Did Shanghai Fashion Week just re-invent the fashion show?

With runways facing an uncertain future against Covid-19, Shanghai just proved that adaptation is key

Caroline Hu at Shanghai Fashion Week March 2019. Getty Images
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Most people will never have heard of Shanghai Fashion Week, nor think of it as having a particularly important role within the fashion universe, but it may have just changed the course of the industry.

The event was scheduled to run between March 24 to 30, a time when Shanghai’s Fashion Week unwittingly found itself caught up in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic. With the next round of men's fashion shows scheduled for May, and June's Haute Couture Week already cancelled, it faced a stark choice: either call off the event completely or find a new way of showcasing the new seasonal collections.

Perhaps inspired by Giorgio Armani at Milan Fashion Week earlier this year, which dropped its scheduled runway show on February 24 for a live stream, Shanghai realised that a radical rethink was necessary to safeguard the livelihood of the small designers and innumerable suppliers. So, at rather short notice, admittedly, it informed its designers that the event would now take place, online only, on Alibaba's digital market place, Tmall.

It has to be said that watching a show online is not the same as being in the audience. There is no pounding music, no build of anticipation and no hushed excitement as the lights drop, signalling the show is about to begin. But, the upside is that unlike the runway, where looks sweep past quickly and details cannot be seen, online, the designer is left entirely in control of how viewers see the clothes. Details could and were highlighted at will. A few designers even allowed Q&A sessions with the audience, creating real-time dialogue impossible with a traditional format, and others allowed customers to buy straight off the site.

Live streaming is already used by many brands to bring their shows to a younger audience, but it has always been viewed as second fiddle to the main event, the runway show. By staging five days of concurrent shows, Shanghai not only created a world first – it made live streaming the main focus, with the runway show the facilitator.

Naturally, being the first time something of this scale has been attempted, there were hiccups aplenty, not least the lack of a single hosting site, meaning many shows were frustratingly hard to find, or the language barrier made navigation almost impossible. Unfortunately, technical issues meant some shows even crashed halfway through, but even with these teething problems, it was groundbreaking.

Despite the issues, what Shanghai has proved is that the traditional structure of a runway show as the apogee no longer stands, because now there is another option.

Even before the coronavirus outbreak disrupted industry norms, questions were being raised about how long the ever-increasing merry-go-round of collections and shows could be sustained before brands or even customers looked for another angle.

By daring to go digital only, Shanghai just offered a radical new solution. It may not be in the same league as the big four (New York, London, Milan and Paris) but by attracting 2.5 million viewers in just three hours to the world's first live streamed fashion week, Shanghai could have just swept the others off the table.