Runway on the web

In March 2015, while every fashion editor worth her iPhone-wielding entourage and every blogger with a front row seat scrambled to grab the perfect Instagram shot, or hustled to attend shows at Lakme Fashion Week’s Summer/Resort edition, designer Masaba Gupta sat in her pajamas, on her couch at home, and uploaded images of her collection ‘Sugar Plum’ on Instagram. That was the birth of India’s first-ever Instagram fashion show. The images had been shot beforehand by ace photographer Joy Datta, with actor Nargis Fakhri pouting pretty as the showstopper. Masaba triumphantly declared on Twitter: “Being hounded for passes to my show since morning. Just FYI, it’s on Instagram so you kinda have to stay home n watch it! WiFi can be your +1” (sic).

And WiFi has definitely become the proverbial +1 for fashion watchers the world over. Months after Gupta did her Instagram show, New York-based Misha Nonoo put up an Instagram-only show, this time in consultation with Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and the good folks at Instagram. In January, at the Dolce & Gabbana Fall-Winter 2016 menswear show at Milan Fashion Week, runway models recorded live visuals that were then telecast to the brand’s 7.6 million followers on Instagram. There’s no escaping social media, figuratively and literally, especially on the runway.

The 1080px by 1080px square confines of the Instagram photo frame have done much to widen the gambit of the fashion universe, enough for the photo-sharing site to have received the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) Media Award for 2015. You can now attend New York Fashion Week (NYFW) without attending New York Fashion Week, thanks to live telecasts.

And when Saket Dhankar, head, Fashion, IMG-Reliance, organisers of LFW, calls social media platforms “experiential venues”, you know Indian fashion is also waking up to the digital democratisation of fashion. “Fashion weeks worldwide are feeling the need to have a consumer connect. Apart from the 500 people who are at the venue, we (LFW) have around 2 million followers across social media platforms. And it’s important that we provide a front row experience for everyone,” he says. With their live show telecasts garnering around 2,000-3,000 video views and the LFW social media team grappling with mediums like Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Snapchat, Google+ and Periscope, the need for innovation is greater than ever before. From Gupta’s Instagram-only show to a virtual model hunt, Dhankar’s team is fully leveraging social media.

While Masaba’s Instagram excursion met with mixed reviews — fashion editors thought the static images didn’t do the clothes justice, but the uploads garnered around 1 lakh likes — it’s a gamble she’s willing to take again. “I had complete control over the content and presentation, it was cost-effective and the collection did well commercially,” says Masaba.

And while she thinks the format may be a godsend for younger designers, who can’t afford to spend money on elaborate runway shows, senior designers are also looking for that perfect “Instagrammable” frame that is going to bring the camera phones out and make flashbulbs pop. Be it the clinching moment when 70 models released white balloons into the air at Sabyasachi Mukerjee’s LFW opening show in an industrial shed, or when Gaurav Gupta took a finale bow with Kareena Kapoor Khan in front of a 30-foot nymph-like sculpture, and got the Bollywood actress trending on Twitter.

Gupta, who believes his garments “are naturally dramatic and hence, social media -friendly,” is embracing the digital revolution with gusto, calling it an “extreme necessity”. “Today, my social media team plays a big part in planning shows and marketing,” he says.

Delhi-based designer duo Armaan Aiman generated keen off-ramp curiosity about their recent collection ‘Eclipse’ by making a white shirt with a wolf print a talking point on social media, with photos of bloggers, models and choreographers wearing the statement shirt popping up online. “The idea is to make a look accessible and more wearable, yet more striking,” says Santu Misra, stylist and consultant to young brands like Armaan Aiman, Aartivijay Gupta and Ikai by Ragini Ahuja.

On-ramp styling is not only playing a huge part in how the collection is received online, but it also helps create a brand image. “The viewer has 10 seconds to like an outfit, so it has to grab eyeballs,” says Misra. Which means clothes need to pop, photograph well and get more likes.

And tangible likes are translating into sales. “Instagram is a definite source of revenue. People walk into stores with images and ask for the garments. Facebook is also great for customer feedback. Clients post images and tell us what colours they like, issues with fabric, and sizing,” points out Masaba.

While Indian designers are still learning to exploit the digital medium more effectively, it’s a tool they need to wield with caution, says Pareina Thapar, media consultant to the likes of Sabyasachi and Gupta. “Now, more than ever, there is no room for mistakes. Designers need to stay true to their brand statement,” she says.

In an era where collections are studied and dissected in a digital minute, the six-month seasonal fashion cycle that the industry has adopted for decades is facing a challenge. “By the time my autumn-winter collection hits stores six months later, it has been seen by everyone and copied by some,” says Gupta.

With even the CFDA proposing the idea of turning twice-yearly fashion shows at NYFW into a more consumer-friendly current season format, where designers show collections that are ready to hit stores, here’s an indelible way in which the social media juggernaut may change the apparel industry.

“Increasingly, the world is debating whether fashion weeks are for buyers or consumers. If consumers are going to be everywhere, thanks to social media, then it is better that it becomes a consumer-oriented exercise,” says Dhankar, advocating the show-now, see-now, buy-now policy that LFW already propagates. Whether the rest of the fashion fraternity follows suit might be a matter of choice, or simply a matter of time.