As the oversized statue of Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama presided over the entrance to Harrods, beneath it a pile of freesheets faced upwards, the front pages dominated by foreboding headlines of economic headwinds, tragedies and an ongoing cost-of-living crisis.
The often frivolous and excessive nature of luxury fashion has long been exposed during recessions, but as the news headlines during last month's London Fashion Week rolled out, it became increasingly evident that it is becoming increasingly challenging for luxury brands to stand out.
Nonetheless, as both a consumer calendar moment and a business event that demands the collective of buyers, fashion houses, media and designers all coming together in one city across a week, many luxury brands have chosen the gateway of LFW to create standout experiences and campaigns to fuel chatter and gain cultural currency.
Think Loewe: the brand brought its latest capsule collection with Japanese animation house Studio Ghibli to life at Selfridges with a series of immersive installations.
Timed to capitalise on LFW, the spaces based on Howl's Moving Castle included The Cloud Room, which housed an exhibition telling the story of the collab and Calcifer's Kitchen, a "culinary experience" named after the film’s fire demon.
And Vogue used the moment to unveil its second iteration of Vogue x Snapchat: Redefining the Body, an exhibition curated by British Vogue’s editor-in-chief Edward Enninful that explores the future of fashion’s physicality, harnessing AR to bring the high fashion of Dior, Versace, Thebe Magugu and more to the digital masses, not just the FROW.
The experience fell under LFW’s City Wide Celebration programme of events and attractions that ran alongside the LFW show schedule, which included creative workshops, styling sessions and brand activations, including Anya Hindmarch’s World’s Smallest Department Store.
As Oliver Lloyd, strategy director at Attachment, who works with The British Fashion Council across its entertainment strategy, talent and brand partnerships, says: “Throughout the pandemic there was a democratisation of experiences as consumers really embraced live streaming, something which TikTok does so successfully.
“Coming out of it, there’s a more hybrid approach. Additionally, fashion’s relationship with entertainment has also been dialled up and we are seeing unexpected celebrities now attracting new audiences.”
Partnerships with culture-defining celebrity talent are rapidly increasing. Daniel Lee marked his creative directorial debut at British luxury brand Burberry with "an ode to Britishness" – a campaign featuring some of the UK’s most exciting talent, from Shygirl and Skepta to Raheem Sterling and Lennon Gallagher, leveraging celebrity names to reach new audiences.
“Fashion has always been about self-expression and identity,” Platform13 founder Leila Fataar says. “Luxury is finally catching up and there are shifts from the old to the new, from status to self-expression, moving beyond only the cost of product to cultural credibility, shifting from traditional bricks and mortar retail in only the traditional fashion capitals to brand experiences and creative ways to drive sales, in new and unexpected places.”
And while LFW presents a rich playground for brands to activate and engage consumers alongside press, talent and retailers at scale, to gain cultural currency, badging exercises are over and brands need to co-create, argues Lloyd.
“Brands must come together to genuinely have an active role with the creative industries or give consumers, especially Gen Z, new, meaningful experiences.
“Beyond impactful talent, we are seeing brands cut through using unexpected collaborations that create conversation and big, bold experiences that involve a breadth of target audiences from press, buyers, talent and consumers.”
One brand capturing the imagination of the experience seekers is Louis Vuitton, with its global takeover by Yayoi Kusama appearing from NYC’s Fifth Avenue to Place Vendôme in Paris and London’s Knightsbridge.
And the ultimate example of collaboration, in terms of scope, scale and vision, came this LFW, when Italian luxury fashion house Moncler unveiled a collaboration of mega proportions with its "The art of genius" event at Olympia.
Inviting in 10,000 consumers alongside a VIP crowd of global celebrities including Serena Williams, Naomi Campbell, Lewis Hamilton, Hailey and Justin Bieber, was a considerably risky move but one that paid off, given the PR coverage and social reach.
Brand experience agency XYZ delivered event planning, logistics and event production, with Paris-based Villa Eugenie on creative production for the experience that stole the LFW spotlight with its evening of immersive experiences from brands including Mercedes-Benz, Adidas Originals and Roc Nation, plus a surprise performance from Alicia Keys, sporting her debut capsule collection.
XYZ’s executive creative director Paul Stanway believes that Moncler went for, in a controlled way, “the energy of chaos and disruption”, explaining the very deliberate choices the brand made to opt for a huge consumer crowd, beyond a select fashion set, and a wider VIP guest list than LFW traditionally commands, not to mention the millions that tuned in to watch.
“It didn’t matter if you were some hype kid from south London or a celeb flown in from Hollywood, the way you experienced the collabs was all the same – the way the artists had envisioned.”
It's a view shared by Stefano Pierre Beruschi, senior design director, culture collaborations and partnerships, Adidas Originals, who described the brand’s immersive space within the event as an extension of the collection’s vision, “toying with the senses in order to confront guests with an experience that is inspirational and outside of the norm”.
So, does this ambitious approach represent a further disruption of the traditional show experience? “Evolving the current system is a huge opportunity for luxury brands, as we move beyond the now uniform hype and drop mechanics of the past few years,” Fataar says.
“We love finding that cultural positioning – an intersection of the brand and its target communities, and then bringing it to life in a resonant way – always based on how the audience wants to receive it.”
With LFW celebrating its 40th year in 2024, more brands should opt for the capital to engage the creative community and inspire young audiences.
“London is the home of innovation and creativity,” Lloyd argues. “For brands looking to tap into this, and genuinely position themselves in a purposeful way – there’s nothing comparative or as exciting in the UK.”
And luxury brands, emboldened by the success of Moncler’s unconventional approach to its Genius presentation, will look to expand their approach to experiences.
“The visual language of how you present fashion was so engrained and so traditional that it was ripe for disruption,” Stanway says.
“Breaking the tyranny of the catwalk is long overdue.”