The Phygital Turn

In the post-pandemic fashion industry, we have witnessed the rise and fall of "phygital" initiatives.

Key Takeaways

  1. The “phygital”—a crasis between physical and digital—emerged as a response from the fashion industry to the apocalyptic sea of cancellations, bankruptcies, and uncertainty brought by Covid-19.
  2. Videos, lookbooks, fashion films, DIY-kits by mail, fabric samples enclosed with invitations have been the most popular strategies for phygital activations. The only thing is: where are the clothes?
  3. Fashion became democratized although technology didn’t, which is why the phygital presentations felt flat. If the clothes are not center stage, then what is the point?

Covid-19 turned the fashion industry into an apocalyptic sea of cancellations, bankruptcies, and uncertainty. The industry's response is a multifarious array of phygital—crasis between physical and digital—failures and success stories. 

A shift in dynamics was inevitable when the virus broke out in late 2019, yet the measures made by the majority of luxury houses and mega conglomerates in 2020 have been vague, disorientating, and blatantly confusing. Ambiguity was the first concern that hit the fashion industry in early 2020 as the fashion week cycle for the AW20 shows in February were not canceled until it was too late. As the virus spread and infested around the world, the question of what fashion houses would be doing for the forthcoming season (or seasons as it appears) left the industry baffled with confusion until the fashion cycle started again in early September.

Balenciaga, FW 2020/21

From the onset, it quickly became clear that the way people gazed at clothes had altered. Some designers went on with their physical fashion shows, keeping distance between the seats and some having digital front row seats as seen at the SS21 Balmain show—a prophecy originally shown at Balenciaga’s AW20 show, where seats were submerged in water creating distance between the clothes and the hierarchy on the front row. 

Other brands opted for videos, lookbooks, fashion films, DIY-kits by mail, fabric samples enclosed with an invitation, and so forth. The cataclysmic issue with the phygital fashion season is that the groundwork had not been laid for people to thrive in other media than a standardized fashion show before the industry was forced to take the phygital route. The phygital apparatus has not been tried and tested, so inevitably there will be losers and winners. The standard format for evaluating and analyzing fashion on live models was abolished in 2020 and the brands’ response was simple: get as much as you can out of the digital frame. 

Loewe's Show in a Box, SS 2021

What made the pre-existing fashion show module work was that it was a unified system that has functioned properly for decades and it was accessible only to the gatekeepers in the industry. However, this season the lack of innovation and creativity became noticeable across a number of brands. Collina Strada and Maison Margiela were two brands that opted for the video format with fully directed and big-scale productions that collectively would take consumers, editors, journalists, influencers, and buyers an hour to watch, whereas the regular fashion show would take less than 10 minutes. On the upside, the privilege of pausing and rewinding is something the fashion industry has never fully accepted, which now allows the consumer to analyze and rewatch to their liking in their chosen environment. 

Collina Strada, photography by Charlie Engman, SS 2021

The phygital fashion videos were lengthy for SS21, but moreover, not a single brand managed to fully showcase clothes, which is the actual point of having a show, whether it's phygital or physical. Instead, brands took this opportunity to further establish their identity and ethos through gimmicky add-ons and editing, desperately attempting to distinguish themselves from the other phygital shows. 

Helmut Lang became the first designer to show digitally in 1998 with a 15-minute lookbook video available by CD ROM and on www.helmutlangny.com. In an interview with The New York Times after the digital presentation in 1998, Lang expressed his thoughts on the future of digital fashion shows. ''It's exactly the same preparation and we had exactly the same amount of work as if I had had a show,'' he said. ''I never said this would replace shows. But there are too many and it's torture for people.'' Fast forward 22 years and designers still haven’t figured out how to break the chains of 2D and digital presentations. 

Helmut Lang, Seance de Travail, FW 1998/99

Another tendency that was particularly prevalent in the fashion cycle of 2020 was the lack of innovation when it comes to exhibitory mediums, clothes were washed out and difficult to observe through the gimmicky accents and editing in videos, whilst lookbooks were at times even worse with photoshop taking the steering wheel of what in theory should be a straightforward concept to produce. Buyers have been purchasing from line sheets for decades, but what happens when the other creative mediums are also restricted to 2D formats? It falls flat on all levels of production, design, innovation, and concept, the latter appeared to be what brands were selling this season—not clothes. 

The lack of technological exploration and attention to user experience also presented a new obstacle that the industry had not met before. If the fashion system had more time to plan to go fully digital, it’s safe to say that the outcome wouldn’t have been so cataclysmic. VR, AR, and motion capture is available for brands to play with yet, the industry appears to be stuck in 2D. Some brands offered textile samples with their physical invitations, which is a great new take on the traditional invite—yet this is only available to the top tier of the fashion hierarchy and this season fashion became democratized.

Maison Margiela, S.W.A.L.K., directed by Nick Knight, FW 2020/21

The biggest change and takeaway from the phygital fashion season is that fashion shows became fully democratized, the hierarchy shifted and the fashion industry was no longer this monolithic industry reserved to only a select few, more people were engaged in these phygital shows because the medium was available to all—which again caused an influx of engagements both in comment sections and in shares across social media platforms. 

Fashion has never before been so accessible, yet the brands showcasing their frivolous videos and obscure lookbooks have forgotten what the bottom line is and why we exhibit clothes. Fashion became democratized although technology didn’t, which is why the phygital presentations felt flat. For phygital to thrive and become a successful medium for exhibiting clothes, brands are forced to innovate both on the technical and creative level, as well as reconsidering their renderings before finalizing a phygital presentation. If clothes are not center stage, then what is the point?