Is fashion going out of fashion? – Evening Standard

By on September 24, 2020

Fashion thrives on change.

The swinging Sixties, Seventies punk and Nineties grunge transformed society and brought us the mini skirt, Vivienne Westwood and Nirvana. But sometimes not even fashion can keep up with the times. Lockdown has knocked the business off its gilded pedestal. Not only have shops and factories closed but the way we work, travel and, consequently, shop has been upended, prompting a dramatic reset in our attitudes to consumerism.

With so many of us working from home and parties, holidays — and for many people, disposable income — a distant prospect, many of us have decided we don’t need anything at all. The pandemic ‘has taught us that we don’t miss “stuff”. We don’t need another T-shirt,’ concedes Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative director at fashion house Valentino. Even those who do still have a job and some spare cash know this is no time to be showing off anything flashier than your new sweatpants that disguise your ‘Covid stone’.

Retail sales are down by double digits in every major market, with devastating impact. Many of the brands and retailers that once filled the high streets and malls here and abroad are dying. J Crew, Oasis, Warehouse, Debenhams, Barneys New York, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Laura Ashley, Cath Kidston, Forever 21, Ann Taylor, Monsoon, Jigsaw, John Varvatos, Brooks Bros, Diane von Furstenberg and True Religion, to name just a few, have either tipped into bankruptcy or teeter on the brink. Globally, the fashion industry will contract by 27-30 per cent in 2020, says analyst firm McKinsey. That is five times worse than the impact of the 2007-08 global financial crisis. The British Fashion Council predicts one third of the names on the London Fashion Week schedule may never recover.

Even those online retailers that have benefited from a lockdown-induced sales bump are struggling to cope with new problems exposed by the virus. Boohoo is conducting an investigation after Sunday Times reporters alleged one of its suppliers in Leicester was not following government guidelines to protect its workers’ health or paying the minimum wage.

And what about glamour? What, indeed. This month is supposed to be the heart of a new season of catwalk shows in London, Milan and Paris. But every once-Botoxed brow on the front row is now furrowed with worry. Top of mind as the Government’s Job Retention Scheme winds down is whether people will want to shop IRL again or just stick to clicks, which would further damage the high street and shopping centres. The answer is sure, we’ll go back to the shops but only if the price is right and you can drive there. Bicester Village outlet mall in Oxfordshire has enjoyed record summer footfall, even without the seasonal influx of Chinese consumers. Deals up to 70 per cent off the Prada sticker price are hard to resist.

By contrast, walking into a central London boutique that requires a Tube journey to reach is like intruding on private grief. ‘We’re lucky if we get 25 customers a day, even though we’re still on a 40 per cent-off sale,’ says one Bond Street retailer. Britons are the slowest consumers in Europe to get back to the shops, largely because of fears over taking public transport.

If a second wave of Covid-19 infection is kept under control, retailers reckon we will begin to head out again in the run-up to Christmas, which is likely to be a big celebration for many who will be eager to bid good riddance to 2020. ‘People who enjoy clothes will want to dress up again,’ says Sir Paul Smith, whose brand turns 50 this year. Lady Gaga did her best to encourage us to blow a spirit-lifting giant red raspberry riposte to recent privations when she changed her outfit seven times during last month’s MTV Video Music Awards.

But will we want what’s on the racks in boutiques and department stores this autumn? Office dress codes were becoming more and more casual before lockdown. Now with WFH, the whole idea of smartening up to go to the office looks dead. Sales at casual, sporty brands, notably Abercrombie & Fitch and Uniqlo, have exceeded market expectations. Labels noted for tailoring such as Hugo Boss and Zegna are going to have to loosen their collars.

At the opposite end of the market, what will happen to fast fashion? Back in March, some observers predicted lockdown, combined with the climate emergency, would persuade many younger, eco-conscious consumers to shop less. As if. Once stores reopened, the biggest queues were outside Primark, helping it to a record market share over the summer. The £4 skirt and top looks safe for now — and is likely to stay that way as the recession deepens and spending power declines.

In fact it will be at the top of the industry where Covid-19 might spur the biggest changes. Stealth wealth ultra-luxe labels are likely to edge ahead of the glitzy pack (Lady Gaga notwithstanding), just as they did after the financial crisis. Expect a fast rebound at Hermès, Celine, Bottega Veneta, Loro Piana, Brunello Cucinelli and Ralph Lauren Purple label. Bottega Veneta’s online sales tripled during the height of lockdown.

But that’s just the start of some new trends. Industry leaders have argued for years that fashion’s creaky circus needs to reinvent itself, to be more inclusive, less frenetic and greener. The combination of Covid-19, the Australian bush fires over new year, and the Black Lives Matter movement has ‘crystallised a lot of conversations that the industry had been having for some time,’ as Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue and artistic director of Condé Nast, puts it. ‘Now we are forced into a moment when we have to reset.’

The biggest criticism of the modern industry is that in a desperate race for market share, brands over-produce. They do too many collections — up to eight per year, rather than just spring/summer and autumn/winter — and stage too many shows. The result is a vicious cycle of early full-price sales in boutiques and department stores, followed by rampant discounting and then, for some brands, the burning of stock. That’s bad for brand equity and disastrous for the environment. Before the coronavirus outbreak grounded most planes, fashion accounted for more carbon emissions than the aviation industry.

Some of the biggest names in the business have pledged to change. British Vogue editor-in-chief Edward Enninful, who themed his August issue ‘Reset’, declares: ‘We were producing way too many clothes, way too many shows. We can’t go back to that speed.’ Fashion maestro Giorgio Armani agrees. ‘We need to slow down,’ he says.

Gucci’s creative director, Alessandro Michele, has pledged to reduce the number of his label’s shows from five to two. Tommy Hilfiger has committed to sweeping sustainability, inclusivity and human rights goals by 2030. Prada has announced it will no longer use kangaroo skin. Valentino is dumping alpaca wool. Some brands and retailers, including Selfridges, are even flirting with renting clothes, resale and beefed-up repair and recycling programmes. An informal coalition led by the designer Dries Van Noten is calling for a readjustment to the retail calendar so that collections are sold in alignment with the meteorological seasons in an effort to boost demand, with discounts only at the very end of each season.

Critics will be watching closely to see whether reality matches rhetoric. Is talk of producing less motivated by the need to flog the vast glut of stock that was not sold during lockdown more than any fresh concern for the environment? Will Enninful et al really be no-shows at the shows? Will winter coats actually be on the rack when it gets cold? The factories that supply Boohoo and the other fast-fashion outfits will also face closer scrutiny.

There have been steps forward on diversity. You only had to pick up the September issues of the major fashion magazines to see that publishers and advertisers are trying harder to reflect society as a whole. By the day, Louis Vuitton’s decision to hire Rihanna to design her own collection seems ever more prescient. Retailers are acting, too. Sephora and Rent the Runway have committed to the 15 Percent Pledge, an Instagram campaign that urges retailers to devote at least 15 per cent of their shelf space to black-owned brands.

It’s strong stuff but not everyone is convinced short-term disruption will sweep aside fashion’s old ways. Among them is one of the most powerful men in the business: Michael Burke, Louis Vuitton’s chief executive. ‘I’m on my seventh recession. Every time it was “the biggest, the worst, Armageddon, nothing will be the same again”. I don’t believe in that,’ he says. He might have the evidence to prove it. When Louis Vuitton’s sister brand, Dior, collaborated with Nike to launch the £1,700 Air Jordan 1 OG sneaker in August, more than five million people were said to have registered just to have a chance to buy a pair. Plus ça change.

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