Essay: The Spectacle Of Change

by Hetty Mahlich on 31 July 2020

Hetty Mahlich explores what remains in the absence of the fashion show, as European Digital Fashion Weeks saw designers explore digital and virtual mediums as a means to continue to create. Reflecting on a moment many took to reset, what do designer's offerings mean for the future of spectacle? The show must go on, but in what form?

Hetty Mahlich explores what remains in the absence of the fashion show, as European Digital Fashion Weeks saw designers explore digital and virtual mediums as a means to continue to create. Reflecting on a moment many took to reset, what do designer's offerings mean for the future of spectacle? The show must go on, but in what form?

Cue Alessandro Michele fanning himself in the Palazzo gardens, Mariacarla Boscono's Valentino moment and Prada's new collective vision

In February 2020, as the fashion crowd left Milan amid rising COVID-19 infections, Giorgio Armani’s runway show was instead held without an audience, and streamed online, for fear of endangering clients and employees. Soon after came international lockdowns and the cancellation of the menswear and couture shows in June and July. The industry was left wondering when it would meet again. Never in fashion history has there been a moment as disruptive as coronavirus. Having been brought to a sharp halt, the industry has seen conversations about its fundamental flaws gain traction, ranging from the illogical seasonal schedule, to a dearth of diverse representation, to the ethics, transparency and sustainability of the supply chain, to the way new clothes are presented. What would fashion do without shows? It seems the COVID-enforced slowdown opened the floodgates for fashion industry workers' frustration with a system that seems to be past its sell-by-date.

One highly visible area where opportunity for change presented itself, were the European digital fashion weeks. Deprived of the chance to send editors, buyers and influencers round the world and back again, designers now needed to communicate their collections in the absence of the IRL bajazz fashion shows offer. How to create a spectacle, without the razzle dazzle of the show space? All eyes were now on the mediums they would choose, and the digital language they would take up. This is, of course, if they had something new to show: the almost immediate shutdown of ateliers and suppliers, plus the psychological shock of a life-threatening pandemic, presented huge difficulties for brands in the task of gathering a collection for presentation. As a result, many brands eschewed the June/July schedules in favour of showing in September.

Putting on a show, whether literally or metaphorically, is still a pressing concern. Those who decided to go ahead and present were left to pick their poison: soldier on regardless and do a show as usual? Or explore other methods? Some brands took the chance to flex their creative muscles and communicate their brand to a wider audience, who would never have squeezed round a catwalk, while others resisted pushing the boat out. In this vein, it became clear where the industry is willing to muster change, and where it is still stuck in its ways.

Sticking to the show format and then live-streaming it was one safe option. However, it was uncomfortable watching business as usual at Etro and Dolce & Gabbana, when models walked through an audience of socially-distant strangers (some masked, some bare-faced) for their live-streamed runway shows. With social distancing restrictions on a knife edge (the UK lifting theirs, Spain doing the opposite and reintroducing them at the time of writing) the risk of exposing oneself and others to contagion by allowing audiences seems foolhardy. Jacquemus' live streamed show from a wheat field just outside of Paris, was more of what we’ve seen before - see S/S 20's Provence lavender field setting or S/S 19's escapade on the shorelines of Marseille. Simon Porte Jacquemus went for tried and tested, when a rendezvous in the south of France via fashion film would have even better translated the brand's sunsoaked vision into people's minds.

In fairness to Ermenegildo Zegna, setting up a catwalk across the Zegna forest wasn’t exactly an IRL possibility. Staying true to their reputation for transformative show spaces, models tread from soil underfoot to what appears to be the rooftop of Zegna HQ, keeping us guessing as to where these beautifully suited men might end up. Despite Maria Grazia Chiuri's emphasis on local Italian craftsmanship for the Dior Cruise 2021 collection, and an illuminated set by feminist artist Marinella Senatore, it was the compelling performance by the La Notte della Taranta Foundation that brought up the only emotion I could muster when watching a 26 minute long show through a screen.

It was Études who gave the runway show the best shake-up, in a 'sliding doors' effect run of models shot in the 20th arrondissement of Paris, where the Études team are based. After the close of an untraditional fashion month, London's Patrick McDowell presented their first fully digital show Catholic Fairytales as part of Helsinki Fashion Week, which had been gearing up to go fully virtual long before the pandemic hit. McDowell's Sunday service will be followed by a series of workshops to support the queer community. Safe to say, these were the few shows where I wasn’t left checking the clock.

Despite recent ventures into the possibilities of 3D via AR and VR (as seen in Burberry's recent Thomas Burberry Summer Monogram campaign, which came complete with a CGI Kendall Jenner avatar), it was disappointing that more designers didn't venture into this modern medium for their new season presentations. Sunnei, Walter Van Beirendonck and Virgil Abloh’s Louis Vuitton menswear did step up to the plate, however, in doing so engaging with consumer and fashion fan alike. For their collection video, Sunnei went for a line of CGI models dancing the Macarena, decked out in the new white Canvas range. The Canvas range will be available to customise later in stores, offering a more direct way of engaging with stockists and shoppers. Van Beirendonck made creepy little dolls that felt even more quirky and immersive than a Van Beirendonck show- the designer often speaks about presenting clothes like an art installation and this film offered up the opportunity to do just that. Abloh's Vuitton video featured almost no clothes at all - instead, it was the idea of them, presented via Reggieknow’s animations of colourful animals and creatures, that left us to anticipate the S/S 21 menswear show in Shanghai next month.

Unsurprisingly, it was the medium of film that came up shining. Back in June, London designers had largely looked to the archives and used this as a moment to develop brand DNA through fashion films. Liam Hodges’ acid trip-like offering by photographer/filmmaker Thomas Alexander hammered home the retro-futurism of Hodges' Fifth Generation S/S 20 collection that was first shown last year, whilst Sinéad O’Dwyer shared more of her S/S 20 3D fashion films by director Agusta Yr. Emerging designer Di Petsa meanwhile took her signature 'Wetness Performance' to the Greek sea in a film exploring empowering rebirth, and both Marques’ Almeida and Robyn Lynch released documentary films showing the process behind their archive-inspired collections.

Over in Paris and Milan, there was a greater penchant for showing new season collections, yet developing brand identity continued to resonate throughout the fashion films on show. Ernest N. Baker released a film montage of home videos of co-founder Reid Baker’s grandfather (the label’s namesake), showing the roots of their quirky 70s suiting. Casablanca was the après-sun escape we're all yearning for, complete with Charaf Tajer’s now-archetypal silky shirts whilst Idris Muhammed’s Could Heaven Ever Be Like This provided the soundtrack - who could ask for more? MSGM was all about community and long awaited kisses - something those of us singletons emerging from lockdown can all relate to. Also giving us a peek inside their universe via video content was Rick Owens, who recorded himself working through the night on fittings with muse Tyrone. The new collection felt like quintessential Rick; leather tank tops, draped torsos and the power play tailoring Owens does so well, together with the low hanging crotches and platform Kiss boots, were all self-referential and felt suited to a climate of reflection.

Y/Project’s styling video was all about how to get dressed-fans of the brand will know it can be tricky to know which way is in and which is out when it comes to wearing Y/Project. Tops are ruched and pulled, jackets and trousers unbuttoned to change their silhouette entirely- it's blink and you'll miss it fashion at its best. Also proving that less (and different) is certainly more, Berluti and Dior Men’s got up close with this season’s artistic collaborations with ceramicist Brian Rochefort and Ghanaian artist Amoako Boafo, who alongside respective creative directors Kris Van Assche and Kim Jones detailed working on the new S/S 21 collections.

Prada's five fashion films shown one after another was not totally revolutionary, but yet it felt right. Terence Nance, Joanna Piotrowska, Martine Syms, Juergen Teller and Willy Vanderperre refracted the S/S 21 men’s and women’s collection into what was almost a 'Prada for dummies' format, distilling Prada energy to its purest essence through Teller's stark footage of the engine room of Prada HQ, Pietrowska's monochrome segment a delight in black and white. Lest we forget, The Show That Never Happened (as the film pieces were titled), was Mrs Prada's closing bow as a soloist, and clearly elucidated what Prada is about, even as it added hints of Raf Simons, before he enters the fold as co-creative director come September.

"As we, like Galliano, mourn the spectacle of the fashion show and the opportunities only IRL interaction can offer, fashion must also look to the impetus for change."

When it comes to combining both digital and physical experiences, it’s hard to argue that Jonathan Anderson didn’t take the biscuit. For both his namesake label and Loewe, invitees received beautiful, almost diagnostic packages which detailed the new collections. For JW Anderson, it was a gingham box tied up with a ribbon, inside of which was a 'document’ as Anderson described it, containing lookbook images and cut-out faces created from this season’s collaborations with artists Pol Anglada and Bertjan Pot. The crème de la crème of these experiences was Loewe’s Show In a Box, which came complete with a garment pattern, pop-up book recreating the planned runway set, and a mini spin-yourself record player that narrated the collection. Would be show-goers could get stuck into the nitty gritty of the clothes like a child at playtime, whilst anyone and everyone could watch a collection video of Anderson talking through it all and this ‘renewed opportunity for activity’. Now that’s the attitude: bridging digital and physical, exclusive and inclusive.

Nick Knight’s collaboration with Valentino was another lesson in how an IRL presentation can live side by side with the digital. A performance in Rome attended by a small audience began with a screening of a fashion film by Knight, featuring 15 quite frankly marvellous dresses up to 20 feet in length, projected with images of nature. The dresses were then unveiled in tableau to the live audience. The fantasy created by fashion film ran seamlessly into real life; Valentino creative director Pierpaolo Piccioli offered new definitions for showmanship and spectacle with the grand display.

In one of the only concrete moves towards permanent change that we saw this season, Gucci presented their last-ever Cruise collection and managed to combine physical, digital, archive and newness in one maximalist package. Titled Epilogue, creative director Alessandro Michele has said he’d rather the collection not be referred to as Cruise at all, so intent is he on embarking on a new path. Ahead of live streaming the Epilogue campaign shoot from the late-Mannerist Palazzo Sacchetti building in Rome, Gucci sent would-be show guests boxes of fruit and veg, in a nod to the Forum Boarium (the site of the original docks in Rome, and the city’s biggest food market), where part of the campaign is based. Watching the live stream was like being behind the scenes of your cult favourite film, that you haven’t actually seen yet. Re-watchers, hold out for Alessandro Michele fanning himself on a sofa, or a cameraman herding chickens into a corner as a waiting model smirks at the wonderful absurdity that is Michele’s Gucci - definite highlights. Halfway into the stream, the new collection was revealed by a lookbook, whose images appeared via pop-up computer screens that seemed to come from circa 2001, and showed the collection worn by members of the Gucci design team. Here was the final chapter in Michele’s multi-part questioning of the rules and traditions of fashion, following on from the A/W 20 womenswear show and campaign, where show attendees were walked through hair and make-up, and witnessed models being dressed live on a carousel-like structure. Eschewing the regular big name campaign photographer process, the Gucci models shot the accompanying imagery. When backstage is as fascinating as this, who needs a show?

‘Narrating [the collection] this way and presenting it this way, to the press, to the outside world, looking inside the mechanism of an advertising campaign like a peeping Tom, is interesting to me as an element that dissociates the narrative of fashion from the show, from the representation of itself,' said Michele. It was exciting to see a brand like Gucci keep the doors on their process open, setting a new precedent for how fashion can think of spectacle going forward.

John Galliano, too, drew up a new blueprint for an altered form of schedule at Maison Margiela. A designer who has come to define the very meaning of fashion spectacle over the years–from his preferred intimate salon gatherings, to grand scale affairs at the Opera Garnier during his Dior tenure–Galliano mourned the coronavirus-imposed end of the fashion show, eventually coming round to the rousing potential for change via a collaboration with Nick Knight and SHOWstudio. In this project, titled S.W.A.L.K, Galliano opens the metaphorical doors of Maison Margiela in a fashion film-cum-documentary. We’re taken along for the ride in the creation of the A/W 20 haute couture collection. We’re on Zoom calls with the team as Galliano paints a picture for this season. We’re talked through the circular cutting technique Galliano first developed in the 1980s at the time of the New Romantics and the Blitz Kids. We follow one of the Margiela team into Paris thrift stores and back, to see how the diffusion line Reclica comes together. We see Galliano tweak this season's wet-look garments, which are based on the drapery in classical sculpture. We watch footage from Go-Pros on the heads of the petites mains as they work in the studio. The titillating sound of the ripping of fabric cuts through footage- material and body are central. S.W.A.L.K is a voyeuristic film that tells the story of couture much more compellingly than a straight-up show can. Spectacle need not be solely front of house; a behind-the-scenes look can captivate too.

As we, like Galliano, mourn the spectacle of the fashion show and the opportunities only IRL interaction can offer, fashion must also look to the impetus for change. This season showed that possibilities for fashion's future are possible, even if they're only in their early stages. Brands will now, no doubt, be reflecting on how well this worked, and how well these alternative efforts engaged with their target audiences. It will be interesting to see which way designers choose to go in September, when physical fashion weeks are scheduled to return. One thing's for certain: those in fashion’s future will surely look back and see this as a moment of reset, of spectacle redefined.



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