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Will Covid-19 Change Fashion Shows Forever?

After the cancellation of this season’s traditional men’s fashion week in Paris, Virgil Abloh’s recent Louis Vuitton outing in Shanghai offered a savvy template for how to stage a fashion show in a world reshaped by globalisation, the internet and coronavirus. What does it mean for fashion week?
Louis Vuitton's latest men's show held in Shanghai, China on August 6th | Source: Courtesy
  • Vikram Alexei Kansara

Just over a month before what are sure to be a strange set of European fashion weeks, Louis Vuitton was busy making a splash on the other side of the world, where men's Artistic Director Virgil Abloh, unable to travel due to Covid-19 restrictions, nonetheless managed to remotely stage a fashion show for 1,500 guests in the West Bund district of Shanghai.

In its creative message, the show brought playful, childlike wonder to the designer’s on-going reimagining of Vuitton’s travel heritage as a vessel for globalism and inclusivity. But under the hood, its mechanics offered a business-savvy template for how to stage a successful fashion show in a world reshaped by globalisation, the internet and Covid-19.

From industry-centric to consumer-centric

Vuitton’s decision to show off-piste and off-schedule, following the cancellation of June’s traditional men’s fashion week in Paris, marks a significant step towards a consumer-first approach. Major fashion shows, once exclusively trade events, have for years doubled as digital marketing spectacles. But both shifting the physical location of its latest men’s show to Shanghai, far from the luxury industry’s home base in Europe, and staging the event outside of the industry’s traditional calendar, were significant moves for the brand.

To be sure, Shanghai has been free from community transmission of Covid-19 for several months now, making it a relatively safe pace to stage a big fashion show. But even more critical is China’s status as the primary engine of global luxury demand.

Chinese consumption made up 90 percent of global luxury growth last year, according to Bain. And signs that the country’s luxury consumers are shopping again suggests that a significant portion of Chinese demand was simply deferred — and not destroyed — by the first wave of the virus. Chinese men also drive a much larger slice of luxury sales than their Western counterparts, making the market particularly important to Abloh.

Vuitton is certainly not the first to stage an off-schedule show in China. But of the 1,500 guests at the Shanghai event, half were clients. And the show, Abloh’s first since the brand’s decision to switch to a seasonless model, featured plenty of looks from the Autumn-Winter 2020 collection that’s currently in stores, along with items from Spring-Summer 2021.

Localised activations versus centralised fashion weeks

The idea of staging local shows in key markets predates the pandemic. Now, the crisis is accelerating interest in the strategy. With top Chinese clients unable to travel to Europe due to Covid-19, Vuitton’s Shanghai event effectively brought the show to them. But a localised approach comes with advantages that go far beyond outmanoeuvring coronavirus.

Traditional fashion show strategies rely on trickle down from one-size-fits-all events held in industry hubs like Paris to activate markets with unique cultural dynamics on the other side of the world. But when shoppers from Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America collectively account for the majority of luxury sales, do Eurocentric fashion shows still make sense?

Vuitton appears to be betting on a different approach: multiple events staged for local markets with localised tactics, such as Abloh's decision to have Chinese superstar actor-singer-dancer Kris Wu close the Shanghai show. Indeed, the brand is already set to stage a version of its Shanghai men's event in Japan, another critical market, on September 2nd.

Digital amplification on powerful Chinese platforms

Digital-only fashion shows don’t work. The power of the format depends deeply on the live gathering of the “right” people to help conjure and transmit the cultural and emotional value that turns mere dresses into powerful objects of desire. Along with clients, Vuitton invited editors, influencers, celebrities and art students to its Shanghai event. But exploiting a fashion show’s full potential as a consumer marketing spectacle requires robust digital amplification.

Vuitton’s Shanghai livestream clocked up more than 85 million real-time views. Of course, the brand is hardly the first to livestream a show. But these numbers could never have been achieved without the staggering reach of China’s major social media platforms. The livestream got 68 million views on Weibo, 18 million on Douyin and eight million on Tencent, while only 3.3 million people watched on Instagram, 1.6 million on Twitter and 335,000 on Facebook, underscoring the power of partnering with China’s technology giants.

The unbundling of fashion week

What does Vuitton’s approach mean for traditional fashion weeks?

On Thursday, the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana released a provisional schedule of shows for Milan fashion week, which includes Raf Simons’ official debut at Prada. In Paris, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode, too, has promised a September fashion week that is expected to include highlights like Matthew Williams’ debut at Givenchy.

But with virus cases rising again in both France and Italy, there is significant uncertainty about what these fashion weeks will actually look like and who will attend.

If more megabrands break from the standard playbook and adopt the template outlined by Vuitton’s Shanghai show, staging localised, digitally amplified consumer-first events outside the industry calendar, there could be big implications for fashion week as we know it.

Disclosure: LVMH is part of a group of investors who, together, hold a minority interest in The Business of Fashion. All investors have signed shareholder’s documentation guaranteeing BoF’s complete editorial independence.



Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons' debut as co-creative directors will take place on September 24, 2020 | Source: Getty Images

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Compiled by Daphne Milner. 

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