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Models present creations from the Dolce & Gabbana Spring/Summer 2021 men's collection in a live-streamed show at the university campus of the Humanitas Research Foundation in one of the first physical fashion shows since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, during Milan Digital Fashion Week in Rozzano, south of Milan, Italy, July 15, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

Fashion shows are now 12-hour live streams. Or movies starring mermaids. Or mailed to you in a box.

The digital fashion presentations in Paris and Milan that spanned the last two weeks — and replaced the usual live runway shows for fall haute couture and menswear, as well as women’s resort collections — weren’t physically exhausting, but they were mentally numbing: the live streams, music videos, short movies and Zoom conversations with designers trying to work through what this moment in history means creatively, psychologically and financially.

As a viewer trying to absorb it all, the days felt like an emotional roller coaster where the rare live fashion show — outdoors with mask-wearing guests — could feel simultaneously admirable and reckless, even when watched on a screen.

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A journalist poses as she looks at screens the Ermenegildo Zegna Men's collection and Men's-Women's pre collection Spring/Summer 2021 of the Milano digital Fashion week in Milan, on July 17. Image Credit: AFP

One could delight in technology that brought one behind the scenes, only to realise that a lot of what happens in the shadows of a fashion show is as excruciating as watching waiting people wait. Or, more precisely, during Gucci’s 12-hour live stream it meant watching an assistant fan a model wearing fall clothes on a hot summer day so he didn’t pass out. The myth is far more exciting than the mythmaking.

Dior’s menswear embraced diversity through the glorious portraiture of an African painter. Dior haute couture ignored it with its ivory-skinned mermaids and nymphs. Dolce & Gabbana directly addressed the pandemic with a live show at Milan’s Humanitas University, where research into a coronavirus vaccine is underway. Jonathan Anderson’s show-in-a-box, mailed to each guest, offered a reprieve from it. Chanel created clothes for a world as it once existed. Prada offered a wardrobe for the world as it is.

Where are folks going in all these new frocks? Lord knows.

Fashion rustled up a beautiful, desperate dream. Some might see it all as misguided frippery. But truly, has there ever been a time when beautiful dreams are so desperately needed?

Risk taking

“The risk, in this moment, is that we stop dreaming,” says Dior creative director Maria Grazia Chiuri in a FaceTime interview after her fall couture presentation. “Fashion is also a dream — not only [a desire] to have new clothes.”

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A model presents a creation by French designer Stephane Rolland during the shooting of a film designed to replace Haute Couture fashion shows in Paris on July 3, 2020 after France eased lockdown measures taken to curb the spread of the COVID-19 disease caused by the novel coronavirus. - With no catwalk fashion shows on offer for the first time in its history, the artistic ambitions of fashion designers has gone virtual: the week of virtual fashion shows starts on July 6, 2020 in the French capital Paris, following the post-COVID-19 pandemic. Image Credit: AFP

Anyone who wanted to get a peek at what designers have been up to in months of lockdown had only to log on to their computer for access to Dior’s short film featuring red-haired woodland creatures and porters bearing doll-size couture dresses. Chanel offered a brisk, jittery, 1-minute-and-22-second video of embroidery, ruffled necklines and brocade. Dries van Noten featured a model playing air drums. Olivier Theyskens, the recently appointed creative director of Azzaro, debuted with a dramatic one-woman concert by Belgian musician Sylvie Kreusch. The music videos evoked a mood; the narratives were akin to a murky dream.

With feet propped up a, one could be a voyeur in Rick Owens’s design studio as he draped one look after another on a gangly model balanced on clear acrylic heels. One could explore the iconoclastic work of Iris van Herpen at one’s leisure.

At its best, technology became a tool for building a closer relationship with customers, breaking down the fourth wall that separates the performance from the audience. At Maison Margiela, cameras brought viewers into the ateliers and settled in alongside creative director John Galliano as he sorted through his myriad inspirations for his fall Artisanal collection and explained them via text and video chat to a team of employees that had been dispersed on the wind.

A trio of teaser videos released over several days led up to the 50-minute film that showed Galliano referencing sculptural draping, the sensuality of water-drenched fabric, zoot suits and blitz kids. His thoughts unfolded in an avalanche of analysis and digressions rather than the typically edited gloss that companies distribute in a news release.

Watching the team re-create the effect of a water-soaked gown clinging to the body using a combination of fabric and audacious dressmaking technique is to get a real sense of what makes couture special. Galliano says he’s not really expecting that people will be lining up to purchase such garments. Couture “fuels the house. That’s its purpose, to show what we’re capable of.”

Dreaming the impossible

Whether the remark was scripted or off-the-cuff or something in between, it nonetheless captures a uniquely indulgent aspect of the fashion industry — the pursuit of beauty and craftsmanship for the sheer pleasure of succeeding at something that seemed impossible.

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A design by Chanel. Image Credit: Supplied

Anderson exposed a similar kind of interior design process, but he also highlighted the popularity of crafting during the lockdown. His Loewe “show in a box” for his spring 2021 menswear and his women’s resort collection emphasized the tactile pleasures of fashion while giving the box’s recipients the delight of having access to something deeply humane. Arriving via FedEx, it was filled with fabric swatches, paper doll-like garments and accessories, a life-size clothing pattern, a pop-up book of an imagined set as well as a vinyl record of the soundtrack along with a manual record player.

“This moment is about doing what’s right for you, not what’s right for the system,” Anderson says in a Zoom interview. “We’re human at the end of the day. . . . As humans we naturally want to touch things.”

“We’ve started to see how the virtual and digital world can distort things,” Anderson adds. “I’m looking at what’s happening in the world and I wanted to do something very tangible.”

“There’s so many other problems,” he says. “Fashion should be a little more humble and a little quieter.”

These past few weeks have been a test — not just of how well fashion could tell its seasonal story in the midst of a pandemic. It was also a challenge for the industry to make the case for its relevance in a profoundly scarred world.

Miuccia Prada made her argument simply: with her spring 2021 clothes. It was her final collection before she welcomes Raf Simons as her co-creative director. She allowed five filmmakers to interpret her work, showcasing her clothes against such backdrops as an empty theatre and an industrial factory full of metal ductwork and pressure metres.

Global demand

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Creations by designer Maria Grazia Chiuri are displayed on miniature mannequins ahead of her Haute Couture Online Fall/Winter 2020/2021 collection presentation for fashion house Dior in Paris, France, July 4, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters

In the midst of the pandemic angst, there’s also a global demand for fashion to be more inclusive, more proactive on issues of racial justice and more aware of its footfalls in the culture. The Dior Homme collection designed by Kim Jones was a breathtaking melding of sporty menswear with the work of Ghanian-born black artist Amoako Boafo.

But perhaps even more important: The film that unveiled the collection was a visit to Boafo’s studio and a conversation with him, not Jones, who is white.

In contrast, the Dior couture collection stood out for its startling lack of diversity. Chiuri explains the casting of almost all ivory-skinned models as a reflection of her inspiration: Greek mythology and the art of Botticelli and Bernini. In collaboration with the filmmaker, they decided that a multiracial cast “would make something that is not believable for the reference.” But of course, the film was an interpretation — a fantasy, not a documentary.

“We have to change the values of the company,” says Churi.

The same could be said of the fashion industry at large: It’s due for a change in values. This strange season of shows reveals an industry struggling to find its way. It’s a massive ship and so many jobs depend on its getting back on course. At the same time, it’s a ship that’s taking on water.

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Models present creations from the Dolce & Gabbana Spring/Summer 2021 men's collection in a live-streamed show at the university campus of the Humanitas Research Foundation in one of the first physical fashion shows since the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, during Milan Digital Fashion Week in Rozzano, south of Milan, Italy, July 15, 2020. Image Credit: Reuters