Parsons, KCD, and Style.com Talk Fashion and Technology: What's the Point of Live Fashion Shows?

While we still travel to big halls and complexes with tents and sit on benches while models walk down a runway in clothes that wont be sold until six
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Dhani Mau
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While we still travel to big halls and complexes with tents and sit on benches while models walk down a runway in clothes that wont be sold until six
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While we still travel to big halls and complexes with tents and sit on benches while models walk down a runway in clothes that wont be sold until six months later--5-10 times per day for a week--fashion week has changed a lot over the past few years. Much if not all of that change is due to technology. From the people sitting in the front rows, to the peacocking taking place outside, to the speed of coverage, to how the whole thing is organized, technology is advancing and fashion week is keeping up--sort of.

Ever slow to embrace technology, the fashion industry has seeemed at odds with technology as much as it's embraced it--especially when it comes to fashion week. One thing most of the fashion industry seems to have embraced is Fashion GPS, an online platform that, over the past six years, has evolved from a sample trafficking system for PRs to the backbone of front-of-house organization at fashion shows, making checking in for a show markedly easier.

Last night, Fashion GPS hosted a panel discussion at Bumble & Bumble moderated by Parsons dean Simon Collins with four of the people who essentially make fashion week happen: IMG's Senior Vice President Peter Levy, Milk Studios/Milk Made Fashion Director & Curator Jenne Lombardo, KCD Senior Vice President Rachna Shah and Style.com Editor in Chief Dirk Standen. Fern Mallis, who basically created fashion week, introduced the panelists. She reminisced about the days when "the word technology was not associated with fashion" and people didn't take photos with their iPads (whom she called "the worst offenders").

In fact, there was a lot of reminiscing about how things were vs. how they are now. Standen recalled how impressed people used to be at Style.com's ability to get show reviews up within 24 hours (this elicited uproarious laughter from the audience). "Now they're up in two hours and people still complain that it's too slow," he quipped. "We're working on getting them up instantaneously."

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What followed was the seasons-old discussion of how people aren't looking up and paying attention to the clothes at runway shows any more because they're on their phones tweeting and Instagramming. While some see this as a bad thing, Lombardo had a different perspective: "If people are doing this and people aren’t paying attention to a live event, it’s because how we watch shows has evolved. So if that’s the case, instead of wanting it to be a different way, what can we do to allow our designers to monetize on this fact?"

This all lead to what felt like the "biggest" question of the evening: With all this technology and instantaneous access to the collections, "what's the point of the show?" Collins inquired.

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Shah responded first: "That’s why we designed Digital Fashion Shows," she said, referring to KCD's new platform on which runway shows are shown online only and inspiration quotes and hi-res images are readily available. "To be honest, not every brand needs to do a live event," she explained.

"It's strange for me to be arguing this since I work at Style.com," Standen began. "but there is something special about the live experience and there is often a different quality in the clothes live that you still can’t get online." He recalled review by Suzy Menkes comparing a Balenciaga show to a Balmain show. One was better in person, while the other translated better online. To which Lombardo posited, "In this new model of business should designers be making clothes that actually do translate online?" Since, she added, "at the end of the day, that's what's going to drive their sales."

Still there's an argument for shows. "I think it’s ok to have two pieces of the conversation," KCD's Shah said. "Maybe we’ve tried to turn fashion shows into being the same conversation for all. There are some brands where [the show] is their only opportunity to express their image and they take what they do at a show and around the show and they use that for six months."

So if shows are still of value, there's the problem that there are too many of them in too short a time to be seen by editors and buyers. Maybe not everyone should be having a show. "I think that not everybody needs to be a designer just because they design clothes," Lombardo said of the proliferation of young, struggling designers. She suggests that they focus on create content like videos and generating buzz and creating your "brand ethos" rather than starting out with a runway show. "They’re spending too much money and there's no return on that investment."

In many ways, fashion has a lot to do to keep up with technology. But companies like Fashion GPS are working on ways to bridge the gap. CEO Eddie Mullon told me before the discussion, "By having the industry leaders talk about the challenges in tech and fashion, we can listen and adapt to that." So far, we think they're doing great. But they definitely have their work cut out for them.

Photos: Billy Farrell Agency