How digital has changed the catwalk

The fashion runway used to be a very B2B affair, a coveted invite for the elite of the fashion world from top buyers of department stores to editors of fashion bibles like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. But technology has revolutionised the way clothes make their way from the catwalk to the shopping bag, as consumers are exposed to new styles through digital media.

"It used to be the case where the paying public would see the photographs in the fashion magazines," says Mary Wallace, senior managing consultant at IBM, who explains the consumer experience is now much more involved with fashion designers live streaming shows to watch online.

Wallace notes how social media has turned everyone with a smartphone into a content producer – sharing snaps straight from the Catwalk on Twitter kicked off this trend a few years back. 

"Yes, social media has kicked it off. There is an expectation customers will see what the fashion brand is releasing as they come down – or even behind the scenes before it comes down – the catwalk."

Fashion and jewellery analyst, Anusha Couttigane, points out that the proliferation of 4G mobile internet over the last couple of years has led to a dramatic increase in videos being shared on social media.

"In the last year, we've seen an increase in video – we've had social for a long time now – but streaming capabilities have improved drastically over the last year," she explains. "Quite a number of catwalk shows are live streamed and if not filmed at the very least to be shown online at a later time."

Burberry is always used as the example of effectively using digital on the catwalk, and for good reason. Way back in 2010, the fashion label broadcast a catwalk show live in 3D and its stores are known for using digital technologies to improve the customer experience.

Over the summer, House of Holland worked with Visa and Blippar to create an augmented reality (AR) payment app, which was trialled at the designer's menswear launch. Customers watching the catwalk could hold up their smartphone at a desired garment making its way down the runway, and the technology identifies the item, completes the transaction with a pre-registered prepaid, debit or credit card, seamlessly completing an online order.

Squeezing the supply chain

"But I don't think we've seen everything yet," adds Wallace. "At the moment it is still a selling mechanism, but it will be interesting to see how the supply chain and fulfilment processes work together to realise this new dream, which is really exciting to witness."

Traditionally, fashion houses would showcase their designs six months ahead of the season, in order to gauge interest from buyers before committing to stock numbers. But thanks to technology, such as House of Holland's proof of concept, customers want to get their hands on the clothes much sooner.

Couttigane tells Essential Retail: "Customers want to be able to buy the designs immediately and this affects business models, changing the market from an 18 month process to much shorter and there's pressure on businesses and for retailers to order more products sooner which is a bit more risky as they don't know what's going to sell."

During London Fashion Week in February, Burberry's CEO Christopher Bailey acknowledged the massive change impacting the fashion industry, and how the business would have to adapt in line with digital. 


Another big digital trend to hit the catwalk has been to offer personalised products for customers. No longer is it only important to be the first to get hold of the latest must-have fashion piece, customers now want their style to be individual and unlike anyone else's.

Anya Hindmarch was one of the first designers to offer bespoke items, with leather goods embossed with initials and messages, while another English success story, the Cambridge Satchel Company, is also famous for its embossing. Smaller start-up companies are following this trend, such as Upper Street which offers customers an online portal to design their own shoes – with five million possible combinations of designs.

"There are lots of different things to customise handbags – charms and pom poms – and Topshop now has a whole category for handbag accessories, so for not too much money you can accessorise your £50 Fiorelli handbag with a £70 Anya Hindmarch charm," explains Wallace.

"I think technology has been the enabler of that – in footwear, you see what Nike is doing with personalisation of trainers and customers are taking inspiration from that with fans buying trainers and sending them to third-party customisation companies."

While the desire to customise products came from consumers doing it themselves and perhaps sharing end-products on social, Wallace says technology allows customisation to scale.

"If you look at the other end, Adidas has taken this idea and is running even faster and bringing in a lot of big data elements and 3D printing and creating a new supply chain and logistics capability to create that."

Looking forward, Wallace says developments in cognitive capabilities, such as IBM's Watson, means the fashion industry can take personalisation to the next level. "We can recommend a shade of nail polish because we know you're going to a party in Shoreditch and the weather will be this and we know who you're going with because of your social circles," she explains. "Your mani will be on point because all these moments will be contextually relevant and bought to life."

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