Atlanta International Fashion Week celebrates its 16th year, emphasizes a digital footprint

As with other fashion outlets, Atlanta International Fashion Week, now in its 16th year, is taking more of a step towards digital content in the hopes of reaching a growing Gen Z audience. (Courtesy of Atlanta International Fashion Week)

When Paula Whittle first started in the Atlanta fashion industry in the early 2000s — fashion representation in the South had a long way to go.

“There was no opportunity because no one saw Atlanta as a major fashion house…they did not see Atlanta as a fashion hub,” said Whittle.

Determined to prove skeptics wrong and provide a showcase for other designers and models in the metro Atlanta area, Whittle created Atlanta International Fashion Week. This diverse multi-day event runs from Sept. 26 – Oct. 1 and dedicates itself to what Whittle describes as a cultural display of fashion, design and art.

The annual fashion summit, now in its 16th year, has allowed Whittle the opportunity to highlight the talent of the present while simultaneously setting roots for the future of Atlanta’s industry.

“We have to adapt to the tech kind of things …to still work with the designers and showcase the designers online so that we can continue to have a consistent way to share the experiences with our people and to continue to grow.”

Paula Whittle, founder and executive director of Atlanta International Fashion Week

“I’m always looking forward to working with independent designers and aspiring models … that’s always my goal, to work with the next generation”, the founder said enthusiastically in a recent phone interview. “[Atlanta International Fashion Week is] giving people opportunities and creating an experience that anybody can attend.”

This year’s theme, “Passport to Fashion,” is what Whittle describes as a celebration of the international mecca that Atlanta has become.

And with each new year comes the challenge of creating new elements for attendees and participants alike to enjoy, with rising creative uses of incorporating digital media being at the forefront.

Whittle states that during the COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion world began to take notice of the importance of social media and digital representation, especially when trying to gain the attention of a younger generation.

One of their latest innovations for this year’s AIFW is Shop The Runway, which allows eventgoers to purchase pieces that they see on the runway online in real-time.

“Where technology is going, we have to move with that,” she said. “We have to adapt to the tech kind of things, including AI …to still work with the designers and showcase the designers online so that we can continue to have a consistent way to share the experiences with our people and to continue to grow.”

Social media platforms like Instagram have allowed designers to go live on the organization’s page, sharing their work and offering advice to upcoming designers.

Other platforms, such as X (formerly known as Twitter), TikTok and Facebook, have allowed AIFW to build an audience that can still view and admire the work of artists and the various festivities even if they aren’t physically present.

Online influence also gives Whittle a chance to highlight the community outreach that the organization contributes to, which she describes as a multitude of workshops, mentorship events and nonprofit initiatives that give back to the metro Atlanta area.

Despite the overall growing importance of technology to the fashion industry, Whittle isn’t willing to give up the traditional structure of fashion week completely.

“Digital is fine, but I feel as if there is a different energy,” said Whittle. “You get to connect in person. It’s a different feeling where you get to meet a person and get to know them outside of just being on video. I think there is still an audience for those who like the live shows, the live music, the live energy.”

And with the lively ambition of the AIFW team, the founder and executive director soon hopes to find her brand showcased in some of the countries that their event showcases.

“I want to expand not only digitally, but also globally with different countries…not only an expansion for Atlanta Fashion Week but also brand expansion, which includes a magazine, television platform…and expand around the world.”

It seems like a difficult feat, but according to Whittle, so was the mission for Atlanta to maintain an active footprint on the fashion catwalk.

“They had no interest at all in the beginning…now many of the fashion houses have moved here.”