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How green are digital fashion shows?

Covid-19 has forced fashion shows to go digital. Will this also push the industry to reduce its carbon footprint?

Moschino pushed the envelope at the Milan Fashion Week, held September-end, by sending puppets wearing its spring/summer collection down a miniature runway.
Moschino pushed the envelope at the Milan Fashion Week, held September-end, by sending puppets wearing its spring/summer collection down a miniature runway.

Aarushi Kilawat isn’t sure what she’s feeling. Three weeks from now, she will be presenting her women’s collection, for the first time, at one of India’s biggest fashion events, the Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW). “Let’s just say I have butterflies in my stomach," laughs the designer, 25, as she gives the final touches to the eight ensembles she has created under The Loom Art brand while cooped up in her Jaipur home owing to the pandemic.

She confesses she’s nervous, “or maybe I am just thrilled", or “maybe anxious". The reason for the roller-coaster of emotions is that her debut comes at a unique time in history. The pandemic has hit the $2.5-trillion global fashion industry so hard that luxury sales are set to contract up to 45% this year, with industry growth unlikely to return to pre-pandemic levels until at least 2024, estimates a Boston Consulting Group report. At the same time, however, it has also given fashion weeks an opportunity to look beyond presenting for a room full of 500-odd people and realize the full potential of digital technology in a post-covid world. The pivot could also help the industry reduce its carbon footprint by reducing the number of jet-setting visitors and disposable, larger-than-life stage sets.

Falguni and Shane Peacock’s bridal collection at the recent India Couture Week.
Falguni and Shane Peacock’s bridal collection at the recent India Couture Week.


Last month’s New York Fashion Week, the first such major event in the covid-19 era, had a mix of online presentations of clothes and a physical event, with only 30 people in attendance. The London Fashion Week that followed also live-streamed collections, with some designers in masks organizing in-person appointments. Milan, too, opted for the hybrid route. The Indian fashion industry, meanwhile, has stuck to the digital space, at least for now.

The recently concluded India Couture Week (ICW) was the country’s first fashion show to go all virtual, with pre-made shoots showing models in designer wedding wear in a sanitized environment. And people across the world are expected to watch the LFW showcase season-fluid collections over five days, starting 21 October, all on a specially designed virtual platform. “It will be a lot of people watching Between The Lines," says Kilawat with a nervous laugh, referring to her collection, which reflects the simplicity of the daily routine in breezy shades of handwoven silk with colourful stitches in sujini and kantha. “But I am glad a virtual show would mean less pollution (than a physical show)."

That’s the tantalizing promise of digital fashion shows. They might not offer the charm and glamour of A-listers packing the front rows but they might help in achieving what the fashion industry has long been struggling for: cutting its carbon footprint.

An ensemble from Aarushi Kilawat’s debut collection at the forthcoming Lakmé Fashion Week.
An ensemble from Aarushi Kilawat’s debut collection at the forthcoming Lakmé Fashion Week.

Each year, when buyers, designers and celebrities move from continent to continent attending fashion weeks, they end up contributing 241,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions—that’s enough to light up New York’s Times Square for 58 years, according to a February report by the fashion technology firm ORDRE and Carbon Trust, a climate change consultancy. Overall, the UN Environment Programme estimates that the fashion industry is responsible for 10% of annual global carbon emissions, more than international flights and maritime shipping combined.

Besides garment production, waste generation and carbon-intensive supply chains, air travel is one of the big reasons for the pollution, points out sustainability expert Linda Greer, who has been working to improve the global apparel sector for decades. “Digital shows will have a much lower carbon footprint than ordinary shows because people will not be flying thousands of miles from all over the world to go to shows," she says, on email.

While there’s no scientific study yet to estimate how sustainable the digital format is, one can’t overlook the energy-guzzling invisible infrastructure behind a show, from the computers and laptops to the massive servers. But even then, says Greer, virtual shows are “greener". The use of tech tools does contribute to greenhouse gases but it is much less than emissions from air travel, she says. “Virtual shows are the best way forward for the fashion world."

Looking ahead

Sunil Sethi, president of the Fashion Design Council of India, calls the lower environmental cost of digital fashion weeks “an icing on the cake". When we spoke on 18 September, just hours before the council was to present the first digital ICW, Sethi was busy, replying to messages. “Honestly, I am very nervous about the response," he said. “We don’t have to reinvent the wheel in physical shows. The sets, the glamour, the parties. It’s always the same elements in some form. With digital, we are still learning. But the good thing is there won’t be any sets to discard. We have become a little green without even trying."

Despite covid-19, Sethi said it wasn’t the “best idea" to skip the annual event. “We are two months late (the ICW is usually held in July, before the wedding season). But we had to do it. The designers have to pay their mall rents, the people who work with the industry need their salaries. And the bride and groom need to see the collections to decide their wedding outfits. We have to present a show that catches people’s attention quickly."

This is exactly what Falguni and Shane Peacock hoped to achieve with the digital presentation of their bridal collection at the ICW—full of motifs inspired by the architecture and heritage of their home-town Jaipur. “Our film shows the controlled chaos behind a runway show. As it is, attention spans are so short now; we wanted to create more than just a runway," Falguni said before her collection was presented. While she missed the “craziness" of a physical show, she’s glad the digital avatar opens up the entire world to the designer. “It’s funny how it took a virus for us to pivot."

The other plus of a digital show is that only the product is the hero, says Raw Mango’s Sanjay Garg, who will present a collection of handwoven textiles at the LFW that brings together the simplicity and luxury of embroidery and bandhani “as a tribute to home". “In physical shows, we mostly focus on the photo of the dress a celebrity wore towards the end. A virtual show would mean the garment will be the showstopper (not the person wearing it)," says the designer. “Anyway, the physical runway is not the only medium to show clothes. You have to think outside the box to show the culture, the story behind them. Digital can definitely help here."

Jaspreet Chandok, head (lifestyle businesses), IMG Reliance Ltd, the LFW organizer, believes the digital sphere can redefine the fashion industry. While Sethi predicts the future of fashion will be a mix of physical and digital events, Chandok believes “it can never go back to normal".

The LFW has created digital infrastructure that will offer the viewer a 360-degree experience. Its website has a virtual showroom where buyers and designers can interact with ease. One can even buy clothes off the ramp after seeing them from any angle. “It’s like a fashion show just for you, and it’s green," says Chandok.

Kilawat is happy her debut show will create a larger narrative around sustainability, something she’s trying to advocate through her handloom-focused brand. Will she miss being part of a physical show? “The applause and the ramp walk towards the end."

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