A halt to packed runway shows and high-pressure production cycles has disrupted the fashion world, forcing designers to rethink large collections and embrace sustainability.
By the time Paris Fashion Week concluded the fall 2020 womenswear presentations on March 3, it was clear that the well-oiled fashion and luxury machinery was about to derail in a big way. As the spread of COVID-19 accelerated in Europe, fashion companies and luxury conglomerates were starting to feel the burn. Asian buyers and editors had mostly failed to turn up in Paris and Milan. Others returned home early, skipping all or part of their schedule. North American retailers were showing the first signs of weakness, epitomized in the closure of iconic department store Barneys New York.
Four weeks later, with many destinations either severely restricted or under lockdown — like those in Italy and France — the prospect of resort collections or a return of the usual fashion schedule by the summer, had all but evaporated. Factories were closed or producing personal protective equipment. Department stores had shuttered, drastically cutting their fall orders as summer merchandise languished on shop floors. Not since World War II has fashion ground to a halt in such a way.
As weeks turned into months, the initial scramble to work remotely and generate retail revenue — with the hope that the situation would quickly return to normal — soon gave way to deeper questions. There’s no
denying a reckoning is being forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. The fashion sector is bracing itself for “some of the sharpest decline among all industries,” as projected by market research company Euromonitor, despite rescue packages from governments, notably in the United States and Europe.
Fashion shows, once the most talked about and anticipated spectacle of creation, will inevitably evolve. Large gatherings and mass intercontinental travel are off the cards for the foreseeable future. Leveraging the digital world has become a key issue for labels big and small. While it felt like a natural alternative to physical runway shows, its potential remained largely untapped before now.
But, French couturier Alexis Mabille warned, broadcasting traditional catwalks was not sufficient, and “everyone will need to reinvent themselves, showcase their own vision and interpretation” in order to translate their DNA online. His virtual show, along with the tongue-in-cheek narration of Viktor & Rolf by the musician Mika, as well as Dior’s mythology-imbued extravaganza and Valentino’s artful phygital performance piece, “Of Grace and Light,” a dialogue between Pierpaolo Piccioli and Nick Knight” were sterling examples of accessible, inclusive content that could live beyond the insider circles of press, buyers and influencers.
Further afield, the experience of Shanghai Fashion Week, the first to go fully online in mid-March, showed the potential of teaming up with a shopping platform (in this case, Alibaba’s Tmall) to create a sales-boosting effect.
But that’s not to say that the traditional catwalk show is on its last leg. For French hit label Jacquemus, it was the opportunity for a bucolic fantasy in a wheat field, with only 100 guests dotting a picturesque land-scape — and legions of fans watching the mid-July live-cast on social media. And in Copenhagen, where fashion week became a hybrid event of physical moments with digital content distilled on a range of media, it hinted at what the next seasons might look like with a more local audience, streamed Q&A sessions to extend the virtual experience of a collection, and most of all, brands high-lighting the communities that gravitate around them.
The changes that had been inching forward before the pandemic will accelerate in the aftermath. Takee-commerce. Regardless of who will remain after the brutal shakedown that is bound to happen as companies weather the storm, power has shifted from retailers to brands, many of which launched direct-to-consumer sales, citing the growing challenges of wholesale business as a main factor. This won’t be a magic bullet for sales, however, as the ripple effects of lockdowns, furloughs and closures make themselves known. As menswear label Ernest W. Baker put it, despite the uptick in visitors on its newly opened e-shop: “People have more time to browse, but not such a desire to spend at this time, faced with an unstable landscape.”
Another field in focus: sustainability on all levels. “People have been talking about this ‘slowing down’ for years. Now we’re here. The pace, the waste — it’s been like an addiction. Now, it’s rehab,” designer Roland Mouret
told Vogue in late June, as he presented the first drop of a series of capsules, his preferred method going forward, due to replace the fall 2020 collection he chose not to produce.
Australian couturier Toni Maticevski has long considered expansive lineups a thing of the past. “Collection sizes should come down as a general rule. Stores are oversaturated with things consumers don’t want or need. Buyers driving sales is not the way to grow business,” he wrote in an email from his headquarters in Melbourne, currently undergoing another lockdown. But as to whether these more reasonable practices would solidify across the board, he was cautious. “Who knows? Some brands are still gripping to the old model, but it’s so commercially driven that it doesn’t resonate as deeply any more. So maybe the timeout is a good thing.”
Some went even more radical. New York–based designer Yeon Park, who launched her label in 2013
and was incubated by Moda Operandi’s The Platform young designer program, had long been questioning the size of the collections she produced every season. “The process is really wasteful. Each season, I was producing a lot of new fabrics, multiple prototypes, fitting samples, many of which were dropped in the end. There were
even pieces that were just created to balance out so-called signature pieces,” she says. So, when New York
locked down, she took this as a sign and opportunity to make a radical change. In May, she introduced a
monthly, direct-to-consumer drop featuring a single look. This month, she’s featuring a cashmere coat that
will make good use of her proclivity for pure, architectural shapes.
As lockdown brought workers to their homes and onto video calls, comfort became a key factor in
wardrobe choices. But despite GQ and the New York Times putting forth the idea that 2020 has ushered
in the age of sweatpants, that’s only the bottom line — or rather, half — of the story. With the rise of home
office and video calls, the “Zoom shirt” has taken flight. While anecdotal in itself, this repeat showpiece for
the worker-at-home pointed to one reality: a return to luxurious, well-made purchases with lasting power.
“It’s my hope that this situation will have encouraged people to be more conscious of their habits and, perhaps, look at sustainable options, especially in clothes,” says Kevin Germanier, a Paris-based emerging designer who has long focused on using existing materials for his label.
During lockdown, he imagined an innovative wardrobe made of essentials, made-to-order within two to four weeks, and designed to complement an existing wardrobe with bold pops of glamour, which has just made its debut on his label’s website. A canny choice: With less disposable income, consumers will be more cautious with their purchases.
But bargain chasers beware. Endless clearances and midseason sales periods may themselves become so-last-season. The writing had long been on the wall: The mismatch between the fashion calendar and seasonal realities is no longer sustainable for designers and customers alike. Summer dresses arrive long before it is reasonable to shuck off a winter coat and are discounted as the weather makes them a hot commodity.
A consortium formed during lockdown that includes designers such as Dries Van Noten, Pierre Hardy and Thom Brown, labels like Tory Burch but also retailers Bergdorf Goodman, Nordstrom and MyTheresa, is pushing for a rethink of the retail calendar of deliveries and discounts.
“We agreed that the current environment, although challenging, presents an opportunity for a fundamental and welcome change that will simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable and ultimately align them more closely with customers’ needs,” the group stated in an open letter circulated among industry professionals in mid-May.
Delays in production due to closures and shipping constraints created an interesting novelty: weather-appropriate deliveries. At Chanel, to name but one example, spring collections would remain in stores longer, while the artisanal-focused Métiers d’Arts and the fall/winter 2020 collections were delivered respectively in early July, and from mid-July to September.
With time — and the concept of seasons — seeming more nebulous than ever, some designers
are embracing this new state of affairs. As Donatella Versace said to industry bible WWD, “I do not see anything wrong in having the fall collection hitting the stores … in fall!
Faced with an inability to order new materials, the French couturier let his imagination loose on his existing stock, coming up with bold associations and textile pairings that highlighted the golden hands of his atelier’s expert craftspeople. Full of bright hues, curve-skimming yet elegant, the collection is an homage to the playfulness of the feminine spirit and a call to optimism.
Social distancing doesn’t get more fashionable than this. A nearly 2,000-foot-long path made of white
wood planks snaking across a wheat field an hour outside Paris, with a handful of guests (including VIPs
and influencers, most of them Paris-based) and a skeleton crew, the Jacquemus production ushered in a
new era of physical shows. Style-wise, it was a typical breezy walk through French insouciance peppered
with details from the Provence region from which designer Simon Porte Jacquemus hails. Beyond the
runway, though, one wouldn’t be mistaken to feel that this kind of show elevated physical interactions to a
luxury for a very happy few while turning social media into a one-way conversation.
The Australian designer has never been one for trends, preferring to let his penchant for the sculptural and his knack for the feminine form do the talking. Going forward, he’ll continue focusing on beautiful edited pieces that
will become collectibles. For him, e-commerce offers a great avenue to experiment and offer a wide range of products that will appeal to his devoted customers as much as lure new ones in.
Glamour in reduced circumstances was the name of the game for the London-based French designer, who made the call to cancel his fall 2020 season. But don’t think it’s Scarlett O’Hara making do with the drapes. The 2020 Roland Mouret woman will have fluid silhouettes with a focus on the upper body (perfect for those Zoom calls), all artfully cut and every bit as fabulous as you’d expect from this master of the professional and cocktail
hours. Given that sustainability has long been a concern for Mouret, it has owed into the style but also into his distribution method, now imagined as a series of drops throughout the season rather than four full-bodied collections.