February 10, 2012 9:54 pm

The social catwalk

The traditional fashion show is dead, with the internet offering unprecedented access to events and collections

As the fashion flock descends on New York City, they will be welcomed by cultural mavens suggesting they fill their free time by strolling through the opening of photographer Eugene Atget’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, or the show of Renoir’s full-length portraits at the Frick, or the display of clothing by Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan and Oscar de la Renta.

This last example sounds a bit like fashion week itself. But in fact it’s an exhibition, at the Fashion Institute of Technology, of the work of the most influential members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America in honour of that body’s 50th anniversary. And though such institutional memorials are generally associated with the work of past as opposed to living designers, the show couldn’t be more appropriate. For it is increasingly clear – and nowhere more so than in New York, which hosts a “blogger pit” in its Lincoln Centre hub – that the traditional model of a catwalk fashion show (an event for very few, displaying products that will be seen by the general public six months later) is, like a great artist that’s being honoured posthumously, inexorably dead.

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In large part, the internet is responsible for this seismic shift. Online catwalk images – either simulcast during fashion shows or posted soon after on brands’ proprietary websites and blogs – have become ubiquitous. And viewers often don’t just see the (invitation-only) show on their screens – they’re given a virtual all-access pass, including backstage titbits and pictures posted to followers on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

“There is a democratisation in terms of backstage or front row action: people really are interested and hungry for content and news and trends,” says John Demsey, group president of MAC Cosmetics, sponsors of around a third of New York’s fashion shows and presentations. “The digital space creates a much deeper connection between people actually buying product, fans of the designers, or people who may just want to know more.”

“It’s really lifting the veil of what was a privileged access experience,” says Peter Levy, IMG’s managing director of fashion, who oversees ­Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at Lincoln Center. “We live in a digital age and I really look at Fashion Week as an opportunity to unveil spectacle.”

“The backstage goings on and the runway shows themselves are catnip for YouTube,” says Paul Wilmot, whose eponymous public relations company works with a wide range of designers. “And what’s not to like? You’ve got beautiful girls in fabulous clothes, with great accessories, lit well, and you have motion. And there’s the ‘high drama’ of the interaction between hair and make-up and the dressers and the girls.”

Still, not every fashion show on the web this season is open to everyone. Thursday marks the launch of Digital Fashion Shows, a new website that has been designed to broadcast pre-taped, audience-free runway shows to a select group of press and retailers, each of whom receives a password via email in lieu of a ticket to a physical event. “We were looking for a way to balance the traditions of fashion with modern technology and maintain the integrity of the process of what we’re doing,” explains Ed Filipowski, who is spearheading the site and is co-president of KCD, the fashion publicity and production company.

Although just two shows will go up this season – Prabal Gurung’s first collection for Japanese manufacturer/distributor Onward Kashiyama’s ICB brand, and a French line during Paris Fashion Week that has not yet been announced – the site plans to grow substantially for the spring/summer 2013 shows this autumn.

Another convention of fashion shows – that their designs are shown around six months in advance of when they hit stores – is also changing fast. The website Moda Operandi, based in New York, pre-sells designer collections within a few days of their initial press presentations (with consumers receiving their orders months later, when conventional stores do). When it launched a year ago, some were sceptical about whether consumers would pre-buy pieces by high-end designers so far in advance without being able to try them on. Yet the site has steadily grown in popularity, particularly with overseas clients who account for around a third of its business.

“People really know what’s going down the runway – they get excited about those things and want to secure them then and there,” says the site’s co-founder, Aslaug Magnusdottir. “People are inundated with images: you can see every single style on style.com and Vogue.com, all over the blogs, everywhere. Our model is a way to allow the consumer to really connect with the designer and select from the full runway collection.”

“They’ve become a resource overnight,” says Wilmot of the site. “The idea of an online trunk show is smart. Everybody’s looking at it.”

Indeed, other retailers and brands have started to integrate online pre-order sales into their Fashion Week plans. The American department-store chain Nordstrom live-streamed Jason Wu’s fashion show on Friday and is pre-selling a large handful of pieces from the collection on its site, starting next Wednesday. Burberry pre-sells some of its Prorsum collection online after simulcasting the show each season, and also streams the shows in some stores in a dedicated space dubbed the Burberry Retail Theatre.

Brands such as BCBG Max Azria and Hervé Léger are selling some looks in advance on their websites, with each of two autumn deliveries available online around six weeks before they reach traditional stores.

Pre-selling is particularly appealing to retailers and designers because it pushes customers to pay full price instead of waiting for things to go on sale, or simply choosing to buy something else in the meantime. At Moda Operandi, customers make a 50 per cent down payment when they place an order, which means designers get paid, at least partially, months earlier than they do from traditional stores.

“Fashion Week is no longer just a trade show,” says MAC’s Demsey. RIP ready-to-wear as we knew it.

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