London Fashion Week under pressure from Covid-19 restrictions

Vogue Business: London’s first online fashion week back in June was a mixed bag, and the British Fashion Council’s hopes to strike the right balance by blending physical and digital have been scuppered by new Covid-19 restrictions.

London Fashion Week is under pressure after new rules jeopardised plans to return to physical events. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced restrictions for gatherings larger than six people this week. While the regulations don’t apply to the performing arts, and physical fashion events in London are still set to go ahead, there is an atmosphere of national unease over rising Covid-19 infection rates, so finding the right balance between physical and digital will be a tough task.

Unlike New York Fashion Week, taking place mostly on screens, London’s Spring/Summer 2021 showcase (17-22 September) will include plenty of live physical events. Of 81 designers, 31 will include some kind of physical aspect. Which is good news, BFC chief executive Caroline Rush tells Vogue Business. “There’s a huge amount of hype that happens around a physical event that is just very difficult to replicate digitally. This season we have more collections, which is ultimately what fashion weeks are about.”

The British Fashion Council’s experiment in June to turn London Fashion Week into an online-only showcase garnered underwhelming online attention. Dylan Jones, chair of menswear at the BFC, was unsurprised. “We were trying to put a fashion week on in the middle of a climate where it wasn’t possible to do events,” he says.

In order to adhere to Covid-19 safety measures, which are under continuous review by the UK government, LFW shows and presentations will be smaller in scale than usual and staged for a mostly UK-based live audience. Scores of countries remain on the UK quarantine list, including key fashion markets such as France, the US and China.

Mark Fast and Bora Aksu are two designers going ahead with a physical show with a live audience. The event will also be broadcast online. “It’s an essential tool for our brand to express our seasonal message on a global scale. An online streaming of a fashion show will reach tens of thousands on the day, and hundreds of thousands, if not more, throughout the season,” Fast explains.

Burberry, the biggest London Fashion Week attraction, will present a digital live stream of a no-audience show set in the British countryside. Victoria Beckham, another key draw after her return from New York Fashion Week in 2018, will host an intimate salon show. The most popular option is set to be invitation-only appointments: Simone Rocha, Christopher Kane, Molly Goddard, Huishan Zhang, Halpern and Emilia Wickstead plan to show their SS21 collections in intimate settings. Roksanda, who had initially planned to host a presentation, is now reviewing her approach following the UK government’s new guidelines.

After a season’s break, other designers are returning to the schedule. They include buzzy brand Art School, which recently saw the departure of its co-founder Tom Barratt, leaving Eden Loweth working solo on the brand, as well as Matty Bovan and Edward Crutchley. All of them are planning digital runway shows. “Video is a great medium for showing off the textures and embroidered details we are known for,” says Crutchley.

JW Anderson, Richard Quinn, Erdem, Marques Almeida and Bianca Saunders plan to present films. “With a show, you can see everything, it’s very immersive, very emotional. It’s hard to get that in the current circumstance, but I think [a film] can help us communicate our messaging, and that’s the main objective of any fashion show,” says Quinn, speaking from his studio in Peckham.

“The change in format is another challenge to get over,” says Bianca Saunders, who presented a zine instead of a collection in June. “I was initially disappointed at not being able to do a physical show… but I’ve realised that fashion week doesn’t have to be the traditional format [and] can serve as a platform for us as designers to have our voices heard and reach new audiences.”

BFC chief executive Caroline Rush is focused on translating all this into business success. The BFC is working with data analytics company Joor for a second season, providing digital wholesale services for designers. Some 5,872 global buyers, ranging from the US and Canada to Saudi Arabia and South Korea, created a profile on Joor in June. “We’re extending the reach of who would normally be able to shop the event,” says Joor chief executive Kristin Savilia.

Updated online features this season include a button to add a piece to a favourites list and improved 360-degree imaging. Sixty collections were available on Joor in June; Savilia expects that number to double this round. Designers not showing at LFW are also invited to use Joor to showcase their designs and reach buyers: among the most popular brands in June were A-Cold-Wall, Craig Green and Wales Bonner, despite not taking part in the digital showcase. IBM has also joined London Fashion Week as a new partner, helping to optimise the digital experience and enable designers to showcase their stories through multimedia content.

“Ultimately, success for us is really about the engagement with international retailers as well as media and consumers. I think for a lot of businesses, that is about creating physical events, which allow brands to host personal appointments while allowing some of that amplification to global audiences online,” Rush says.

There’s no single approach that works best, observes Jones. “We’ve discussed at the BFC — for the last seven or eight years, or maybe even longer — whether or not the shows should be more consumer-based and less trade orientated. I think we’re now living in a climate where brands do what they want to do: some follow the orthodox route, others see digital as a more effective tool. What we do is give a platform for designers to express themselves in the best way that they can.”

After London, all eyes turn to Milan, which will also blend physical and digital events from the likes of Fendi, Giorgio Armani, Max Mara, Etro and Prada. A highlight will be the debut of Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons as co-creative directors of Prada. Paris, finally, will attempt the biggest return to in-person shows, with a fashion week schedule that largely looks like business as usual.

Before then, the unique mix of London Fashion Week will hope to impress the fashion pack. Jones remains upbeat: “You’re always going to see more innovation in London. I do think there’s something in the water. We’ve always been very good at tradition, and always very good at rebellion.