During the coronavirus pandemic, you can admire the latest models of Chanel and Dior from the sofa. But is this the future of haute couture? The industry is skeptical.
Fashion label and empire Chanel had planned wanted to present its current holiday collection on the sun-soaked Italian island of Capri — but the coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the plan. Before the outbreak, the designers from all the major fashion labels traveled to each Fashion Week with all their baggage and heavy equipment in tow, but this time around, everything is different. No clicking cameras from press photographers, no celebrities from show business and no rich aristocracy in the front row.
Instead, the models stroll virtually across one's home screen. That's what the Haute Couture Week looks like in Paris, a highlight of the industry and the oldest fashion show of all.
Naomi Campbell gives Black Lives Matter speech
Each hour, a new video can be clicked on on the website — each time a different label presents its current collection. The French Fashion Week opened on July 6 with a video message from Naomi Campbell. The supermodel, however, did not present herself in a designer dress, but in a simple black T-shirt printed with the words "Phenomenally Black."
Sitting relaxed on the sofa in her luxurious living room, the 50-year-old quoted Nelson Mandela and stressed the importance of acting on the "powerful sense of urgency" that has been expressed around the world with the Black Lives Matter movement.
Campbell then pointed to Paris as "fashion's central stage and its leader," and said this week should mark the beginning of change.
"This is a call for action that we are making as we hope that this is a conversation that is starting now and will last as long as is needed. It is up to us, it is up to you to start enforcing inclusion of the multitude of identities that compose our countries," she said. "It is time to have regular and sustainable conversations with minorities of each country and culture, who are already invisible actors of this mega industry," she added. "It starts now in France. Merci."
Sustainability rather than exploited workers in Bangladesh or India sounds promising — and that is fitting for haute couture. After all, it's not mass production that takes center stage there, but one sophisticated designer piece after another.
Chanel's love of details and Dior's enchanted forest
Yet, this time around, the designers are presenting themselves very differently on the internet. Chanel had already launched its "Cruise Collection" in June with a clip evoking Mediterranean flair with beach wallpaper and graceful verandas, while models wear sleek designs and move slowly to a catchy electronic beat. The video for winter fashion at the Haute Couture Week is even more spartan, showing some 50 shades of gray: One model blends into another as they strike poses in front of a milky-white background.
Dior came up with something more imaginative — although the 14-minute film makes you feel more like you've landed in some sort of fairy tale inhabited by elves and forest spirits rather than transporting you to a fashion show. A mermaid swims along to psychedelic sounds through a crystal-clear river, while others cavort on the shore among ferns and bright green moss. And in the middle of this idyll, two young men in old-fashioned pageboy uniforms carry a box like a palanquin through the enchanted forest. When they open the box, it is full of miniature tailor's dummies wrapped in exclusive designer dresses. Other mythical creatures, with all of them ultimately becoming newly clothed — in Dior, of course.
Fabrics in short supply
A clip of Daniel Roseberry, artistic director at Maison Schiaparelli, shows him sitting on a park bench drawing an "imaginary collection" as there is no new one this year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
During the lockdown, supply chains have faltered. Fabrics became scarce in some cases, and designers were not always able to draw on the full range of materials. Nevertheless, one sees a great deal of finesse in the haute couture designs that have made it online.
Live is different
And on and on the videos go, showing designers in protective masks, views of rooftops in Paris — all of it reflecting design in the pandemic here and now.
After the sixth or seventh video, it's hard to stay excited watching them from one's living room sofa. It lacks the thrill of a live show during normal times, where haute couture is in the air everywhere. The applause is missing, as are the comments about the new models and design among members of the audience.
The fashion designers are aware of this as well since the labels rely on direct contact with customers. That's why everyone wants to get back to normal as quickly as possible. "I hope we can get back on the catwalk in October," Chanel's President of Fashion Bruno Pavlovsky told trade magazine Women's Wear Daily, which is considered a fashion bible in professional circles. A fashion show is still the best way to present a collection and is enormously important for later in-store sales, he said.
And Dior's CEO Pietro Beccari emphasized that nothing can replace the emotions that arise during a live show: "There is electricity in the air... That's why I believe there will always be live shows." But in these difficult times, the industry wants to set a sign of rebirth with the online shows.
Working toward more sustainability
On the plus side, this year was probably one of the most environmentally-friendly Fashion Weeks in ages, since people didn't fly from all over the world to attend the event.
And there's also what people can learn from the lockdown. What did Alessandro Michele, Gucci's creative director say the other day? "I'm going to say goodbye to the well-worn ritual of seasonal shows to find a new rhythm that's more in tune with my creativity."