It’s the day of the Chanel AW21 show. The invite has just arrived and my look for this season’s show – a bright pink tweed suit from the recent Cruise collection – hangs on the mirror ready to be steamed. I open the invitation – an experience in itself: a cabinet of curiosities containing the formal invite, the show playlist, beauty products from the Chanel make-up line and a booklet of stickers based on the pre-show collage teasers by Inez and Vinoodh. Days of content sharing across invitees’ social media platforms have preceded this moment, building anticipation ahead of the show. I create a still life of the assets for my Instagram Stories, post a picture of my outfit captioned ‘Let the show begin’ and settle in front of my laptop, alone, for the reveal of Virginie Viard’s latest collection.
Welcome to digital Paris Fashion Week, where seat mates are millions of unknown viewers across the world and the runway is but a bite-sized version streamed through an iPhone. Post-show re-sees (where attendees are invited to see the collection up close) have moved from real life to Zoom, street-style has been replaced by outfits shot at home and runway collections are being presented in all but familiar formats. As for me, my seat hasn’t changed much from show to show – I’ve mostly watched from the comfort of my Camaleonda armchair, laptop on one armrest, a drink on the other.
Usually, at this time on an early March Tuesday morning, I’d be outside the Grand Palais in Paris ahead of Chanel’s 10.30AM show, street-style photographers swarming around, show goers running towards the entrance, excited onlookers waiting by the barriers for a peek at one of the many celebrities in attendance. It’s one of the last days of a long month of runway shows, but by no means the least anticipated – if anything, it’s the day that the energy picks back up, rounding off the month with three of the biggest names: Chanel, Miu Miu and Louis Vuitton.
Paris Fashion week in particular, you see, is as much about the physical experience as it is about the clothes. From previewing upcoming collections from the world’s most prestigious fashion houses to bumping into friends from around the world at multiple dinners per night, there’s an electric energy that’s hard to recount. It’s this very energy that gets you through the late nights and earlier mornings; the manic deadlines between endless shows and presentations; the waiting in the freezing cold outside the last show of the day. It’s this same energy that keeps you coming back season after season, having vowed to never pack your schedule so tightly that you become zombified by day five ever again. The truth is that, amongst the chaos, there is always the magic – the shows are a spectacle and attending them is a privilege.
The last time I had felt this magic was exactly a year ago, at the Miu Miu AW20 show, when a glamorous Art Deco movie premier set – complete with cinema seats and a grand staircase – came together with floor-sweeping evening dresses and a starlet-filled front row to create utter magic. Fast forward 12 months, three waves of the pandemic and a fully digitalised fashion month, and the fashion weeks we knew are now almost unrecognisable.
Like Chanel, Miu Miu curated a series of digital moments ahead of the show to build momentum: friends of the house from Emma Louise Corrin to South Korean actress Yoona Lim were pictured at home against the backdrop of the #MiuMiuMountainClub (the show’s hashtag) and later shared on their Instagram pages, while countless others, myself included, shared our invites, show ‘dressing’ and the details of when and how to watch the show. An Instagram campaign put together by and featuring a number of Italian influencers was shared to their collective followers in the millions.
Then came the show itself: a historic first, Miu Miu’s AW21 collection was filmed 9,000 ft above sea level in Cortina D’ampezzo in the Dolomites. Who else but Miuccia Prada to take the runway to new heights (literally) and, in turn, create a moment so memorable it will never go unmentioned when we talk about the pandemic show era? I reached for my phone and began messaging the people I’d usually be sharing this moment with: "I know you said this would be good but… I have goosebumps," I told the PR team over Whatsapp; "I told you balaclavas were a thing - could this collection be any more me?" I messaged my usual Miu Miu seat mate. The dining-table seats next to me might have been empty, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to miss out on the joyful camaraderie of attending a show.
Despite the limitations – or, opportunity for innovation and creativity, depending on how you look at it – this season certainly wasn’t short of notable moments: Dior’s ethereally beautiful film entitled ‘Disturbing Beauty’ married art and fairytales at the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing presented a vision of optimism in a film that took us from an Air France Hangar to the moon, while young Parisian brand Coperni took things up a physical gear, staging a drive-in runway show with 70 guests watching from the safety of their chauffeur-driven electrical cars. New York designer Khaite also opted for a drive-in format to showcase its AW21 film lensed by American film director Sean Baker.
But it wasn’t all fashion films and extravagant runway ideas. Loewe’s newspaper format created a unique instagram moment unrivalled by few other fashion houses, with a headline that read ‘THE LOEWE SHOW HAS BEEN CANCELLED’ and showcasing the collection via a series of printed campaign-style images. Prada presented ‘Prada Intersections: A conversation with Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons’ straight after the show, a discussion between the co-creative directors and friends of the house including film maker Lee Daniels and actress Hunter Schafer.
That the minutes post-show – usually a time reserved for exclusive interviews – were used for conversations streamed to millions of viewers marks an undeniable shift in how fashion will be shared going forward. Over the last few years, the rise of social media, as well as fashion’s gradual acceptance of digital talent, has been slowly democratising these moments, once reserved for the privileged few that attend in person. Shows streamed through the Instagram Stories of a few hundred people have been replaced by films watched by millions (literally – Miu Miu and Prada’s collections have been viewed just shy of a million times) and the days of pre-show build up have created moments far bigger than those of the physical shows.
Yet, to say that the digital has successfully replaced the physical would be untrue: if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the theatre, the chaos and the magic of the physical shows are, in fact, irreplaceable. Nevertheless, if you’d have told me this time last year – as the fashion industry attended the Paris Fashion Week as we knew it then – that the kind of magic this season has brought could be created through a laptop screen, I would have found it hard to believe. The experience isn’t the same – how can it be? – but it’s different, in a good way.
These digital seasons have left me constantly in awe at the astounding creativity at play, the resourcefulness of our industry and the boldness with which designers have pushed boundaries. Fashion has a way of finding optimism in the most difficult of moments, and much of the digital show experience has been as uplifting as it has been exciting. I certainly miss the buzz, the friendship and even the exhaustion of being in a city constantly awake and awash with the excitement of the shows. But still, knowing that you’re joined by millions of other viewers around the world does go some small way to filling that void. Sure, I might not have had any physical seatmates this season, but digitally? Well, I had millions.
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