The future of the fashion show is changing. Again.
Shanghai Fashion Week, which pioneered digital pivots like live streaming, returns today as a largely physical event, featuring around 90 brands across a number of venues, including its main stage in fashionable shopping district Xintiandi and emerging designer platform Labelhood. Pre-pandemic life has almost fully resumed in China, with daily new Covid-19 cases stable in the low double-digits.
“The whole community is really looking forward to Shanghai Fashion Week as a physical season after this horrible time,” says Liushu Lei, one half of Chinese brand Shushu/Tong, who will be showing with Labelhood. Lei is one of many designers that, after successfully experimenting with technologies like computer-generated animation, interactive WeChat games and films earlier this year, reverted to physical shows this season with the mindset that “a virtual show cannot replace a real show” in terms of branding and effectiveness. But that doesn’t mean digital is over.
A still from Angel Chen’s Autumn/Winter 2020 video.
© Angel Chen
In March, Shanghai Fashion Week was considered a model for how global fashion could pivot to digital shows, with the event’s streams reaching over 11 million views and generating more than RMB 20 million ($2.82 million) in gross merchandise volume. Chinese consumers are considered the most digital savvy, primed for fully virtual events and buying off the runway. The event’s overwhelming return to physical shows speaks to the staying power of the in-person format across Europe and the US, once the pandemic is under control. But the blueprint for future fashion weeks is not a return to the former physical format, but a hybrid model, now underway in Shanghai, with live events supplemented with live streams and digital showrooms, catering to both a local audience and a global crowd who can’t be there in person.
Both live streams and digital showrooms get brands in front of buyers despite travel restrictions, streamline order management and reach a wider audience locally and internationally, while consuming relatively limited resources in terms of cost, designers say. “Physical shows are great for localised businesses, but the fashion world at large is still needing innovative digital ‘to travel’ to the different markets,” Julie Gilhart, chief development officer of Tomorrow Consulting, says, adding that the future of physical and digital is to “feed off each other”.
The need to stream
“We encourage all designers to live stream even if they can have a physical show,” says Labelhood’s founder Tasha Liu. Labelhood will live stream its five days of 20 shows as well as its full calendar of events and workshops. “We are opening a window for those people who cannot attend the physical event.”
Angel Chen, who is returning to the Xintiandi main stage after six years to debut her collaboration with Canada Goose, will also live stream on Instagram, Weibo, Taobao, Tmall and Douyin. Israeli couture brand Galia Lahav, which will hold its first show as part of Shanghai Fashion Week, will stream it on social media, which is “at the heart of the business”, says head designer Sharon Sever.
A still from Samuel Guì Yang’s Autumn/Winter 2020 video.
© Samuel Guì Yang
“Most brands will do both going forward,” says Chloe Ma, who has produced fashion shows, exhibitions and events for brands like Louis Vuitton, Dior and Hermès in Mainland China. While live streams will be used to amplify bigger brands’ shows, emerging designers may focus fully on streaming to cut costs, Ma says. Labelhood takes care of the live-streaming costs and logistics for the brands it features and Shanghai Fashion Week does the same for the brands on the Xintiandi stage, which this year will also be streamed on Xiaohongshu and Bilibili in addition to Youku and iqiyi.
Le New Black, which was launched in 2009 and works with more than 250 brands and 10,000 retailers across 80 countries, allows brands to both present their collections and manage orders from buyers digitally. Managing director Romain Blanco says that they have been contacted by at least 300 brands since March and have signed 70 new ones in the past three months, including Samuel Guì Yang and Shushu/Tong.
“Brands that were thinking of moving to a digital solution maybe in the next two years, they’ve done it in two months instead because of Covid-19,” says Blanco, speaking from a physical showroom during Paris Fashion Week. The company does not want to replace in-person meetings or traditional fashion weeks entirely, but make them more efficient. “We are removing the hassle of producing linesheets, sending PDFs or having different price lists for different buyers. Everything is simplified.”
In Shanghai, Ontimeshow will host its trade show in person, but will also update its online ordering system OntimeOrder to include international buyers with its wholesale buying platform and online showroom Joor.
“[Digital] is a big trend for our business,” says Ontimeshow co-founder Aroma Xie, adding that Chinese buyers are making increasingly smaller first orders at trade shows, which they then integrate throughout the season to better adapt to fast-changing market trends, stretching the buying season well beyond the traditional months of April and October. “Online ordering helps because it’s easier for them to keep making orders and for us to keep tracking their data,” she says.
Experimentation and flexibility
Despite enthusiastically supporting physical show formats, designers aren’t denying the opportunities that digital represents. “Brands now have more freedom to choose the right media which suits them more,” say Staffonly designers Shimo Zhou and Une Yea via email; the pair have launched a collection via WeChat and plan to invest more in social media. Angel Chen says that CG animation favours creativity by allowing her to explore ideas that she couldn’t have achieved during a physical show. “All brands have started to think more digitally,” she says.
A still from Shushu/Tong’s Autumn/Winter 2020 video.
The more fluid hybrid approach adds an element of flexibility, especially for young designers. Samuel Guì Yang, who splits his brand’s headquarters between China and the UK, planned to show his Spring/Summer 2021 collection in Shanghai but Covid-19 restrictions in London following high infection rates in the city disrupted his work schedule. Without a runway show, Yang will use his showroom space at Not Showroom to host an evening launch event for press, buyers and friends of the brand. At the same time the collection will be available for international buyers digitally via B2B platform Le New Black, Yang’s first foray into a digital showroom.
“Digital has been a lifeline for an independent designer brand like us,” says Yang. “It’s about embracing what is available in front of you and how you can take advantage of it.”
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