The world of fashion is dead. Or dying. And has been for a long time..
Before COVID-19 seized consumer spending, fashion was already on its way out.
Once what was a glamorous, mystical and culture shaping industry, the global fashion system now clings on by it’s fingertips.
In an article for the New York Times, famed fashion icon, Anna Wintour said, “I think in general, we’ve created a system that is unrealistic and a strain for even the largest of brands.”
Notably, Marc Jacobs, one of the most forward thinking designers said during Vogue’s Global Conversations event in April,”What I do, the clothes that I make, and the way we present a show, it feels like that probably will never exist as we knew it.”
The two readily admit that the world that fashion faces is bleak, especially after the pandemic forced stores to shutter. But the end has been a long time coming.
The Beginning of the End:
The unsustainability began in 2008.
Prior to the crash of the economy and looming recession, fashion boomed. Before fast fashion and what we’ve come to know as a democratized world of fashion today, independently owned big house name designers ruled.
Known as the luxury market and what was the only fashion industry, brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton defined popular trends in a pre-media world. They communicated with magazines to show buyers and consumers what garments should be bought. Designers used seasonal shows as marketing campaigns, and the feedback loop from show to magazine to buyer encompassed the whole designer market.
Despite being for a wealthy elite, fashion had not yet been democratized, but was subsequently simpler, and designers profited off of their new and lusted after creations.
Department stores, which rose as a symbol of american allure, independence, beauty, and luxury, became important wholesale buyers who reflected the high brow nature of the fashion industry.
Today, most probably shop online, but even still in 2020 before the pandemic, a large proportion of designer or higher end sales were mediated through stores like Barneys, Nordstrom, and Neiman Marcus. Though now these stores have mostly gone bankrupt, they once stood as the Kings and Queens of the fashion market, sustaining independent designers with large orders and sales.
Fashion has always been a symbol of status, and a form of personal expression and as people began making more money and gaining agency within their lives, their new lifestyles became reflected in their dress and spending habits.
But after the economy collapsed, consumers no longer wanted to buy clothing in the quantity they had before.
Fashion had, up until 2008, sustained inflation as consumer demand kept growing, but In 2008 the market shifted. Without consumers readily dishing out cash for the up and coming luxury market, stores began collecting unused product. Instead of purging their stocks, or holding on with fewer sales, they made one of the decisions which would plague fashion for the next decade; they marked down seasons early.
As a result, the seasons shifted forward. Dresses were put on sale before the weather became warm and holiday themes emerged months before.
As the big name wholesale buyers had gotten used to selling large quantities of clothes, year after year, large wholesale department stores depended on the early designer markdowns for revenue. Instead of pausing to regulate, the fashion cycle continued.
The effect was catastrophic. Once consumers became trained to hunt for sales, they no longer were satisfied to buy seasonal full priced clothes. There was no more seasonal fashion cycle, and seasonless trends became more popular.
Wholesale buyers, which at once worked alongside designers as their primary source of sales, began to slowly kill them.
And then the media grew.
In 2009, digital media began taking over. The fashion world was dependent on the press, but when the media turned bloggers into the press, models, and front row all at once, the marketability of the shows changed.
An immediate global presence took over the stage. And instead of creating an audience that sought to emulate the designers, new influencers became the main source of appeal. By today’s standards, the entire industry is contained in the microcosm of a famous instagrammer and their followers. When people start to pay attention to the influencers more than the designers, the designers and their shows need them.
Additionally, With the popularity of online shopping and the rise of designer ecommerce sites like Net A Porter, designers had to further adapt to the different marketplaces which were competing with each other. Each store wanted to sell the most product, so they began to ask designers to create “exclusives” and “novelty” items tailored for their stores. No longer were designers designing for themselves, or even their consumers, but instead, for the buyers.
Designers’ situation only got worse. But, while they weren’t designing for themselves, at least they were selling products right? Wrong.
Wholesale buyers introduced R.T.Vs, or, Return To Vendors. If the product didn’t sell, buyers could send back the product and ask for their money back. Burberry started burning 37 million dollars worth of clothing each year just to maintain “brand value”. Concerns for sustainability aside, the drastic reduction in profit took a toll on designers who were still producing sometimes multi-million dollar fashion shows every few months.
Fashion in theory, (or the pervasive threat of the trend, upended and undulating through fashion cycles), effectively halted.
At the same time, the media which was destroying the allure of the fashion show itself made shows accessible immediately.
The State of Designers Today:
It’s no secret that for years, the CFDA has sustained designers. Anna Wintour’s fund to support independent designers dishes out countless grants each year as the Entrepreneurial world of design depends on independent investors to believe in small companies enough to get them through fashion weeks to make products.
One of the biggest misunderstandings in the fashion world is a result of the big glamorous shows which contribute to a false narrative that there are excessive resources in the hands of designers when in fact many are struggling to make it from day to day, surviving on brick and mortar, or a few wholesale buyers.
Part of the problem is that investors seek “unicorns”. VC investors don’t want to invest small sums in a growing brand, so they invest millions into promising companies and demand rapid output.
With what it takes to produce product, shows, and a media campaign, companies can’t sustain their growth. Big investors want quick returns, aiming to disrupt the industry, not small, stable growth. A prime example is Outdoor Voices, the athletic-apparel company that largely blew up on instagram. The brand took in $60 million of venture-capital money and In February crumbled with its C.E.O. kicked out and with its value quickly receding.
Design as a product of Culture:
Influencers have had a significant effect on the established industry. The media at large has altered the way consumers think and has enabled regular people to enter into the dialogue once clouded in the world of the fashion week designers. And as it is the primary platform for any newsworthy consumption, basing campaigns around instagram has become the only option for a lot of designers. With Venture Capital investment hard to come by and even harder to handle, holding a presence in the fashion world depends upon brands pivoting to the media for direct to consumer sales
In many ways, the new inclusion of everyday consumers into the fashion industry has been positive. In 2017, Marc Jacobs sent white models down the runway with dreadlocks. The backlash on instagram caused him to re-evaluate his designs and his own beliefs. However, the designer also used instagram and twitter in 2014 to cast regular people in his campaigns in an effort to be more inclusive and today promotes gender equality.
Fashion as It Stood Before Covid-19:
Though wholesale buyers no longer underscore most of the industry’s sales, the media may sustain some brands if able to pivot successfully. But is the constant need to pivot and adapt suitable to the world of fashion?
Research suggests that Instagram has changed the way people consume fashion. Instead of wanting to imitate designers, Instagram users respond to feelings of belonging in a group. No longer are users motivated to buy clothing because they see it in a show, rather, they must feel as though they will be included by favorite influencers and friends. When brands create aspects of a community, they drive purchases. As influencers began to become fashion week, they democratized fashion in a new irreversible manner.
Brands then must cater to this desire for inclusion by designing fashion for consumers who revel in resembling each other. The freedom to experiment for ready to wear collections is limited. One of the ways modern luxury brands have democratized fashion for the instagram influenced audience is through athleisure. Brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton have released pool slides and sweatpants to fit in with millennial and Gen Z trends which some critics note ventures far from their origins.
Also, Instagram users are conditioned to want things instantly while typically Pre Fall and resort collections are shown months before designs are actually released. Instagram can satisfy the user’s need for now with the ‘shop’ function in the app or by directly linking their sites. The question then becomes whether old designs can stay relevant among the pervasive new.
COVID-19 and the final straw:
COVID-19 has further ruined designers’ ability to sustain their companies. A lack of sales has caused many to close stores and halt production. Additionally, consumers aren’t looking for the same kinds of clothes anymore. The few successful companies like Lululemon, sell athleisure and lounge wear; the kind of clothes meant for a quarantine lifestyle. And some designers like Batsheva Hay of the namesake brand have pivoted towards making clothes suitable for wearing indoors.
And yet, many reject the demise of fashion. While mourning, Jacobs is still creating, albeit in potentially industry altering ways. These days it seems fashion is about making art, and about using what you’ve got. And just maybe making a political statement.
He certainly seems hopeful as well as sad. On his own instagram, the mogul has been posting images of himself in suits and heels with eccentric makeup amidst activism surrounding the BLM movement. In an interview for British Vogue, he said he’s “hopeful for the dawn of a new world.”
In his professional work, the designer recently cast models, Maya Golshynkina and Laetitia Ky in quarantine friendly campaigns that paired his accessories with their own personal design. Each model worked on their own to produce art to pair alongside Jacobs’ own designs.
The campaigns were less than conventionional. Laetitia Ky, a 23 year old sculpture artist from Abidjan, Ivory Coast, used her locks as a medium to construct artful sculptures. Her work aside from Jacobs’ is inspired by African women prior to colonization who would shape their hair to convey symbols of power, strength, and allure.
Her work, which has recently blown up on social media, shifts cultural narratives seeing upheaval as she celebrates the body that she says subjects her to discrimination. Her impressive hair sculptures resemble different images, and for Jacobs she has constructed works which incorporate his bags. In one image her hair appears to be an arm extending outwards holding on to a bag.
His other latest muse is 19 year old Maya Golyshkina who identifies as a photographer turned sculpture artist. Golyshkina’s work involves found objects such as tape, crayons, CDs, and Q-tips to make wearable pieces which she photographs herself in for instagram.
Neither of the two campaigns would be considered wearable by an instagram brand’s standards. Jacobs’ suggests that a departure from the wearable trends that have characterized and monotonized fashion may be the future.
Different from the kinds of exclusives that the old virtually extinct big name wholesale buyers forced designers to produce and also far flung from the kind of clothes that sell well online, Jacobs’ new campaigns offer a glimpse into a world of imaginary and hypothetical garments which do more than sell products.
In Jacobs’ caption under Golyshkina’s work he said, “thank you for reminding us that the mundane can be quite fabulous.”
Jacobs’ influence can be seen already. Husband of famous fashion blogger and creator of Man Repeller, Abraham Cohen says he was inspired by Jacobs to post images of himself in a style of dress inspired by his grandmother. “I’m wearing all her old jewelry,” he said.
He agrees the flamboyant and eccentric getups he’s seen Jacobs post bring comfort at a time like this.
Whether it is the dawn of a new fashion world, or a world in greater sense, is to be determined, but nonetheless, change will be coming, and it will involve design.
If you like this article, check out our podcast episodes: Becky Zeijdel-Paz – Putting Sustainability at the Center and Nourah Al Faisal – Entrepreneurship to Help Saudi
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