Inside the virtual fashion party scene

Robin Givhan

THE WASHINGTON POST – It began at 6 to a soundtrack of Aretha Franklin demanding Respect and with guests arriving promptly rather than fashionably late.

By 6.03, the schmoozing at the Lafayette 148 party had begun in earnest, with Megan Boswell, who works for the New York-based womenswear brand, digitally extolling the glories of the music and barely able to contain her excitement for the upcoming panel discussion that was the centerpiece of a virtual evening unfolding on laptops and smartphones from Washington, DC, to Cambridge, England.

Families and small groups of friends might at last be able to toast each other in person, but networking on a grand scale remains mostly a virtual affair.

And for an industry that loves a store opening, a trunk show, a book party or really any excuse to dress up and rub shoulders, these online business soirees and fundraisers lay bare fashion’s peculiar customs, its insatiable desires and a few of its vaguely endearing foibles.

These Zoom gatherings are not so much lively parties as they are experiments in cultural anthropology – an opportunity to see the natives in unnatural circumstances.

Fashion is a business of aesthetics, but these virtual gatherings offer attendees no real opportunity to preen. There’s no step-and-repeat and no roving party photographers. There’s no mugging for Instagram, unless posing next to a fuzzy computer image brings one joy. But based on the abundant attendees these events attract, fashion folks do not need actual fashion to remain engaged. Mere talk of style will suffice.

An image from the Lafayette 148 virtual party and panel discussion. Zoom events have transformed high-society schmoozing – sometimes for the better. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

From a promotional perspective, Lafayette 148 is particularly suited for these in-home events because it has long defined itself by its close relationship with its customers. The brand regularly incorporates its loyalists into its advertising imagery and sponsors gatherings to support their charities. It isn’t an aspirational luxury label; it’s a stylishly pragmatic one for professional women with a fair amount of disposable income.

So it was marketing as usual when Lafayette 148 planned a party and panel discussion with nine noteworthy women to raise money for Girl Rising – a global campaign focused on education.

The spotlighted achievers – artist Amy Sherald, astronaut Peggy Whitson, activist Brittany Packnett Cunningham and others – were photographed wearing the company’s businesslike shirts, trousers and tailored jackets.

The evening of talk and was originally meant to unfold at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, a venue that would have accommodated about 200 people.

As an online extravaganza, attendance surged to more than 1,000. As people said their hellos in the chat room, they announced their home base: South Texas! New York! St Louis!

Geography, rather than their occupation, relationship to the host or personal style savvy, became guests’ distinguishing feature.

It was a fashion event without even an above-the-waist glimpse of attire as guests could only see the panellists, not each other.

Fashion gatherings are rarely warm, fuzzy affairs, but there is the pleasure – or at least amusement – of assessing the room and feeling its pulse.

The impetus for having these events at all is, in part, to create a sense of energy, cool and kinship that can bring a brand to life – that can turn it into a phantom personality that engages customers in a quotidian way. That sizzle is mostly lost online.

But other things are gained.

Journalist Isha Sesay was the panel moderator and she was charged with chatting up nine women, which meant engaging nine relatively small rectangles on a screen. Sesay deftly shifted from activist Meena Harris – niece of Sen Kamala Harris, D-Calif – to social justice advocate Cunningham, who delivers what might best be described as a TED talk on intersectionality and policing and then disappears from the screen, not to return.

That’s the beauty of a virtual event – one never has to struggle to make a gracious exit.

One can simply depart without explanation or regrets.

How long is too long for a virtual party? How long can a person engage with slightly haloed images of legless people on a grimy screen?

At the virtual book party, for fashion editor Andre Leon Talley, two hours was not enough time to sate an audience hungry for tales from his life of globe-trotting.

Two hours!

While at the fundraiser for distressed designers hosted by Harlem’s Fashion Row, 10 minutes seemed to be the outer limit for a conversation with any one of the myriad speakers.

The truth is in the chat room – a giant, text-based, group conversation that can quickly shift from a repository of chipper public banter and swooning glee to a locus of Twitter-like spats.

At the Lafayette 148 party, after one panellist noted that undocumented immigrants pay taxes, a sharp side debate ensued about what sort of taxes, the dollar amount of those taxes and whether paying those taxes should count as mitigating circumstances in a deportation debate.

“So what is your point Eleonora?” read one of the comments during the testy exchange. “That the undocumented individuals that are ensuring you have food (on) the table don’t deserve respect or human rights because according to you, they don’t pay enough taxes?”

Mostly, however, the chat room is a place for adulatory commentary. It was filled with squeals of delight during the book talk TAA PR organised to celebrate Talley’s memoir, The Chiffon Trenches. There’s even a Part 2 planned.

In an earlier virtual interview with CBS This Morning, Talley had appeared as a bouncing blur – as if he were phoning in during a minor earthquake.

When TAA founder Aba Kwawu introduced Talley, his technology had stabilised; he was not vibrating, and his golden yellow robe was majestic.

The veteran editor unspooled his life story during a marathon conversation periodically interrupted by famous guests, such as model Naomi Campbell, parachuting into the conversation from all over the globe to kvell over Talley’s accomplishments. And in the chat room, the audience roared.

“I just screamed with delight in my apartment.”

“This Zoom is everything!”

“I CAN’T!! Naomi!! Can we get an off book story?!”

Organising so many glittering cameos is something a live book party would be hard-pressed to do. And with the virtual format, overstimulated guests can pass out in the privacy of their home.

It’s rare that a single-focus event could keep guests engaged for so long – even if people are making regular runs to the refrigerator.

Harlem’s Fashion Row, an organisation that supports black designers, sponsored an entire afternoon of networking that raised some USD15,000 for its new philanthropic endeavour to aid businesses in the wake of the coronavirus.

It was a whirlwind of speakers: Michelle Obama’s stylist Meredith Koop; designer Tracy Reese; Vogue’s director of special events Jessie Nichols; influencers and entrepreneurs.

The technology operated with all the efficiency of a dial-up modem, but the choreography of guests was invigorating, the attendees created their own massive Google document of contacts and everyone seemed in good spirits despite the connection struggles.

“My computer keeps freezing and at this point I’m just here to chat.”

The transactional nature of networking seems less crass when conducted online.

The atmosphere is both sterile and personal. The words are coming straight at you and into your home, but they’re also faceless and free-floating.

There are no judgmental eyes, no identifying markings that associate people with a particular fashion tribe, no superficial biases.

It’s just an exchange of ideas and information, and trust that people aren’t misrepresenting themselves but are coming as they are.

The fashion industry, like so many others, is operating in a digital universe – at least temporarily.

This summer, brands are unveiling collections online rather than in person. Chanel created an elaborate collection of photos and videos to debut its cruise collection.

During a virtual news conference – one featuring video clips, curated audience questions and enough thank-yous to rival an Oscar speech, Dior announced plans to present its cruise collection live in southern Italy’s Puglia region in July. One without an audience in attendance.

Brands are sorely tempted to make full use of the control that a digital event allows: micromanaging the setting, formalising a script, screening any questions, muting the attendees.

Control is their lifeblood.

But these virtual fashion events have their greatest impact when attendees can surf the informal, freewheeling flow of modest imperfections. Not because anyone wants to waste time at (in? watching?) a flawed event, but because one that’s covered in a thick, stultifying layer of gloss looks wildly indifferent to the times.