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  • Massimo Casagrande

New communication codes and a new generation of readers

“If you are able to use your work to connect with people in a very emotional and beautiful way, people just gravitate to you”.

Ibrahim Kamara, Fashion Stylist

“Can you see me…? Can you hear me…?”

These two questions have now become part of our everyday language and synonymous with Covid-19’s imposed new normal work-or-study-from-home routine. This catchphrase will come to define a whole new society, a new ‘Zoom generation’, which is in essence a melting pot of the five generations currently alive: the Silent Generation; the Boomers; Generation X; Millennials, and Gen Z, all of which are united, or rather, connected, through technology.

The pandemic has caused a seismic change in how we communicate and how communication will have to evolve post-lockdown, but it was not the initial catalyst of this change. The dawning of digital disruption can be pinpointed to the 1960s when ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) funded research into computer time-sharing. This funding and research led to the creation of the TCP/IP protocol suite and eventually to the world wide web in the early 1990s, leading to the development of Internet first-movers such as Yahoo! and Google, as well as emerging web commerce companies like eBay and Amazon. By 1999, the dot-com era had officially begun.

The noughties saw the birth of social networking services, from Friendster to Myspace, LinkedIn, and Facebook, which by 2009 had become the largest networking site in the world. With the rise of these social media platforms and the dawning of a new digital era, we couldn’t help but echo the 1979 song ‘Video killed the Radio Star’ by the Buggles, the first ever music video played when M-TV launched on August 1, 1981, again signalling the start of a new era. The launch of the iPhone in 2007 brought even more meaning to the lyrics, especially when they speak about 20th-century technical inventions and changes in media arts such as photography, cinema, the radio, television, audio recording, and record production.

Due to the recent increase in connectivity and smartphone adoption, more and more people now own mobile phones and are connected to the Internet, rapidly spreading mobile technology across the globe and thereby allowing brands and publications to reach a bigger audience. A Pew Research Centre survey conducted in 2019 reported that in the US alone 96% of the population owned mobile devices and that smartphone ownership has reached 5 billion people in total around the globe, emerging economies included (Silver, 2019: online). The global reach of mobile technology has allowed brands to connect with consumers through various digital platforms and devices. Had digital killed the traditional?

“September is the new January of fashion. This is the time when I change myself, this is the moment when I try to wear high heels again — cos’ that’s the look”,

Candy Pratts Price, fashion editor, in the 2009 documentary ‘The September Issue’.

The September issue is renowned for its 800 + pages, of which 727 are usually ads (the 2012 issue had a whopping 916 pages in total!), and for being the ’reset’ issue, announcing the end of summer and introducing new trends and collections for the winter season, filled with new campaigns and ad pages. Eleven years on and it’s a very different scenario. Pandemic aside. Publication issues have been shrinking in size with both readers and advertisers increasingly moving on to digital platforms. “Seeing that wall is a very glamorous moment, but it’s an experience of the brand that a consumer never has. When have you ever taken every page of a magazine and put it on your wall? In some ways, [the pandemic is] the ripping off of a Band-Aid that really needed to happen.” Aya Kanai, editor-in-chief of Marie Claire (Flynn, 2020: online)

Where in the past the September issue used to be the issue with the most relevant articles that ‘met the moment’, with digital technology, editors have realised that this type of content and value needs to be provided in every issue.

The past five years have seen more and more fashion publications transition over to digital. Women’s Wear Daily (WWD), whose first issue was published in 1905, took the plunge and moved away from print to digital in 2015, allowing WWD to see its subscription growth increase significantly. Since the move to digital, paid subscriptions to its daily newsletter and website are up 30%, while some print issues are distributed at a few fashion or trade shows (Braverman, 2019: online). This move was supported by WWD’s chief business officer and publisher Paul Jowdy, who said “Not only are you growing your audience digitally, but you can develop bespoke products for them”.

Teen Vogue, another brand under the Condé Nast umbrella, announced in November 2017 that they would transition permanently from traditional print to a digital platform, partly due to the fact that 60% of their readership is under 25 and huge social network users (Marnell, 2019: online). They maintain the art of the Vogue cover, albeit on Snapchat Discover and online platforms, making it interactive with the viewers. They also increased their readership by evolving content from just fashion to politics and current affairs, appealing to Generation Z, who are much more interested in politics and social activism than previous generations (Flynn, 2020b: online; Teen Vogue 2020: online)

Due to this digital migration, other publications have also reduced their issue counts, like Marie Claire USA which will only have one summer issue, while Marie Claire UK has moved completely online (with its last print edition in November 2019), and Esquire magazine, which is cutting their print frequency from eight to six issues per year.

Complex and Nylon magazines launched their digital covers in 2018 and 2017 respectively; since then, Nylon has been in the process of relaunching both its online and print presence, although some print issues have been delayed due to coronavirus.

There is one consolation for print: while digital platforms can offer the immediate and instant, pleasing to a certain consumer or reader, they can however lack the curation and overall presentation offered by print, the pleasure that you can only find in discovering something by paging through the magazine.

Disruption. One of the most commonly used words during the pandemic, followed by Change. Where did fashion weeks and publications stand with the pandemic spreading across the globe? How would we overcome this disruption and what was the change that the industry needed to embrace to survive? (Cartner-Morley, 2020: online).

Giorgio Armani and other fellow designers and brands like Dries Van Noten and Saint Laurent stood up and voiced their opinion on reducing collections and on how designing collections needs to change, or how fashion weeks and seasonality need to be reconsidered. Most magazines had already shot and prepped all their issues for May, but what about the following issues? Where did that leave magazines, stylists, influencers, and photographers? However, disruption and change were not only a negative impact of the pandemic; indeed, they were also the catalyst of a reinvention. They, together with social media and the Internet, provided an opportunity for a new fashion renaissance. So how did we start this reinvention?

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph”

1977 Susan Sontag

In 1977 Susan Sontag wrote, “Today everything exists to end in a photograph”; no other phrase seems to reflect and capture today’s society with such accuracy. Where taking ‘selfies’ and documenting our lives on Instagram (ending up in a photograph) was the norm pre-pandemic, the lockdown has increased our online airtime. People started becoming more creative and using social media platforms to communicate and share experiences; from baking banana bread to hosting live conversations, creating virtual events, or sharing skills with their followers. And so, as people used platforms such as Facetime, Zoom rooms, or even their old trusted webcam, the disruption eventually became a solution.

So that’s when the penny dropped. If traditional editorials and covers were usually previewed as highlights on digital platforms after they were printed, why not use these platforms directly?

Nick Knight, who has pioneered the intersection of fashion photography and digital media with his SHOWstudio platform, says “We are at the tip of the iceberg, we have great equipment at our disposal, we just have to re-see it… This is accelerating what is already upon us” (Moroney, 2020: on line) He also adds that thanks to social media, models are now well versed in posing and taking their own pictures.

Through these social platforms, photographers, stylists, and hair and makeup artists all got creative and started reinventing the photoshoot. The creative team would be assembled remotely and connected via the platform to direct the model. There would be prep meetings beforehand with hair and makeup tutorials, stylists would send the garments to the model(s), divided into separate looks with styling notes, and Zoom calls going over mood boards and concepts.

This DIY approach is fast becoming a norm when it comes to fashion editorials and campaigns, and many have jumped on the bandwagon.

For its April issue, Vogue Italia commissioned industry creatives including Ibrahim Kamara to create an editorial titled Far Away So Close, with the latest collections shot in the models’ respective homes. “…these images end up challenging what is expected of our industry today. They remind us that there is a way to create beauty and meaning without big productions and expensive processes,” said Ferdinando Verderi, creative director of Vogue Italia (Hines, 2020: online).

Bella Hadid’s photoshoot for Jacquemus’ Spring 20 collection was one of the first big FaceTime campaigns. Hadid was photographed by Pierre-Ange Carlotti and creative-directed by the brand’s designer Simon Porte Jacquemus at her home with just an iPhone. The campaign was aptly titled ‘Jacquemus at home’ (Allaire, 2020: online). Similarly, i-D magazine commissioned Willy Vanderperre to shoot 19 models for the magazine’s website and social media channels under the Safe + Sound banner. The models were each asked to wear a white T-shirt and do their own hair and make-up and were subsequently photographed via FaceTime.

Storytelling and connecting with the consumer and reader is becoming more and more important. Digital has become an integral part of communication strategies pre-pandemic and accelerated even more during the pandemic, and will definitely continue to grow and evolve further post-pandemic. Imran Amed, founder, and CEO of the Business of Fashion says, “Until now, digital has always been peripheral to fashion week. Digital has meant a show produced for a live audience and then broadcast. Or an Instagrammable moment — but that depends on a live audience who are there Instagramming it. This could be the moment when fashion week becomes, by necessity, created primarily for digital consumption.” He continues by adding “Why stop at Instagram and YouTube? Fashion Week x Netflix, anyone?”

Alessandro Michele was one of the pioneers in understanding the power of social media and communication; just think back to Art Basel Miami 2019, when Gucci collaborated with Snapchat to create a limited edition of 50 Snap-chat Spectacles and then asked film director Harmony Korine (Spring Breakers) to create a short film using those spectacles and Snapchat’s augmented reality effects. The final result was a short film called ‘Duck Duck’ (Bell, 2019: online; Bijan, 2019: online).

Gucci’s ‘Trilogy of Love’ is an example of how Alessandro Michele used the pandemic to reassess communication; he thought ahead about a post-pandemic scenario and at the same time brought in a new era for the brand, embracing transparency and inclusiveness while subverting traditional roles that had been a norm within the fashion industry up until now (Martinez, 2020: online). He focused more on the unique character of the house’s designs and garments and, of course, emphasised its artistic heritage.

The first act of the Trilogy was presented in February 2020 during MFW, when guests were invited via WhatsApp text and were given insight into the chaotic backstage of the show. The behind-the-scene scenario allowed the audience to see the models as they got dressed, had their make-up done, and then walked out to the runway. Act two, titled Gucci The Ritual, took place in May, during full lock-down; as described by Michele, it was a “radical experimentation, in which I let myself go with the idea that beauty can appear, unpredictably and wonder-fully imperfect, through the absence of control” (Masrani, 2020: online). The models were sent the clothes and were allowed to build their own images, acting as photographers and storytellers. The result was a perfect symphony of self-expression, while at the same time embracing the Gucci DNA.

This was a clue to July 2020 and the final act of the trilogy, titled ‘Epilogue’, a 12-hour live-streamed show. Again, transparency was key; like the February show, viewers had a behind-the-scenes look, this time including all facets of production, from the security check to the setting of stage lights and cameras, the scaffolding, through to Michele’s design team, who modelled the collection themselves, getting all prepped and glammed up. This final act was an overture, marking a new direction for the brand.

During the lockdown, viewers wanted to connect more with brands and expected more immersive experiences. Hence, fashion began to become more humanised; designers who used to stay behind the scenes started moving to the forefront of social media, using IG Live or Zoom chats like Marc Jacobs or sharing content on Tik Tok like Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain. Through these platforms, fashion brands started to explore digital technology further, pushing themselves to think unconventionally. ‘Social-tainment’ and online ‘shopper-tainment’ is becoming the new normal, designers such as Gelareh Mizrahi, Stella McCartney, Gucci Beauty, Dior, and Prada have created their own AR filters for Instagram stories, allowing viewers to interact with their brands in a completely new and fun way. While Tik Tok introduced branded effects, its Chinese counterpart Douyin (both owned by parent company ByteDance) has developed more advanced features, such as a more detailed homepage, an e-commerce platform, more sophisticated settings for official accounts and sponsored challenges, and the ability to upload full-length movies.

Younger viewers like Gen Z, however, are more orientated toward the gaming world, and the apparel industry has started to take note. Nike and Vuitton have ventured into the gaming world by partnering with Fortnite and Riot Games — League of Legends respectively to create branded ‘skins’. Both Prada and Vuitton have also used Final Fantasy characters in their editorial campaigns and sports teams have been sponsored by Adidas, Nike, and Champion (Maguire, 2020: online). This entry into the gaming world is filling the gaps in social experiences and could become social networks in their own right.

“if you want to be part of modern society, you have to belong to your time”

Oliviero Toscani

Realness, authenticity, and inclusiveness are gaining increasing importance. This is not the first time that brands have made statements or supported causes and issues through imagery; some have been quite controversial and provocative, like Oliviero Toscani’s campaigns for Benetton in the 1980s and 1990s.

Toscani's statement “if you want to be part of modern society, you have to belong to your time”, rings true today. His work, blending social commentary and commerce, has prompted the world to reconsider the power of imagery. Benetton’s message has always been one of inclusiveness and acceptance. Campaigns like the three human hearts, the newborn baby, and the coloured condoms nodding to the HIV/Aids crisis not only shaped the Nineties but raised questions about unspoken matters at that time.

In his talk for Istituto Marangoni, Ibrahim Kamara shares the same thought when it comes to imagery, stating that the beauty of his visuals exists in this intersection of cultures. “When I’m making work, I want people to stop and take in so much,” he said. “If an image doesn’t stop you, it doesn’t really do its job… That’s how I make photos, I want people to look at them twice” (Istituto Marangoni, 2020: online).

Generation Z is increasingly turning to gaming, where they feel they can be their real selves without judgment, as opposed to other platforms where they feel forced to create some sort of ideal perfection through filters and air-brushing. They are shifting from a highly curated, idealised self-image to just ‘be yourself’. This echoes the successful FW17 Diesel ‘Go with the Flaw’ campaign, where the brand celebrates the power of imperfection and real beauty. Stereotypes are changing and the industry is becoming more inclusive and in tune with the times. Even Victoria's Secret is singing from the same hymn book and broke away from their supermodel stereotype by unveiling the new Body by Victoria campaign in March 2020, featuring a casting with older, curvier, and transgender beauties as well as models of colour (Fishman, 2020: online). Body positivity has been growing since 2012 thanks to people like Gabi Gregg, Nicolette Mason, Lizzo, and just recently Halo, the ice cream company that dropped a 30-second spot called ‘Stop Shoulding Yourself’, featuring plus-size model Maria Jimenez Pacifico. “Our fans put a lot of pressure on themselves, and both men and women alike struggle with the ‘shoulds’ in their lives, especially around body image and food choices,” says Halo Top senior brand manager Shilpa Gadhok. “We want to help our fans to stop ‘shoulding’ themselves by giving them a moment in their day when they can simply feel good and rejoice in who they are and what makes them happiest.”

Vogue Italia took the sustainability cause one step further for their January 2020 issue. The covers and all photoshoots were replaced by illustrations in an effort to cut the environmental costs that come with photoshoots, which usually involve a huge entourage and significant carbon footprints while flying to locations around the world (Hines, 2020: online). This marked the first time that a Vogue magazine has been completely photo free.

The launch of the January issue was accompanied by the following caption on their Instagram page when promoting the issue: “*NO PHOTOSHOOT PRODUCTION WAS REQUIRED IN THE MAKING OF THIS ISSUE” “All of the covers, as well as the features of our January issue, have been drawn by artists, ranging from well-known art icons and emerging talents to comic book legends, who have created without travelling, shipping entire wardrobes of clothes or polluting in any way. The challenge was to prove it is possible to show clothes without photographing them. This is a first, Vogue Italia has never had an illustrated cover: and as far as I know, no issue of Vogue in which photography is not the primary visual medium has ever been printed. Thanks to this idea, and to these artists’ process, the money saved in the production of this issue will go towards financing a project that really deserves it: the restoration of Fondazione Querini Stampalia in Venice, severely damaged by the recent floods”

In 2019 Patrick Morgan, an illustrator, and collaborator for brands such as Tom Ford and Dior, as well as having been a tutor at Istituto Marangoni London, set up the Fashion Illustration Design Awards (FIDA), which is the first global online award to promote fashion illustration and drawing around the world, supported and partnered by some of the best brands and people in the fashion industry (Fida, 2020: online). Judges include people such as Massimo Nicosia, Head of Design at Ermenegildo Zegna, and others who work with brands like Miu Miu, Burberry, Dior, Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. The special guest judge for 2020 is Peter Dundas. These initiatives are proving that ‘old school is becoming the new school’. Illustrators -, mostly fashion illustrators — are having a renaissance, and they are recovering a lost art form that had its golden age in the 20th century, with talents such as Rene’ Gruau or Antonio Lopez.

In December 2019, 26 Vogue editors signed the Vogue Values global mission statement: “For over a century, Vogue has empowered and embraced creativity and craftsmanship; celebrated fashion, and shined a light on the critical issues of the time. Vogue stands for thought-provoking imagery and intelligent storytelling. We devote ourselves to supporting creators in all shapes and forms. Vogue looks to the future with optimism, remains global in its vision, and stands committed to practices that celebrate cultures and preserve our planet for future generations. We speak with a unified voice across 26 editions standing for the values of diversity, responsibility, and respect for individuals, communities, and for our natural environment.”

This year, in particular, magazines and editors realised that they will be showing their readers their efforts to promote diversity. They are going all in. For the first time in its 128-year history, all 26 editions of Vogue will have one common theme for the 2020 September issues: Hope Vogue Values echoes the statement made by Edward Enninful in 2017, when he became editor-in-chief of British Vogue, saying that he set out to make it “inclusive and diverse” and bring it “back to what it was like in the ’70s and ’80s when it was about people, and you could see yourself” (Indvik, 2019: online). He continued by saying that Vogue “stands for the diversity of perspective. It’s about the world we live in. It’s tackling real global issues — climate change, race, age — and normalising the marginalised, giving people who didn’t have a voice, as well as creating incredible images and words.”

Following on from the above is Teen Vouge’s ‘The Uncounted’, a series that elevates the stories of women of colour who have been disenfranchised and often written out of history. The August 2020 issue titled ‘Suffragettes’ was timed with the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which granted American women the right to vote. Instead of celebrating that milestone, Teen Vogue calls out the discriminatory state laws that prevent many non-white Americans from voting. Viewers want and expect brands to be supportive of local governments and health organizations while staying true to their brand values and using their weight and presence on social media for good, not exploit situations.

And above all, Hope. Let’s not forget hope, because as Charles Dickens says “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope”.

Realness, transparency, and authenticity seem to be the keywords to continue to communicate in a post-pandemic future, and above all, they resonate true to Generation Z. Fashion has and always will be a visual language that knows no boundaries and is universally understood. Speaking of authenticity, Ibrahim Kamara's words ring true to today’s situation: “You have to look at yourself and your experiences, the things that you love and the things that make you cry, the movies you connect to, the person you first fell in love with. Once you search deeper within yourself, and when you bring that out, no one can take that away from you. You can automatically connect to that person’s point of view — and when it’s not there, you can tell” (Istituto Marangoni, 2020: online).

Let’s embrace the spring of Hope.

*Published, 2020. In book: New communication codes and a new generation of readers. Chapter 9: pp 103–116

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