This month, Chanel staged a fashion show for its Pre-Fall 2021 collection in the Château de Chenonceau in the Loire Valley. Models strode down the chequerboard floor of the Grand Gallery, devised by Catherine de’ Medici in the 16th century, in Sixties-style checked skirts and doublet-like jackets, black-and-white tweeds and not exactly historically correct leggings. They were observed by a physical, socially distanced audience of just one: Kristen Stewart, the actor and a “face” of Chanel. But the show was viewed more than 1.5m times on YouTube not to mention a portion of the 42.4m followers of the brand’s Instagram account.

Almost a year into the pandemic, fashion brands have realigned, reconfigured and regrouped around an approach to showing their wares they’re dubbing “phygital”. The ungainly, industry-coined portmanteau describes a semi-physical, mostly digital approach that will likely stretch well into 2021, as press and buyers from the US and Asia in particular are still reticent (or, indeed, unable) to travel.

According to market analysts at Launchmetrics, who measure fashion shows’ Media Impact Value — an algorithm that translates placements and mentions via social media engagement to a monetary value — when successful, these hybrids can have six times the impact of purely digital experiences. Chanel’s recent phygital show, for example, had nearly five times the number of YouTube views of its digital-only Cruise show in June.

“Phygital” can have many definitions, as this autumn’s crop of shows, covering assorted seasons, amply demonstrates. Prada held an intimate (physical) reception in Shanghai in September, to debut (digitally) a film of the label’s Spring/Summer 2021 collection, the first designed by Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons. Dior did the same in December, launching Kim Jones’ 2021 Pre-Fall menswear collection. And in October, Bottega Veneta staged two catwalk shows for Spring/Summer 2021 in London’s Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

The brand called them “Salons”, each with about 30 attendees including fashion photographer Juergen Teller and Kanye West. However, most will see these clothes digitally: a film created from the events was released online this week, alongside images of the clothes.

Sarah Burton showed her Spring/Summer 2021 Alexander McQueen collection in the brand’s Bond Street store, via a film with Jonathan Glazer and a physical installation of clothes that will tour different countries (America and China are next) through to February 2021. That is fashion in the “phygital” age.

Removing the need to accommodate audiences between the hundreds and thousands — with all the seating, security and health and safety concerns that entails — permits designers to execute fashion shows that are otherwise improbable, even impossible. Glazer’s film, for instance, showed Burton’s precious McQueen dresses getting muddied and soaked as models waded through the river Thames in London at 4am, giving some welcome grit to her grace.

Demna Gvasalia created an online game to show his new Balenciaga collection for Fall 2021: the press watched a more conventional show, but through Oculus Rift 3D headgear, entirely virtually rendered on avatars. A little cold, slightly chilling, it was nevertheless mesmerising — and a computer game feels like the perfect communication method to engage with Balenciaga’s hypebeast hordes of fans.

Another Kering brand, another impossibility: Saint Laurent filmed its latest Spring/Summer 2021 show in a desert — the house wouldn’t disclose which one, but it’s mighty tricky to host an audience there. So why not transport mentally? “The desert, to me, symbolises that yearn for serenity, open space, a slower rhythm,” wrote Saint Laurent creative director Anthony Vaccarello in a statement: and the stark lines of his clothes made a graphic impact even on a vast panorama of sand.

Vaccarello frequently engineers his physical shows for live-streamed spectacle, too, with swinging Klieg spotlights or models splashing through water as if walking messiah-like across the surface. Those kind of grand visions garner views: on September 9 Saint Laurent debuted a film showcasing its menswear, with models darting across Parisian rooftops. Nine days later, it had been viewed 42.4m times.

Other labels are harnessing the same kind of viewer power. Jones’ Pre-Fall Dior show — hyper-coloured, hyper-real — took place in a virtual reality hinterland like a 1990s music video. “A real show, done digitally without an audience,” the designer told me. Lady Miss Kier, of cult dance band Deee-Lite, crooned a soundtrack name-checking Dior, and Jones collaborated with the pop artist Kenny Scharf, whose work often resembles a computer game. That show, streamed across 18 different channels, including the gaming-geared platform Twitch, has garnered 140m views since December 8.

Fashion brands have, of course, been streaming catwalk shows for a good decade. It was 2009 when Lee Alexander McQueen collaborated with photographer Nick Knight on a live stream of his ultimately final fashion show, Spring/Summer 2010’s Plato’s Atlantis.

The difference today is the sophisticated interplay of physical event, digital experience and social-media engagement. For example: Balmain’s Spring/Summer catwalk show was a physical event, but alongside the press were 58 video-screens, creating a “digital front row” of video figures who could not attend including Anna Wintour, Jennifer Lopez, and Cindy Crawford. Prada’s September digital show was followed by an online Q&A between Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons — a civilised version of the traditional post-show press scrum.

Streamed across multiple social channels — including TikTok — audience engagement was 16 times higher than the previous year. In China, the Prada stream across social media platforms Weibo and Douyin had more than 48m participating users. The Weibo hashtag #PradaSS21 hit 170m views in one day, and with triple-digit percentage growth in Instagram viewers.

Prada’s social media success was mirrored by triple-digit ecommerce growth in the first half of 2020, both during and after lockdowns. Which goes some way to answer the big question: namely, whether any of this will actually translate to sales.

Directing viewers to watch a show staged on a retail platform has a simple logic, particularly when physical stores are closed. Certainly, online luxury sales are growing: in the third quarter, Kering Group reported that online sales increased 101.9 per cent, and in the first nine months of 2020 ecommerce accounted for 12.5 per cent of group retail sales, up from 9.4 per cent in 2018.

With vaccines rolling out, hopefully fashion will return to some semblance of “normality” next year. Yet, if the “phygital” has been normalised, and consumers and press are now willing — and, more importantly, able — to experience and purchase fashion online, will the industry ever really shift back to the old ways of doing things?

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