London Fashion Week went virtual - and it gave us all a seat on the front row

Covid-19 meant the catwalk had to move online, giving us all a seat on the front row, writes Paul McLauchlan.
London Fashion Week went virtual - and it gave us all a seat on the front row

The world is beginning to restart. So is fashion.

The first digital fashion week took place in London last weekend. London Fashion Week June 2020 merged womenswear and menswear into one gender neutral platform taking place exclusively online, freely accessible globally for both the public and trade audiences.

Typically, in June of every year, the world of fashion orbits around four European fashion capitals: London, Florence, Milan and Paris, for the spring/summer men’s fashion collections. The cities are choked with traffic jams and inflated egos. Grand ballrooms, cool industrial spaces, and anonymous art galleries transformed into elaborate runways. Thousands fly in from all over the world to watch the shows, visit showrooms and buy the clothes that you’ll see on the rails later this year and early next and soon after on your social media feeds. That’s not the case this year.

The novel coronavirus brought the industry to a halt: supply chains were disrupted, publications were left scrambling to rearrange and organise photoshoots, events were cancelled. But fashion, an industry resourceful like no other, peddles forward with a new plan.

This showcase featured young menswear talents like Robyn Lynch, Charles Jeffrey, Ahluwalia and Daniel w. Fletcher -of Next in Fashion fame-, and womenswear labels such as RIXO and Preen by Thornton Bregazzi (both published short videos). Accessory brand Mulberry hosted a live event. Retailers such as The Webster, based in Miami, and Farfetch, based online, were brought into the fold.

The online event consisted of films, virtual galleries, live interviews and events, DJ sets over three days.

There was Charles Jeffrey, a Scottish menswear designer whose label LOVERBOY embraces the performative aspects of gender identity through extravagant suiting with a Saville Row-trained eye and outerwear that encapsulates the unbridled joy of creativity.

Instead of his usual grand showcases, he opted for a talent showcase and fundraiser, live-streamed from Dalston’s VFD, to amplify the voices of persons of colour. The live performance featured singers, poets, and cultural commentators dressed in parts of Jeffrey’s 20-piece unisex collection, entitled (Self)Portrait of a LOVERBOY, which comprised of graphic jersey, knitwear and accessories.

(The collection will be sold globally in December 2020, and proceeds will be donated to Kaleidoscope Trust an organisation which works to uphold the human rights of LGBT+ people in countries around the world where they are discriminated against or marginalised due to their sexual orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression.) Robyn Lynch was another name on the schedule. The Dublin native is known for melding her Irish heritage with sportswear elements. In collaboration with cycling brand Rapha, she reimagined deadstock fabrics and faulty items as 12 new hybrids fusing her signature areas of sportswear and knitwear.

In a lo-fi video shot on her iPhone, overlaid with audio of Leo Varadkar’s COVID-19-related press conferences, Lynch provided an insight into the making of a collection, revealing how a windproof jacket was repurposed as a pair of shorts, with a functional zipper, how a pair of shorts are cut from an orange zip-up jacket, how jackets become panels on knitwear and how she transformed cycling shorts into a roomier proportioned garment. The effect was personable, a welcoming invitation into the world of a designer.

For many young designers, most of whom are on the cusp of gaining international recognition, producing a piece of work did not necessarily mean clothes. Bianca Saunders, whose work riffs on contemporary masculinity and its soft, romantic edges, crafted a zine which celebrated identity and individualism with an emphasis on gender, race and sexuality.

Priya Ahluwalia, who draws on aspects of her mixed heritage and British identity, released Jalebi, a limited edition photography book by Laurence Ellis which pays homage to Punjabi diaspora in London’s Southall. Nicholas Daley published a video taken at his last show which took place in January before the onset of the pandemic.

Another 3D rendered still from Priya Ahluwalia's second photo book, Jalebi, celebrating Pnjabi diaspora in London.
Another 3D rendered still from Priya Ahluwalia's second photo book, Jalebi, celebrating Pnjabi diaspora in London.

"The decision to participate in the showcase was a relatively easy one for me; we had a collection ready and never really suffered from a shortage of ideas,” said Jeffrey.

“Physical happenings, or a 'sense of event' - that's who we are as a label. So the removal of that discipline has forced us to flex some new creative muscles,” he said.

“Fashion feels so irrelevant sometimes but I can’t dismiss the amount of hard work I have put in over the last few weeks with the collection, so we must continue on,” said Lynch, who made her collection entirely by herself in her Hackney apartment.

This is not the first time fashion has gone digital. At the beginning of the pandemic, Shanghai and Moscow fashion weeks went online. During Milan Fashion Week, when the coronavirus first began to grasp Italy in its clutches, Giorgio Armani took the decision to cancel his show and host an audience-free fashion show online. Prior to this, for years, shows have experimented with digital-friendly formats.

“It will be an unusual season for us as the majority of buying will be done digitally in light of lockdown and travel restrictions,” said Heather Gramston, Head of Womenswear at Browns Fashion, who stock labels like RIXO and Preen by Thornton Bregazzi. “However, we will plan to offer the consumer an exciting Browns edit of existing brands, newness and exclusives.” At present, there is no unanimity about the future of fashion week. Multiple consortiums of designers, chief executives, and retailers have come forth proposing various changes to the system. Gucci and Saint Laurent have both issued statements saying they will set their own rhythm. Chanel is committed to the old way of doing things—6 shows a year for large companies like them.

Provisionally, physical versions of the women’s fashion week will take place in September. Whether any of these decisions have the power to reshape the industry remains to be seen. One certainty to clasp is that any seismic change to an inward-looking, self-regarding industry will have to be collective.

“One of the driving forces behind my early passion for this industry was of course the prospect of experiencing the runway shows. I remember early in my career going to a McQueen show which totally blew me away and I was hooked! The people, the lights, the anticipation, the set…,” said Damien Paul, Head of Menswear at

The poetry of fashion shows—the pre-show excitement, the venue, the soundtrack—could not be faithfully replaced but lo-fi videos of how collections are produced, zines and heartfelt chats between designers and friends on the future of fashion and the state of the world are sufficient for the time we’re in.

A 3D rendered still from Priya Ahluwalia's second photo book, Jalebi, celebrating Punjabi diaspora in London.
A 3D rendered still from Priya Ahluwalia's second photo book, Jalebi, celebrating Punjabi diaspora in London.

More importantly, fashion is one of the most powerful global industries. Fashion week acts as a platform for an industry that, in the UK, directly contributed £35 billion to the UK GDP, a 9.38% increase from 2018, with the number of people employed by the industry remaining constant year on year at 890,000, according to data from Oxford Economics.

For many of the smaller brands, which make up the bulk of the London Fashion Week Digital lineup, having the platform of fashion week is integral to their survival. While Chanel, Gucci and Saint Laurent can act independently, younger designers need fashion week to ensure their talent is seen and also preserved. 73% of fashion businesses have already experienced order cancellations in light of the pandemic shutting shops across the globe. Without a digital presence, the situation could have led to dire straits.

Moreover, there is something appealing about digital fashion week, available, as it is, freely and globally to anyone who logs on to the London Fashion Week website, and how it tears down fashion’s elitist structures. These events do not take place behind closed doors. Why should they? In the last decade, fashion relied heavily on the entertainment factor - elaborate sets, far-flung destinations. Now, that’s been stripped of its importance. The average Joe is as important to fashion week as press and buyers.

Accessibility was a boon to digital fashion week. This was for everyone. The ideas were for everyone, to be consumed at the same time and in the same place. They’ll stay on the platform for months to come like fashion Netflix. Fashion week is truly a form of mass-market entertainment.

Paul added, “I feel enthusiastic by what is to come. A new format for fashion week provides opportunities for designers to think differently and possibly even more creatively. With sustainability quite rightly becoming more important to the industry and of course the customer, new ways of showing collections can only support that well needed change.” Will you be watching?

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