Published in: VIVO Magazine; Summer, 2013.
It was in the recession of 2008 when conspicuous consumption hastily disappeared from the fashion scene. As always, the collective perception of what was considered apropos had altered. Reserved yet abstruse, modest materialism would be en vogue now, as discretion in times of economic uncertainty had become key. As their profits fell, the French continued to concern themselves with physical grandeur, as shown in the Chanel Fall/Winter show of 2008, which presented a 50-foot set craned into in the grand palais of Paris. The English, in the form of Alexander McQueen, offered a romanticized version of life: Seemingly mocking the jobless everywhere, models strolled around a gargantuan fabric-made surrealist tree, draped in princess-themed fashions – escapism at its finest. The West, never known for their couture, nor extravagance, simplicity and minimalism – as always – maintained. While the most prevalent fashion houses continued to miss the mark of this subtle cultural shift towards the timid, Italian labels quickly discovered mediation between luxurious prices within the sphere of newly appointed feigned modesty. Gone rogue, Italian high fashion found its niche in the form of a technological exposé:
In pure darkness, a pleasant piano melody filled the room. From the dusk emerged a series of images, flashes of light, sequentially giving way to time-lapsed cloudscapes and celestial motion, fading out to twinkles of the Eiffel tower at night. Serving nothing less than to blend time and space into a mass of handsome confusion, mystery at its finest opened the show. As the narrow runway lit up, the derived source of blissful confusion, responsible for setting the ominous tone, emerged: a mere digital projection. In an attempt to prolong the suspended disbelief, a gated background with “Pavoni” placed atop became the mainstay throughout. With that, the first model walked out in a metallic number, as if to further illuminate the sparkling lights shown in the video. No dissonance produced from the break of virtual to reality, just an elegant extension of beauty, nothing more.
Countless Milan fashion week shows that marched on throughout the recession featured similar presentations to the Italian-Canadian ‘Pavoni’ F/W 2013 show described above. While this humble digital integration was criticized as being “screen-deep”, the strategy was nevertheless a bashful comparison to the extravagant shows found just Northwest. Still, the technological integration worked to pass through the zeitgeist of a looming recession through exposing a finely tuned pastiche of design, artistry and quality – all that was needed in the ‘tough times’ ahead. Through embracing and integrating digital technologies in their shows, Italian luxury brands clarified their positioning towards a focus on craftsmanship and expertise, not simply a display of indulgence. By cutting costly production overheads and strategically positioning themselves as focused on the timelessness of their appeal, luxury, in Italy, managed to remain virtually (pardon the pun) untouched.
The tech approach continued in Fall/Winter of 2011, with Ermenegildo Zegna giving the first “LIVE-D” fashion show experience, appropriately in tandem with the launch of their e-Commerce site. As digital and reality converged, models were filmed on a green screen backstage, their images projected in real time against a 360 degree filmed background of the Great Wall of China. As they seemingly walked off the 11m x 5m screen, they appeared on the runway; a perfect execution. The show was both exclusive to a live audience and live-streamed for thousands. While production costs were cut, exceptional showmanship remained.
With the world obsessively gawking at stock market projections as fashion seasons came and went, key players in Italy took advantage of the circumstances, quickly working to democratize the fashion industry through online platforms. Dolce and Gabanna, for instance, amassed a team of 23 to focus exclusively on digital strategies. Soon. the second digital revolution, aside from the integration in fashion shows, came to the costly endeavors of trade shows: Often the only true chance for any hopeful designer looking to snag the attention of the nearly extinct luxury consumer lost in a sea of fashion houses, trade shows had been considered integral to the business of fashion. This perception changed, however, with the launch of e-Pitti, an online extension of the Florence-based trade-show producer Pitti Immagine, who opened B2B transactions to world-wide buyers in virtual space. Designers could feature their collections in 360 degree view in online showrooms, often showing for no more than two months. The question of exclusivity – an often-found point of contention in critics of the digitization, or worse-yet, massification of luxury brands – maintained through a stopwatch.
Soon, large houses took notice of the digital integration not just on the runway and in the trade show industry – could the regality of megabrands continue if they were mute in social media? Could high lux translate in the otherwise virtual space of “pedestrian” appeal? Was the third digital revolution in the fashion industry upon us? As the evolution of the fashion industry continued, bloggers, tweeters and facebookers who had themselves created platforms to critique luxury brands via their digital reach, found themselves overturned by the appearance of said brands with new media strategies emplaced: Dolce and Gabanna would live-stream their shows and upload them to youtube, appealing to an audience of 13 million views. Gucci, considerate of the need to form quality relationships with its consumers – both current and potential – would respond to tweets in an average three and a half minutes. Versace, once shy in embracing technology, would open an eCommerce shop, complete with a virtual store window.
Criticisms of the digital amalgamation of the industry continue to linger, mostly concerning massification and the desire for continued privileged access from clients; the need for a tactile experience when purchasing clothing; and the upkeep of high fashion culture in the form of glamorous fashion weeks. Although these issues may have arisen because of technological advancements, solutions will undoubtedly lay in the digital: Perhaps 3D printing could address the practical, and authentic online password protected platforms will harmonize the elite. As for the industry as a whole, just as Italy served to inspired the digital, bolstering any potential downfall and pre-emptively capturing the spirit of the times, fashion culture will undoubtedly grow and change, exposing unforeseen revelations, one conspicuous garment at a time.