It is hard to believe that, little over a decade ago, London Fashion Week was still a privileged trade show.
Produced for select roomfuls of buyers and editors, the collections only reached the public on a twenty-four hour delay via the lenses of accredited photographers and glossy supplements.
The clothes would take weeks to reach the designers’ own shops, and it would be months before the trends trickled down to the high street.
All hail the revolution.
For every po-faced fashion editor sitting in this year’s FROW, there will be millions watching the shows remotely from across the globe on the British Fashion Council’s livestream. Bloggers and celebrities will upload Vines of the best looks the second they appear while the models provide a catwalk-eye’s-view via Google Glass or HD micro-cameras fitted onto their clothes.
We will be able to buy direct from the catwalk; we may have even have helped design some of the clothes or crowdsourced the show. And the likes of Cara Delevingne (1.8M Twitter followers, 6.7M on Instagram) and Karlie Kloss (447K;1.2M) will sneak us all backstage.
It’s exhilarating. It’s addictive. It’s ‘the democratisation of fashion’ in action.
And part of me – Digital Editor of a fashion magazine, lifelong porer over September issues, teenage cutter-outer of coveted outfits and hoarder of designer interviews – hates it.
Real time vs really timeless
The super-social, access-all-areas approach works brilliantly for fast fashion brands such as Asos and Topshop, where the USP is quick turnover of ephemeral trends and the aesthetic is sweet shop meets jumble sale.
But for many of the fashion labels who I have spoken to over recent years, from established designers to young graduates trying to establish their name, the perception that they should be building a social media empire has become a constant anxiety.
They are struggling to reconcile the commercial imperative to be always-on content-machines with the time, focus and care required to create wearable art.
This isn’t just about protecting the fragile flower of genius; it taps into a wider clash between social marketing and luxury brands.
In a world where consumers can find (often brilliant) cheap knock-offs of almost any product online, and with a wobbly economy still keeping purse strings tight, luxury must feel more special than ever before.
The reputations of British names such as Alexander McQueen, Aquascutum and Mulberry – not to mention other luxury brands such as hotel groups, car manufacturers and restaurants – are based on the principles of scarcity, exclusivity and craftsmanship; principles that are hard to reflect in the emotionally incontinent, throwaway content that tends to perform well on social channels.
In other words, it’s hard to be timeless in real time.
Dictators don’t do dialogue
Burberry is so successful in this space precisely because it doesn’t play by the normal social media rules. Its presences are a stream of polished product shots, celebrity collaborations and slick on-brand broadcasts – the sort of PR-retrofitted-to-Twitter stuff that would turn any community manager worth their salt green. Burberry doesn’t do social marketing so much as digital marketing played out through social channels, not to mention the very best tech that a £2.33bn company can buy.
But the distance is the point. The moment Christopher Bailey replies to one of my tweets is the moment I start to doubt that his Sandringham Mid-Length Heritage Trench Coat is worth a grand. We want our luxury brands to be the superior cool kids we gaze at across the school playground, not our bezzy mates.
Word of mouth is not the same as social media. Luxury brands would do well to question whether they would be better off creating extraordinarily conversational products and experiences for their customers rather than mouthing off themselves. Apple is proof that you don’t need social content to drive conversation; its carefully – some might say anally – controlled flow of information is absolutely key to the cult.
But others, especially those without the time or resources to truly compete with the big boys, might be better off becoming less noisy – and dare I say it, more low tech – then ever before.
For Spring 2012 Tom Ford banned photographers from his catwalk show. Hedi Slimane insisted that only bone fide buyers were invited to his YSL debut. The result? A storm of press and speculation, with invites reaching nineties gold-dust status.
To consumers who increasingly mediate their every moment through a device, the ultimate luxury is a real-world experience that is understated, sensuous, actively exclusive and only recorded in the collective memory of the participants. And the ultimate act of superiority and brand balls is silence.
To survive, luxury businesses need to be seen as taste leaders. Being a leader involves holding true to your brand as much as it means increasing your follower count.