You’d have to live underneath a rock to have not heard the words “coronavirus”, “quarantine” or “social distancing” on a seemingly endless loop for the past 5 months. The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have been felt globally, and many industries have been forced to dramatically change the way they do business. The fashion industry has certainly been no exception to this, with lockdown policies disrupting garment supply chains and fashion weeks alike.
But where fashion perhaps stands apart is that the fundamental structure of the industry was already being questioned. In recent years there have been loud calls to revolutionise the way fashion functions, citing that its traditional business model is largely behind-the-times, especially as the garment industry has become the world’s second-largest polluter. Whereas most sectors have been put on pause by coronavirus but are aiming to get back to business as usual (with minor alterations), the pandemic has accelerated fashion’s need to change.
The Fashion Calendar: A relic of the past?
The fashion calendar is perhaps its most entrenched tradition, but many view it as why the industry is fundamentally outdated. For over fifty years designers have been hosting runway shows to premiere their work for buyers, the press and VIP guests - Spring/Summer collections in September/October and Fall/Winter in February/March. These shows are grouped into two fashion months, consisting of the fashion weeks of the ‘Big 4’ (the de facto fashion capitals of the world): New York, London, Milan and Paris.
However, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. With the increase of the menswear fashion market, all of the Big 4 now host separate fashion weeks for womenswear and menswear collections. On top of that, while almost all designers release collections for Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter, some brands also produce Resort/Cruise/Pre-Fall collections. Also, though true haute couture may be dying in the modern fashion world, there are still a few brands who remain committed to this old, European art-form, producing one-of-kind collections along with ready-to-wear. Paris even hosts a separate Couture Week biannually.
Additionally, while the Big 4 may dominate as centres of the industry, the fashion scenes of cities worldwide have become impossible to ignore. Fashion has historically been western-orientated, and cities like Madrid, Berlin, and Los Angeles have also developed their own fashion weeks, but the higher economic growth in East Asian countries has shifted the industry’s focus. Though China is the largest fashion consumer in the region, it is the creative outputs from Seoul and Tokyo that have begun to draw global attention, their fashion weeks becoming unmissable events in the calendar.
Clearly, a year in fashion is an intense experience, involving much international travel, often over short periods, and a mountain of output that can often be difficult to keep up with. Not only can this be a logistical nightmare but also contributes to the already enormous negative impact fashion has on the environment.
What’s more, the traditional method of premiering collections months before they hit the shops can cause a whole set of problems in the new, digital marketplace. While fashion shows were previously just for buyers, the press and a few select guests, social media allows many to see collections as soon as they premiere, only to have to wait many months before they are available. While this fast-paced digital environment has brands now chasing customers’ demands, the long lead-times can cause the hype around a collection to die out prematurely. This means that brands often produce far too much stock based on the initial interest and then have to rely on heavy discounts to sell it all - greatly decreasing their margins. The delay also gives fast fashion brands plenty of opportunities to produce low-quality, cheaper replicas that can be available much faster. For fashion to thrive in the modern marketplace, change is needed.
The Seeds of Change
Over the last few years, several high-profile ideas have been floated on how to adapt fashion for the new marketplace. One of the first big moves to reinvent the fashion timetable was the ‘see now/buy now’ model. In short, this kept the fashion calendar generally the same but simply making pieces (not necessarily the entire collection) available for purchase immediately after the collection is showcased. Burberry was one of the first major brands to adopt this experimental model in 2016, and it soon became a strong force in the industry with Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, Tom Ford and others following suit. ‘See now/buy now’ certainly allowed brands to profit off of the massive PR buzz fashion shows cause on social media and stay ahead of lower-priced imitators.
However, this strategy did not turn out to be the complete revolution that it had intended to be. While New York and London embraced ‘see now/buy now’, design houses based in Milan and Paris showed far more reticence towards the model - the mainland European fashion capitals have always been bastions for fashion’s traditions. Additionally, the brands that did adopt this model faced logistical issues. Having to produce items for sale immediately after the collection was shown drastically shortened the manufacturing window and many struggled to keep this pace. Moreover, with little to no room between the show and when items are made obtainable, there is less chance to gain feedback from buyers and the press to gauge the saleability of pieces and adjust stock levels accordingly. Tom Ford abandoned the model after only one season, stating that it actually cost his brand sales.
Clearly, restructuring an industry worth over a trillion US dollars was going to take something more substantial than ‘see now/buy now’. So, while the desire for change in fashion remained, the industry continued as it always had. Until the COVID-19 crisis hit.
Coronavirus: A Cultural Reset
The first sign of disruption in the fashion world was in February before most of the world had gone into lockdown when Giorgio Armani asked invitees to not attend his Milan Fashion Week show and instead watch it via live-stream. Since then, the governing bodies of fashion have begun cancelling or rescheduling many of the events. In Paris, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode announced that their Fashion Week Menswear and their Couture Week, set for June and July, would no longer go ahead. The Camera Nazionale della Moda in Milan chose to postpone the men’s fashion shows originally set for June so that they could be combined with the womenswear shows in September. New York Fashion Week Men’s was postponed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), who also recommended that designers not show a Resort collection.
Yet much of this decision making was changed when, in London, an innovative step was taken. The British Fashion Council (BFC) decided to take London Fashion Week online, combining menswear and womenswear to make an original, gender-neutral, digital event, which was held in mid-June. Since the BFC announced their plan in April, both Milan and Paris revealed that they intended on acting likewise, hosting digital fashion weeks open to industry insiders and the public alike. There will even be a digital event for Paris Couture Week, and the Camera Nazionale della Moda made their week mixed-gender as well.
Out with the Old, In with the New
The move into digital spaces has excited the fashion industry, and some have even suggested that this should be considered as an industry-standard post-lockdown - a potential solution to the frequent international travel of fashion months. The medium gives designers a chance to produce high-quality showcases for their collections, like those traditionally seen in person, but also explore different artistic styles of displaying fashion for the consumer - all from a sensible social-distance. If more and more brands explore these options, it could mean less obligation to debut collections during fashion week - no need to wait for everyone to be in the same city.
Not all designers are following the structure set out by the regulatory bodies. The break in the formerly rigid timetable has allowed many brands to explore the option of setting their own schedules and abandoning the historic seasonal model. Significant players in London such as Burberry and Richard Quinn chose not to partake in the digital fashion week. Saint Laurent, which has previously shown in New York and Malibu rather than its traditional home of Paris, announced that it would skip the upcoming Spring/Summer season and begin to set its own schedule. Gucci has similarly announced that it will no longer be following the traditional fashion calendar; reducing its output from five collections a year to two, which will be seasonless as Creative Director Alessandro Michele sees the conventional seasons as “stale”.
With such massive brands rejecting the old fashion calendar, is it possible that this year will bring about the end of the fashion week as we know it? And if it does, what negative implications could that have? Yes, fashion weeks may be a product of an outmoded system, but they are also essential business opportunities for many. There is a vast number of hair-stylists, make-up artists, street photographers, event managers, production designers and more whose careers are dependent on the work they get at fashion week. There is also much discontent among fashion buyers (the people the industry needs to stay profitable) about complete digitalisation. How will they know if garments are right for their customers if they can’t see the fabric move? Can they really judge the saleability of pieces from behind a screen?
Visions for the Future of the Fashion Industry
Luckily, the current situation has spurred key figures within the industry to work collaboratively to find a way for fashion to work in the modern marketplace; one that reforms rather than rejects the old system. In May, a group of designers and fashion executives, headed by Belgian designer Dries Van Noten and the CEOs of Lane Crawford and Altuzarra published an open letter to their industry calling for change. They touched on shifting fashion’s seasons so that they better suit consumer needs and support businesses, the need for fashion to address sustainability and the idea that the role of fashion shows should be re-examined.
These ideas were then further developed by a think tank of creatives and business figures in the fashion industry to create a new fashion calendar for the future. Facilitated by Business of Fashion, #rewiringfashion addresses the need for a new timetable that supports full-price selling and reduces excessive travel.
The proposal also provides a new function for the fashion show. With it suggesting separate showcases for buyers earlier in the season, fashion shows would then become solely promotional events staged just before collections became available, building hype only when it is needed. They also suggest removing any restrictions on what a fashion show can be - allowing designers to fully unleash their creative visions.
These schemes show much awareness of the way the world has changed and make plausible suggestions on the ways fashion can best function in the future. Yet, it is clear that there is still a long way to go as individual determination seems to be the trend of the moment in fashion. With brands choosing to follow a variety of different paths, it seems a momentous task to attempt to rein them all into a new system. The unprecedented disruption of COVID-19 heralds a revolution, but it is still uncertain whether the change that revolution will bring will be for the better or, the worse.
One thing is clear, however; fashion will never be the same again.
By Jonny McKinnell