundling of fashion week will shift even more influence to the leading social media platforms like YouTube and Instagram, which have been working for years to weave themselves further into the fabric of the fashion industry, replacing magazines as the most powerful media channels, and encouraging brands to prioritise the audiences of these platforms when they go about making content. Instagram and YouTube are working closely with brands and trade organisations to ensure whatever comes out of the digital fashion weeks has a strong reception with their audiences. But with their massive audiences that appeal to both the industry and also consumers, brands may not see a reason to bother loading up their content on the trade platforms.

“Like everything else, everything to do with shows is inevitably moving towards social media,” said Jamie Pallot, the former editor of and now a consultant working with virtual technology agency Sensorium. “The vast audience will be consuming this kind of material online and by social media — the challenge is how to make yourself stand out visually and aesthetically from everything else.”

The vast audience will be consuming this kind of material online and by social media.

Pallot said brands will need to cater any content they create to shine on all social media platforms and “slice and dice” it into shareable bites. “Instagram is very important. You also have to be on YouTube, you have to be on Facebook Live and [Chinese e-commerce company] Tmall and the international platforms.”

But whichever social media platforms make it easiest and most effective for brands to reach mass-market consumers will emerge from this unusual period even more essential to fashion houses. Fashion will be watching in the coming months to see what kind of digital content makes the most noise both inside and outside the industry, and which platforms are best at disseminating the content.

The platforms are working hard across the board to convince brands to take an early bet on their strategies. Instagram's fashion partnerships team, led by Eva Chen, released a detailed playbook to the fashion trade organisations in May explaining how brands can use the Facebook-owned app to show consumers behind-the-scenes footage and wrangle influencers to help spread the word.

"Everyone is just kind of for the first time figuring it out together, which is why we wanted to put this playbook out," Chen said, anticipating that many brands will be producing "Instagram-first" presentations. "I don't believe there is a future where there is a one-size-fits-all fashion week experience anymore."

I don't believe there is a future where there is a one-size-fits-all fashion week experience anymore.

Instagram's playbook also focused on using the app's commerce products to encourage sales. While fashion weeks have predominantly focused on revealing collections six months before they hit stores, digital fashion shows might incorporate more pieces that are available to buy when brands post them. Chanel's cruise collection, for example, was styled with accessories available to buy now. However, while the trade organisation platforms that are due to launch this summer will be accessible to consumers, they will not be selling to them.

"The audience needs some time to digest the collection," said Carlo Capasa, president of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, which will host its own four-day, content-heavy digital fashion week in July after the Paris designers. He said fashion shows that present clothing immediately available to purchase by the public do not serve the best interest of Italy's designers. "When we involve so many people [consumers], it's not to sell product, but to make people [closer] to a brand, the idea, the philosophy behind the brand."

YouTube, whose fashion partnerships team is led by Derek Blasberg, is working with the trade organisations, too. As part of the upcoming London Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council is publishing a YouTube interview series hosted by Bergdorf Goodman Men's Fashion Director Bruce Pask focused on emerging brands, including Anatome and Bianca Saunders. And video content from the digital presentations will be featured on YouTube's fashion landing page.

“The ‘what’ you are going to show is up to the brands, the how you are going to show it — we’re happy to help or at least consult or lend some insight,” said Blasberg. “Obviously, YouTube is spoiled with data.” Including, he said, evidence that the content has a long life: 60 percent of fashion show viewership happens a month after a show is published.

While Instagram is already fashion’s go-to platform outside of China, YouTube has a larger global audience (watching over a billion hours of video each month) that is already accustomed to watching longer form clips.

But the pandemic provided a boost for Instagram’s own IGTV longform video functionality, as well as its livestreams, which have become popular brand channels in recent months as designers try to connect directly with consumers where they are already spending so much time. Views of live videos increased about 70 percent in the US in May. As digital fashion weeks evolve, and retailers further cut their budgets, brands may not find a reason to create content for any other reason.

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