There are those few minutes before a runway show at New York Fashion Week when the excitement builds to a crescendo. Crowds pour into the front of house, squeezing onto too-small benches, while photographers jockey for even a couple of inches of space on rammed risers. Backstage, models, makeup artists, hair stylists and dressers push to put finishing touches on looks that have taken months to create and have about 12 minutes to make an impression. Social distancing is the last thing on anyone’s mind.
That was then, this is now. COVID-19 has pressed pause on the insanity of the traditional runway shows, forcing designers to find new ways to showcase their collections and grab the attention of buyers, customers and the fashion press. It hasn’t been easy.
Christian Juul Nielsen is one of the industry’s hottest designers. He had an impressive pedigree, with stints at Dior, Nina Ricci and Galliano before he started his own line, AKNVAS, just a year ago. He was recently named creative director for the legendary brand, Herve Leger. Oh, and he’s also debuting a menswear collection for spring/summer 2021. And he’s doing it all in the midst of a pandemic, without the benefit of an in-person show.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, I started looking at the sketches and looking at what I liked,” he said. “I started playing around and I started designed menswear right next to womenswear, and as I was doing this, I kind of realized that the collections would work well together. So I created two collections, the menswear and the womenswear, and I mixed a lot of the pieces.”
Pandemic life became a part of his inspiration.
“I feel like the whole pandemic vibe of being at home, on the sofa, then running to a Zoom, you kind of want to wear something that’s comfortable, oversized, elastic in the waist,” he said. “Personally, I don’t want to run around in a tracksuit either because I am on video a lot of the time. So, this kind of clothes really feels right to me at the moment.
But with local distancing laws and the need for safety, Nielsen had to think outside the runway to get his looks in front of the right people.
He and a friend, who happens to be a model and a photographer, came up with a plan for his menswear collection.
“We actually did it as a self-portrait,” he said. “I styled the collection and I sent the whole collection to his studio, and he was alone in the studio with me on Zoom. I art directed him on the camera while he was taking pictures of himself.”
It wasn’t easy.
“It was the longest shoot I’ve ever done,” he said. “The poor guy had to style himself, get dressed, make sure his hair was right, make sure the light was right, make sure he was standing in the right spot, make sure he sent the picture to me, doing a video of how he placed the collar, the buttons, everything. It was a very long process, but I really enjoyed it, and I’m very happy with the result.”
That was followed by a studio shoot of men’s and womenswear, where the mantra was “safety first.”
“During the shoot, we sent an email to everybody that they had to sign saying that they would wear masks throughout the whole period, clean their hands, keep their food separated, really following all the rules to make this happen,” he said.
Even the most seasoned designers were faced with not only presenting their collection in a new way, but creating their looks long distance.
Badgley Mischka is one of fashion’s most famous and iconic brands. The name conjures up images of pure glamour, with red carpet-ready gowns covered in beads and sequins. Their legions of fans love them, but getting their new collection seen was a challenge once they ruled out a live runway.
“It never really even seemed like an option for James and I,” Mark Badgley said. “It just didn’t feel right. That was our gut instinct.”
“We’re trying to keep everybody safe,” added James Mischka. “That was one of our primary goals, and it just didn’t feel right for us to bring everybody back into an enclosed space, even if they sat six feet apart. It’s still a lot of people in one room.”
They created a video, set on a grand estate, beautiful and moody, and paired it with a series of still photos of the collection, which, like Nielsen’s was also inspired, in part, by the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of entertaining done at home, and our customer wants to look as glamorous as ever,” Badgley said. “She isn’t going to stop shopping, but she wants to do it in a more understated, relaxed way right now. Of course, there’s always our tried and true core business which is gowns and dresses, but we added a big section of luxe lounge. This is the direction it’s going right now. It’s beautiful evening separates that can be dressed up or dressed down that sort of have a relaxed vibe in them. It’s still special. There’s still a thread of glamour to every piece.”
But putting that collection together in the time of COVID was a challenge all its own.
“It’s definitely an interesting season, that’s for sure,” Badgley said. “I think one of the most interesting moments is, James and I were at our house in Palm Beach and we were at a virtual fitting. Our model was in the Hamptons, our design assistant was in Pennsylvania, I was on with our factory in China where they made this particular piece, and our production manager was in our New York office, and we were all working on this one bloody blouse. It was unbelievable just how many states and nations were discussing button placement on a blouse over a virtual screen. It was enough to drive anyone absolutely certifiably insane.”
And Mischka said timing was everything.
“We ordinarily would have started this collection in late May. But we knew we had to start it as soon as we went into lockdown because we knew we weren’t going to get to the office and see things in person. We had to do it apart," he said. "And then you have to send things to all these different people. So we were very good friends with our FedEx guy, that’s for sure.”
The CFDA created a platform, Runway 360, where designers could show their collections virtually, complete with a show schedule, just like a normal Fashion Week.
So, could this virtual reality become the real reality of New York Fashion Week?
“You know, fashion shows are all about congregating and an excited group of people enjoying it,” Badgley said. “You cannot replace the excitement of a fashion show. You just can’t. But I think one of the most interesting things that’s come out of this is that you see you have lots of options. It’s always been, 'This is how it’s done, this is the way it has to be done, this is the way it must be done.' But it’s not true. Until you’re forced to look at things through a different lens, there are a lot of different ways to conduct commerce and to design and create gorgeous clothes and give them to your customer. I think there’s going to be a lot of other interesting options that are going to be floating out there now.”