The Dematerialisation of Fashion

Fashion week in a time of COVID-19 offers new digital-first strategies that increasingly prevail in the art world. What’s at stake when everything turns into viral content?

Salvador Dalí resurrected in Schiaparelli Couture S/S 21. Credit: Schiaparelli.

Exactly twelve months ago, “fashion month” ravaged across the fashion capitals of the world, and with it, its army of producers, salespeople, clients, and onlookers. Milan entered a two-month quarantine just as the last stylist left their hotel room and jumped on the plane to Paris, where tens of thousands of travellers from around the world were still commuting between grandiose fashion shows and corporate galas as the first deaths were registered around Europe.

Fashion week is the perfect super-spreader event: a ritual of frequent touching, sitting close, gossiping, flirting, yelling, spitting, and being spit on. Like the tactile magic of the physical fashion store, the aesthetic of fashion week is both material and materialist; it possesses its own mythological aura, which, like that of art, is enforced by the cult of the unique, the physical, and the exclusive. 

So we thought. Despite the pandemic’s total closure of society, an intervention that both prevents factories from producing and consumers from buying, the fashion industry had to keep going digitally – how else would its eternal engine survive? My dad wants to go buy new and expensive shoes, but doesn’t, as he has no parties to attend this Spring. This is the kind of humble reason that the industry has to actively work against. The seasons dictate that February is both the end of pre-Fall, the middle of couture, and the beginning of Fall – and neither snowstorms nor COVID-19 can change it. Consequently, the fashion industry had to embrace new tools this season, tools that point to how aesthetic value is increasingly mediated through the internet’s measures of entertainment and virality. Who’s up for a Zoom preview?  

Copenhagen started out in classic digi-egalitarian style with what it deemed the city’s “first purely digital fashion week,” where already comparably democratic brand presentations had taken the natural consequence and jumped on livestreams. There were fewer lavish locations than usual, with the exception of Henrik Vibskov, who took over Vilhelm Lauritzen’s stunning airport terminal from 1939 for his anniversary. Instead, brands compensated with cinematographic effects and lots of post-production. But did anyone tune in?

As per usual in the digital sphere, this was hard to estimate: for several years, video documentation of physical fashion shows has circulated as an ambivalent requirement for fashion houses of a certain size, in the belief that viral content, whatever it may cost to produce, must always mean more sales. The same assumption is seen with plenty of art institutions and their half-hearted attempts of having “online presence.” But the appeal of the fashion show is exactly that it’s over as quickly as it’s started – and because of this, videos of this kind often end up deep in YouTube’s waste pile, or at the back of some brand website. The real clients – the buyers – still need to see an old-fashioned lookbook and preferably a physical showroom, where looks and materials can be inspected up close. In Copenhagen, only the Swedish sister-led brand House of Dagmar went the extra mile in the form of an “Augmented Reality presentation,” where a tightly hair-gelled woman in an oversize Scandi-coat swayed forlornly in front of various stock photographs of the city’s Nyhavn. Isn’t that what the rest of us would call a Zoom background?

Rehearsals with Anne Imhof, Eliza Douglas, and MJ Harper at the Zeiss Major Planetarium in Berlin. Credit: Reference Studios.

More innovative was the new anti-fashion week Reference Festival in Berlin, led by the polymath Mumi Haiati, who in the aftermath of numerous collapses of official German fashion weeks has been successful with a boutique festival concept, which, instead of Hugo Boss and Heidi Klum, draws more so on the art/fashion mafia of the nation’s capital. Where last year it could present “the world’s first fashion show” on the online game Animal Crossing, the festival now offered a complete virtual festival experience under the theme “parallel reality,” where the organisation’s digitally rendered headquarters served as a virtual lobby for visitors. Here too were scrambled Zoom links, for example, to a casual conversation about research processes and astrology between the local DJ Honey Dijon and the omnipresent super-curator, Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Numerous virtual reality presentations did elevate the festival significantly, however. The Nigerian designer Mowalola launched her furniture collaboration with Chapel Petrassi as hovering post-internet objects in cyberspace, while the father of fashion show music, Michel Gaubert, composed calming soundscapes in the virtual Blue Room in collaboration with a local organization for mental health. 

Most hyped was Anne Imhof’s live-stream performance in the Zeiss Major Planetarium, where the coveted artist rehearsed a new piece in the company of her always charismatic partner Eliza Douglas and the model-choreographer MJ Harper – dressed head to toe in Random Identities, the new brand of Stefano Pilati (who, as passionately as Imhof, has milked and further mythologised the Berlin aesthetic in recent years). It only makes sense that Imhof excels in this most treacherous of media: her characteristic approach to performance actively engages fashionable virality as an artistic tool, and even her hyped “in-person” works are only completed once they circulate as stylised images on Instagram and beyond.

“Digital-first” strategies have long been on everyone’s lips in the fashion industry, and Imhof’s generation of performance art – which also includes the ex-Berliners Dorota Gaweda and Eglė Kulbokaitė and the Dane Esben Weile Kjær – shows that this logic increasingly prevails in the field of art as well. Here, digital economies of circulation are incorporated not only as an effect, but as the very aesthetic premise of art. Much like Lucy Lippard announced art’s dematerialisation to pure concept at the end of the 1960s, art is once again facing a paradigm shift. Marketability is still the central question, and it’s no coincidence that this tendency – which first became visible around the time of the launch of the iPhone in the post-internet age of the late 2000s – often plays out in hybrid art/fashion practices of the contemporary. 

Fashion shows us more literally and vulgarly what’s at stake in the viral: the fight for attention, for re-shares and followers, which can later be measured in product sales (or in the artist’s case, exhibition invites). Social media isn’t, as Reference Festival speaker Iolo Lewis Edwards postulated, “at least as important as the product.” The media is the product, and vice versa. 

Mom Kate og daughters Lila Grace Moss at Fendi’s first couture show. Credit: Stephane de Sakutin. Getty Images.

It is this fact that makes Versace fly the most viral fashion bodies (Kate and Lila Moss, Naomi Campbell, Adwoa Aboah) to Milan to wander around in an enormous mirrored installation with no audience to launch its first couture collection; what makes Schiaparelli reproduce its loudest statement-jewellery designed in collaboration with Dalí almost a hundred years ago; and what makes Vetements, in the tackiest of ways, translate the deadly Hong Kong protests of 2019 into an ‘ironic’ pattern for its FW21 collection. All are meme-techniques aiming to achieve attention and clicks. But the treacherous attitude of the SoMe-public means that there’s no guarantee for success. 

In record time, the digital fashion week has shown its most boring and inconsequential sides, and in interviews, many a critic (as well as designer) was quick to express their screen fatigue, and how much they miss the good old days: the touching, the sitting close, the gossiping, flirting, yelling, spitting, and being spit on. 

Only one figure embraced the inevitable future, the Georgian Demna Gvasalia, who during his five-year tenure at Balenciaga has pulled the luxury fashion industry into the new Gen-Z world order (and conquered the art world the process). During last spring’s lockdown, the designer entered a partnership with the gaming company Unreal Engine (creator of Epic Games) and spent fashion millions hiring hundreds of people to develop a veritable Balenciaga game, which was recently launched online.  

Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow is an allegorical adventure and collection presentation, where the viewer-player is led through fashion stores and dystopian cityscapes, past ‘real’ digitally rendered model-avatars in goth makeup, to an illegal rave in a magical forest. The game ends with muse Eliza Douglas dressed as a knight in a Caspar David Friedrich-esque scene on top of a mountain. As she pulls a sword from a stone, the world suddenly dissolves into the horizon and transforms into a meditative breathing-app. 

“I hate the idea of fashion film; I find it incredibly dated,” Gvasalia rightly diagnosed in an accompanying interview. “I believe in a spiritual future. To load a forgotten past.” Despite missing kisses and wardrobe changes, the dematerialised fashion week showed that fashion’s ultimate product is the brand itself – a fact that has been true for art for just as long, although we like to tell ourselves differently. 

Balenciaga’s screen rave in an enchanted forest via their real computer game, Afterworld. Credit: Balenciaga.