Dubai – From virtual fashion shows to forays into video gaming, the pandemic has forced high-end fashion brands to innovate and prepare for the future
The April 2020 cover of Vogue Italia did not show a beautifully photographed model. It was a blank canvas containing nothing but a blanket suspended in time and space that could say more than any string of images, titles, ideas and phrases. This total emptiness meant pain, strength and hope.
White was the color for life-threatening health workers. White was the shadow of people’s suffering. White as silence and a pause for reflection. It also spoke of encouragement, offering a sense of calm, helping to ease our emotional upheavals as the world fell.
Through this strange printed number, the haute couture bible reminded us that we were all in the same boat. All markets and sectors were shaken, including the luxury industry. Brimming with sophistication, it began to pay a heavy economic price.
In 2020, the fashion industry had its worst year on record, as confirmed by The State of Fashion 2021 report released last December by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. Sales have declined and supply chains have been disrupted. According to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, fashion companies faced a staggering 90% drop in profits after a 4% rise in 2019. “The impact of the pandemic on the fashion and luxury industry was extreme,” says Paolo Pasini, professor. IT/digital management at SDA Bocconi.
However, the sector has responded to economic paralysis with overlapping creative approaches to style and artistry. Its vocabulary is transformed and some novelties are introduced.
But as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing. In times of pain and discomfort, the fashion world has become a playful arena for healing.
Many fashion houses have embraced gamification, a marketing technique inspired by classic video game methods. They have created a brand new virtual world by partnering with gaming platforms. It was an alternative and innovative way to cultivate an engagement with their audience that goes beyond brand loyalty. The modality was a strong attractor, especially for younger generations looking for exclusive content and brand experience. Players represent a growing market. And a game designer is now part of the staff of many fashion houses.
Over the past year, Gucci has experimented with several global games. Recently, she launched a surreal garden experience designed as a virtual counterpart to Gucci Garden Archetypes, an esoteric new exhibition in Florence celebrating the Italian house.
The virtual event is available for Roblox users. As visitors enter the Gucci Garden experience, they shed their avatars and assume the appearance of a gender-neutral model. It’s like going back to the very first day of your life. This is an opportunity to start from scratch with a tabula rasa. The tailor’s mannequins walk around the sections of the garden, and each reacts differently. Slowly they begin to build their own identity. Each experience is a complexity of memory, of personal impulses, of group identity, of decision-making. At the end of the road, each model is only a person: a unique human being.
Last December, Balenciaga released its Fall Winter 2021 collection as a record-breaking cross-platform video game titled Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. Players travel through a futuristic world as they pass avatars dressed in the fashion house’s clothing, including old-fashioned Nasa space jackets. With a lot of stamina, they climb a mountain. Once the summit is reached, they watch the sunrise. The game ends with deep breathing exercises: inhaling and exhaling mindfully. The message is to experience our inner being with the Earth’s delicate atmosphere. With each breath, we are in communion with nature.
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has been nature’s wake-up call to move towards a more sustainable future. During the confinement, major players ignited the debate by raising awareness of the importance of repositioning themselves on new economic models and production methods. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting – it is responsible for 10% of global carbon dioxide emissions each year.
Giorgio Armani sounded the changes: we had to slow down production, cut the multiplication of events and pre-collections. The idea of slow fashion has a certain charm and was born from the emotional reaction of the last year. But how realistic is it?
“More than slow, we need less and less relevance,” says Professor Stefania Saviolo, founder of the MAFED Master in Fashion, Experience and Design Management at SDA Bocconi, Milan. “The pandemic has been a wake-up call, in particular, to strengthen the social dimension of sustainable development. Luxury had already started working on environmental impact through voluntary initiatives. The situation revealed what is behind the scenes in terms of worker conditions within the supply chain, not only in the Far East but also in European markets.
Brands that respect their employees and the planet attract consumers. Over the past year, the struggling industry has invested heavily in communication and digital solutions, such as e-commerce, social commerce (s-commerce), mobile apps and other types of related applications. to analytics, AI, etc. Augmented reality is used to improve the shopping experience of customers. Communication strategies have become more fluid and continuous throughout the year. In eight months, the share of online fashion sales nearly doubled from 16% to 29% globally, making a leap equal to six years of growth. While s-commerce, based on social interaction between customers discussing objects of desire through a wide range of platforms, has created digital identities in virtual meeting places.
But do all these now essential digital features represent the miraculous cure? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of this web-based company and the digital revolution?
“Benefits: We have entered the CTC economy – consumer-to-consumer marketplaces – where we can find any product, brand, review, information online,” Saviolo says. Secret: Fashion shows and parties used to be for the happy few. Digital also helps track and trace products in the supply chain. On the downside: Digital is cold. It’s not yet human and requires a strong retraining of people in the industry.
Aggressive digitization has created a sort of democratization of access to content. But did it really help increase the number of potential customers? Doesn’t it only have a short-term effect?
“There’s a lot of noise out there, and brands have turned into broadcasters. They have stories, plots, characters. They make movies. They are always on stage 24/7,” says Saviolo. “On the one hand, it has generated more interest in certain brands but not necessarily a strong interest to buy. Conversion is always difficult where competition is increasing in all markets, categories and channels and where resources are becoming scarce .
Covid-19 has had a disruptive effect on the identity of major fashion weeks, which in response have experimented with a kaleidoscopic array of digital offerings to showcase collections via live streams, 3D presentations, video shows and films shown on television.
“NON-SHOWS” FIND AN AGREEMENT
Prada, the first to produce face masks, ushered in a new era of online fashion shows last July during the inaugural Milan Digital Fashion Week. Journalists, buyers, stylists, influencers and fans of the iconic Milanese fashion house would squint at computer screens in different corners of the globe to watch the minimalist collection via a series of five shorts titled Multiple Views SS21-The Show That Never Happened.
The non-show theme was hot last year, with fashion more focused and inclusive of the new reality – another opportunity in the pandemic era. The fashion houses showed traits perhaps never seen before, like kindness. Traffic and exposure have grown exponentially online. Going from a maximum of 700 guests during a typical parade, it was possible to have tens of millions of users connected simultaneously. The Dior silhouettes, created by Maria Grazia Chiuri for the Salento digital show filmed in the beautiful but bare square of Lecce, charmed more than 16 million visitors.
In another fashion show, Dior proved its durability by planting 164 trees serving as scenography. Many brands have opted for environmentally friendly solutions. For example, Gucci and Burberry have created carbon neutral fashion shows.
In her book The Branded Supply Chain, Stefania Saviolo writes that just as one jacket size doesn’t fit all, the concept of sustainability differs for different brands. “Eco-friendly brands that put the planet first need to grow and make a relevant value proposition beyond pure sustainability,” she says. “At the same time, traditional business models that are not born sustainable must find their way on a journey that cannot achieve full transparency but embraces a cause that makes sense for their brand and positioning.”
Covid-19 has rewritten the future of major Italian and European brands “by developing more local customers”, says Saviolo. “Then through ‘phygital’ retailing – less wholesale – develop a more responsive, demand-driven supply chain, as businesses need to maximize revenue at full price.”
The brands that performed best were “all brands engaging their local customers and showing care and concern for the situation,” Saviolo says.
RESILIENCE IS KEY
Resilience rose to the top of the hierarchy for 101 Italian fashion and luxury companies. They have been the subject of research published by SDA Bocconi which explored their ability to absorb and react. “What emerged was strong digital resilience,” says Pasini. “They will continue to invest in ICT/digital. In some cases, they have expressed the intention to increase the allocated budgets by 10% or more.
Fashion weeks are now adopting a hybrid operating model by bringing back live shows. Do we still know how to dress? Can we feel joy?
“The biggest challenge for the future is finding the right combination of online experience and human contact,” says Pasini. Yes, we are in the era of “phygital”. But nothing heals like this extract of physical contact soothing our tangled nerves.