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Prada Experimented with a New Digital Fashion Show Format. Did It Work?

Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons' debut as co-creative directors was well received, but digital impressions were down from a year ago, according to one estimate.
The Prada Spring/Summer 2021 digital show featured the debut collection between Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons. | Source: Prada
  • Alexandra Mondalek

NEW YORK, United States — The Milanese street style scene during fashion week usually flirts with chaos, as dozens of photographers crouch down and backpedal across the cement sidewalk to capture the swarm of celebrities, influencers and the rest of the travelling fashion circuit as they approach show venues.

For its Spring/Summer 2021 collection, Prada’s social media team set out to recreate street style at home. Fashion editors, intellectuals and activists, including the model Salem Mitchell, youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman and Female Collective founder Candace Reels, posed in their homes, wearing primary coloured Prada items sent from the brand, while 22-year-old photographer Myles Loftin “shot” them over Zoom. Loftin advised the group on how to light their homes and compiled the images together in a Y2K, screenshot-style collage posted to social media. The concept came together in the week or so before the show itself.

Prada invited the photoshoot subjects to join a virtual "room," where they offered their take on the debut collection co-designed by Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons in real-time. Phillip Picardi, (who was also photographed by Loftin) joined a room with Raquel Willis, Kimberly Drew and Nikki Ogunnaike — the people he said he most likely would have been seated with during a live show — to take in the collection of shell tops and overcoats in industrial re-nylon.

“The fun thing about this experience, as opposed to the other [digital shows], was … it was nice to be able to have that sense of camaraderie again,” Picardi said, who was paid to participate in the live viewing and discussion of the show, though Prada did not require Picardi to post any images to his own social media as part of the deal.

Throughout the pandemic, fashion brands have struggled to generate the same excitement for digital shows as they have for physical shows. Shows are meant to dazzle buyers and editors, though they have also become a means of attracting consumer eyes and wallets. The investment in production, celebrity invites, casting and entertainment, could equally be justified in the form of digital impressions created by influencers who chronicle a near play-by-play of the moments leading up to, during, and after a fashion show.

Despite being home, devices tethered to their hands, fewer people have been watching the digital fashion week shows, even those from the industry’s biggest brands. Prada, for its part, took significant measures to promote the show across a variety of channels. It even took out a two-page ad in The New York Times, which costs well into the six-figure range, according to the newspaper’s luxury advertiser rate card.

But did the strategy work?

At 3 PM local time last Thursday, Prada streamed a pre-taped presentation featuring an entirely new cast of models, who walked through an OMA/AMO-designed space of chandeliers and whizzing cameras and monitors (technology as a theme is a favourite of both Miuccia Prada and newly anointed co-designer Raf Simons.) At one point, more than 10,000 viewers tuned into the Prada Instagram live feed of the show. The brand also posted the 35-minute show — including a post-show conversation between Miuccia Prada and Simons — to its YouTube page, where it has racked up nearly half a million views in the first three days. (The Prada Spring/Summer 2021 digital show over the summer has amassed just over one million views on YouTube over two months.)

But the show may not have cut through much beyond this core audience. According to analytics firm Tribe Dynamics, the show’s earned media value in the first 48 hours, an industry measure of third-party social media engagement, was 59 percent lower than the Spring/Summer 2020 show a year ago. That was in line with the decrease seen at other brands.

Still, digital shows have the potential to attract attention over a period of a few days rather than how a physical show might make a splash on social media more instantaneously. Prada says its show is the brand’s most viewed digital event ever, with total views 16 times higher than its Spring/Summer 2020 womenswear show and four times higher than its Spring/Summer 2021 menswear show released over the summer. In addition to sending viewing kits to its Western audience, the Italian luxury label held a physical event in Shanghai for Chinese VIPs. (Prada’s data is a measure of viewership on the show day, plus three days following.)

"We built a strategy to reach Prada's audience using customised activities for each part of the world. Our aim was to be both global and local, interacting with a more intimate approach where appropriate," Lorenzo Bertelli, Prada head of marketing and corporate social responsibility said in a press release.

The mixed results from the most anticipated fashion show of the season raise the question: who are fashion shows really for? Leading up to the pandemic, a growing number of bombastic and expensive productions (closer in execution of a Cirque du Soleil performance than a straightforward runway format) indicated that for mega-brands like Prada, shows were increasingly meant to engage consumers on social media.

Other brands have focused their communications strategy squarely on the industry. For example, many editors and insiders considered Loewe’s “show in a box” to be a delight, though its resonance on social media outside the fashion bubble was limited (even if that wasn’t really the goal.)

For Prada, a brand going through a creative and commercial resurgence, the experiment seemed to try to have it both ways — which isn’t to say they’re mutually exclusive, but perhaps one approach sought to engage insiders while the other was focused on consumer engagement.

A question-and-answer session with Miuccia Prada and Simons offered consumers the kind of access normally reserved for top critics. Prada also did traditional re-see appointments with editors and influencers the day after the show, prioritising an intimate look at the collection, even for those not physically present in Milan.

“The digital format was well adapted and organised, also with the digital suite set up for people who couldn’t attend [Milan Fashion Week.] [I] found it clever and thoughtful,” said MyTheresa Fashion Buying Director Tiffany Hsu, who intends to view the collection again during a re-see appointment.

For all Prada did to court the fashion industry this season, it also attempted to be top-of-mind for consumers. Influencers, who have played a key role in amplifying physical fashion shows to a broader audience, were also part of Prada’s digital show strategy.

For a brand, isn't it supposed to be now is the time to be engaged further with the consumer — in order to save your business?

Although some influencers were paid to promote the Prada show (Caroline Daur posted a photo on Instagram wearing Prada labelled “ad” as she has in seasons past) others, like Los Angeles-based creator Alyssa Coscarelli and Bryan Yambao (Bryanboy) were sent garments to wear for the show but were not paid. (Yambao, who is used to having a front row seat during fashion month, watched the Prada show from his hotel room in Milan, and said the digital format offered him a better opportunity to digest the collection for longer than he would even sitting “12 feet away from the model” during a live show.)

Prada's social media team sent Jalaiah Harmon, who created the popular "renegade" dance on TikTok, an outfit to wear as part of Loftin's shoot, though she did not post about Prada on her Instagram or TikTok accounts. Prada first tried its hand with TikTok last season, when the brand worked with popular creator Charli D'Amelio to create videos for its Fall 2020 show.

If Prada — or any fashion brand — is intent on creating a fashion show meant to appeal to consumers, it must address the disconnect that occurs once a show or collection is released, where the call to action is nonexistent, said Ana Andjelic, author of “The Business of Aspiration.” Andjelic said that the digital shows during Shanghai Fashion Week offered one strategy, wherein consumers could make purchases on T-Mall directly following a digital fashion show.

"In order to really create the direct connection, you need to allow people to buy immediately," she asserted. The "see-now-buy-now" approach for fashion shows did not work for many brands who tried, including Tom Ford and Burberry. Only Tommy Hilfiger has stuck with the model.

But in the end, the Prada show ultimately seemed to be targeted at fashion insiders and Prada superfans.

“It didn't really feel like it was consumer-facing,” Yambao said. “These are designers who kind of rely on a very [small] set of people to amplify their message, rather than communicating directly to the consumer … For a brand, isn't it supposed to be now is the time to be engaged further with the consumer — in order to save your business?”

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