End of the runway? Fashion world mulls post-COVID future

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Fashion designer Gareth Pugh poses for a photograph in front of his creations, exhibited ahead of his London Fashion Week show in London, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2020. (Photo by Vianney Le Caer/Invision/AP)

LONDON – It’s the September fashion week season, and in any other year London would be abuzz with fashionistas zipping across town in Mercedes Benzes, hobnobbing with celebrities at glittering catwalk shows before sipping champagne at late-night parties.

This is no typical year, though, and London Fashion Week is decidedly less glamorous. There are all of three socially-distanced catwalk shows, with a smattering of small salon shows or invitation-only appointments offered by designers like Victoria Beckham and Christopher Kane. International buyers, editors, and models aren’t jetting in.

With most designers showing their wares online only, style in the COVID era is largely limited to streaming fashion shows on an iPad from the couch - probably with slippers in place of stilettos.

The luxury brand Burberry, which usually hosts a packed runway show complete with a red-carpet reception for A-list celebrities, decamped its models to a forest clearing Thursday for a live-streamed show with no catwalk or physical audience. Burberry shared its blend of performance art and fashion with some 42,000 viewers via Twitch, the streaming service for online gamers.

“This is not a full-blown fashion week - it’s not mass audiences. It’s very much happening in private and the scales have tipped in favor of digital,” said Caroline Rush, chief executive of the British Fashion Council, which organizes London Fashion Week.

Still, she said, it’s a step forward - albeit a small and tentative one - for the industry to regain some semblance of “the life we were living before.”

The fashion industry has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, and in Europe, where countries are seeing an alarming new surge in cases, few consumers are in the mood to buy luxury bags and dresses. Nor are they likely to resume spending to pre-pandemic levels any time soon, with weddings and parties largely cancelled and big parts of the workforce staying at home. Forecasts by analysts predict global luxury goods sales could drop by 20% to 35% this year.

Many say that has forced a sharp rethink about how the business works. That includes questioning how the traditional calendar of biannual fashion weeks - always staged across New York, London, Milan and Paris - is organized, and how to leverage new technologies instead.