Fashion Shows Go Live Via the Web

The seating arrangement at a fashion show has always telegraphed power and prestige; Vogue editor Anna Wintour, for instance, sat front and center at Jason Wu this season, draped in fur and dripping with jewels, flanked by The September Issue's breakout star, creative director Grace Coddington. But that hierarchy is being upended by the industry's hottest new trend: streaming shows live, which bestows first-row status on anyone with a laptop and a high-speed Internet connection.

This season both Emporio Armani and Dolce & Gabbana streamed their fall-winter 2010 shows live from Milan. Armani sent out models draped in black velvet, transmitting the show to the label's new Web site, while D&G's show was viewable exclusively on iPhones, showing off the newest strict but sexy designs. Burberry one-upped them by offering not just a live Webcast but also providing 3-D viewing to select members of the press, who gathered at locations in Tokyo, Dubai, Los Angeles, and Paris, where they donned glasses while sipping champagne and nibbling on canapés. In New York, Alexander Wang and Rodarte both partnered with photographer Nick Knight's London-based creative agency, SHOWstudio, to stream their shows, resulting in much larger audiences than the hundreds that typically turn up for a live show.

By streaming their collections for the masses, designers are moving the fashion circus into a much bigger tent. Aided by the huge popularity of TV shows like Project Runway and America's Top Model, they are transforming the place of high fashion in popular culture. "Fashion hasn't managed to take itself out of its tiny niche market," says Knight. "We're trying to turn fashion shows into much broader entertainment events."

The late Alexander McQueen jump-started the trend when he partnered with SHOWstudio to stream his spring-summer 2010 show last October. Titled Plato's Atlantis, the futuristic baroque collection, featuring 10-inch stilettos that resembled alien appendages, was paraded down the catwalk to a soundtrack that debuted Lady Gaga's single "Bad Romance." Stoked by a Twitter tip from Gaga about the new single, hordes of enthusiastic viewers crashed SHOWstudio's server, making it impossible to determine the total Web audience. Since then, however, the footage has received more than 3 million hits on YouTube, dramatically eclipsing the in-house live audience of several hundred.

The move toward streaming represents more than the democratization of fashion. It's shrinking the delay between the time clothes are unveiled and when the wider public sees them in magazines and stores—usually about four months. "We're live reporting from the shows, and the public is seeing the fashion as it happens on the catwalk," says Knight. "They want it now. If there are, say, 200,000 people who want a Rodarte dress, they should be able to get that message out to the designers." That creates new opportunities for business, including designers selling directly to consumers over the Web, even while their shows are still in progress.

Not everyone relishes that prospect. For one thing, many designers are already struggling to meet production schedules and wouldn't be able to handle the added load. And some believe speeding up the fashion cycle will only destroy the industry's mystique. During a recent discussion at Fashion Institute of Technology, Donna Karan advocated a return to making fashion shows industry-only events and preventing the dissemination of information via Internet or wire services—in effect reinforcing the traditional hierarchy. But Anita Bitton, a casting agent who works on Alexander Wang's shows, believes that designers ultimately have no choice but to make maximum use of technology. "The archaic idea of hierarchies and controlled access is being broken down," she says. "Tech-savvy consumers want to be informed, they want to have a voice, and they no longer want to be told what to do. It's up to us to embrace and utilize [new media] to its best potential."

In any case, the revolution is likely just beginning. Labels and designers including Yves Saint Laurent and British avant-garde talent Gareth Pugh are eschewing shows altogether during certain seasons, opting instead to produce and present films to editors both in person and online. Others are experimenting with meeting instant consumer demand; New York's Proenza Schouler offered customers the chance to purchase their new PS. 11 handbag via their Web site for 24 hours following their recent fall-winter 2010 live show. Burberry is offering both accessories and outerwear from their fall-winter '10 collection for immediate order on their Web site. Clearly designers are seeking to develop a viable blueprint for growth in the digital age. After all, embracing the future is what fashion is all about.