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Raf Simons at Dior SS16
Raf Simons at his final show for Dior in Paris last monthPhotography Chloé Le Drezen

Fashion’s in crisis – but is it too late to fix?

The industry’s breakneck pace has started claiming victims. But is it too late to slow down now?

It’s Spring 2014, and Raf Simons is thinking about the fashion system – the complex cycle of shows, clothing production, marketing and media that connects every facet of the industry under one primary aim: selling clothes. “As much as I am part of it, I have to question it for the simple reason that I wonder how far it can go. How far can it go until the moment that it might not work any more?” he mused. “You know, it needs a very in-depth talk to analyse it and it’s something that I don’t have all the answers to, but I do have a lot of questions. And I don’t think I’m the only one. It’s not just about fashion either, it’s the way we consume, the way we communicate...”

Last week, Simons announced his exit from Dior where he had been creative director since 2012, pointing to a desire to focus on his own (still independent) menswear label and pursuits outside of work. Just yesterday, it was revealed that Alber Elbaz would be leaving Lanvin after fourteen years. A few days previously, he had used his two minute speech at an awards ceremony to talk at length (for over a quarter of an hour) about the ways the fashion industry’s relentless pace is crushing creativity. “I said, ‘I need more time.’ And I think everybody in fashion these days needs just a little more time.” He continued prophetically, “Loudness is the new thing. Loudness is the new cool, and not only in fashion. I prefer whispering. I think it goes deeper and lasts longer.”

“Fashion is at fever pitch, designers and brands and bloggers and Insta-famous celebrity spawn all shouting into the virtual void”

Elbaz’s words struck a particularly topical note, coming at a time when the workloads of designers and the way brands are trying more than ever to push their visions globally are at their height. “Is fashion heading for a burnout?”, “Fashion’s existential crisis” and “Fashion’s slippery slope claims another designer” are just some of the headlines that have emerged over recent weeks, gesturing towards, as Vanessa Friedman put it, “something rotten in the state of fashion”. At his exit, Simons was overseeing a collection and show on an average of every six weeks at Dior and his own eponymous label, as well as overseeing other aspects of the brand – as is demanded of a creative director. It seems unsurprising that his decision to exit would have been tied to the constant – and very public – pressure to create.

Of course, this isn’t anything new – designers have been raising concerns over the fashion system for years. Franco Moschino was a famed critic, using humour to play with an industry he thought was stuck up and self-absorbed, using slogans such as “This is an advertisement!” and “Stop the Fashion System” in his campaigns. The very public meltdown of John Galliano (who was overseeing an astounding 32 collections a year, including eyewear, kidswear, fragrance and couture over two brands) was further testament to the darker side of the pressures of fashion. More recently, several have ditched Ready-to-Wear, citing its breakneck pace, to focus on showing couture – Jean Paul Gaultier and Viktor and Rolf being prime examples.

What does remain relatively new is social media. Since its release in 2010, Instagram has transformed the way that fashion brands, designers and models interact with consumers – presenting an immediate avenue for communication. Add this to runway shows, campaigns, fragrance launches, shop openings, exhibitions, book launches and magazine specials, and it’s clear that fashion is at fever pitch, designers and brands and bloggers and Insta-famous celebrity spawn all shouting into the virtual void, desperate to be heard. It’s not just designers that are feeling the strain of too much work, but the journalists who have to cover every show, every news story, traipsing from city to city for weeks on end, churning out content. It’s a schedule that shows no signs of slowing down, in fact it’s quite the opposite – the addition of New York menswear this year means that there will be almost non stop fashion shows from January through March, a prospect few will look forward to with excitement. 

The fact is, brands can’t afford to whisper as Elbaz prefers – or else they fall behind. Over the last decade, the way we shop has changed drastically, from buying at boutiques to being able to shop instantly online. And we don’t just consume clothes – we consume ideas and aspirations, absorbing images everywhere from our Instagram feeds to traditional billboards. Everything is always urgent, and always just a click away. We live in a world where high street retailers look at the catwalk, manufacture copycat items for minimal costs in foreign factories and ship them back to stock shelves before designers have started selling their original creations themselves. Designers may be creative geniuses, but the reality of fashion is that it is an industry based on commerce and consumption. They need to constantly generate new ideas, and those need to be profitable. We’re in an era of hyper-capitalism, where profits come at the cost of people, and where our demand for the new is unquenchable. After all, today’s viral story, seen by millions across the globe, is tomorrow’s old news.

“If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena...fashion is a sport now: You have to run” – Karl Lagerfeld to WWD

Of course, not everyone is tired of the hamster wheel. “If you are not a good bullfighter, don’t enter the arena...fashion is a sport now: You have to run,” Karl Lagerfeld told WWD, who polled leading industry figures on whether they thought fashion needed to press pause. “I love the pace of fashion. Fashion is about moving forward, and moving fast...It makes me want to work harder than ever,” was Donatella Versace’s two cents. The reality is that that time Elbaz wants does not exist, unless you’re willing – like younger underground labels like 69, who staged an LA presentation during New York Fashion Week – to take a conscious step away from the system. After all, the pace of fashion is one that it set for itself. It might just be that, as Lagerfeld puts it, “there is no way to look back.”