Fashion week is in a bit of a strange place right now. It's not just that the thought of congregating in a tiny space to look at clothes feels somewhat jarring (to put it lightly), when there's an ongoing pandemic and so much of the world is still tip-toeing in and out of lockdowns. It's also that the whole concept of fashion shows, where people fly from all over the world to see collections that won't be released for another six months, seems odd in an era of smartphones and instant gratification, not to mention our growing awareness of the problematic consequences of jet-set lifestyles.
Covid-19 forced brands to rethink how they present their collections, and many stepped up to the challenge. Virgil Abloh's Louis Vuitton skipped Paris and presented its Spring 2021 menswear collection in a post-lockdown Shanghai. Demna Vasaglia's Balenciaga debuted Fall 2021 via a video game. Alessandro Michele's Gucci, meanwhile, shot not one, but seven films to promote its Overture collection, featuring an A-list cast including Harry Styles and Billie Eilish. Even the brands without luxury conglomerate backing have made do with less lavish photo and video presentations, cleverly transmitting their new visions for the season through laptop screens rather than IRL runways. (Collina Strada's Animorphs immediately come to mind.)
Many of the industry's biggest names have announced their intention to leave the fashion week schedule altogether: Gucci and Saint Laurent will be showing on their own terms from now on, and the entire Kering stable — Gucci and Saint Laurent, but also Bottega Veneta and Alexander McQueen — have skipped the official lineups in the last couple of seasons.
Despite all the new ideas, the future of fashion week is still very much up in the air. After all, it's been a year and a half into this "experiment" in how to drum up excitement about a collection reveal from afar, and some of the most powerful players seem to be doing just fine. Luxury conglomerate LVMH's shares have surged over 70 percent in the past year, while Tapestry (owners of Coach, Kate Spade, et al) reported this week that it's overtaken its pre-pandemic financial performance this quarter. And even after all the chaos and turmoil, many in the industry are praying for a swift return to normal — just look at the lineup of 91 shows and presentations released by the CFDA and IMG for New York Fashion Week in September.
All of this begs the question: When the pandemic eventually recedes, will we return to how it was before? Or will fashion week as we knew it be history?
If there's one place to look for an answer to those questions, it's Copenhagen Fashion Week. The Danish capital has built a reputation as the progressive outlier compared to the "big four" of New York, London, Milan and Paris. It was the first (and currently only) major fashion week to introduce sustainability criteria, covering everything from diversity hiring to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. And it's unofficially become massively influential when it comes to setting trends, both on and off the runway.
For Spring 2022, Copenhagen Fashion Week got the green light to host shows and presentations IRL in the Danish capital. This past month, editors and buyers had the chance to return to something resembling the fashion week they knew in the before times: They could witness Saks Potts' edgy contemporary womenswear up close at the former home of legendary architect Arne Jacobsen, or A. Roege Hove's buzzy knitted creations at its inaugural runway. And local designers were psyched about it.
“With digital shows, there's too much distance. The whole energy of bringing people in is so important," Jacob Kampp-Berlin, co-founder of the streetwear-leaning brand Soulland, told me. "It's a celebration of being together."
That feeling was echoed by Ganni's Nicolaj Reffstrup. The Danish mainstay opted to show its blockbuster womenswear on top of an artificial ski slope for spring. According to Reffstrup, fashion week is still an opportunity the brand doesn't want to miss: "It's an authentic occasion to connect with our audience — we have a story to tell, and people are expecting us to tell that story."
Across the board, Danish brands seemed glad to get back into the buzz of fashion week for Spring 2022, as were the buyers, editors, stylists and other showgoers who finally got a chance to mingle after consuming everything from their laptop screens. However, at Copenhagen Fashion Week, there were signs that those putting on the production had taken some of the learnings from the past year-plus of digital shows and incorporated them into their IRL future.
For one, there was a strong emphasis placed on capturing digital assets. At Ganni, drones buzzing around the show venue gave the brand's Instagram followers the chance to watch via Livestream as if they were sitting on the FROW. Soulland, meanwhile, launched a line of NFTs alongside its collection, where, for anywhere between €13 to €5000, fans could download the design files for one of the brand’s key pieces, either to make it themselves or to get a made-to-measure version tailored to them specifically; the entire range — 601 collectibles in total — sold out in a little over two hours.
NFTs might be a pretty out-there use of digital tech, but overall, it seems like fashion week is finally starting to figure out how to communicate to a global audience, not just the privileged few that get to attend IRL.
Cecilie Thorsmark, the CEO of Copenhagen Fashion Week, spoke to me about how going strictly digital last season was an uphill battle, with many brands struggling to communicate the reality of their clothes virtually (not to mention trying to get industry professionals excited about yet another Zoom meeting). By mixing IRL elements with digital storytelling this season, she argued, Copenhagen reached a much bigger audience than usual; a Youtube partnership gave Danish brands almost 10x the engagement as previous seasons, for example.
This might seem like a strange time to be making fashion week debuts, but it's still worth it for some designers. Take Amalie Røge Hove, who staged her first show in Copenhagen this season. For her, presenting her work IRL is a vital part of her storytelling: "We try so hard to show tactility through photos, but it's just different seeing it moving on a model."
For years, the industry has been struggling to find a way of making fashion shows — which have historically been all about clothes that won't come out for six months or more — relevant for digital audiences expecting instant gratification. I recall once seeing a model clumsily carrying a giant 360-degree camera down a runway in Moscow (needless to say, that didn't catch on) and shakily livestreaming a Dior show from my seat using my smartphone (not an ideal situation, either). These are miles away from the slick, polished videos of Ganni's show that are currently racking up the views on Instagram, but they point the way forward for a post-pandemic fashion week: using digital platforms to broadcast cultural moments as they happen. Because, despite all the digital technology at our fingertips, we're still hungry for real-life connection — even if we're getting it through a smartphone screen.
"There's still a special energy that comes with showing, and as a fashion brand you're always looking for authentic ways to connect with your audience," Reffstrup says. "Fashion is still very much about telling a story."
Disclosure: Copenhagen Fashion Week provided travel and accommodations for this story.