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Editor’s Comment: Social distancing casts doubt on trade shows

Kirsty McGregor

The future of the traditional wholesale model in fashion has been the subject of much debate over the past few years.

Traditional wholesale buying necessitates face-to-face meetings, typically in an international arena. For many buyers, the thought of committing spend without first seeing or handling product in real life sends shivers down the spine.

But the cost – both financial and environmental – of trade shows, fashion weeks and multiple buying appointments has increasingly been called into question. Across the board, retailers are scaling back their buyers’ travel budgets as trade shows become more about networking than writing orders, while the sustainability agenda is adding further pressure on fashion week and trade show organisers to rethink large-scale events.

The coronavirus pandemic is bringing this debate back to the surface, and forcing rapid change. We are facing an extremely unusual spring 21 buying season, in which many of the international fashion weeks and trade shows are considering online alternatives.

Some events have already been postponded or cancelled, including the men’s fashion weeks in London, Paris and Milan. Announcing the cancellation of London Fashion Week Men’s this week, the British Fashion Council said it is exploring ways to “digitise” the event.

The organisers of Florentine menswear show Pitti Uomo, which normally takes place between the London and Milan men’s fashion weeks, are due to meet on 3 April to discuss whether to plough ahead with its June edition. Meanwhile, they are already working on improving its digital platform with new functionality.

The concept of virtual reality trade shows, live-streamed fashion weeks, digital appointments and online ordering is not new, and there are several technology platforms that provide such services, such as BrandLab, Joor, NuOrder and Ordre. This approach could save brands and buyers money, as well as reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

Technology still has a way to go towards creating a fully immersive environment that is prefered over face-to-face meetings. However, the coronavirus pandemic may force investment and uptake in new digital formats on a scale never seen before.

As attitudes to digitising appointments change, it could prompt a shift in the way the wholesale industry operates, which has been a long time coming.

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