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Fashion’s closed circuit opens up and goes global – next stop cyberspace

Jason Szenes/EPA

Fashion’s closed circuit opens up and goes global – next stop cyberspace

Fashion season is in full swing. Marc Jacobs closed the 2016 New York Fashion Week with a psychedelic show featuring white models sporting colourful fake dreadlocks – and accordingly came under a bit of fire. Now London Fashion Week is getting going. All this might seem to follow the well-worn fashion grain, but the ground beneath those sparkling stilettos is actually shifting – fast. Fashion weeks are becoming less about fashion cliques and more about opening up to the masses.

Fashion weeks used to be an industry affair: they were about fashion labels presenting their new seasonal collections to prospective buyers. There were a limited number of cities on the fashion circuit: Paris, Milan, New York and London. Journalists from fashion magazines and newspapers bridged the gap between industry and consumer, providing information about new looks and trends and summarising the ups and downs of the well-heeled world to consumers at large.

Orders were taken, and clothing deliveries took place six months later, in time for the spring and autumn seasons. Mainstream fashion brands and retailers also picked up on the trends, which were reflected in their subsequent clothing ranges. This reasonably well-ordered calendar was driven by the speed of its physical processes, from order taking to distribution to retailers.

But all of these dimensions have changed. Fashion weeks are evolving from an exclusive industry function to participatory consumer events.

Fast fashion

There are now many more cities getting in on the international fashion scene, meaning new fashion cities and inevitably fashion weeks, such as São Paolo and Shanghai. Fashion week catwalks are found in increasingly diverse locations, pop-up events and flagship locations.

São Paulo Fashion Week. Ministério da Cultura/flickr, CC BY

Reflecting the way this sense of high fashion is filtering out into the public sphere, the front row of the catwalk has evolved, no longer accommodating only industry figures but also including celebrities and bloggers. Such bloggers have proliferated with the expansion of social media, which has also enabled more recycling of street fashion, creating many more looks and styles. The timescales for delivering finished clothes have reduced too, so that what’s seen on the catwalk can be delivered to retailers, or directly to customer, within a few weeks.

Increasing consumer affluence and consumption has been accompanied by growth in fashion retailing. The digital revolution has empowered consumers whose expectations are very different from previous generations. They access fashion information and services, but also make transactions online wherever and whenever they like. This ability to personalise is set to continue as consumers select and follow their own fashion leaders, designers, brands and street scenes from around the world on social media.

Mediating supply and demand, new media and communication technologies have changed both fashion and fashion weeks. “Fast fashion” now describes not only the rapid turnaround of designs, clothing and ranges, but also newer and fresher looks, media commentaries and visuals.

Sharing style

The internet has both changed the way fashion weeks are followed by consumers and the way in which products are acquired. Web 4.0 opened up new communication and shopping channels, particularly mobile, for brands to build an online and offline presence. Interactive software enables the dissemination of fashion, the sharing of looks and styles and the possibilities for style mash-ups. New forms of hardware and more powerful software in smartphones, tablets, apps and social media provide the opportunity to interact and engage with fashion brands at any time and place.

These developments have led to the rapid convergence of the physical and digital fashion worlds. The sanctity of fashion time and space is shrinking as consumer empowerment and choice expands.

The primacy of the visual in fashion highlights the significance of producing and consuming images. But professional photographers, editors and bloggers now represent only a fraction of those commenting on fashion weeks. Social media facilitates the exchange of photos and video and smartphone users can live-stream fashion shows by using broadcasting apps such as Periscope. Mdels pose for Instagram shots at the end of the catwalk and fashion houses showcase behind-the-scenes images and sneak peeks of their new collections.

Global futures

Looking to the future, fashion weeks are sure to demonstrate the design influence of a more truly global fashion world, accessing inspiration from new designers in Africa to the fast-moving markets of Asia. Cultural heritage, inspired by real or conceptualised pasts, will co-exist with spontaneous and experimental styling.

Fashion cities will have local, regional and international appeal, but will be increasingly undefined by the physical spaces of the city itself. Fashion weeks may become de-located, supplemented or replaced by virtual or merged environments. The opportunity to engage with these multiple locations will be enabled by more powerful, smaller and more convenient personal smart devices.

New forms of augmented and virtual reality will enable consumers to enjoy three dimensional and immersive experiences of fashion. These will be facilitated by new versions of the web that will enable more powerful interactivity and sensory engagement.

Consumers to locally create what they experience in the fashion week by use of 3D printing, but also reinterpret new clothing and accessory designs to their own look. New materials and smart textiles seem particularly promising and may play a more significant role in fashion design, and how clothing is conceptualised and presented. Hopefully, sustainability will have its say as well, with the potential to inspire new forms or alternative fashion weeks.

And the fashion “week” itself may not even be safe. Some other timescale, more flexible, personalised to the rapacious online consumer, seems most likely to engage us in the future.