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Fashion week is compelled to go online

On March 2, the cancellation of Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo for the 2020 Autumn/Winter season was confirmed, finally drawing to a close all the speculation about its planned mid-March shows during the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic.

Why so late to cancel? The fashion system is always thinking one season ahead. March’s fashion week offerings, for example, would be for sale from September, to be worn by the well-dressed through to early 2021. Though the collections are shown to the industry in March, they would have been put into sample production at least a month in advance, and before that they would have been designed, mulled over, and gone through a trend consultation process.

Slamming on the brakes to fashion week after all that spells financial disaster for many and, given the output is seasonal, it can’t just be knocked back a couple of months.

The runway shows and their accompanying exhibitions, where buyers’ orders are actually taken, incur astronomical costs. The size of the brand doesn’t matter, they all have to send out invitations via PR agencies, book models and plan after-parties — a significant financial outlay that must be recouped though sales in order to survive. For smaller brands, fashion weeks are already a gamble.

Larger brands lucky enough to be sponsored might have the blow softened, but for the up-and-comers, the cancellation is a serious setback and potentially the end of the road for some.

Still, Tokyo’s fashion week is made of stern stuff, and this isn’t its first last-minute cancellation — it’s not even the first in a decade. Last time was March 2011, due to the Great East Japan Earthquake and tsunami, when rolling power cuts and a general sense of uncertainty and sadness in the capital made proceeding with the event unseemly and inappropriate. The crucial difference in the case of that fashion week, was the trade shows largely went ahead as planned, which meant that normalcy resumed surprisingly quickly, even as aftershocks rumbled on.

This month, all the major trade shows were canceled, including Project Tokyo and PR01. Trade Show — the fashion week’s largest group showrooms — as well as the lion’s share of the smaller venues. It simply was too much of a risk to have such gatherings where a large number of people would be handling the same garments.

It was in this time of need, the Save the Fashion Week project, instigated by PR agency OneO Ltd. swung into action. It promoted and suppored the Tokyo Fashion Film web portal, which encouraged a select number of brands to push ahead with their scheduled runway shows, starting the week of March 16 — just without a live audience in attendance.

The portal site not only offered the livestreaming of runway shows, but also has a digital archive of shows and designer interviews that attracted a remote audience to replace the empty chairs at the venues.

The official fashion week’s homepage and YouTube channel also did an admirable job posting lookbooks, and the audience-less shows for the 14 brands that went ahead.

While all this was admirable, and livestreaming is a useful resource for fashion industry professionals, the knowledge that a show will be archived for posterity on YouTube diminishes the sense of occasion and excitement of attending a live show. Young brand Yusho Kobayashi, who was not on the official schedule, for example, posted its show on Instagram Live to much greater social media impact than YouTube, not least because fans could react, comment and send their applause in real-time from afar.

Out of what did transpire for Tokyo’s fashion week, though, what appears to be on trend?

Well, given the time to prepare for the event, fashion can’t really respond to the current situation. For practical garments, we already have Uniqlo, and there were no survival gear looks or pockets big enough to fit an industrial mask. In fact, it was quite the reverse. Upcoming styles veered toward fantasy — escapism.

Tellingly, DressedUndressed, now from sole designer Takeshi Kitazawa, opted for open skin and intimacy in a stark show of daring slits and nude colors alluding to a desire to remove social distance in the most primal way.

It was fashion brand Neglect Adult Patients from subcultural idol record label Wack Co. Ltd. founder Junnosuke Watanabe, though, that made the most of the remote week with its live concert promoting an edgy collection and featuring idols from groups Bish, Mameshiba no Taigun, and Bis as models.

Beyond the sure-to-sell streetwear, the performance was packed with internet-ready memes and references, and included popular TV celebrity Kuro-chan, from comedy trio Yasuda Dai Circus, performing alongside Mameshiba no Taigun as part of a long-running joke with TBS variety show “Wednesday’s Downtown.” It was a show probably lost on many, but a laser-targeted direct hit on the existing fans of the brand that clearly knows how to use the digital medium.

It’s ironic that the difficult situation the fashion industry faces right now may be the impetus to not only drag Tokyo’s fashion week into the digital age, but also reach the potential global audience that comes with it.

To see the Tokyo Fashion Film archives, visit www.tokyofashionfilm.com. For Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo’s footage and photos of collections, visit bit.ly/rakutenfw.

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