Digital fashion is no more appealing than digital life

Back in the good old days, many of the 2,000 or so people who were employed to attend fashion shows relished moaning about them. “There’s barely anything fresh to see in London!”; “Since Trump, New York has gone to the dogs!”; “Milan – urgh, how long do we have to stay here?”; “Paris smells and the traffic, my god!”

This year, the moaners have been silenced: the pandemic cancelled what is already being described as the “traditional” fashion show. It has now become impossible to contemplate spending 20 minutes assessing fancy clothes while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with hundreds of fellow fashion victims (a breed prone to aerosol-generating activities such as gushing greetings, although at least they tend to kiss the air, rather than one another).

Replacing the champagne and the schmoozing, the handbag-watching and careful calibration of front-row seating, we now have “digital fashion week”. This was hyped as a Brave New World, born of frightening necessity yet ripe with promise. Designers and their houses were asked to film their collections; if the factories couldn’t deliver garments because of lockdown, they had to come up with something else for their footage. These films were then released in timetabled clusters by the respective fashion assemblies of London, Paris and Milan.

Some of the results were pretty good. In Paris Olivier Rousteing, who designs for Balmain, oversaw a charming film in which his diverse cast of models wore his boldly accentuated, razor-sharp French tailoring on a Bateau-Mouche as it chugged down the Seine. Alessandro Sartori filmed models walking across the 10,000-hectare nature reserve in Italy owned by Ermenegildo Zegna, through the chattering looms of a factory and then up onto its roof, with the final shot taken by drone.


Yet even when designers delivered beautiful films, “attending” these digital fashion events was rarely anything other than awful. At first I thought it would be like going from theatre to cinema: less visceral than watching in real life, but still capable of touching the viewer. If only.

Whether it was due to my bickering kids, the walkies-eager dog, the doorbell-bothering delivery guy or any other of the myriad distractions to which you’re subject when working from your kitchen table, I rarely got through a “show” without being forced to leave it in a fluster. Now that we all have front-row seats, things are much less fun. And parsing the work of Miuccia Prada is pretty tricky when your child is screaming for fresh underpants.

Even when they are uninterrupted, digital fashion shows simply cannot transmit what the physical versions can. As we’ve all experienced with our social and working lives, the online version is at best a faded version of real-life encounters – it can fulfil a function, but it’s rarely much fun.

And fashion has always been about the crowd. That’s the point of following it, whether as a wearer or observer. Taste is an ever-shifting flow of consensus and rejection: however much you trust your own judgment, we all know that when others lean in, we do too; when the room gasps, we all want a piece of the wonder. Trying to feel excited about something new, and to forecast its reception from afar, is like predicting the course of a school of fish. You have to be swimming in the pack with all the others, feeling the flow.

And so, R numbers permitting, I reckon that real fashion weeks will return. The traditional will be remade. I can’t wait to be back, fully appreciative of the privilege of being in the physical presence of beauty. And if we have to sit far apart from each other and wear masks as we watch? So be it. Maybe the distance and the fabric will even muffle all that stupid moaning.


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