The fashion show must go on: Empty catwalks and watching live streams from the kitchen table, this is fashion week during a pandemic

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ocially-distanced front rows, models walking runways in forests and watching catwalk shows from home: as with so much in 2020, London Fashion Week this season is like nothing that has come before.

Just weeks ago, many designers were preparing to present their spring/summer 2021 collections to press, buyers and influencers in venues across the nation’s capital, but following newly reintroduced coronavirus measures that limit social gatherings to six people, and with cases of Covid-19 rising, most designers have had to re-evaluate – and quickly.

This season, six months after the UK went into lockdown, the fashion industry is still battling with adversity but nothing like a pesky pandemic could lead to something as unprecedented as fashion week being cancelled, so the show must go on. 

But how, exactly, does fashion week take place during a pandemic? And what is it like to attend? 

Reporting on live streams from home

Harriet Hall, lifestyle editor

I’m sitting in Somerset at a dining table that isn’t mine. The backdoor is open and outside, two pigeons are fighting over a spot on a bird bath. My feet are up on the chair in front of me, a pair of battered Converse pressing into the leather base of the seat. My half-eaten lunch sits curdling in a bowl beside me and – between gulps of my fourth cup of tea of the day – I’m messaging my team on Slack. Across the kitchen, my husband is pacing up and down while on a call to his boss.

Having spent the past six months at home, I’ve decided to embrace the true benefits of remote working and not leave someone else’s home instead. On a screen in front of me models march through a forest clearing as an unmanned camera follows them on a dolly.

This is fashion week in the time of corona. Last season, in February, my team and I raced around London in much less comfortable shoes, darting from fashion show to fashion show in our Independent-branded Volvo for five days, stopping occasionally to write reviews or down a glass of free prosecco. This season, after reporting from fashion week for almost a decade, I will attend fashion week by not leaving the house.

This season, London Fashion Week will be a mixture of some brands trying to cling onto the traditional way of doing things and others adapting to the times.

The first show is Burberry. Usually one of the week’s grand finales, the British Heritage Brand’s catwalk is a much sought-after ticket and requires driving to the far reaches of London and waiting for an hour as celebrities navigate a wall of paparazzi to file into the venue (and as inevitable technical difficulties delay start times). Today, everything kicks off bang on time – rather remarkable in the fashion world – only it’s me who’s having technical difficulties.

I’m trying to navigate Twitch, the streaming platform more commonly favoured by gamers, on which Burberry is showing its collection. After 20 minutes I realise I’ve been watching just one angle, when I could be watching five simultaneously. OK, now I can see the clothes.

Six months ago, Milan Fashion Week was struck by coronavirus, forcing some designers to show their collections to empty rooms, shortly before northern Italy became subject to one of the strictest lockdowns of the pandemic. Since then, the fashion world has faced plummeting sales, mass redundancies and a reckoning with itself that fashion may not hold the power it once did.  

There’s certainly an appeal to a slowed-down approach to fashion week. Usually fashion journalists finish reporting on a month’s worth of shows and have to take themselves to bed with exhaustion. But I’m quickly noticing that reporting on fashion week remotely means Zoom meetings, emails and phone calls interrupt the catwalks with ease. Yes, I now have the convenience of replay, but it rather strips out any magic.

Tommy Hilfiger on sustainability in fashion

The Temperley show, for example, is a one-minute fashion film that, while ethereal, doesn’t leave as much of an impression as sitting and watching a live runway unfold would. Similarly, Paul Costelloe’s offering is a short in which models dance in a photography studio. I am distracted again by my emails.  

Some designers have taken the opportunity to do something different and that’s where virtual fashion week has real potential. Instead of pretending 2020 hasn’t happened, Halpern chose to supplant the usual impossibly perfect models with eight women from across the public service sectors – Tube drivers, intensive care doctors and midwives – who reflect on their work during lockdown. Much like the July covers of British Vogue that celebrated key workers, it’s a powerful reminder of what the world has been through. The collection, meanwhile, is colourful and irreverent– a jubilant celebration of the uplifting power of fashion. 

Preen by Thornton Bregazzi produces a Sofia Coppola-esque campaign video in which models float down a river on a punt, while Vivienne Westwood’s offering is a typically antiestablishment punk-style film. By the end of the day, I’ve seen twice as many shows as I would have trying to rush around physical catwalk shows, and I’ve got precisely zero blisters. So far, I think virtual fashion week is working for me.

Out and about at fashion shows

Olivia Petter, lifestyle reporter

I’m on the Tube and I’m running late. So late, in fact, that I didn’t even have time to apply any make-up. My usual tactic would be to add a slick of red lipstick once I’m out of the Underground, but today I’m going to be wearing a mask a lot, so my usual fashion week method is thwarted.

Usually during London Fashion Week, I’d wake up early, layer on gold jewellery and slip on my most ostentatious outfit, enjoying the chance to dress up and the pageantry of the street style photographers. But today, the usual crowds aren’t around and suddenly, I wonder who I’m dressing up for. Nevertheless, it’s been a good six months of remote working, so I decide to trade my casualwear for velvet flared trousers (Paige) and a high-neck fluorescent green polo top (& Other Stories). It will do, even if I only have a blue medical mask to wear it with.

The first show I’m headed to is Rixo, which has transformed a London bus into its studio for the occasion, kitting it out with 1970s interiors, plush colourful rugs, and of course, its signature printed dresses. Normally, I would be among a crowd of fashion editors, buyers and bloggers, all rifling through the rails and trying to catch the designers to find out what inspired their collection. But this season, to allow for social distancing, only one-on-one appointments are being permitted.

I meet with co-founder Henrietta Rix, something that is all too rare at fashion week, where getting an interview with a designer can be a real challenge. Rix tells me that all of the prints were hand-drawn during lockdown by her co-founder, Orlagh McCloskey, in a dark basement flat. But these prints are far from dingy, with mermaids, shells, and other mythical sea creatures providing some much needed joy. I leave with a gifted Rixo mask – a sign of the times – and it certainly solves the red lipstick conundrum.

Day two begins with an appointment at Bethany Williams, the award-winning British menswear designer whose collections champion ethical and sustainable fashion. It’s in Somerset House, and, as with Rixo, there are complimentary masks on arrival along with plenty of hand sanitiser.

Next it’s on to Bora Aksu, which is unlike any runway show I’ve been to before. When usually attendees will be squashed together in rows like sardines, this time, everyone has their own individual park bench to sit on. It results in one single front row, which is a refreshing change from the third row back I’m usually assigned season after season by dint of not being Anna Wintour.

Guests attend the Bora Aksu SS21 fashion show in London
Guests attend the Bora Aksu SS21 fashion show in London(Rex)

Despite trying to recreate a semblance of normal, the mood at the Bora Aksu show is a strange one. Halfway through admiring Aksu’s pastel tulle frocks and getting lost in his ethereal wartime world, reality strikes. I get a breaking news alert on my phone that new restrictions have been imposed in the Midlands and West Yorkshire due to a spike in Covid-19 cases. Suddenly the mask and a mini hand sanitiser goodie bag doesn’t seem as cute as it does vital.

Outside, the pandemic doesn’t exist according to street style photographers, who are huddled together trying to snap whatever they can of this eerily quiet show season.

One visit to Pret a Manger later and it’s time for the next show: Mark Fast. Outside, a photographer asks to take my picture, which is odd because I am sweaty and dishevelled. They must be desperate.

Eventually myself and the six other journalists are let into the show venue: an east London warehouse. Again, everyone has their own individual bench, which is something I could certainly get used to. Goodie bags provide everyone with the obligatory mask, hand sanitiser and vitamin C drops. I’m glad I’ve come to support designers when they need it most, but, despite its upbeat style, Fast’s rave-inspired collection leaves me yearning for another age, one where you’d be greeted at a fashion show with champagne rather than immunity-supporting tools.

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