Robin Givhan on Fashion: Webcasts change the runway game

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Designers like nothing more than a hot, new idea, and at the moment their favorite innovation appears to be live-streaming their runway shows over the Internet. They've been taking their lavish productions, which last only about 10 or 15 minutes, and beaming them directly to consumers in a twice-yearly marketing blitz. The decision makes perfect sense, given that a catwalk presentation can easily cost a designer $250,000, with more lavish displays costing far more than that. It's just good economics to get those expensive images in front of as many people as possible.

Each of the fashion capitals -- New York, London, Milan and Paris -- has championed live-streaming. And design houses as disparate as Burberry, which is rooted in British tradition, and Dolce & Gabbana [video], which is rooted in sex, have embraced it. By all accounts, the shows have drawn enough traffic to make them worth the effort. Indeed, the surest sign of their success is that, more often than not (sometimes in the middle of the show), the hosting Web site crashes -- brought down by too many enthusiastic fans.

The visually engaging webcasts deliver at least some of the creativity and drama of a fashion show directly to consumers. But this laudably democratic trend also makes one wonder: If everyone is in on the fashion story from the very beginning, when the first model steps out on the runway, how does that change the final narrative? Does that mean customers will ultimately be more intrigued and more invested in the clothes when they finally appear in stores? Or will they simply grow bored more quickly?

Does seeing the show -- with all of its high-concept flourishes -- give customers a better understanding of the designer's point of view? Or do all the theatrics just leave average viewers -- as opposed to fashion savants -- scratching their heads in a combination of amazement and disgust?

Once upon a time, runway audiences were populated only by retailers and fashion editors -- professionals who used the shows to plan business six months down the road. Editors would extrapolate the trends from a flood of information, then assign stories and photo shoots aimed at both educating and wooing readers. Retailers used catwalk shows to inform decisions about how to stock shelves. The shows helped dictate the mood that would ultimately pervade advertising campaigns and thick, seasonal catalogues. In short, the shows were about the nuts and bolts of moving merchandise. The few customers who attended the presentations were true insiders. They were women of means who devoted a great deal of those means to fashion.

But now that the shows are instantly accessible to anyone with a computer or a mobile phone, the audience has grown and evolved. The message, however, has not. The shows still pretend that the frocks on display will eventually end up generously stocked by stores, but the reality is that merchants now rely heavily on "pre-collections" for the bulk of their merchandise. Pre-collections are more commercial and are presented in showrooms with very little fanfare in the months before runway time. Indeed, retailers have argued against pre-collections being put on the runway for fear that designers won't be able to resist making them more theatrical, more esoteric, and thus less salable.

The big-top fashion shows now have a more complex agenda. Some of them offer a designer a one-shot opportunity to tell his story. Dries Van Noten doesn't advertise, and for him, the runway images are his advertising, his look book, his marketing campaign, all rolled into one. If it's on the runway, he intends to sell it. For a brand like Balenciaga, however, the show is more important in shaping image, delivering a grand vision and allowing designer Nicolas Ghesquière to speak in metaphors and visual poems. There's a wholly separate commercial collection back in the showroom that has been inspired by the runway pieces.

The result is that the shows are better able than ever to get consumers excited about fashion. Fashion's technology geeks are no longer reduced to clicking through still images or watching a few jittery seconds of bootleg runway footage on YouTube. They are in the audience -- at least virtually -- serving as critic and editor themselves.

But they are also left to figure out what is real and what is merely a suggestion.

The job of retailers is thus made more difficult. The energy that an expertly produced fashion show gives off is something to behold. Audiences emerge energized and enthusiastic and ready to buy. At the end of the splendid Dolce & Gabbana presentation in Milan, for instance, one was left with an urgent itch to buy a well-tailored black jacket. Immediately! And thanks to the show's styling, in which a trousseau of lacy lingerie was on display, it wouldn't have been surprising if some folks had the urge to raid a Victoria's Secret boutique as well.

That impulse is great for the fashion industry. Except none of those clothes is available and won't be for months. When the clothes finally arrive in stores, merchants will be charged with revving up the customer all over again, hoping for a double orgasm of conspicuous desire.

Maybe the customer will bite; but maybe that feverish need to spend will have passed, never to return. Anticipation, after all, can sometimes build up to frustration and, finally, rejection.

For years now, the fashion industry, particularly in New York, has been debating whether the shows should be more focused on consumers and their instant gratification. Since the fashion theater has been opened to the masses, perhaps the programming should cater to their speedy timetable. And instead of showing fall clothes in March, designers might want to present spring frocks. Give the consumers want they want -- now!

Designer Donna Karan [video] has been most vociferous in raising that concern. Her longtime lament has been that it doesn't make sense to sell winter coats in July and swimsuits in January. Technology has only made the fashion schedule more obviously out of sync with the lives of consumers.

Live-streaming is one of many ways in which designers are using technology to connect with their customers. They've also embraced social media, from Facebook to Twitter. They've done so in pursuit of an intimate relationship with customers. The technology makes it easy to wax giddy over a pair of shoes, to fire off breezy commentary about a celebrity designer and to flame a brand over an unsatisfying purchase.

But is that a relationship? Or just a lazy designer's version of an old-fashioned in-store appearance? During a conversation in Milan, the Italian fashion mogul Gildo Zegna noted that while his menswear company, Ermenegildo Zegna, has a Web site, he still craves voice-to-voice communication. He recently visited the United States and traveled up and down the West Coast for just that purpose. He wants to hear his customers' concerns. He wants them to touch the fabric and breathe in the smell of cashmere. In his romantic vision of the fashion industry, tweets are like cocktail-party small talk -- entertaining but unsubstantial.

The ultimate goal of any design house is to make the customer feel special, to feel as though they are being heard, to feel like they are in charge. Technology has given the industry a new set of tools with which to communicate. Live-streaming may be so powerful that it forces designers to change their ways, maybe for the better. But other innovations may provide the equally valuable lesson that sometimes, the old ways were actually the best.

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