February 8, 2013 7:33 pm

The catwalk in your living room

If things look weird on the catwalk, then imagine seeing them on Netflix

Fashion month kicked off on Friday with the first full day of the New York womenswear shows, and there were some surprise attendees in the front row. Who were these lucky folks? Why you, dear reader. Or, to be accurate, people such as you: non-fashion professionals in the comfort of their own homes who got to see a variety of shows (and will get to see more) thanks to a move among some backroom players in the fashion world to provide digital access to the shows.

I am referring specifically to KCD and IMG. The former is one of the biggest press/event/show agencies in the fashion world, working with – at New York Fashion Week – Marc Jacobs, Diane von Furstenberg, Alexander Wang and Victoria Beckham, as well as, overseas, Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Givenchy and so on.

IMG is the organiser of New York Fashion Week (officially known by the wordy title Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center), as well as fashion weeks in Berlin, Tokyo, Mumbai and Moscow.

Last season KCD introduced Digital Fashion Shows, a new tool for fashion editors that allows them to see select shows online if, say, they can’t make it in person, and this season the company has opened it up to the public. Meanwhile, IMG has combined with Rightster, a “cloud-based video distribution and monetisation specialist” (this is how it describes itself) to stream for general viewership all those shows at Lincoln Center. (To watch, go to newyork.mbfashionweek.com).

I have mixed feelings about all this. This isn’t because I think non-industry people don’t have the right to see a show or because I am jealously guarding any residual insider status. It’s just that I think it confuses the purpose of the shows even further – and they are confused enough as it is. I mean, for the next four weeks, you are going to get trend reports once a week from these pages and reviews every day of a line-up of shows. Because all these shows happen during the same time and for the same season, there is going to be a veneer of sameness to their treatment but, truth is, they are increasingly not the same.

There are the shows that are traditional: events for the trade in which designers display their wares to buyers and critics in a straightforward, transactional manner, and what we see is what consumers will see later in stores and in magazines.

Then there are the shows that are largely marketing events, where half the clothes on the runway, created for dramatic effect and message, will never be made, and the other half will be altered to be what is known as “wearable”. The sets and celebrities will be photographed and the pictures sent round the world.

But there are more too!

There are shows that are now shopping events, where you can order straight from the runway and who cares if there are retailers there and what they think? There are shows that are entertainment, complete with singers and DJs. There are shows that aren’t shows at all but films.

All these different kinds of shows require different kinds of investment, and different treatment from each other, and have different aims: publicity, say, or selling, or name recognition, or artistic credibility. One designer I know is so focused on live streaming that she casts models according to how they look on camera as opposed to how they look in person when they walk.

. . .

Which raises the question: if all the above is true, then what’s the big deal about adding yet another possibility to the mix – shows as public spectacle – especially when many big brands already stream their own shows on their own websites and in their stores (take a bow, Burberry and Gucci)?

The classic argument is that clothes, which exist in real space, are impossible to truly understand in cyberspace; you can’t really see how the fabric moves on a body, and in the air, and hence you can’t really judge a garment. That’s true but it also seems to me a critic’s problem. And there’s a more elemental general issue at stake.

IMG estimates that last season, because of its live streaming, 165 per cent more people saw the New York shows than might have otherwise. But seeing is not buying. The public live streaming reinforces the perception of shows as Shows, broadly defined: something you tune into or out of at will, something that are less about business than pop culture. But pop culture (whether we are talking reality TV or music videos) requires ever more extreme versions of itself to catch the viewers’ eye. And extremity and fashion – which at their best are about how women recognise themselves in garments and then use those garments to reflect that identity back out into the world – are not complementary imperatives.

I remember once talking with Giorgio Armani, who wasn’t happy with a review I had written because I had criticised what he put on the catwalk (I said something like “no woman wants to wear bloomers”). Armani pointed out that back in the showroom he had lots of clothes that were perfectly classic, but everyone had said that they were too boring so he had to jazz things up a bit – hence the outré garments. The result was that they looked weird on the catwalk, no question, but when I imagine transposing them to Netflix ... what will people without this kind of insight make of them? Why has no one made that connection yet? It’s only a matter of time.

Before we get there, however, fashion might ask itself: for whose benefit? Designers might not be so pleasantly surprised when they think through the answer.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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