Digital Fashion Week Showed Us the Platform's Egalitarian Potential—and Its Limits

Jonathan Evans
Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

From Esquire

Remember D.A.R.E? You know, the famously ineffective Drug Abuse Resistance Education program from way back when that for some reason involved a lion and featured—at least in the small corner of Pennsylvania where I grew up—a demonstration during which a police officer passed around a tray holding a veritable smorgasbord of mind-altering substances. Feel like bending your perspective and becoming one with the universe? We got something for that. Want to just chill out and enjoy the day with a slight buzz? We got that, too. Man, what a fucking dumb way to discourage drug use.

Anyway, here’s why I’m talking about a program that definitely did not pique my interest in the pharmacological wonders of the world: For the past couple of weeks, the fashion industry has been presenting its own smorgasbord of sorts in the form of a phygital—that is, an absolutely cringey portmanteau of “physical” and “digital”—fashion week in Paris and Milan. On one hand, it’s a sad reality necessitated by a deadly global pandemic. On the other, though, it’s been a fascinating display of creativity by some of the most influential clothing labels in the world.

You could get psychedelic with Louis Vuitton, or philosophical with Berluti. You could go artsy with Dior Men, or crafty with Tod’s. You could explore a fractured set of perspectives with Prada, or a long series of interconnected ones with Hermès. You could even get back to nature (mannn) with Ermenegildo Zegna XXX, or ponder the nature of technology with Gucci. If the grand romantic ideal of ingesting substances that alter your brain chemistry is transporting yourself somewhere new, even just in the way you think, this was a reminder that art is supposed to do the very same thing.

Here’s the rub: Fashion films are nothing new. Sure, the sheer volume of them that came with the spring and pre-spring 2021 shows was a novel thing. And yes, it was very interesting to see what each house decided to do with the format. But the true difference—the shift that made thinking about this bittersweet fashion week in larger terms worth the mental effort—wasn’t the content but the intended consumer.

Think about the livestreams of seasons past. They were a great entry point into the proverbial room for fans who wanted to see the newest offerings from a label make their way down the runway, no doubt. But then there were the people who were actually in the room: the editors and buyers and celebrities who enjoyed a different view of the whole affair, one that, presumably, was the primary concern for those putting it together. Yes, you could see what they saw—often, unless they happened to be in the front row, with a better view—but it wasn’t the same. Not really. There was a fundamental disconnect between attendees and viewers.

These past couple of weeks, with a few exceptions, that wasn’t the case. The fashion student signing on from his computer while sitting in bed at 8 a.m. saw the same thing as the fashion editor staring into a similar screen at her kitchen table. The kid in the suburbs had the same interaction with the clothing and ideas being presented as the industry vet in a metropolitan fashion capital.

There’s been a lot of talk of the democratization of fashion over the past decade. Some of it has been valid—social media did indeed change the game—and some of it less so. In terms of how fashion week is consumed, and by whom, this pandemic-induced shift has created arguably the most fully realized version of that "come one, come all" ideal to date. (Though let’s remember that both free time and access to the right technology were prerequisites for viewing.)

There’s something exciting about that idea, that promise of a more open and egalitarian approach. There are also, even in this inaugural execution of the idea, early signs that it may face some very real resistance. There is the simple fact, for instance, that seeing something in person really is a fundamentally different experience than seeing it on screen. Clothing is meant to be worn in real life. Rendering it in pixels, no matter how creatively, isn’t the same as analog.

Some brands seemed keenly aware of that, opting to present their clothes to a broad digital audience and a (far smaller) physical audience at once. Considering the circumstances, that stirred up some controversy, even with (sometimes scant) mask-wearing and social distancing. That these labels were willing to risk it for the sake of an in-person show is a strong sign of how badly swaths of the fashion industry want to get back to the pre-pandemic normal.

You also can’t ignore the simple facts of the fashion industry as it stands when it comes to a larger discussion of democratization. The clothes still cost money, sometimes a lot of it. There are still woefully few people of color behind the scenes at fashion houses making the collections come together or guiding the business into whatever the future holds. The exclusive and exclusionary aspects of the industry may be evolving—and, hopefully, improving—but waxing philosophical on egalitarianism rings hollow if you try to pretend they don’t exist.

Sorry to be a bummer. Hey, remember earlier? When we were talking about mind-expanding chemicals and similarly mind-expanding art, and how this deeply fucked-up period in world history has generated a kind of creative energy that makes things feel, if not fully okay, then better than they could be? That tension—the bad with the good, the willingness to acknowledge both while hopefully elevating and building upon the latter—is what this moment in fashion is all about.

In-person fashion shows will probably be back as soon as they can be held safely, and, if we’re lucky, not before then. But what we’ve seen from this phygital experiment is that the “digital” part of that dumb word has some very real promise. Designers and creatives can explore whole new ways of thinking about and presenting clothing to the world. Everyone from casual fans to industry insiders can consume those ideas and gain new perspective themselves. It’s born of something deeply shitty, but it’s actually pretty cool. That should give us hope for the future, albeit measured.

For the fashion world, these past couple of weeks have been a real trip. What’s even trippier is contemplating where we’ll go from here.

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