For an industry that thrives on innovation, the fashion business has been surprisingly slow to embrace multimedia. But now, forward-looking designers are finding that the technology gives them new and exciting ways to display their work. Clare Coulson reports. Fashion audiences have come to expect something novel from Alexander McQueen; his spring show, held in Paris last October, entitled Plato's Atlantis, was no exception. In advance, the designer announced he would be streaming the show live with SHOWstudio - photographer Nick Knight's innovative forum where fashion meets new media.
As the models, all dressed in digitally manipulated, snake-inspired prints, took to the catwalk, cameras on large booms swooped like eerie Jurassic beasts around them and the front row guests. In the background, a video showed the model Raquel Zimmermann writhing in a tangle of snakes. From the computer-enhanced prints to the live internet stream, McQueen embraces new technologies with fervour. He isn't alone: Burberry, Michael Kors and Emporio Armani all streamed their shows live this season. The Louis Vuitton show was played live on Facebook, while Dolce & Gabbana streamed a mix of their collection and backstage footage on YouTube and generated 16 millions hits. Their show, like that of most other designers, would normally be viewed by just 1,000 guests.
For an industry that thrives on the new, the fashion business has been strangely slow to adopt the new media. It has been 10 years since net-a-porter reinvented retail by showing how luxury fashion and accessories could be sold very successfully online. It is also 10 years since Knight opened SHOWstudio, yet only a handful of designers and luxury brands have embraced new technologies in order to reach wider audiences.
In one sense this is to be expected. Fashion thrives on exclusivity, and the extreme privacy of the collections has always been part of the mystique. Until a few decades ago journalists who attended some shows weren't even allowed to bring a notebook let alone a camera. But fashion's Luddite approach to new technology is nevertheless surprising. Last autumn, New York University published a study of how brands had embraced technology, giving them ratings of genius, gifted, average, challenged or feeble. Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren (who, incidentally, has launched iPhone apps, m-commerce and has held virtual catwalk shows) were both judged to be at the top of the tree, yet many other global brands fell short of the mark.
One study hardly makes for a thorough and objective understanding of a whole industry, but it does prompt the question: when fashion is always looking to the future why is it, as a whole, so resistant to new media? Especially when, as the study pointed out, traffic to luxury sites last year increased by 61 per cent. One of the reasons cited by Knight recently was that the people making decisions in big firms are often executives who are not creatives and don't understand how to embrace new ways of presenting fashion and engaging customers, let alone how to benefit from new media. Their websites "are done by committee and by people who don't know. There aren't that many people who know, incidentally," Knight told the New York Times fashion critic, Cathy Horyn.
But there is a huge appetite for all things fashion, from sneak peeks backstage and into designers' lives to the very latest news from the collections. As a result, the tried-and-tested formula of spring and summer shows which are disseminated to the world via static images, is looking increasingly stale. Brands seem to have finally woken up to the potential of new media: if images are going to be sent around the world for all to see, why not take ownership of those images first and talk directly to consumers?
Some designers have already seen the way the world is going and have embraced new technology. Marc Jacobs who streamed his Louis Vuitton Spring/Summer 2010 show live, is widely known to be a prolific Facebooker himself. The same can be said of Christopher Bailey, who is shaping Burberry into one of the most digitally-forward luxury brands. As well as using technology to streamline business - doing fittings via Skype for example - last November the designer launched artofthetrench.com - a blogging site done in collaboration with the Sartorialist's Scott Schuman, where fans of Burberry can upload images of themselves in the company's classic trenchcoats. In the first two months the site had 3.7 million views.
If brands are still grappling with how best to embrace the web, they are at least making bolder strides with film and video. Earlier this month Stefano Pilati collaborated with Bruce Weber on a film to showcase YSL's new menswear collection, continuing the designer's tradition of mixing film with fashion. Alice Temperley presented her spring collection as a zoetrope-based film that was produced by Legs and Milk Studios in New York. The circus-inspired clothes appeared in a film featuring a zoetrope and animated film loops.
Gareth Pugh, who showed his Autmn/Winter 2009 collection as a film, said: "The clothes lend themselves, not to the catwalk but to something more visual," says Pugh of his mini movie that featured a solitary model walking on a treadmill. "I like the idea of a video; you get to show people an essence of what you wanted to show them. The clothes have a certain volume which is captured very well on video."
Last year was widely cited as the breakthrough year for new media in the fashion industry but only time will tell how adept luxury brands will be at finding new ways to spread their message further - and, more to the point, more creatively.