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Dries Van Noten SS19
From a video of Dries Van Noten SS19. Van Noten has been one of the more vocal designers in calling for industry-wide changedriesvannoten.com

WTF is happening in the fashion industry right now?

Who’s gone bankrupt? Will fashion week ever return? And what does Jeff Bezos have to do with it all?

Fashion, you may have heard, is having an existential crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has left the industry on lockdown and facing an uncertain future: from fashion week and international travel (cancelled for the foreseeable), to the creation of collections, and how – or where – they’ll be sold. 

A lot of the issues and concerns that the pandemic has brought to light were preexisting: there’s just a second to stop and think about how to actually address them now. “This is an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and look at our lives and to rethink our values and really think about the waste and the amount of consumption and access that we all, and I include myself, have all indulged in,” Anna Wintour said when discussing the state of the industry on Naomi Campbell’s YouTube channel. “We really need to rethink what this industry stands for.” 

And, so far people are trying to do just that – whether reexamining the role of influencers or trying to reduce carbon footprints. Here, we break down the most important takeaways from the chaos, but whether meaningful change will come from this pandemic remains very much TBC. 

HOW HAS THE PANDEMIC AFFECTED FASHION SO FAR?

The industry has, in many ways, ground to a halt: orders are stuck in factories, designers and teams are unable to get to their studios, and of course, fashion week is CANCELLED. Students have had their graduate shows axed, young designers are struggling to stay afloat financially, and major luxury houses have lost sales with stores closed around the world. Retailers, meanwhile, have clothes stacking up that they haven’t been able to sell, and when shops do reopen, there are huge obstacles to navigate to ensure customers and staff remain safe. 

Then there are the fast fashion brands, including Topshop and Primark, which have come under fire for cancelling millions of pounds worth of orders. This has left factories and workers – many in Bangladesh – facing a crisis, although Primark has since promised to create a fund for the workers affected by its cancellations. 

And then there are the bankruptcies. Per the Fashion Law’s running list, the companies filing for bankruptcy protection (basically, financial reorganisation in the face of debt) include American department stores J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus, and casualwear brand J.Crew. Things have been tough for department stores for a while now, with Barneys closing earlier in the year. In the UK, the high street has suffered: Oasis, Debenhams, and your mum’s fav, Cath Kidston, have all gone into administration.

WHY DOES THE SYSTEM NEED FIXING? 

That the fashion system is broken is not a new conversation, as you may remember from the industry’s attempt to pivot to a ‘see now, buy now’ model a couple of years ago and make clothes immediately shoppable straight off the runway. This conversation isn’t about the clearly exploitative models of fast fashion, but the problems with luxury. They mostly come down to timing: fashion shows present collections that take six months to get made and sent to stores. This means there’s a big window for fast fashion brands to knock off designs and sell them before the brands themselves do – and that people see collections on Instagram a long time before they can actually buy them. 

The schedule of deliveries to stores is just as confusing: summer collections arrive at the start of the year, and winter collections arrive in the summer. In other words, the clothes currently in end of season sales are summer collections: despite the fact summer has barely started. And the longer clothes spend on the sale rail, the shorter window in which they are sold with their original price tags: meaning a squeeze on profits. Then there’s the fact that pre-collections, which are traditionally a more accessible, wearable version of runway collections and fill the gaps between the two main seasons, end up being sold for longer than main collections before being reduced.

Add to that the relentless show schedule, which means a large luxury house may show anything up to eight times a year (two men’s and two women’s ready-to-wear shows, two couture shows, a cruise show and potentially pre-fall, as well as shows put on for clients in Asia), and the large amounts of international travel, and it’s clear that fashion is doing what some argue is too much. 

WHAT ARE PEOPLE TRYING TO DO ABOUT IT?

In the last couple of weeks, three separate (but, confusingly!, overlapping) groups of designers, brands, and retailers have put forward their manifestos for change. The first was led by US retailer Saks Fifth Avenue. The second was helmed by Dries Van Noten, who led the publication of an open letter proposing to put the Autumn/Winter season back in winter (August to January) and Spring/Summer season back in summer (February to July), and less wasteful practices overall – like cutting back on overkill, unnecessary product. The letter was signed by names including Craig GreenMarine Serre, and Grace Wales Bonner

Two days after Dries’s letter, industry publication the Business of Fashion unveiled its own initiative, Rewiring Fashion. Rewiring Fashion proposed an entirely new fashion calendar, which would shift when clothes were made, bought by retailers, sold, and marked down. It also proposed to have two fashion weeks a year in January and June showcasing both menswear and womenswear, rather than the current calendar of men’s in January and June, and women’s in February and September. 

“The fashion system must change, and it must happen at every level,” said a joint statement issued this week by the BFC and the CFDA, the two bodies who look after British and American fashion, respectively. They encouraged brands to “slow down” – focusing on two main collections a year rather than overworking to create more and noted the importance of realigning the fashion calendar with the actual, ya know, human calendar. 

WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN TO FASHION WEEK?

For now, it’s all off – at least until September, but tbh, even that feels unlikely. The BFC has plans for a digital platform for June featuring interviews, podcasts, designer diaries, webinars, and digital showrooms from both men’s and womenswear brands, while Saint Laurent has announced it’s going to do things its own way for the rest of the year, separate from the traditional Paris Fashion Week calendar. 

“Once this crisis is over and non-virtual events can resume, we also recommend that brands attempt to show during the regular fashion calendar and in one of the global fashion capitals”, the BFC/CFDA statement read. But the Rewiring Fashion report has bigger changes in mind: proposing that shows become “events primarily designed to engage customers, creating awareness and desire for collections just before deliveries arrive in stores”, and also giving designers more freedom over what their runway shows – a format unchanged for decades – look like. 

WHAT DOES JEFF BEZOS HAVE TO DO WITH IT?

Good question. The Amazon founder (just a billionaire, not yet a trillionaire) and Vogue have combined to launch Common Threads: Vogue x Amazon Fashion, an Amazon shop that sells luxury independent designers, therefore creating a retail outlet for brands at risk of bankruptcy because of the pandemic. While it might be good news for the designers, at the end of April, workers in some Amazon warehouses refused to work over what they said were unsafe working conditions in light of the pandemic, which is certifiably not chic. Amazon has listed how it is supporting employees, but staff in California say they fear people are still showing up to work despite illness over fears they will lose their jobs for taking time off.

WHAT ABOUT SUSTAINABILITY?

Sustainability was central to the BFC/CFDA statement, that advised designers put “the focus on creativity and quality of products, reduction in travel and focus on sustainability (something we encourage of the entire industry)”. As reported earlier this year in the New York Times, the travel of buyers and brands to international shows and showrooms to buy and sell the collections generated the carbon emissions of a small country. While jetting editors and influencers to far-flung locales for fashion shows – as is the case for the cruise shows – has been the norm for some time, it’s a practice that increasingly looks outdated. And, in the face of the pandemic, completely impossible. 

WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR ME?

Unless you’re rolling in it, you might wait for sales to hit to do some shopping rather than buy full price – after all, sales seasons are long, and there are often plenty of discounts and promotions on offer.

But this behaviour is, according to Rewiring Fashion, coming at a cost to brands, particularly, we imagine, young and independent designers. “Retailers turn to early and frequent discounts to drive traffic and sales, training the customer to expect perennial markdowns and pull back from full-price shopping, eroding profitability and brand equity for everyone along the value chain.” Instead, they propose discounts only coming at the end of the season in order to allow for more full-price selling – so January for Autumn/Winter and July for Spring/Summer, per their new calendar. 

When it comes to fashion shows, they could turn into consumer and therefore more public-facing events. So who knows, you could find yourself on the frow come 2021.

WHAT ABOUT INFLUENCERS?

The 2010s was the decade of the influencers – but by the end of last year, there’d been a cultural backlash as readers gleefully shared stories of them “failing to influence”. When Instagrammer Arielle Charnas took herself to The Hamptons despite testing positive for coronavirus, and continued posting sponcon despite mounting criticism, it was a nail in the coffin of the 2010s era of the influencer. That doesn’t mean they’re going away: but with brands slashing marketing budgets, and influencer activations at risk of looking tone-deaf in the midst of the pandemic, we are experiencing what BOF has dubbed the great influencer shakeout: only the strong (with a highly engaged audience) will survive. And content is pivoting towards the accessible and relatable – away from super exclusive and centred around unaffordable luxury. 

MOST IMPORTANTLY, WHEN AM I GOING TO SEE THE NEW RAF SIMONS PRADA COLLECTION?

Devastatingly, we have no idea. If you find out, can you let us know?