By Jiaqi Luo
For weeks, the fashion world has called for a “reset” button. Is fashion still relevant during a global pandemic? How can fashion be more digital, accessible, and constructive in a time of uncertainty? While many other Fashion Weeks worldwide had to cancel, Chinese mobile platforms and their users are so comfortably entwined that the first digital Shanghai Fashion Week served to answer some of these questions.
This is a fashion egalitarian’s dream coming true; every fashion lover – anyone that has a Taobao account – could watch the runway shows in real-time, tap the links on screen, and add the clothes to the shopping cart. Although the “see now, buy now” isn’t a new concept to the industry, it has never been fully realised at such scale. In the previous “see now, buy now” model, consumers would still have to go to specific stores to own a look. During SHFW 2020, whether the fashionista was in a bamboo forest in Sichuan or on the Beijing subway, all could join this digital fashion feast and have the collection shipped to their home the next day. In fact, “anyone watching this from the subway?” was one of the most-liked comments during the one-week streaming.
After the two-month lock-down, the whole event was a long-awaited celebration of beauty among China’s fashion watchers. According to Alibaba, 2.5 million people watched Cloud Fashion Week in the first three hours of streaming. It showed public appetite, even craving, for new ways of engaging with fashion. Of course, the physical experience and sensual wonder of a runway show aren’t going to be fully replaceable by digital. Yet, as the year goes on, thinking of going “back to normal” is no longer an option. Now is a moment to remake the fashion show anew, and Shanghai provided valuable lessons, and highlights:
Runway fantasy goes digital
The biggest looming question for fashion brands – which has a reputation for being slow to digitalization compared to other sectors, such as beauty – is how technology could bring justice to a designer’s creative vision. Here in Shanghai, brands have translated their mood boards into VR-generated runways. Some brands chose to have voiceovers during the runway time to explain to the audience the collection’s fabrics, inspirations, and stories. Others, such as designer brand Angel Chen (whose physical show was canceled in Milan Fashion Week), chose to transform the VR runway into a compelling art form by creating ad hoc accompanying visuals. Chen’s show, inspired by the 1988 film “Akira,” was an eclectic mix of video story and live runway. These digital shows are a testament that even when physical runway shows get canceled, fantasy and imagination aren’t.
(Participants could see the runway’s clothing links and comment on the show in real-time. Photos: screenshots of Taobao Livestreaming.)
Real-time interaction with real people
Fashion weeks have always faced the critique of lacking inclusivity. While old-school fashion week committees strived to preserve fashion’s mystique, it’s been the buyers and consumers who are left with the question: “Do these clothes fit people who eat food?”
In SHFW, each brand’s digital runway was followed by a live streaming session, where the audience could ask the models to try on different clothes. Meanwhile, the live streaming hosts would explain the fabrics, use the camera to zoom in to show more details, and answer the audience’s questions in the comments.
When a physical showroom isn’t a safe option, such live streaming sessions do provide a visceral solution for consumers to get full sense of the garments. On-screen, garments are tried on models with ‘real’ bodies, examined to each detail, and touched by the zoom-in camera.
Designers “getting real”
In a traditional fashion week, the designer’s words are an exclusive delicacy, served to only a small group of VIPs during a press conference. But in SHFW, designer talks were a content staple. Both established and emerging designers sat down in sessions to explain their creative visions and answer the online audience’s questions. In an industry where designers are often seen as a ‘Wizard of Oz behind the curtain’ figure, these open conversations felt instantly refreshing.
In the extraordinary time we live in today, designers in Shanghai also took the moment to get real with the audience, being open about the challenges they face this year. While “getting real” might not necessarily translate into sales, it made human moments possible and showed empathy and garnered wide affection.
(Brand UntitLab’s founder held a designer talk to explain his visions. Photos: screenshots of Taobao Livestreaming.)
(Brand Fabric Qorn held a lucky draw during its designer talk session. Photos:@Labelhood weibo.)
The Cloud offers a silver lining
The positive message for fashion globally is Chinese consumers’ irreplaceable love for dressing up. Some things don’t change. Consumer confidence remains high in China across industries. Industries ranging from beauty, food, to retail have already shown the first signs of recovery. A recent Reuter Communications study also shows figures that corroborate this finding.
At the heart of this optimism is a cultural-specific interpretation of “crisis:” in Chinese, the word “crisis” consists of both “danger” and “opportunity.” The opportunity in a crisis, we are told, is anchored in the promise of unweaving optimism, mental agility, and speedy response. The Cloud Fashion Week, which took only 1 month to realise since the idea was conceived, is the best example of such spirit, and shows a way forwards for the global fashion industry and perhaps more besides.