What is 'phygital' fashion?
From virtual runway shows to foraying into gaming, the pandemic has compelled high-end fashion brands to innovate and prepare for the future
The Vogue Italia April 2020 cover didn’t show a beautifully photographed model. It was a white canvas featuring nothing, yet a front cover suspended in time and space that could tell more than any concatenations of images, headlines, ideas and phrases. That total blank meant pain, strength and hope.
White was the colour of the health workers putting their lives on the line. White was the shade of people’s suffering. White as silence and a pause for reflection. It also spoke of encouragement, offering a sense of calm, helping alleviate our emotional upsets as the world was falling.
Through that odd printed issue, the high-fashion bible reminded us that we were all in this together. All markets and sectors were rattled, including the luxury industry. Oozing sophistication, it started to pay a heavy economic price.
In 2020, the fashion industry suffered its worst year on record, as confirmed by The State of Fashion 2021 report released last December by The Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company. Sales declined, and supply chains were disrupted. According to the McKinsey Global Fashion Index, fashion companies faced a staggering 90 per cent decline in profit following a 4 per cent rise in 2019. “The impact of the pandemic on the fashion and luxury industry has been extreme,” says Paolo Pasini, Professor of IT/Digital Management at SDA Bocconi.
However, the sector responded to the economic paralysis with overlapping creative approaches to style and art. Its vocabulary transformed and a few novelties were introduced.
But as Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, “We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing.” In time of pain and discomfort, the world of fashion became a playful arena to heal.
Many fashion houses embraced gamification, a marketing technique taking inspiration from the methods of classic video gaming. They created a new branded virtual world by partnering with gaming platforms. It was an alternative, innovative way to cultivate engagement with their audiences that go beyond brand loyalty. The modality was a powerful attractor, especially for the younger generations searching for exclusive content and brand experience. Gamers represent a fast-growing market. And a game designer is now part of the staff of many fashion houses.
Over the past year, Gucci has been experimenting with multiple global games. Recently, it launched a surreal garden experience conceived as a virtual counterpart to the Gucci Garden Archetypes, a new esoteric exhibition in Florence celebrating the Italian house.
The virtual event is available for Roblox users. The moment visitors enter the Gucci Garden experience, they shed their avatars and assume the likeness of a neutral, asexual mannequin. It is like being back to the very first day of one’s life. It is an opportunity to start from scratch with a tabula rasa. The tailor’s dummies wander through the garden’s sections, and each one reacts differently. Slowly, they begin to build their own identity. Each experience is a complexity of memory, personal drives, group identity, decision-making. At the end of the journey, each mannequin is nothing but a person: a unique human being.
Last December, Balenciaga released its Fall Winter 2021 collection in the form of a record-breaking multi-platform video game titled Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow. Players travel through a futuristic world passing avatars dressed in the couture house’s garments, including old-style Nasa space jackets. With a lot of endurance, they climb a mountain. Once the summit has been reached, they witness sunrise. The game ends with deep breathing exercises: breathing in and out mindfully. The message is about experiencing our inner being with the Earth’s delicate atmosphere. With every breath, we have communion with nature.
No doubt, the pandemic was a wake-up call from nature to move to a more sustainable future. During the lockdown, big players ignited the debate by raising awareness on the importance of resetting to new business models and modes of production. The fashion industry is one of the most polluting — it is responsible for 10 per cent of global carbon dioxide emissions every year.
Giorgio Armani rang the changes: it was necessary to slow down the production, cut the proliferation of events and the pre-collections. The idea of slow fashion has a certain charm and was a thought borne out of last year’s emotional reaction. But how realistic is it?
“More than slow, we need less and more relevant,” says Professor Stefania Saviolo, founder of MAFED Master in Fashion, Experience and Design Management at SDA Bocconi, Milan. “The pandemic was a wake-up call, in particular, for strengthening the social dimension of sustainable development. Luxury had already started to work on the environmental impact through voluntary initiatives. The situation revealed what’s behind the scenes in terms of workers’ conditions within the supply chain not only in the Far East but also in European markets.”
Brands that are kind to their workers and the planet are attractive to consumers. In the last year, the troubled industry has invested heavily in digital communication and solutions, such as e-commerce, social commerce (s-commerce), mobile apps, and other kinds of applications relating to analytics, AI, and more. Augmented reality is used to enhance the customer shopping experience. Communication strategies have become more fluid and continuous throughout the year. In eight months, the share of e-commerce fashion sales nearly doubled from 16 per cent to 29 per cent globally, leaping forward equal to six years of growth. While s-commerce, based on social interaction between customers who discuss objects of desire via a wide range of platforms, has created digital identities in virtual hangouts.
But do all those now-essential digital features represent the miraculous cure? And what are the pros and cons of this implemented Web society and digital revolution?
“Pros: we have entered the CTC economy — consumer to consumer markets — where we can find any product, brand, review, information online,” says Saviolo. “In the past, fashion was almost secret: Fashion shows and parties were reserved to the happy few. Digital is also helping track and trace products in the supply chain. About cons: digital is cold. It is not human yet, and requires a strong re-skilling of people in the industry.”
Aggressive digitalisation has created a sort of democratisation of access to content. But did it really help increase the number of potential clients? Doesn’t it have only a short-term effect?
“There is a lot of noise out there, and brands have transformed into broadcasters. They have stories, plots, characters. They make movies. They are always on stage 24x7,” says Saviolo. “On one hand, this has created more interest in some brands but not necessarily a strong interest to buy. Conversion is always difficult where competition is getting stronger in all markets, categories and channels and resources are scarcer.”
Covid-19 had a disruptive effect on the identity of primary fashion weeks, which in response experimented with a kaleidoscopic range of digital offerings to showcase collections via live streams, 3D presentations, videotaped runway shows, and movies broadcast on TV.
‘NON-SHOWS’ STRIKE A CHORD
Prada, the first to produce face masks, opened a new era of online fashion shows last July during the first Milan Digital Fashion Week. Journalists, buyers, stylists, influencers, and fans of the iconic Milanese fashion house would squint over a computer screen in different corners of the globe to watch the minimalist collection via a series of five short films titled Multiple Views SS21-The Show That Never Happened.
The theme of non-shows was hot last year, with more purposeful and inclusive fashion the new reality — another opportunity in the pandemic era. Fashion houses showed traits perhaps never seen before — such as kindness. Attendance and exposure increased exponentially online. Rising from a maximum of 700 guests at a classic runway show, it was possible to have tens of millions of users connected simultaneously. The Dior silhouettes, created by Maria Grazia Chiuri for the digital Salento show filmed in the beautiful-yet-bare piazza of Lecce, charmed more than 16 million visitors.
In another show, Dior proved its sustainability by planting 164 trees used as scenography. Many brands opted for environment-friendly solutions. For example, Gucci and Burberry created carbon-neutral fashion shows.
In her book The Branded Supply Chain, Stefania Saviolo writes that just as one jacket size does not fit all, the concept of sustainability differs for the various brands. “Eco-friendly brands that put the planet first need to scale up and make a relevant value proposition beyond pure sustainability,” she says. “At the same time, traditional business models that were not born sustainable need to find their way by starting a journey that cannot reach full transparency but embraces a cause that makes sense for their brand and positioning.”
Covid-19 has rewritten the future of Italian and European top brands “growing more local customers,” explains Saviolo. “Then, through ‘phygital’ retail — less wholesale — develop a more responsive and demand-driven supply chain because companies need to maximise full-price revenues.”
The brands that performed better were “all brands engaging their local customers and showing care and concern for the situation,” says Saviolo.
RESILIENCE IS KEY
Resilience has risen to the top of the pile for 101 Italian fashion and luxury companies. They were the object of research released by SDA Bocconi that explored their capability to absorb and react. “What emerged is solid digital resilience,” says Pasini. “They will continue investing in ICT/Digital. In some cases, they have expressed the intention of growing the allocated budgets by 10 per cent or more.”
Fashion weeks are now adopting a hybrid operating model by bringing back live shows. Do we still know how to get dressed? Can we feel the joy?
“The biggest challenge for the future lies in finding the right combination of online experience and the human touch,” says Pasini. Ya, we are in the “phygital” age. But nothing is healing like that snippet of physical contact soothing our jangled nerves.