Australian Fashion Week is touting itself as one of the first live fashion shows since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The runway shows, which are slated to start on May 31, will feature established names like Romance Was Born and Zimmermann, as well as emerging-stage designers. The foray back into physical shows after a year of lockdowns and pandemic-related restrictions follows from a decades-long routine that has seen journalists, editors, buyers, celebrities and taste-makers descend twice a year on Paris, New York, London and Milan to attend the seasonal fashion weeks, where global and emerging designers present new collections by way of runway shows. Tokyo, Shanghai, Seoul and Moscow have since joined these four global fashion centers, along with Australian cities.

Beginning in the early 1900s, the primary purpose of runway shows has always been about promoting and selling new product. (The fundamental rule of fashion is endless change and newness.) The pandemic has altered things on the runway and beyond, forcing these formerly in-person events online. But even though COVID has prompted the digitization of many aspects of the fashion industry, the world of high fashion had already been experimenting with technology on the catwalk – from launching handbags and frocks attached to drones to presenting digital shows beamed to viewers with 3D glasses.

In the early 2000s, runway shows were grand spectacles. In 2005, Chanel began using Paris’s Grand Palais as a set on which Karl Lagerfeld envisaged grandiose installations recreating microcosms of everyday life. They included a supermarket, an airport, a beach, complete with sand and water; and a launch-pad complete with a mechanical rocket. In 2008-2009, at the height of the financial global crisis, one runway became a giant merry-go-round, carrying oversized pendants, bags and pearl bracelets. Meanwhile, other luxury brands, such as Dior and Dolce & Gabbana have routinely organized pre-season shows in exotic locations, such as Marrakesh, Mexico City, Capri, Cuba, and Hong Kong, flying in – and housing – dozens of visitors often at great expense.

Digital collections and social distancing

Then came COVID-19. The onset and enduring impact of the pandemic has had a huge economic impact on the industry, highlighting in many ways fashion’s environmental and ethically unsustainable practices. And brands that have survived were required to switch otherwise in-person events to digital presentations of their collections with the pandemic, forcing designers to think in fresh ways. Valentino’s Pierpaolo Piccioli, for instance, dealt with rules of social distancing by setting 15 models on pedestals up to 5 meters high and creating elongated silhouettes of white couture dresses. Textile patterns and colors were then projected on these silhouettes.

In September 2020 in Milan, Jeremy Scott, Moschino’s designer, created a COVID-safe fashion show that eliminated both models and audience. Forty miniature marionettes, 76 centimeters tall, walked the runway between two rows of puppets replacing the audience. In the first row, a puppet version of Vogue editor-in-chief and fashion power broker Anna Wintour stood out. Not to be outdone, in October, Chanel – whose president Bruno Pavlovsky has held from the outset that Chanel will stick to its practice of showing “six more focused collections” each year, asserting that “the fashion show remains the best way to express the brand’s creativity and know-how” – returned to a live show with an audience to present the ready-to-wear Spring/Summer 2021, but a new COVID lockdown in Paris prevented any further live shows in 2020. Its 2020/21 Haute Couture collection was a digital show streamed from a chateau in the Loire region. 

Drones and 3D

Still, some major global brands had already been presenting digital alongside physical shows, or toying with technology. In February 2010, Burberry experimented with live streaming its womenswear collection digitally in 3D in five locations. Journalists and celebrities were invited to private screening spaces in Paris, New York, Dubai, Tokyo and Los Angeles where they watched the show with 3D glasses. The show took inspiration from the popularity of James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009). In 2014, Fendi sent three drones down the runway to film a show. The move created excitement, but also raised concerns related to hyper-surveillance. And still yet, in February 2018, Dolce & Gabbana showed their new bag collection attached to drones. Small drones glided down the runway and over the heads of the audience before vacating the stage for models. 

In the same year, in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, fluttering clothes were sent on the runway attached to drones, producing a ghost-like effect. The show prompted outrage on social media, while organizers explained it was about adding novelty. However, it was the first time a fashion show had been opened to an audience of both men and women, instead of just women. This change may have prompted the use of drones.

Fashion is a major industry commanding some 2 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product annually, and given the that runway shows are important marketing devices, they are likely here to stay. A seeming return to normal is evidence of that: In-person audiences will be allowed during Paris Fashion Week in July, and in June in Milan, for the menswear collections. The British Fashion Council is also preparing to hold COVID-safe, smaller, in-person events. And all the while, brands will almost certainly continue to experiment with technologies in the name of novelty. 

Tiziana Ferrero-Regis is a Senior Lecturer in Fashion at the Queensland University of Technology. (This article was initially published by The Conversation)