MILAN, Italy — In the wake of the financial crisis of 2008, luxury fashion brands found themselves scrambling to develop strategies for the so-called "new normal." Logos and conspicuous consumption were out, it was said. Customers were now looking for understated luxury, value and discretion.
And so, in uncanny lock-step syncopation, brands from Louis Vuitton to Gucci to Dolce & Gabbana began a strategic march to the same heritage tune, showcasing their age-old manufacturing techniques in carefully constructed advertising campaigns designed to appeal to notions of timelessness and quality and designing entire collections dedicated to their "iconic heritage."
But, if the menswear collections just concluded in Milan are any indication, for many fashion brands, the focus on heritage was just another passing trend, in one season and gone the next. The industry has now embraced digital, "the next big thing," in the same superficial and fleeting way. But generally speaking, if you scratch the surface, their real understanding of digital opportunities and risks is only screen deep.
Yes, Italian fashion has caught the digital bug that has swept across much of the fashion industry over the past 24 months. There are digital screens everywhere you look — alongside the runways at fashions shows, inside the store windows, and even within glass boxes with artfully projected holographic images, as at the A/W 2011 Hogan presentation.
Several brands successfully incorporated digital media into the fabric of their fashion shows. At the beginning of the Ermenegildo Zegna presentation for A/W 2011, we were welcomed to the brand's "digital world," which included the use of green screen technology to project the models' images onto iconic Chinese backdrops like the Great Wall of China, just before the real models came out onto the runway. (In case we didn't grasp that the images were just projections, the show concluded with a real green screen to hammer home the point that this was all brought to us by the magic of technology.)
Other brands began their fashion shows with film presentations, sometimes with no apparent link to the collections that followed. When quizzed on the puzzling fit between the fun, light-hearted film by Walter Pfeiffer — which drew both catcalls and groans from the gathered fashion masses — and the serious, rugged collection of delectable knitwear conceived by creative director Claire Waight-Keller that followed, Pringle could only cryptically say that it wanted to give artists the freedom to "express their views on Pringle collections and the brand...clarifying our positioning through a multitude of individual viewpoints."
Fine, but why try to show the two things together if the mood and creative direction of the film and the show were so different? Both the film and the collection were enjoyable enough, but there was no need to force them together just to be on digital trend if they had so little in common. Rather than clarify the brand's positioning, it created a dissonant experience and left more than a few editors scratching their heads as they walked out of the venue into the crisp Milan evening.
The most successful digital presentations during the Italian menswear season took place at Pitti Uomo, where Gareth Pugh's tour de force film, projected like a digital fashion fresco on the ceiling of the 800 year old Orsanmichele church, was a powerful combination of Italian cultural history and fashion's digital future. Who's On Next winner Andrea Incontri, also showing at Pitti, began his fashion show with a compelling narrative film which artfully showcased his sumptuous accessories, while not coming off as crassly commercial, integrating thematically and logically with the fashion show that followed. The filmmaker and designer had clearly worked together to create one seamless creative presentation, with a consistent message.
While at Pitti, I also had the pleasure of meeting several local Italian bloggers, who reported that many Italian brands — including those that are supposedly amongst the most digitally sophisticated — don't know how to manage relationships with bloggers. "They're only interested in inviting the famous foreign bloggers to their shows because it gets them publicity," I was told by one local blogger. "But still, they send us their press releases and images afterwards, and then wonder why we don't post them on our blogs," he continued.
Notably, it was often the brands who weren't caught up in the digital hysteria, who made the most impact. Even though I spent a scant 10 minutes scanning the goods on offer at Marni's small but immaculately conceived A/W 2011 presentation, the excellent product has stuck in my head, because I got to touch it and feel it. Umit Benan's presentation was another breath of fresh air in an otherwise stale Milan Fashion Week. Though the clothes themselves may not have been exceptionally different from what was on offer elsewhere, fused together with the unique narrative challenging the homogeneity of the investment banker set, the collection spoke to me in ways that many others simply did not.
Lest I be too negative, Italian executives I spoke to insisted that they understood that digital was an important consideration for their businesses going forward. Many of them are genuinely curious about how to approach digital and some brands like Dolce & Gabbana — boasting a team of 23 people working on digital projects alone — have invested heavily in digital talent.
But all of this is of little use if brands are simply embracing digital communication as a superficial trend and a way of obscuring a lack of focus on the product and their seemingly limited understanding of how to strategically integrate digital initiatives into a fashion business.
Imran Amed is Founder and Editor of The Business of Fashion