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Fashion week season – is innovation a dirty word?

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It’s interesting to think about the point at which a word become so overused in business terms its very essence loses meaning. “Innovation” is one that’s all too easily thrown about during fashion week season especially.

Is it innovative to live steam a show? To launch on a new social media channel? To showcase behind-the-scenes? It was once. It’s probably not anymore. In fact, for A/W 15/16 in New York, there was very little that could be qualified as “innovation” in the true sense of the word, full stop.

What there was instead was a much greater focus on driving reach and engagement via social media; honing in on opportunities for ROI and ultimately conversion. Working with influencers was a big part of this strategy for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Calvin Klein, while Snapchat was otherwise the buzzy platform for at least a little touch of newness. Michael Kors was one of the ones doing so, using the app’s Our Stories feature to contribute to a broader content stream from fashion week.

Arguably all of that isn’t innovation however, it’s a content strategy. Innovation around conversions is necessary (though direct path to purchase isn’t possible via Snapchat anyway), and focusing in on engagement is of course not a bad thing. But fashion shows are about generating attention for collections with all sorts of stakeholders in a bid to build the brand, and it takes something more significant to stand out from the noise, and in New York, from the over 200 shows held.

Innovation should, therefore, be seen as the opportunity to capitalise on more awareness than ever. The theatre of Alexander McQueen’s early shows fit under this header, the spectacle of Dior and Chanel too. But in recent years of course, the focus has been on the role technology plays instead. Burberry was the pioneer of this, and look what it did for them.

Since then we’ve had flying drones at Fendi, 4D water projections at Polo Ralph Lauren, and Google Glass walking down the catwalk at DVF. Call them gimmicks, but from an awareness and PR perspective, they definitely worked.

I’ve never been one that’s been pro “technology for technology’s sake”, but for once I’m disappointed there’s not more to shout about beyond just the collections so far this season. (A purist might of course be thrilled by that fact). When asked why brands aren’t doing more with technology – whether in their store or at shows – Emily Culp, SVP of e-commerce and omnichannel marketing at Rebecca Minkoff, said: “Frankly because it’s just really really hard.”

One glimmer of hope lay in a handful of brands experimenting with virtual reality. Rebecca Minkoff filmed its show fit for a VR experience expected to launch in March. It worked with VR specialist Jaunt to capture the content using two cameras with three-dozen separate lenses. Our team also spotted a 360-degree camera from a company called WeMakeVR at Tommy Hilfiger, though no official announcement has been made about what the brand is going to do with that footage yet.

On Monday at London Fashion Week, River Island will partner with designer Jean-Pierre Braganza to create a piece of content at the British Fashion Council’s seasonal film event using Google Cardboard. This is a makeshift VR headset with a smartphone embedded into it.

But if it’s innovation in terms of conversion we’re really after, it’s worth turning to what a couple of brands are doing in London once it starts today otherwise. Topshop has partnered with Twitter to showcase key trends emerging from London Fashion Week on outdoor digital screens across the UK, according to tweets using the #LFW hashtag. That real-time data will be displayed as a word cloud and placed alongside corresponding shoppable Topshop product.

Hunter Original is also using outdoor this season, live streaming its show across nine digital billboards. The brand will continue its campaign by pairing content from the new collection alongside similar pieces already available for purchase this season.

In both cases what we’re seeing is innovation tied to measurable ROI. With that and the immersive experience that VR promises, there’s hope up ahead. “Innovation” might be an overused and misunderstood word, but it shouldn’t be considered a dirty one.

By Rachel Arthur

Rachel Arthur is Editor-in-Chief of Current Daily, the leading news source for fashion, retail and innovation, and the co-host of its weekly Innovators podcast. She otherwise serves as Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer of Current Global, a transformation consultancy driving growth within fashion luxury and retail. By background she is an award-winning business journalist and consultant, contributing to titles including Wired, Forbes and Business of Fashion.

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