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As In-Person Fashion Events Make a Comeback, Industry Leaders Grapple With Risks vs. Rewards

Next week, Rebecca Minkoff is sticking with tradition and showing her latest collection in-person during New York Fashion Week. Despite the fact that the majority of her fellow designers are maintaining a digital format given the ongoing health pandemic — and many of New York’s biggest brands are sitting out the week altogether — Minkoff believes this is the best approach for her brand to showcase the new season for the industry and consumers.

“It is a special event that celebrates fashion and showcases the collection as it is meant to be seen — styled and at New York Fashion Week,” she said, noting that there will be a virtual component for others to experience the collection digitally.

This is the second time Minkoff has staged a presentation during the coronavirus era. In September, Minkoff decided to go forward with her NYFW presentation in person, telling FN at the time: “It was the right thing to do. You can only shut down society for so long. It’s time to reopen, it’s time to rebuild and it’s time to get back to work. We can do this safely and prove that it’s possible.” This time around, she will again work with the New York State Governor’s office and IMG to ensure CDC compliance and proper safety measures while limiting the capacity to 16 guests at a time.

From temperature checks to sanitizing stations, protocols as such are part of the new normal in order to host physical events, but are these presentations still worth it? 2020 proved that brands can communicate with consumers virtually, and in some cases more effectively.

For instance, Linda Gaunt Communications — an agency whose clients include Hunter, New Balance and Lafayette 148 — said virtual events were just as successful and, in some cases, more so than their in-person counterparts.

“Normally, we may have gotten a few hundred people to attend an event and all of a sudden we were able to accommodate over 1,000 and have over 20 countries participate,” said founder and president Linda Gaunt. “We’ve also done some online press days that received high-level media that probably wouldn’t have come if it had been in person.”

Going forward, Gaunt believes the question isn’t whether in-person events will come back, it’s how.

For many brands, events offer the ideal environment to connect with consumers, generate awareness and drive sales. It’s been nearly a year without those VIP dinners, cocktail parties, store launches and fashion shows. And according to PR experts, they are still key for growth.

This week, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo of New York announced the return of live concerts with a festival that will take place over 100 days with more than 300 performances planned throughout the five boroughs this year. It’s a way to revitalize New York, he said, as arts and culture remain at the center of economic revival.

While fashion events will be slightly different in comparison to concerts, the idea that physical experiences are indeed vital to businesses rings true.

“There is a digital fatigue and people don’t want to be looking at a screen any longer. They want to be interacting with people,” said Andrew Lister, EVP at Purple PR. “I don’t think anything can compete with an in-person event. It’s a big part of our business, and without those happening, it has affected us and we’ve been planning what they will look like again.”

Particularly for runway, Lister said there will be a continuation of digital elements at physical shows. But, in-person events are ultimately the best way to present a collection, he noted.

“It’s not just about that 12-minute presentation, it’s everything else that comes along with it — the celebrity dressing, the influencers, the media, the buyers, and that community aspect,” he explained. “Everyone is missing that kind of interaction.”

But it is time to evolve. The fashion industry as a whole is seeing an overhaul. Covid has just been a catalyst.

From rethinking seasons to improving supply chains, reversing decades of environmental impact was top of mind in 2020 (and continues to be) as the entire fashion cycle has come into question for its massive waste problem — not only when it comes to products but also time and money.

Experts believe less is going to be more in 2021. Long gone are the days of a 600-person party. As attendees are likely to be wary for health reasons, small yet strategic events will thrive in this new environment.

“The pandemic is bringing everyone back to basics,” said Elizabeth Tuke, founder of Tuke Consulting. “There will be less of a focus on numbers and bodies and outdoing each other. This allows for more thoughtful and organic means of acquisition and engagement with a focus on intimate gatherings.”

Tuke is viewing event strategies for her clients the same way she thinks about microinfluencers. Rather than banking on quantity, it’s about getting the right people in a room that will allow for conversion.

Plus, this leaves room for emerging brands — who are often underdogs with very small budgets competing against powerhouse labels in the event arena — to stand out.

Tuke is also targeting untapped, regional markets more than ever before, specifically through her newly launched Tuke Bazaar multi-brand e-commerce platform. And the strategy is working. To test the waters pre-pandemic, she hosted a pop-up shopping event in Cincinnati, which highlighted 28 designers, including shoe brand Artemis Designs, and generated six figures in 24 hours.

Tuke then held another another pop-up event in October 2020, in New Canaan, Conn., a New York area suburb that has been booming as well-heeled residents spend their time closer to home — and away from the city, which is still grappling with deep pandemic impact. She featured labels such as Powder Puff Collection, Marfa Stance, Molly Moorkamp, Rosewater House, Artemis Designs, The Shirt and Casey Marks, in one-way shopping lanes to avoid crowded areas and limited the capacity of guests. Transactions were hands free, and given limitations, Tuke said it was a success.

Gaunt also tapped a market outside of the expected fashion cities this summer to promote client Todd Snyder’s collaboration with L.L. Bean. A small influencer trip to Kennebunkport, Maine, provided an indication that people are willing to attend events — just as long as it’s done safely.

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