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Was digital couture week worth the fuss, straining already-tight fashion budgets?

Paris couture week went full digital for the first time this year, with major houses like Chanel and Dior releasing pre-recorded videos showcasing new collections. But given the state of affairs, were they worth the effort, questions one fashion observer.

Was digital couture week worth the fuss, straining already-tight fashion budgets?

Dior's couture collection made its debut in a 15-minute online video. (Photo: Dior)

On the Friday before the first all-digital haute couture week, designer Maria Grazia Chiuri dialled into a Zoom conference call from Dior’s Paris headquarters and took questions from members of the British press.

It was a happy, if strange, reunion: Fashion weeks are a trade event, yes; but they are also fun, glamorous and exciting, a time when a large cross-section of the industry gets to dress up, exchange gossip, and marvel at clients’ matching Birkins and fresh botox injections. Wonderful as it was to tune in to this week’s shows from home in sweatpants, that fizz of excitement was missing.

Chiuri, for her part, was at ease, perched on a stool in a casual white T-shirt and trousers. On her left was a preview of her new couture collection, which would make its official debut via a 15-minute online video on Monday.

The clothes – delicate Fortuny dresses and ball gowns in champagne silk and lilac feathers, a molded woolen Bar jacket and skirt – were typical of Chiuri’s oeuvre for Dior. What was not typical was their size: These were doll clothes, fitted to mannequins measuring only about two feet tall. They were a reference to the 1945 Theatre de la Mode, a travelling fashion exhibition involving 60 French designers and more than 200 dolls so exquisitely dressed they were credited with reestablishing Paris as the world’s fashion capital after the second world war.

War, pandemic – the parallels are obvious. But beyond providing a thematic link, Dior’s dolls were also presented as a practical solution: They can easily traverse borders at a time when clients can’t. “We can travel with this around the world,” said Chiuri, referring to a set of three painted trunks, beautifully modelled after the brand’s Avenue Montaigne headquarters. They will soon make their way to Shanghai and New York, accompanied by fabric swatches and toiles so that clients can be fitted for their one-of-a-kind, hand-sewn garments without flying to Paris.

The Dior collection was fitted on two-foot-tall mannequins. (Photo: Dior)

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Welcome to fashion week’s new normal: Where live shows have been replaced by pre-recorded videos, and £50,000 (S$88,000) dresses are sold to customers via travelling dolls.

If that sounds a little outlandish, well, it is. Since the arrival of coronavirus, the £1.2 trillion fashion and luxury industries have had to grapple with a crisis of unprecedented global scale: Supply chains splintered, orders cancelled, stores boarded-up, the evaporation of the feel-good factor that leads shoppers to splash out on luxury.

Yet fashion weeks have gone on – albeit sometimes postponed, and presented entirely online. Thirty-four brands participated in the first London Digital Fashion Week in June, despite a lack of actual new clothes to show; the organisers of Paris couture week were able to round up enough designers to deliver three days’ worth of videos, delivered hourly. Some showed new, smaller collections; others released sketches, or earnest short-length documentaries extolling the value of hand-embroidery.

Was digital couture week worth the fuss, the strain on already-tightened budgets? The videos, for the most part, were dull or confusing, resembling film trailers or perfume adverts, and lacking in narrative. The clothes themselves were difficult to see, obscured by studio lights, heavy splicing and poor video quality. Without the live element, there was none of that heady anticipation. There was also no need to release the videos once per hour – in the future, fashion week organisers might take a cue from Netflix and release all that pre-recorded content on-demand.

Ultimately, the recordings did little to bolster brand equity – the real point of haute couture week.

Still, there were worthy attempts. Four designers not often seen on camera – Guo Pei, the Chinese designer behind the extravagant yellow dress Rihanna wore to the Met Gala in 2015; Rahul Mishra, the only Indian designer on-schedule; former Sonia Rykiel artistic director Julie de Libran; and British designer Tamara Ralph of Ralph & Russo – took a cue from designers at Shanghai Fashion Week and used the opportunity to speak directly to the public about their process.

There tends to be a seriousness, a reverent hush around couture, which is why Dutch designers Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren of Viktor & Rolf’s show was such a welcome change of pace. They injected humour both into their designs, which featured emoticons and dressing gowns, and in their presentation – a simple but effective parody of the salon-style couture shows of the 1950s.

Viktor & Rolf's couture collection. (Photo: Viktor & Rolf)

Big brands with big budgets certainly had the advantage of the week. Dior released a 15-minute, feature-quality film on Monday afternoon that was magical to behold. Directed by the decorated Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone and inspired by Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the film followed a pair of liveried porters as they carried a trunk of dolls, dressed in Dior couture, through an enchanted glade inhabited by nymphs, dryads and satyrs. Mesmerised by the dresses, nymphs crawled forward to touch them; stone statues became mobile; a dryad untangled herself from her lover.

But however gorgeous the production, it ultimately did a disservice to the Dior brand by featuring only white models. As the scenes were inspired by the Italian painter Sandro Boticelli, to cast diverse models would have been “forced”, Garrone said. There was also an uncomfortable scene where a nymph looked to her satyr-partner for permission to order a dress. For a brand that has positioned itself as a champion of feminism, it was a bewildering misstep.

One brand that could have gone all-out on a video – but didn’t – was Chanel. Creative director Virginie Viard shot her new collection on a handful of punkish-looking models against a simple studio backdrop. As a performance it underwhelmed, but the clothes were fun and spirited, inspired by Karl Lagerfeld’s salad days partying at the Le Palace night club in the Eighties. All ruffled taffeta and metallic tweed, they seemed just the thing to dress up in after months of austerity.

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But the show that deserved the most praise wasn’t part of the haute couture schedule at all. On Sunday afternoon, designer Veronique Nichanian and director Cyril Teste debuted Hermes’s new men’s collection: A meticulously choreographed performance that gave viewers a glimpse of what fashion shows typically look like backstage. The film was shot and streamed live, lending a dramatic tension that was missing elsewhere. With its long shots and careful lighting, it also showed the clothes to great advantage.

It was perhaps the first fashion show as interesting to watch online as in person, setting a bar for other brands to measure against.

READ> No runway, no fuss: Hermes unveils 2021 menswear with live performance art

Balmain, too, showed live and off-schedule, streaming on TikTok a performance from French singer Yseult and a gaggle of models dancing on a boat floating down the Seine. While plagued by somewhat unglamorous connectivity issues, designer Olivier Rousteing’s willingness to risk a live performance to connect with his many social media fans was applaudable.

One hopes to see more of it. While brands are eager to return to regular fashion weeks in September, the pandemic has presented a rare opportunity to finally crack digital video.

It’s about time. Fashion shows are no longer private events but public-facing ones; digital, not live, audiences should be the priority.

It is a challenge with inherent risks; few are the brands willing to gamble their brand equity on a marketing experiment. But as Hermes showed, when it’s done right, the results can be fantastic.

By Lauren Indvik © 2020 The Financial Times