Fashion weeks, as we know them, have been going through a transformation this year amid the pandemic and ongoing restrictions. The Big 4 – New York, Paris, London, Milan – have so far shown that it is possible for even the biggest events to react to the pandemic without missing a beat by embracing the new hybrid or “phydigital” (physical and digital) format.
Many shows had physical events with limited attendance and the rest chose to stream online. For example, Rebecca Minkoff used Instagram to host a two hour long livestream shopping event during the New York Fashion week. In Paris, Miu Miu chose to invite international celebrities like Gabrielle Union and Milla Jovovich to join the show in virtual front row seats, through a Zoom call. For London Fashion Week, the British Fashion Council set up a series of virtual events on a digital platform. This included panel discussions and ‘conversations’ with designers like RAEBURN and Daniel W. Fletcher as well as podcasts and curated playlists put togethers by brands and creatives like ART SCHOOL and Ahluwalia.
Whereas COVID-19 didn’t leave anyone in the industry unaffected, smaller and less established fashion weeks had to address an array of issues from cancelled events and limited budgets to supporting local designers and artisans, who found themselves on the brink of bankruptcy.
While Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, is hardly known for fashion internationally, the city attracted the industry’s attention in 2015 when the Georgian Designer, Demna Gvasalia, became the Creative Director of Balenciaga.
To further cement Tbilisi’s place in the industry, Sofia Tchkonia started Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Tbilisi from scratch in the same year. I spoke to Sofia last week as she was preparing the event. The initial show in May had to be cancelled because of COVID-19 though the number of cases in Georgia wasn’t growing as rapidly as in other countries. This week, from the 19th to 22nd November, the fashion week is opening its doors in a new format.
Like many of the other fashion weeks, Sofia went with a virtual format for the Tbilisi show. In addition to regular livestreams of shows, many designers have shot short videos telling viewers about their brand, stories and inspirations. There are also backstage videos giving glimpses of the creative process that is usually not shown at events.
Sofia Tchkonia mentions that going digital allowed designers to explore new creative ways of expressing themselves. The hope is that with this digital format and given that travel is still restricted, the event will be more accessible to international audiences.
But it did come with some challenges. Due to financial constraints and COVID-19 restrictions impacting manufacturing, many designers were unable to produce full collections and had limited pieces presented. This was echoed by designers in other countries as well, with Vivienne Westwood and Burberry deciding to not participate in the London Fashion Week’s virtual edition.
For the big four – New York, Londo, Paris, Milan – a fashion week is not only a fashion event, but a successful commercial and economical project. A recent study shows that Paris Fashion Week brings in 1.2 Billion Euros. With multiple events per year, the events are a serious economic factor for the city and region.
For smaller fashion weeks the calculus is often different. Of course, the goal is to showcase new designers and discover new talent. But in addition to that this is also a cultural event. For Sofia Tchkonia, fashion week has always been a chance to show the culture, the nature and the spirit of Georgia and the Georgian people. In previous years, the events took place in many different locations to immerse guests and help them understand designer narratives better. This year, this is not possible. As Sofia says, “Videos can only do so much”.
It’s no secret that one of the most severely hit parts of the industry are artisans and designers. Back in July, I wrote about a 350-year-old Italian artisanal company struggling with the pandemic’s impact on the fashion industry. This was no exception in Georgia too. The Georgian fashion industry is still in a developing stage with lack of fashion schools, funding or supporting bodies for young design talent, and the designers were hit extremely hard. For many of them this is make it or break it time. This comes across very strongly when talking to Sofia. “The goal is to really showcase and highlight the work of the designers, help them to be discovered, uplift the industry in the country and put Tbilisi on the international fashion map”.
The pandemic has transformed the playing field for the industry and it feels like a good time for enacting positive change. And I’m not talking about fashion weeks simply going digital. This could be a once in a lifetime opportunity to rethink how this industry operates and what its future will look like. More focus on culture, authenticity, discovering hidden talent, supporting local communities and artisans – this could be the new fashion industry post-COVID. And innovative Fashion Weeks like the one in Tbilisi, can feel like a breath of fresh air and a catalyst for this positive change.