Milan fashion glitterati peel back the curtain, a little

Joshua Melvin and Charlene Pele
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Many runway shows are now live-streamed, so fans do not have to be among the lucky few in the front row to see the latest trends

A fragmented digital world is forcing the beneficiaries of Milan's trade show and glitterati gathering, better known as Fashion Week, to peel back the curtain ever so slightly on the invitation-only party.

Gone are the days when a few public-relations firms and editors sitting through the shows in pitch black sunglasses served as arbiters of what the beautiful people should be wearing next summer.

Social media, with Instagram on top of the heap, has made it so an "influencer" like Camille Charriere can sway a trend by promoting a look or brand to her nearly 590,000 followers on the photo-sharing app.

It is one of the factors challenging the style monopoly that Milan -- and the other cities on the global fashion week circuit that includes London, Paris and New York -- had for so long enjoyed.

"The idea of showing the collection in advance for buyers that are a happy few in a world of Instagram is already a model that isn't working very well," said Stefania Saviolo, a fashion and luxury expert at Milan's Bocconi University.

The result is that the Italian government and local authorities are aiming to appeal more to the masses, including with a series of pop-up art installations around town called Milano XL.

"There are selfies of people in front of the installations all over the world now... and that is good for the image of fashion and also I believe for the business of fashion," Ivan Scalfarotto, Italy's deputy minister of economic development, told AFP.

The runway shows themselves are also live-streamed -- so if it's the clothes you are interested in and not celebrity spotting, you can see the looks at the same time fashion godmother Anna Wintour does on the catwalk.

Though an actual show was open to the public on Monday, when Milan first-timer Ssheena sent its models out onto the square in front of Milan's Duomo cathedral and sparked a picture-snapping frenzy.

During the weeklong design marathon Italy's Chamber of Fashion also operated a sort of pavilion which showcases the work of some up-and-coming designers, open to everyone.

- 'I'm not famous' -

But to be clear, these gestures don't change much for the hordes of people who gather outside the big shows, hoping to snap a picture of the new fashion royalty like superstar sisters Bella and Gigi Hadid or it-girl Kaia Gerber.

Before the Dolce & Gabbana show on Sunday at least 100 uninvited guests leaned on the security barriers, mobile phones at the ready, as the black Mercedes dropped off important clients, fashion bigwigs and celebrities.

One of those spectators was 15-year-old Ya Liu, who lives a short distance away in Pavia. She waited over three hours just on the chance she might see someone famous. The velvet rope is still very much in place for people like her.

"I'm not famous. I don't have any connections," she said with a laugh. "I don't think Instagram really changed the situation in Milan. You still have to wait."

It's worth nothing that the app has not only been an agent of disruption in fashion: In fact, 54-year-old Stefano Gabbana spends hours every day messaging his one million followers on Instagram.

The logistics of Coco Chanel or Yves Saint-Laurent corresponding in their era with dozens or even hundreds of their admirers per day seem challenging to the point of impossible.

But some newer arrivals on the scene, like Chinese designer Anna Chang, whose label Annakiki made its Milan debut in February, are more cautious.

"The social media are really necessary, but it's also impacting our normal life," she told AFP.

The collection the 33-year-old fielded this week, with not much subtlety, bore the warning: "I'm better than a phone. Talk to me."

She said her designs were meant to encourage a human connection, which she sees as a fundamental function of the six days of catwalk shows in Italy's fashion capital.

"The fashion weeks are very important. The fashion shows really express in a very direct way, you feel the fashion. On a cold screen you don't get that feeling. It's irreplaceable."

And with estimates putting the Milan Fashion Week boon to the nation's economy at nearly 50 million euros ($60 million) per year, Italian officials would surely agree.

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