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In the age of COVID-19, fashion designers trade the runway for the silver screen

Social distancing is creating some beautiful art.

In the age of COVID-19, fashion designers trade the runway for the silver screen
[Image: Louis Vuitton]

Virgil Abloh’s latest creation for Louis Vuitton isn’t a collection of garments. It’s an adorable cartoon frog named Zoooom.

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As the men’s artistic director of the French luxury house, Abloh wasn’t able to unveil the spring-summer 2021 line in a traditional fashion show, so he created a short film that features animated characters wearing pieces from the collection. This move is part of a broader trend. Across the world of high fashion, designers are finding new ways to communicate their creative vision beyond the runway. Many have turned to film, and their new work perfectly encapsulates the confusing emotions that a pandemic brings to the surface.

[Image: Louis Vuitton]
On the surface, Abloh’s video, entitled “Message in a Bottle,” is a cheery throwback to the cartoons of the ’80s and ’90s, with an upbeat funk soundtrack. In the three-minute-long story arc, Zoooom and his animated friends—including a dog, two plants, a scarecrow, and several dragons—are stowaways on a shipping container that travels through the French countryside before it ends up in Paris, where they dance through the streets.

But there are also subtle signals that it’s set in the time of COVID-19. The Louis Vuitton workers are wearing bandanas over their faces; the streets of Paris are empty. As the day turns into night, the images get darker and more psychedelic. The whole thing feels like a child’s fever dream—or nightmare—of living through this strange moment in history.

As the film comes to a close, it becomes clear that it was never really about fashion—or selling clothes—at all. It was about immersing the consumer in a fantasy and allowing them to temporarily escape their own harsh reality.

At Hermès, menswear designer Véronique Nichanian also captures the spring-summer 2021 collection in a film, but hers is grounded in gritty reality. The film was streamed live on July 5, directly from the company’s workshops in the Paris suburb of Pantin. It was a way to let consumers connect with the designer herself and take in the clothes up close. This works particularly well for Hermès, which is known for its craftsmanship and artisanal approach to making garments and accessories.

For a brand that’s known for its fantastical in-store displays and ad campaigns, this eight-minute film is surprisingly raw. We get close shots of Nichanian placing the finishing touches on outfits; we hear the production assistants giving instructions to people on set; we see two models taking a selfie, waiting to be shot.

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What is surprising about the film is the physical intimacy we experience vicariously through the cinematography. After months of social distancing, there is something radical about feeling surrounded by so many people working close together, touching each other’s hands, speaking in hushed tones into each others’ ears.

Viktor & Rolf’s video, meanwhile, is far more on the nose. The Dutch design duo created a womenswear collection that is itself inspired by the pandemic. The collection contains pajamas and dressing gowns, for the moments we’re confined to our homes; for the times we venture out, there are coats with large protrusions to keep others away. The collection comes in three movements, each reflecting a different emotional state: gloom, confusion, and optimism.

In the video, three models walk across empty rooms in the Waldorf Astoria in Amsterdam. While the other two films don’t have any voiceovers, this one is narrated by singer MIKA, who describes each outfit in matter-of-fact detail. It’s precisely this directness that highlights the absurdity of our current moment and the ridiculousness of trying to design clothing in the midst of a pandemic. Rather than trying to escape the current reality, Viktor & Rolf invites us to confront it head-on and appreciate the irony.

Like pandemics of the past, the COVID-19 outbreak is likely to spur great art. We’re already starting to see designers experiment with taking their craft to the screen. Let’s hope that the fashion filmmaking continues long after runway shows return.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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