Fashion and the digital experience

June 14, 2020

Last week, Pakistan’s first virtual fashion show went online, leaving one wondering whether the industry was ready for this transition or not.

The global coronavirus pandemic has thrown fashion into complete disarray. It’s facing multiple threats that begin from major obstacles in supply chains caused by lockdowns, to retail vacuums resulting in a closure of brick and mortar stores. Just this week, Spanish retailer Zara announced the closure of 1200 worldwide stores to deal with financial losses. So basically, even if big brands manage to create new collections and manufacture the clothes, which in itself is a long shot, who’s going to buy new clothes when there’s nowhere to go? Consumers are currently more worried about keeping their jobs and surviving on pay cuts. Did I just say that the coronavirus pandemic has thrown fashion into complete disarray? Let me rephrase that. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown the whole world into complete disarray.

The impact of this mess has directly affected the fashion calendar, forcing international fashion councils to restrategize and rethink the need for so many collections and so many fashion weeks a year. Shanghai and Moscow were amongst the first to take their fashion weeks online and this month, London Fashion Week will be the first major player to take its business online too. One has to hope that man’s visceral relationship with fashion will eventually bring him back to it, eventually bringing fashion back to life.

Over to Pakistan and the parallel problems that the country’s fashion industry is facing here.

Thinking ahead of the curve, and having witnessed the cancellation of fashion weeks scheduled to take place in Lahore and Karachi in April 2020, CEO of Catwalk Event Management & Productions, Frieha Altaf decided that a conscious effort needed to be made to keep fashion going. She came up with a plan for Pakistan’s first Virtual Fashion Show, in which designers would create small and personalized runways in their homes to showcase capsules of their latest collections that had been sitting in studios for the past two months. Some showed new collections and others showed classic pieces that would look good on film. To not seem insensitive or ignorant of the current situation – because fashion is often accused of existing in a privileged bubble – the show was given a purpose. Participating designers would send their clothes and accessories as gifts to medical front liners; perhaps this gesture would help brighten up their Eid, which is when the show was originally planned to be broadcast. It was postponed in respect of the tragic crash of PK8303, in which 97 precious lives, including Zara Abid one of industry’s most loved models, were lost. An emotional tribute to Zara closed Episode One of the show.

Sensitive to the issue and conscious of the need of the hour, many of Pakistan’s top names united and came onboard for the show, titled Catwalk Cares. The lineup included Khaadi, Maheen Karim, Amir Adnan, Huma Adnan, Shamaeel, Ismail Farid, Republic, Elan, Shehla Chatoor, Generation, Sania Maskatiya, Nida Azwer, Ali Xeeshan, Hussain Rehar, Sana Safinaz, Nomi Ansari, Faraz Manan, Sonya Battla and Asim Jofa, who has been actively manufacturing PPE gear for people and medical personnel across the country. Designers chose their models, who followed instructions given out by Nabila and her team on video calls, and recordings were directed by Asad ul Haq, who also prepared the final cut. It wasn’t a live-stream, as an online fashion week would have been, but the pre-recorded program was developed into three episodes, published at a fixed time on Har Pal Geo and Catwalk’s official YouTube pages. Three half-hour episodes rolled out the prep as well as the pomp of the show. Both designers and their models sent out awareness messages as well as appreciation to the medical wonders that were saving lives at the risk of their own.

Barring a few teething problems, it all went well; the show certainly had its heart in the right place but left one with a simple question: did this Virtual Fashion Show have a sustainable purpose?

The ultimate purpose of any fashion show is to keep the business of fashion alive. And in order to be sustainable and even relevant to a virtual fashion show, fashion brands must have some sort of online presence. London is the first of the fashion capitals to transition. According to the schedule, brands will unveil new or existing product lines on the new site at specific time slots alongside links to look books, digital showrooms and e-commerce sites. Scheduled to roll out between June 12 and 14, by now one would know how successful the format was.

“Canceling London Fashion Week was never an option,” Caroline Rush, the British Fashion Council chief executive, said in press announcements prior to the e-event. “The big question was around what sort of format it would take in lockdown.”

London was quick to respond to the crisis but what happens in Pakistan, where fashion council heads have not even released a road map, let alone a survival plan. Have they even addressed the crisis at hand, you may ask. Frieha Altaf’s virtual fashion show may provide a platform for designers to showcase their creativity and keep themselves in the picture but it needs to have a checklist before it kicks further into action.

Participating designers must have online presence in the form of websites or e-commerce sites. It may seem shocking but many couturiers still operate from private studios, access to which should not be encouraged until the coronavirus has a cure, which may take anywhere to a year. Ready to wear brands, those that offer affordable clothes especially, should invest in trend videos and smart online marketing to create awareness and they should have online look books for their show collections, where consumers can order from. The time when designers got away with dramatic shows flaunting impractical collections that never made it from runway to retail is gone; there’s no point showcasing clothes that won’t go into production for sales.

This definitely is a time to rethink the basics. Fashion needs to make a smooth transition to the digital space, that much is a no-brainer. How it’ll be done and effectively achieved is the bigger problem. Let’s hope one sees the councils and industry well-wishers like Frieha Altaf bring in a much needed and overdue sense of unity. If not, the coronavirus will succeed in wiping out an industry that could have and should have been.

Coronavirus lockdown: Fashion and the digital experience