LONDON, United Kingdom — For up-and-coming womenswear designer Samuel Gui Yang, February’s postponement of Shanghai Fashion Week brought Covid-19’s severity into sharp focus — even before it had escalated into a global pandemic. But panicking would’ve made things worse. “We had to calm down and slow down our process to think about what could be done.”
In the 10 weeks since, designers across the world have received similar news. Travel restrictions and social distancing measures forced the cancellation or virtualisation of Fashion Week events in Japan, South Korea, Turkey, South Africa, Brazil and Russia. According to Japan Fashion Week Organisation (JWFO) Director Kaoru Imajo, his team has also considered the possibility of cancelling the next season of Tokyo Fashion Week shows slated for October.
This makes the previously improbable idea that 2020 may be a year without any more physical fashion shows seem increasingly likely. It has also shifted budgets and eyeballs to digital events in Europe and the US, from Rachel Comey’s online sample sale and L52 Agency’s Instagram showroom to Chanel’s Live concert on the same app.
As June approaches, brands will have to follow suit or risk losing touch with buyers and consumers altogether since the upcoming men’s runways in London, Milan and Paris, as well as July’s haute couture shows, have also been called off. How might brands plan for this eventuality? For a start, they can look to Asia.
Since Asia’s fashion weeks were slated to kick off in March, their brands and marketers — savvy with livestreaming and hosting digital events to begin with — have already done a lot of virtualisation on platforms like Xiaohongshu, Line and Kakao.
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Following the cancellation of Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week in early March, JFWO worked to support designers looking to pivot to digital in time for collections to be seen by global buyers. Seoul Fashion Week did not respond to BoF’s request for comment.
As early as February 27, Shanghai Fashion Week revealed its partnership with Alibaba’s Tmall to bring shows, presentations and parties online in a consumer-facing push christened “Cloud Fashion Week.” The six-day schedule of videos, livestreams and “See Now, Buy Now” activations kicked off a mere month later and views reached 2.5 million during the three-hour opening session alone. Organisers have already flagged future digital activations with Tmall as a distinct possibility.
“In January when we floated the idea, I was doubtful of how livestreaming could get our brand positioning, garment construction and story across,” Yang told BoF. “But desperate times call for desperate measures.”
For many designers like Yang, the experience pushed them out of their comfort zones and the learning curve was steep. Here’s what brands need to know before going virtual.
Unlearn What You Know About Livestreams
Brands shouldn’t approach digital events and livestreams as stand-ins for physical engagement, but as an opportunity to experiment with new formats and reach a wider audience in unexpected ways.
This means pivoting to a digitally native, online-first mindset. According to Geraldine Chew, Greater China Chief Executive of creative agency Uniplan, organisers often fall into the trap of hosting events that look just like physical versions, minus the guests. Chew recommends brands enhance the experiential dimension of events by building studio sets with streaming in mind, ditching keynote presentation formats and incorporating interactions with VIP celebrities and influencers.
Chinese designers faced a different conundrum, but equally they too had to unlearn what they knew of the format to create interesting results.
Of Shanghai’s Cloud Fashion Week’s 150 shows, local emerging designer incubator Labelhood organised 42 of them — including daily reviews and afterparties. Founder Tasha Liu’s hardest task was convincing brands to forget what they knew about the medium as an influencer-beloved mass-selling machine. “A lot of designers hesitated,” she said, and ultimately many chose to opt out of “See Now, Buy Now” and approach the broadcast as a branding exercise.
One inherent problem revolved around aesthetics. Even sustainable luxury brand Icicle adopted the mainland’s typical livestreaming format used by influencers to sell mass-market fashion and beauty. The approach, though informative, left much to be desired by way of storytelling.
Make it easier for consumers to move from channel to channel no matter where they are or how they choose to interact.
The more inventive livestreams from Shanghai saw local brands succeed at redefining the format. Take Fiona Lau and Kain Picken’s Ffixxed Studios, who adopted a kitschy Chinese QVC-meets-reality comedy show skit with the brand’s modern tailored unisex wardrobe sported by friends of the label like influencers @Little13D and Bohan Qiu. Ten minutes into the entertaining broadcast, it garnered over 70,000 likes and 9,000 views.
Brands don’t need to go all-out with a runway format as their first digital event — launching a campaign video or streaming a live performance can allow teams to familiarise themselves with their chosen platform. But they do need to ensure that each activation plays an integral and complimentary role within a wider digital strategy.
“Make sure it’s end-to-end, enabling you to drive engagement at every touchpoint, whether online, mobile, [or] through a call centre,” said Chew. “Make it easier for consumers to move from channel to channel no matter where they are or how they choose to interact.”
Experiment with DTC Interactions
Livestreams can allow brands to reach a wider audience even as self-isolating buyers and influencers tune in from their homes. “We had a much wider audience than we usually would at an invitation-only [show],” said Hideaki Yoshihara and Yukiko Ode of the Tokyo-based brand Hyke, which broadcasted its runway show behind closed doors on March 17. The brand usually welcomes four to five hundred guests to its shows, but this season counted around 6,000 attendees across digital channels.
But virtual events are also a valuable opportunity for brands to carve out an immediate dialogue with their community — even if the event is a branding, rather than sales-centric, exercise. Particularly for emerging labels, pivoting towards a direct-to-consumer model can be daunting, but lockdowns and high traffic volumes online can help designers make inroads by expanding their reach while appealing to shoppers looking to support small businesses.
Major brands and groups, which may find it harder to cultivate a loyal and engaged online community, also stand to benefit. Take Icicle, which saw its livestream draw over 238,000 views and boost sales on the platform by 100 percent. On average, consumers spent about $563 each.
Appealing to both shoppers and industry insiders can be a delicate balance, but if done right, the former can bolster business with the latter.
The consumer holding a smartphone is an influencer in itself who wants to be an integral part of the life of the brand.
“The consumer holding a smartphone is an influencer in itself who wants to be an integral part of the life of the brand,” said Isabelle Chouvet, co-chief executive of Karla Otto and Asia-based sister agency K2, which recently organised digital events for the likes of Calvin Klein. “Digital events provide these unique opportunities to understand immediately what works or not.”
Brands that do embrace the “See Now, Buy Now” model must be ready to take on added tasks — like testing e-commerce capability and anticipating comments and customer service messages about sizing and shipping — in addition to sorting out the technology and design behind the broadcast.
Shanghai’s Cloud Fashion Week was at its core a consumer-facing event, noted Labelhood’s Liu. However, designers can take this as an opportunity to explore or accelerate other direct-to-consumer opportunities, said trade show Ontimeshow’s Founder Yeli Gu.
Furthermore, many designers will re-use their video content with buyers at upcoming showroom events and a warm reception from audiences will be evidence of high demand when they go to market. Investing in data analysis is key and gaining appropriate usage consent from participants to adhere to data protection regulations is a must.
Moreover, multiple designers decided to introduce the collection and respond to comments in their studios as part of the broadcast, which for those who can do so in an on-brand manner, can help foster engagement and inform future product development. “Fashion week used to be a one-way dialogue,” said Labelhood’s Liu. “Now it’s about receiving comments, feedback and interacting with shoppers. Designers should adopt it to forge connections with consumers and not as a one-off project.”
Take Care with Costs
Aside from being a sustainable alternative to conventional parties, shows and presentations, digital events eliminate costs like large-scale venues, team travel and crowd management. Savings can be diverted into content creation, placement and other promotional activities for digital channels, noted Uniplan’s Chew. This is especially the case on the B2B front, where team travel and expenses can make a dent in retailers’ budgets.
Nevertheless, digital event costs and manpower can add up. “When you look at the work that needs to be done in preparing for a livestream, it’s no less than that of a runway show,” said Deepmoss Creative Director Liu Xiaolu. “Maybe the focus is different, but you need resources as costs can be unpredictable.”
Hyke’s Yoshihara and Ode ended up spending more this season — the last-minute nature of the virtualisation effort meant that they added livestream costs to their pre-planned physical show.
Even digital interaction modules alone (like AR and VR) can quickly get expensive. Following news that Tokyo’s Rakuten Fashion Week was cancelled, JFWO returned registration fees to designers and supported some by financing photography, film and livestreaming crews. Even so, “some designers made very creative movies and lookbooks but I think it costs them too much to try a very innovative format,” said Imajo.
Shanghai designer Angel Chen realised the cost of digital events when preparing for her livestream show on March 30, when she invited livestream influencers and VIP guests, paid for visual effects and hired a state-of-the-art livestream production crew for the venue. The result was a resounding success with the broadcast ending on a high note of 40,000 views. But not every business can afford impressive camera work or immersive technology and brands should plan accordingly.
Making the most of an investment can be as simple as choosing the right platform for a brand’s audience, added Karla Otto’s Chouvet. Instagram may be the default destination but TikTok can be a more targeted channel for some and brands should always have an eye on what’s next.
“You may not propose the same content or interactions on [both] platforms [and] that’s okay... You would not address two different clients showing up in your store [the same way either] because you know they have different tastes and you will want to offer a really personalised brand experience.”
Not every business can afford impressive camera work or immersive technology and brands should plan accordingly.
Researching the technical requirements of a livestreaming service and the chosen platform is necessary to laying out an appropriate budget, added Angel Chen. Getting to know the ins and outs of the site or app in question may seem trivial but will come in handy in the event of a technical glitch. Just ask knitwear designer and BoF 500 member Xiao Li, whose livestream — which featured a session where Li introduced the textiles herself — suffered from choppy audio due to the poor WiFi in her art gallery venue.
The novelty of formats like livestreaming means designers should expect a degree of confusion and prepare accordingly. In China, netizens had difficulty with some QR codes, accessing content and navigating the platform. Yang noted that many buyers and viewers remained uncertain about how the platform would work.
One of the most important details to remember is that timing can be key. “Select a time to launch [your] event that promises the highest yield for your budget and risks the least amount of [potential] unexpected blowback,” said Chew — ideally, brands wouldn’t risk the latter to begin with.
Ultimately, brands should expect that a degree of trial and error will be necessary before they figure out the format that works for them — and their budget — best. Those who are open-minded and patient are more likely to emerge from the crisis better-equipped digitally than ever.
Additional reporting by Casey Hall, Irina Li, Sharon Zhou for BoF China.
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