The digital realities responsible for producing tangible ones (garments)

Smiths Magazine | Printed Issue AW 2020

November 3, 2020

Talking about the impact that digitalization and new information technologies have had in our daily lives and how they have changed our social behaviours is not revolutionary. It has been a while now since accessing information and remote realities is a click away for (almost) everyone, from anywhere and at any time. 

Thinking of 2020, digitalization becomes even more relevant. Living in a reality where physical contact has become potentially dangerous and our homes have transformed into this multidisciplinary living space from which we must access and experience the rest of the world; digital technologies have become the tool allowing us to produce (and enlarge) our current realities. In just a day someone can have a work meeting, attend a 2-hours seminar, watch a live performance and talk to several friends living in different time zones; all within the same four walls. 

Fashion, as any other creative field reflecting the zeitgeist and adapting to the social demands of a given time, was a pioneer in joining this digital revolution. However, how has this been changing the reality of fashion throughout the years?

During the time of couturiers such as Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent or Cristobal Balenciaga (to mention just a few) garments were at the core of fashion creation. Their fashion shows resembled more to a gathering of friends, hosted in a beautiful apartment, where guests could fully appreciate the impeccability of the clothes and be delighted by the magnificence of the garments that the designer (along with a team of highly skilled seamstresses) had created. A nostalgic, long gone, way of envisioning and communicating fashion, which was brought back to life by Hedi Slimane in his last show for Saint Laurent. 

At once, at the time, the fashion press and fashion critics were the only channel through which collections could be brought to the general public. Fashion magazines, like Vogue or L’Officiel, were the only source of communication that showcased the ideas of the new fashion genius and made fashion’s dream accessible for a targeted audience of curious fashion connoisseurs.

It was not until the 21st Century, with the increase of Internet’s prominence, when Fashion communication started to evolve and content began to be generated at a higher speed. However, we could consider that the biggest breakaway at the time was initiated by Alexander McQueen with his (sadly) last show, Plato’s Atlantis (2009); which defined the future of fashion as we understand it today. McQueen teamed up with Nick Knight’s SHOWstudio to broadcast the runway live over the Internet, targeting a worldwide audience who (at once) was informed by Lady Gaga in a tweet. The first (and definitely not last) time when high fashion met the power of digitalization and the masses.

The topic of digitalization and accessibility, thus, initiated a controversial conversation within high fashion, switching the ways in which brands needed to communicate and engage with their audiences; and also, boosting the number of people interested in fashion itself. On the one hand, French fashion houses (with a long history and heritage) were more reluctant to ‘massify’ luxury by communicating to everyone through the Internet; whereas, on the other hand, newer brands positioned in “premium and mass” segments were already taking over the Internet and adapting their marketing strategies in order to target the broadest audience possible.

From that moment on, fashion changed forever and the meaning of luxury was redefined. Every brand, sooner or later, was required to join the digital revolution. One example of this could be the French brand, Céline. This minimalist fashion house targeted powerful and intellectual (yet feminine) women who prefer not to flaunt. The artistic director (over a decade), Phoebe Philo, was not a big fan of social media and so Céline was one of the latest entrants to the digital world, joining Instagram only in 2017. Months after, Philo left, and Hedi Slimane took the reins of the firm, deconstructing everything that the brand stood for and transforming it into a digital success. 

During the last few years, the emergence of digital-based fashion brands, the boost of luxury-oriented fashion e-tailers and brand’s e-commerces, the speeded up production of digital content and the dawn of influencer culture, and the increased importance of data, have been at the core of the conversation within the fashion industry, and the new reality of fashion practitioners. 

Designers needing to be able to build an appealing image in social media, magazines needing to implement digital and social strategies as part of their media plans, live streaming fashion shows (and backstage content) on different social media platforms having become a new rule, the number of followers that an influencer or a model can reach becoming more important than their skills… All these new needs have, thus, shaped a new (digital) reality that has been embraced (and adopted) by fashion lovers as well as fashion businesses. 

However, 2020 has pushed fashion (as many other industries) to shift toward an even more digitally-focused panorama. Living in a moment when the physical is restricted and almost cancelled; fashion shows, fashion events and fashion’s mode of production have been re-invented in order to meet the restrictions and adapt to what people are experiencing at this very moment. 

Cancelling, for the first time in many decades, 2020 fashion weeks, has compelled brands and marketing leaders to reassess the way of envisioning collections and reinvent their creativity; bringing about the so-called Digital Fashion Weeks (organized differently in each fashion capital), but especially, new bold (socially- and culturally-oriented) ways of engaging and connecting with a public that must stay at home and have no access to cultural nor leisure activities. 

We can take the example of two world leading brands, such as Loewe and Marni. On the one hand, Jonathan Anderson introduced us to Loewe’s SS 2021 men’s and women’s runway with a 24-hours live streaming, featuring creatives across different cultural fields talking about their practices, performing… On the other hand, Francesco Risso decided to present Marni’s SS2 collection in an experimental and un-scripted short film that portrays the beauty of the daily life of different people from around the world shot by their close friends and family wearing the brand’s, remarkably colorful and vibrant, collection.

Therefore, we could state that Fashion has reached a point where social media platforms have attained the power to, not only reproduce realities (clothes) and globally spread them through digital mediums, reaching a broader population of potential consumers (and fans); but to produce the actual realities (digital universes) that, afterwards, translate into the physical ones (wearable garments). In other words, the garments themselves have lost importance, being the associated meanings and their digital prominence what matters the most.

Have digital realities taken over our own realities? 

Do realities that are not digital even exist for us?