The pandemic has been a trigger point for long-overdue change and big fashion houses are finally waking up. Here, contributor Paulina Tylus shares her thoughts on the future of fashion in a post-COVID-19 world and asks: is the fashion industry as we know it obsolete?
Let’s quickly look back at the history of fashion. It all started with the seasons. We needed new clothes as the weather changed. The weather also inspired new trends and designers had time to gather that inspiration and create unique luxury pieces. Then came department stores, and fashion kept on speeding up. Consumers wanted to buy more; faster, newer, cheaper. We created a world of constant dissatisfaction with the “now” and endless chase for the newer. Luxury fashion went on discounts, it’s quality started to be compromised in the name of the glorified “newness”. From Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter, we expanded to cruise, pre-fall, holiday collections, and multiple capsule collections to the point where uniqueness came close to becoming extinct.
And all of a sudden we are confronted with the “now” as we are all in lock-down. And fashion doesn’t seem quite so important, or even relevant. Department stores are shutting down, online stores have limited capacity, and customers become more frugal than ever. For the fashion industry, it’s as if someone jammed a stick into its hamster wheel. The uncertainty is crippling. The fashion industry is starting to feel obsolete. BOF reports that fashion houses and designers are in great distress – they’ve already produced those cruise and spring-summer collections and taken orders for pre-fall and fall. Traditionally an old collection would go on sale when a new collection hits the stores, but because of the pandemic, the old collections didn’t even get the chance to see the light of day. It became evident that sticking to the traditional fashion calendar wouldn’t work anymore. BOF took action and opened a conversation between important stakeholders; independent designers, CEOs, and retail executives from around the world. Over a zoom conference, they came up with a proposal for #rewiringfashion.
Where do they see change?
Looking at the overall narrative we can expect change around three main areas; the fashion calendar, the fashion shows format, and the discount structure. The industry professionals recognise that the current calendar is unsustainable not only for the environment but also for consumer needs. They propose a new calendar that would, among other things, allow better alignment with actual weather seasons and synchronise next season buying periods with current season presentations to cut back on travel. The fashion show format is evaluated in the proposal from its merit and relevancy standpoint. Many designers think it became a huge waste of money and resources. The exclusivity of new season’s collections was taken away by the influencers who instantly share the new looks from the front row with their followers. This also allows fast fashion brands to quickly copy the designs and sell them cheaper to the mass market, further devaluing the luxury originals. The creatives and luxury designers strive to better connect with their customers through a new version of fashion shows, perhaps digital or more intimate. Lastly, the industry sees an issue with discounts, recognising that many customers never buy full-priced items knowing that eventually, they must go on sale. This lowers brand equity and forces everyone to produce and sell more, cheaper garments in order to increase revenue.
Who’s stepping up to the plate?
The BOF proposal has been so far signed by 1,872 designers and CEOs, including prominent names such as Oscar De La Renta and Philip Lim.
Gucci, Armani, and Dries Van Noten have also publicly recognised the inevitable need for slowing down and rethinking the industry. Gucci is only going to do two shows a year. Giorgio Armani wrote a moving open letter to WWD expressing his thoughts on the current situation and underlining that “luxury takes time to be created and it must not be fast”. Dries Van Noten is among the big names spearheading another grassroots movement. An open letter has been published under forumletter.org proposing to transform the fashion industry and address the many issues for a more sustainable future that would also consider the time and respect necessary for the creative process. This letter has been signed by some of the big retailers like KaDeWe in Germany or Nordstrom in the US and more well-known fashion brands including Gucci, Chloe, Proenza Schouler, and others.
So, is the fashion industry as we know it obsolete?
A lot of change has happened in the last four years. Firstly, consumer behaviour has shifted focusing on buying here and now. The customers want to buy items that are relevant to the current season. Further, they become more conscious about their clothes, they buy less and put pressure on fashion houses to become more sustainable with movements like #whomademyclothes.
Secondly, the switch to digital. To our surprise, the traditional fashion industry is having a tough time going through digital transformation. They put a lot of pressure on the marketing side of things while falling behind on operations. We’re talking about optimising the process of taking orders, production, and shipping of the products in order to minimise waste, pollution and time. All of those activities required for a sustainable supply chain are proving to be difficult to achieve.
Finally, we feel that fashion has spread out into so many different directions that for everyone it means something else. Some look for the luxury, unattainable feeling that would separate them from the masses, others appreciate the history and character in the vintage pieces and some strive to minimise their impact on the environment with the garments that they choose. The fashion trends have somehow managed to dissolve into one big pot of creativity mixed with history, so nothing is really passe anymore. Therefore we do think that the industry’s old ways need some reinvention in order to inspire and surprise people again.
Change is always difficult but one thing is certain, the pandemic has forced everyone to reflect. We hear a new catchphrase coming from Milan – “rethinking is the new black”. And I love it.