The Democratization of the Runway

The virtual online runways of tomorrow aren't just about having a front-row seat; they're about stepping into the show.
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For years, the largest organized fashion event in the world was a spectacle that very few people were actually able to participate in. Tickets to the heavily hyped runway shows were invite only and usually reserved for industry insiders. Seats in the coveted front rows were often filled with celebrities and members of the style elite. Clothing and accessories featured on the catwalks were generally shrouded in secrecy before the events and then immediately tucked away after because they were not available for purchase until months after the big event. New York City Fashion Week, perhaps the biggest public celebration of style in the United States was a private affair with very little public access. However, last fall, the curtain that has covered fashion week for years finally started to lift, largely because of the Internet, social media and the innovators embracing them.

Since they debuted in the 1940's, the Fashion Week runways in the Big Apple were generally closed off to the public. But last February, many leading designers including Alexander Wang, Rodarte and Marc Jacobs offered live streams of their shows on the web. At the time, Halston also made fashion news when CEO Bonnie Takhar launched her Fall 2009 collection in a bespoke music video that aired on fashion sites and blogs around the world, and led to unprecedented online interest via Google searches.

This trend has enabled fashion fans everywhere to watch the catwalk from their computers and see the collections at the same time as the editors and buyers sitting in Bryant Park. At Fashion's Night Out: The Show, on Tuesday night, 1500 lucky spectators in NYC watched models wear designer duds that ranged in price points, with most pieces being immediately available in stores around the city for purchase. Those who didn't score tickets to the big runway event were able to watch a live webcast on

There was also a time when posting runway images on the web for the public to view before products hit the stores was also heavily scrutinized. was one of the pioneering sites to change that by posting their famous runway photographs online for public consumption. Many in the fashion industry were wary of this concept and of the internet in general because they were concerned that accessibility to the masses might harm a brand's exclusivity. However making these pictures available to the public early on proved just the opposite. Not only did Firstview help catapult runway images into mainstream pop culture, they also provided a portal for luxury shoppers to pick out what pieces they wanted to buy before the products were actually featured in stores or magazines. That did not come without a cost though. Two of their cameramen were actually arrested for copyright violations after shooting a 2003 Chanel show in Paris. The French court eventually sided with Firstview but that was after an intense legal battle and intense media coverage.

Not only have runway shows now made their way online, but their impact is multiplied a thousand fold, when the investment is made in a spectacular runway show this reverberates around the world with online views that are 5000 times more than what they would be in a single physical presentation. And in the last nine months, the upsurge in innovative designers using Twitter and Facebook to share real-time commentary direct from the show floor is taking the global reach of a runway show to a whole new level. Queen of the wrap dress and New York staple Diane Von Furstenberg has over 100,000 followers on Twitter. She recently tweeted about her excitement surrounding the tents being set up at Lincoln Center and Marc Jacobs has already thanked all of his fans on his twitter for "the good wishes."

Certainly, the other notable change in runway shows is the invitation of online bloggers and influencers to Fashion Week. Last year, Chicago native and 13-year old fashion blogger Tavi Gevinson sat right alongside style editors and celebrities in the front row of Fashion Week. This year she's back live-tweeting and blogging at Barneys Fashion's Night Out party. This year, at Fashion Night Out, Polyvore sets will be displayed on computers integrated into the Yves Saint Laurent store on 57th Street. At the Independent Fashion Bloggers Conference on September 9th key online influencers like Fashion Toast's Rumi Neely, Emily Schuman of Cupcakes and Cashmere and Bryanboy will converge, and share their perspectives with each other and aspiring fashionistas on how to best to leverage today's online tools. "Without these outlets a lot of work would go undiscovered. They have definitely changed the fashion world and opened a once exclusive industry up to the public," says celebrity stylist and NYC fashion week regular Katharine Polk.

It is these innovators who have made the accessibility of Fashion Week online a reality. But perhaps the most exciting trend of all is the one we are about to see. The first generation of online innovation has been about bringing the excitement of Fashion Week to online consumers. Today, we are poised, finally -- to bring the passion and excitement of online consumers directly to Fashion Week and its implications will be even bigger.

This week, another Fashion Week first will take place. In a historic collaboration with the New York Times Style publication, T Magazine, and Polyvore, designer Prabal Gurung will launch pieces from his Spring 2011 collection first to online consumers before the actual runway show. Users from around the world are invited to play virtual stylist on these two sites creating outfits with select items from the collection that will make their virtual debut online days before they make their runway debut at Lincoln Center.

But the biggest signal in all of this is not the one Prabal is sending by going online; rather it is the one he is interested in receiving from the thousands of users globally who will interact with his products and share their creations. Connecting with them, in real-time and creating a vehicle for their expression back to him, and indeed to all of us, is the real message here about how far we have come, and what more is possible.

In the last eighteen months, accessibility has started to replace exclusivity as the mantra of Fashion Week. But what today's tools are starting to make possible are true connections between all of us who embrace fashion, at large scale.

Indeed if Fashion Week is to reach its even fuller potential, online users will emerge as full participants in the event itself not just an audience. Because when it comes to fashion, it's not a matter of "either/or." It's actually an "and." There is a place for traditional influencers as well as new faces, for anyone to set trends and express their style. And the virtual runways of tomorrow aren't just about having a front-row seat; they're about stepping into the show.