the image is a still from the Thom Browne presentation. It shows the musician Moses Sumney, a muscular black man without a shirt, in trousers and headphones.

From the onset of 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has been wreaking havoc on just about every industry, with the film and fashion ones being no exception. The former mostly just rescheduled their releases, while the latter stopped to a screeching halt, not knowing what to do next. Designers were left with lacking resources and an uncertain future, as almost any fashion presentation is an up-close event consisting of hundreds of people. In an unexpected mashup, the two worlds combined for last week’s Paris Fashion Week, which saw over 60 brands presenting their newest ideas and collections digitally.

When hearing about the Fashion Week turning digital, it’s safe to assume that the shows would be just a recorded runway, albeit without any bystanders. Luckily for viewers, the fashion world got a lot more creative, and allowed PFW to become an amazing showcase of how film can be used to the designers’ advantage.

The transition into a digital landscape came with a whole new set of obstacles. Similarly to a film festival or an opening night, the atmosphere and excitement of being at a Fashion Week is half of the experience, and something non-replicable through the computer screen. The struggles designers faced was not only how to attract audiences, but also how to make a 10 minute YouTube video showcasing newest collections visually appealing. After all, it’s much harder to walk away from a show than it is to pause – or quit – a video.

Fashion Week, be it online or offline, only has one goal; the promotion of newest collections. In every other event, this promotion is done almost exclusively through watching models walk a runway. However, due to the circumstances, designers were given a free hand in how to present their latest garments. There have been a few brands , both big and small, who reached for the most obvious solution – purely filming the runway, but we also saw a variety of other ideas used in varying degrees of effectiveness. With an impressive number of designers presenting, the shows were bound to fall into certain tropes that were repeated throughout the week.

A common feature, and one of the most noticeable ones, was the lack of memorable or engaging music. Getting rid of music or using ambient noises may work in a physical event, but in the digital landscape, more than anything else, it takes away from the experience. For example the Y/PROJECT show took a unique approach by splitting the screen into three parts and thus showing three outfits simultaneously, but their 10 minute presentation plays out in complete silence, bound to lose the attention of most viewers. Other brands, like yoshio kubo or the newcomer Reese Cooper, opted for filming the catwalk and while they showed some beautiful pieces, the very bland music certainly didn’t help in making these shows memorable. On the other hand, there were some designers clearly aware of how crucial sound is. White Mountaineering presented their futuristic looking collection with a unique approach to music, using deep electronic soundscape best enjoyed with headphones. However, no one did it quite like Thom Browne, who enlisted the musician Moses Sumney for their presentation and let him direct. It is a one man show with Sumney singing, which made for a unique collaboration that brought out the best in both.

Thom Browne filmed their Fashion Week submission in black & white, a move that might seem counter-intuitive when showing off clothes. They weren’t the only ones who decided to get rid of colours, as the brands Juun.J and NAMACHEKO also presented their latest collection in monochrome. The former was mainly in b&w, although it switched a few times into colour, revealing the richness of the outfits that wasn’t visible before, which begs the question why shoot it monochrome in the first place. However, NAMACHEKO really nailed down the use of the simplistic colour palette. The garments showed were either black or white, and by getting rid of the colour, the clothes as if unveiled a “hidden layer” full of sewing details and ribbing. It also makes you appreciate the cleanness of the white and the depth of the black. 

Film, first and foremost, is a storytelling medium. Thus, the designers set out to tell stories they normally wouldn’t be able to, such as the tender beach side romance by Ludovic de Saint Serin. Another great short film, and an example of how being different gets you noticed and remembered, doublet presented their newest collection through the story of a bear who likes to spread joy by giving away gift to his friends. It’s as cute as it sounds. 

While there weren’t many other stories this inventive, that doesn’t mean an end to creativity. A surprisingly high amount of designers ditched the constraints of our world in order to try something more fantastical and unreal. From Andrea Crews’ filter-enabled catwalk, the dystopian EGONlab presentation and up to the wild BORAMY VIGUIER, which has so much going on, it demands to be seen at least twice. Even the Virgil Abloh-led Louis Vuitton dipped their hands in animation, albeit the more traditional kind. LV may not have showed any new garments, but the video full of cute creatures blasted in their iconography gives a pretty good sense of where the brand is headed. However, it’s the New York brand, a newcomer to Fashion Week, KidSuper who surprised all, going completely into animation. More specifically, a glorious stop motion reenactment of a fashion show with miniature versions of clothes on dolls, featuring the likes of Jackie Chan, Jay Z and Freddie Mercury.

On the completely other side of the spectrum, some brands saw this as an opportunity to open up to their audiences with short-form documentaries, explaining their ideas. From heavyweights like Dior to the relatively unknown sustainable brand Henrik Vibskov, designers allowed the public a rare peek behind the scenes of how a collection is crafted, going over the process from the initial inspiration up to the last moments before models hit the catwalk.

All these techniques, as well as Fashion Week being online available to anyone, made it more accessible than before. It was no longer only about the big names. Everyone had the same platform, the same challenges, which provided for a space of equal opportunity rarely seen at the physical event. For a week, modern fashion partially lost some of the exclusivity status that may have turned some people off from exploring this world. It was more than just getting rid of the runway. The brands managed to make their clothes seem more lived in and grounded than ever before. By setting a show in the streets of a city, the backstage of a fashion studio, or during a jam session (like Ungaro did), it seems more ‘for the people’ than high fashion usually is.

The Paris Fashion Week Menswear Spring-Summer 2021 felt more personal – both for the designers and the audience – thanks almost exclusively to its digital setting. While the womenswear part of PFW is planned to ‘go back to normal’ and be physically held in France’s capital, there are lot of lessons for designers to take from, as they look into the future. Maybe high fashion doesn’t have to be so exclusive anymore. Perhaps there’s no need for gate keeping anymore, and maybe there’s room for a change.

writer, available for hire. contact: twitter @maadbeggar