The End of Fashion Week as We Know It? How the Coronavirus Crisis Could Permanently Shake Up the System

A tumultuous fashion month is finally over, but the drama and disruption continues.

Much uncertainty remains as luxury players large and small navigate a complex, ever-changing coronavirus situation that is upending their businesses. One thing is clear: The impact of the crisis could permanently change the biannual Fashion Week ritual as digital selling takes hold and companies think hard about the real costs — both financially and environmentally.

The fall 2020 season opened with a Tom Ford celebrity extravaganza in Los Angeles on Feb. 7 and ended this Tuesday with the Louis Vuitton show at the Louvre. (The famed Paris museum closed down that day amid coronavirus fears, but the LVMH label forged ahead.)

The show must go on was the mantra for many designers and attendees, and Kanye West even managed to bring some unexpected excitement to Paris with his surprise show and Sunday service.

But overall, the mood was grim. A handful of important U.S. department stores and smaller retailers from around the world sat Paris out completely after the outbreak hit Italy during the final days of Milan Fashion Week. Trade shows suffered noticeable traffic declines and multi-brand showroom were quiet, with young talent suffering the biggest blow as they lost the opportunity to show their fledgling labels to the industry’s biggest decision makers.

Street style, Chanel Coronavirus mask detailStreet Style, Fall Winter 2020, Paris Fashion Week, France - 28 Feb 2020
A Paris Fashion Week attendee wears a Chanel mask.
CREDIT: Aurora Rose/Shutterstock

Even established designers were forced to be more digitally-savvy and use technology to reach buyers and press who couldn’t make the trip. Travel restrictions in China — the fastest-growing luxury market — forced many Asian buyers, influencers and members of the press stay home for the entire month.

In Milan, Giuseppe Zanotti collaborated with popular Chinese influencer Boynam who livestreamed the designer’s presentation on his Weibo & Yizhibo accounts — each have more than seven million followers. Zanotti’s Tmall ecommerce store and Weibo accounts also gave fans an inside look at the action in Milan.

As of last week, the livestream generated 6.7 million total views in China and brought a 30% increase in traffic to Zanotti’s Tmall store. Boynam also partnered with Gucci, Versace, Fendi and Fila for livestreams, which together generated more than 65 million views in China.

Giuseppe Zanotti’s fall presentation was livestreamed for his Asian audience who couldn’t attend Fashion Week.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Giuseppe Zanotti

Digital showroom company Joor — which is already used by many showrooms for in-person orders — has seen a huge spike in online transactions during Paris Fashion Week. The total value of orders (gross merchandise volume) on the platform almost tripled when compared to the last Paris market, while the average value of each order increased by four times.

“As terrible as this event is, we see a positive in that it shows the power of digital first hand,” said Joor CEO Kristin Savilia, who noted that there’s still value in seeing and touching products in a showroom, “But I’m hoping for a permanent change in terms of using digital in the wholesale process.”

Savilia cited Golden Goose as one brand who had moved quickly when it realized many buyers couldn’t travel for in-person appointments. “They were able to quickly galvanize their retail base to go digital,” said Savilia, adding that department stores and independents are engaging with Joor in this moment.

Concerns about business continuity overshadowed some of the big topics that had been dominating the fashion conversation, including diversity and sustainability.

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Neon green stiletto boots from Balenciaga’s fall ’20 runway show at Paris Fashion Week, which focused on climate change.
CREDIT: Shutterstock

Still, there were big shoe players like Sergio Rossi and Alexandre Birman that used Fashion Week to unveil sustainability initiatives, and an Attico x Jordan collaboration centered around the concept of upcycling. Nicholas Kirkwood is working on a biodegradable luxury heel, and new British upstart Piferi bowed a promising luxury vegan collection.

On the show circuit, Balenciaga’s natural disaster-themed show put the spotlight on climate change, while sustainable pioneer Stella McCartney sent models dressed in animal costumes down the runway to add a little levity to the week  — and to reiterate her message that fashion should stop using fur and leather.

While there has been progress, there’s still a bigger conundrum facing the industry: Fashion week — and all the travel and waste that comes with it — can’t be sustainable, at least in its current form.

Today, the CFDA announced a new partnership with Boston Consulting Group to study New York Fashion Week’s “ecosystem, including event production, logistics, transportation, and public relations and its impact on the environment.” A report will identify priorities that the industry can use to move forward.

Overall, moving forward could prove quite difficult, at least in the near term. A number of major fashion events have been postponed or canceled, including Tokyo Fashion Week as well as a slew of major shows. Gucci’s cruise event in San Francisco was shelved, while Versace and Ralph Lauren also canceled stateside shows. Armani said it wouldn’t go ahead with a show in Milan, while Prada and Chanel previously postponed events in Asia that were to take place in May.

As the coronavirus situation continues to evolve — with new developments coming every hour — it’s hard to tell if men’s Fashion Week will go on as planned in June or what the women’s collections season will look like six months from now.

It’s a critical moment that will dramatically reshape the industry.

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