Did the Singapore-inaugurated Digital Fashion Week really see the future of fashion shows?
Thomas Wee’s presentation at the first Digital Fashion Week, Singapore
Back in October 2012, a small, wannabe of a fashion week was staged on the grounds of the Ritz Carlton. The venue was not the hotel ballroom, but a tented space, known as the Millenia Pavilion, that sat in the sloped, verdant corner bounded by Temasek and Raffles Avenues. Inside, you would not have guessed that this was set-up for fashion shows, but Digital Fashion Week (DFW) very much was. Earlier that month, in the French capital, Chanel presented what was becoming characteristic of their Paris Fashion Week staging: expensive and monumental. That spring/summer 2013 season at the Grand Palais, the models emerged from behind two tilted solar-cell panels—that looked like a split teeppee—onto an also solar-panel-laid runway that was lined with two rows of impressively sized wind turbines that had its propeller-like rotors in hypnotic motion. In comparison, the debut DFW was a fashion-school graduation show with what was said to be pittance for a budget.
At that time, there was already Audi Fashion Festival (AFF)—in its third year—and the one-year-old umbrella event known as Fidé Fashion Weeks—now in hiatus from travelling mode, which comprised three presentations: Men’s Fashion Week, Women’s Fashion Week, and Haute Couture Week. Fashion show fans were delighted as the Fidé trifecta gave our island what came to be described by the media as “a complete fashion season”. DFW’s entry was curiosity-arousing. Conceived by the marketing agency DFW Creative, they stood apart by being digital-centric, and so on-theme they were that the events of the earlier years saw extremely restricted number of guests at the show venue as they wanted to emphasise the digital broadcast, encouraging views on devices. Regardless, many thought that with the shows live-streamed, more fashion show junkies would be able to view the presentations, unlike AFF and the Fidé events, both positioned to be far more high-brow. DFW’s co-creator/founder Charina Widjaja, also the co-founder of DFW Creative, told the press that “the digital platform enables us to transcend geographical boundaries. It also allows our designers and sponsors to enjoy increased exposure to consumers from all over the world.”
DFW was touted as a “first, fully-digital, live-streamed fashion event”. They claimed, at that time, to be “the only 360 offline and online marketing platform focusing on digital strategies to globalize independent designers”. Its inaugural production was headlined by one of Singapore’s most known veteran designers Thomas Wee and China’s rising star Guo Pei (this was pre-Rihanna-in-that-omelette-dress). Both designers had to contend with a catwalk circumscribed by white plywood boards and lit with such harsh floods that many among the limited attendees thought the shows were “washed-out”. Guest model Andrej Pejic (reported to be doing just one show—Guo Pei’s—that entire season due to other fashion events’ “unappealing pay”) and VIP guest Patricia Fields seemed unfazed by the staging conditions. The shows’ creative director Keyis Ng (the other founder of DFW and DFW Creative) told the inquisitive that the set-up had to be so because of videographic requirements. Yet, at the end of DFW’s shaky debut, one marketing head at a retail conglomerate told us that “some day, fashion shows will not only be virtual to reach anyone who cares about them, but also out of necessity”.
Guo Pei debuted in Singapore at Digital Fashion Week
Despite its precarious start and sometimes patchy broadcasts due to buffer problems, Digital Fashion Week was indeed rather prescient. A year before DFW, Keyis Ng had started the now-defunct membership-driven fashforward.com, a B2C site with a live-streaming service that members could use to watch fashion shows. Mr Ng, who had briefly worked with veteran show choreographer/producer Dick Lee at the ad agency the also-singer formed with Japanese firm Chuo Senko in 2008 (it’s now, or last known, as Dick Lee Concepts), also described this digital-native business as the “Eyes of Fashion in Asia for the rest of the world”. Often mentioning how digital savvy his generation was, he was convinced that going online would be the way forward, at least for a fashion-resource-starved island such as ours. As Charina Widjaja said to Senatus in 2013, it was to “bring in the latest in live-streaming technology as a game changer”.
The game has certainly changed. After Paris Fashion Week in March this year, many cities were locked down in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. Shanghai’s own had to go fully digital later that month. It was reported to be “the world’s first fashion-week event to livestream its entire roster of runway shows”. DFW would be happy to dispute that. To be sure, at their 2012 debut, the broadcast and live streaming of fashion shows had already gained traction although many heritage luxury brands wouldn’t be enticed. Fashion and its kindred runway presentations had a slow start in embracing digital technology. In 1998, the Austrian designer Helmut Lang—then still creating his eponymous line—availed his autumn/winter show online. But it was Alexander McQueen, 11 years later, who was the first designer to live stream a fashion show—the stunning Plato’s Atlantis, reportedly garnered 3.5 million views on YouTube.
Mr McQueen never followed that with another. That collection—spring/summer 2010—was his last. But he did pave the way for many others who quickly followed with their own live streams. By 2013, New York Fashion Week, ardent adopter of live streaming, reported that two-third of its shows were live streamed. YouTube, for both brands and viewers, have been the go-to platform to watch fashion show videos, be they live-streamed or archived. Fast forward to the present, Instagram, too, is tapping both demand and need. Last month, the Facebook-own photo-sharing site released a complete guide on how to host a digital fashion show on its popular platform, as well as how to post backstage photos and tap into the reach of influencers. The case for using Instagram to broadcast fashion shows is compelling. According to a study published by French trend forecaster Heuritech, there has been a whopping 70% increase in traffic at Instagram since lockdowns were introduced throughout the world.
CYC The Custom Shop designed by David Wang at the last Digital Fashion Week
Four years after its debut at the Ritz Carlton, Digital Fashion Week lost steam. Following its last show in 2015, staged at the historic Capitol Theatre, DFW was merged with Singapore Fashion Week (SFW). According to a report in The Straits Times in 2016, DFW was “acquired” by Mercury Marketing & Communications, whose owner Tjin Lee—the brainchild of Singapore Fashion Festival, precursor of SFW—declined to reveal the price paid for DFW. Charina Widjaja said that both events complement each other. Yet, the two-as-one SFW, despite DFW’s digital strength, did not make a significant impact on the digital fashion show sphere—barely locally, and not a blip regionally, even less globally. A year later, Ms Lee called it quits on SFW, saying that “the current model is not sustainable… It’s a question of cost.” Still, that was no deterrent as she was supposed to have been considering something “bigger than we are.” She told ST, “there is room for a bigger, more collaborative fashion week that engages and works with and supports the neighbouring fashion weeks as well.” It was believed that by “bigger” and “neighbouring”, Ms Lee meant Asia. That never happened.
Digital Fashion Week was initially conceived to showcase Singaporean “independent designers” to the world, but it soon included Bangkok (2014) and Jakarta (2017) off-shoots. The debut Bangkok show was tethered to Bangkok International Fashion Week, staged at Siam Paragon, while the Jakarta event, a home-coming for Ms Widjaja, was its own “full-fledged” show, with an attendant pop-up store in the event venue, Plaza Indonesia. In the year DFW Jakarta was inaugurated, Ms Widjaya created Rising Fashion, a retail pop-up in the capital’s Galeries Lafayette department store and, a year later, transplanted to our island in Paragon Shopping Centre. In both cities, Rising Fashion marked 50 years of bilateral relations between Indonesia and Singapore. The last of DFW event listed in “upcoming events” on its website was posted as a vague “pop-up in Paris” in December 2018.
At the start of DFW, shown annually, the idea of an all-digital fashion week was met with some skepticism, especially when physical attendance to such events was still preferred. The energy and glamour, typically high points of fashion shows, including the much-noted and important front row(s), were thought to be missing. Later DFWs in bigger venues, such as the National Design Centre and Capitol Theatre, provided for a larger on-site audience. Despite its online emphasis, viewership—up till now—has not reflected figures that DFW can sing about. Even big names of its first season were not the pull one expects. Thomas Wee’s show garnered 3,800 views. Guo Pei’s, after her Met Gala exposure, presently scored 79,000. In an admittedly inequitable comparison, that Chanel show with the wind turbines has to date enjoyed 979, 000 views. Next week, London Fashion Week: Men will be live-streamed on LFW’s website as a non-gender-specific event, designed to appeal to both trade buyers, as well as the members of the public. Some elements of see-now-buy-now, once thought to be crucial and the way forward, will be incorporated. LFW will be the first of the big four fashion weeks to go fully digital. No one knows how this will pan out. Meanwhile, some of us here, perhaps, take delight with the thought that we’re the first to do it that way.
Photos: Sophia Lim and Jim Sim