Digital render by Pussykrew for the Natasha Zinko X DUOLtd collection

Earlier this year in May, a three minute long video captured the collective attention of the fashion world. It was already a few months into the global lockdowns, and the industry had begun bracing itself for the ‘phygital’ shows expected to soon be flooding the feeds, but nothing had quite prepared the internet for the digital unveiling of Hanifa’s Pink Label Congo collection. Imagined by Hanifa founder Anifa Mvuemba, the virtual show used 3D renders to wrap pleated minis and floor-skimming skirts onto invisible, sinuous bodies, strutting across an inky, black void. The IGTV video quickly gained viewers by the hundreds, as clips and images from Hanifa’s show took over Twitter.

With pandemic restrictions making it difficult to work directly with models, Mvuemba had already been using 3D renders to visualize how details of her garments, such as drawstring seams and peplum hems, would hug and move with the body. So when she found out she wouldn’t be able to debut at New York Fashion Week in September, she chose to send the renders down the runway on her own. Her show set the stage for the season: In the wake of COVID-19, with brands cancelling shows (and some, like Saint Laurent, doing away with the fashion calendar altogether) several labels decided to instead launch their collections into the digital ether. While some innovative, digital interventions were already reshaping the form of the fashion show, the pandemic has accelerated the pace. In the past few months, online debuts have brought forth experimental formats, as well as exciting collaborations between fashion designers and 3D and digital designers.

In June, as London Fashion Week stepped into the virtual realm, designer Natasha Zinko and her 13-year-old son Ivan decided to launch their Spring 2021 collection through a photoshoot set alternately in a poppy field outside Odessa, Ukraine, and an atmospheric nightclub. Images from the shoot were released on Instagram alongside a set of three 3D renders created by digital artist duo Pussykrew in collaboration with the boutique The Webster, where the collection will arrive early next year. In the renders, models wearing poppy-print minidresses and pinstripe suits from the Natasha Zinko X DUOLtd collection strike a pose next to sprays of tropical blooms, and hover over pools of glistening, iridescent liquid. 

The rich, retro tone of the clothing is offset by the futuristic landscapes they’re placed in. “We’ve noticed many artists trying to imitate the real world in the digital medium,” says Pussykrew, “but we’re all about embracing the unknown, adapting and inventing new realms, and looking for possible futures. We like to bring to life sensorial and visual combinations that we haven’t seen before, but always wanted to see, rather than recreating the world as we know it.”

Hanifa and Natasha Zinko’s digital campaigns signaled a paradigm shift already underway in the industry, with creative producers and fashion maisons using CGI, 3D design, and technologies rooted in gaming to try and reimagine the fashion show, long considered a crescendo of the fashion designer’s creative process. At the Off-White Fall 2019 menswear show, for instance, models walked down a green-screen runway that showed various imagery in livestreams, creating completely different experiences for the attendees at the show than those watching at home. Yet while many of these experiments have proven impressive, they haven’t had quite the commercial impact of a physical show. On average, digital shows, videos, and presentations generated less than one-third as much online engagement as IRL shows. The all-digital London Fashion Week, for instance, which mainly featured emerging brands, saw 55% less social media engagement than in January, according to brand performance cloud Launchmetrics.

Still from Collina Strada’s ‘Change is Cute’ video for the Spring Summer 2020 collection

Fashion shows started out a much more intimate affair. Gabrielle Chanel would famously host her couture shows on the first floor of her salon at 31 Rue Cambon in Paris, and would quietly watch audience reactions from the mirror-lined stairway that led to her second-floor apartment. Over the decades, however, they’ve grown to become excessive and unsustainable productions, though still with highly regulated guest lists to maintain an air of exclusivity for clients. A recent report by Odre revealed that fashion buyers and designers alone contributed 241,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year by attending fashion weeks in New York, London, Paris, and Milan, which is “equivalent to the annual emissions of a small country, such as Saint Kitts and Nevis, or is enough energy to light up the Eiffel Tower for 3,060 years.” 

All of this has paved the way for the digital experiments we see today. “We’ve been curious about these new technologies for some time now,” says Gayle Dizon, who’s studio Dizon has produced shows for Uniqlo, Proenza Schouler, and Mansur Gavriel. Even before COVID-19 and social distancing requirements, Dizon was facilitating 3D capture at shows to allow for a more experiential viewing of the collections by press and retailers who were unable to travel and attend the event. “That content provided the added benefit of allowing viewers to pause and manipulate the viewing angles using their mouse, much like you would in a first-person simulation video game,” she says.

In September, Collina Strada released an 11-minute film debuting its Spring Summer 2021 ready-to-wear collection. In the video, entitled ‘Change is Cute,’ the label’s founder Hillary Taymour and collaborator Charlie Engman created an irreverent Candyland, where flower models and dancing cows go skipping across pink hills covered in patterns that look like caramel drizzles. “Over the years that Collina Strada has started centering sustainability in its ethos and messaging, we developed a tongue-in-cheek predilection with natural, pastoral imagery as a playful way to regain focus on our relationship with the earth,” says Engman, who along with Taymour collaborated with Sean-Kierre Lyons for the illustrations and Jefferson Wenzel for the 3D animation. “Now this is what I call a fashion show,” reads a comment on Collina Strada’s YouTube video.

With an increase in virtual fashion shows comes more opportunities for cross-industry collaborations. For digital designers, Dizon has a quick tip: “I would recommend that any designer interested in exploring work within the fashion industry needs to do their homework on the different fashion brands, photographers, stylists, and other creatives. As we all know, there are many different aesthetic cliques at work and it’s about finding teams of people with whom you can contribute something fresh and sophisticated.”

These immersive technologies are helping not only to democratize the format, but are also allowing brands to push the conversation much beyond the aesthetics and the clothes to ideas and issues closer to a label’s heart.My hope is that more people will take risks and use the fantastical possibilities of digital media,” says Engman. “For Collina Strada, for example, the digital aspect allowed us to work with disabled artists and activists like Emily Barker and Aaron Philip in ways that would have been logistically difficult for us without the use of digital media. But the possibility of inclusion and reformatting has always been present regardless of technology; it’s the will to prioritize inclusion and change that is most important.”