Since the outbreak of Covid-19, almost all luxury fashion brands have postponed or done away with fashion shows for the rest of 2020. The men’s fashion weeks in Paris and London, which were set to take place in June, have been cancelled and switched to an entirely digital format. And before following suit, their Milanese counterparts had been postponed to run alongside the city’s women’s fashion week in September.
Cruise schedules have also been cancelled, with the Met Gala, fashion’s annual blockbuster soirée, following suit shortly after. Like every other industry, the fashion world is filled with uncertainty and anxiety, for no one dares predict what is to come. In a bid to grasp control over the dire circumstances, the Italian brand Ermenegildo Zegna was one of the first legacy houses to independently opt for digital shows and events, whereas Saint Laurent announced a reshaping of its release schedule for the rest of the year, reorganising its seasonal releases and cutting itself off from traditional industry schedules like fashion week.
This collective restructuring of the fashion industry has significantly reduced consumption and certainly benefited the ailing environment, which had recently plunged into an unprecedented state of crisis. Indeed, as the fashion world hunkers down while the pandemic sweeps across the globe, this period of limbo presents industry stakeholders with obligation and time to rethink issues both immediate and latent.
Before Covid-19, the organising of lavish events showed no signs of slowing down, despite immense concern over detrimental effects on the environment and obvious alternatives made possible by the internet and new technology. It is not to say that show-stopping events are absolutely redundant; the human need for respite from the mundanity of everyday life certainly makes a good case for the occasional spectacle and fantastical showcasing of creativity, craft and innovation. Fashion is also aspirational; we need something to look up to and strive toward. But when lives are at stake, it’s perhaps wise to consider where our priorities lie.
The fashion industry, like many other industries in the globalised economy, relies on the interconnectedness of various city centres to do business. To harness segments of the global audience, jet-setting fashion schedules thus became integral to the business of driving worldwide sales. Daniela Monasterios-Tan, fashion lecturer and researcher at the Lasalle College of the Arts, points out that Paris was the centre of fashion and only journalists were allowed into shows in the early part of the 20th century.
“They could only sketch and all designs were embargoed until available for sale,” she says. However, “since the theatrical shows in the 1990s by Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, the fashion show has gained in importance as the way to communicate the visceral and aspirational vision of the designers.”
Coupled with the rise of fashion hubs, like London, New York and Milan, in tandem with new, democratic ways to disseminate information over the internet, journalists and editors had not only more locations to visit and report from, but also had to compete with bloggers and influencers who were sharing information from shows immediately. And with celebrities showing up as guests at shows, plane tickets naturally became packaged with show tickets.
In recognising the small shifts towards minimising fashion’s carbon footprint, Monasterios-Tan credits the slow fashion movement, modelled after the slow food movement that began in Italy in the late 1980s, that encourages in-shoring and localisation of production and commerce. In addition, the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh in 2013 that killed 1,138 workers who had been producing clothes for major international labels spurred a global movement calling for greater transparency in the supply chain, led by the Fashion Revolution Foundation.
The organisation has since initiated numerous successful online campaigns such as #WhoMadeMyClothes in 2014 — which brought awareness to brand and product provenance, and spotlit humanitarian and ethical issues in the fashion industry — and #Haulternative in 2015 — which encouraged purchasing and repurposing used clothing over new ones. The biggest luxury e-tailers like Matchesfashion and Net-a-Porter have also introduced curations of brands that stock sustainable and ethically manufactured clothing. Elsewhere, fast fashion giants such as H&M and Zara have gradually increased their use of sustainable materials in their manufacturing processes.
Courtesy of Fashion Revolution
In 2015, the Greek fashion designer Athina Korda showed support for Fashion Revolution’s global campaign, #WhoMadeMyClothes, at the end of her show. The movement sought awareness for the lives endangered in the process of mass manufacturing clothes.
Why, then, have ethical issues in the fashion industry, whether environmental or social, become so pronounced in recent years? Besides global anxieties over climate change culminating in the elevation of the Paris Agreement (enacted in 2015) in 2019 and mass indignation over the Rana Plaza collapse, it seems that high fashion has come under fire due to an increased scrutiny of social inequalities. And this democratic age of social media, where individuals and communities can easily voice their opinion, amplifies those injustices.
As countries went into lockdown mode, Gal Gadot attempted to heal the world by gathering fellow celebrities to sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” through Instagram. But the wildly tone-deaf initiative was met with anger from the vast majority who, not nearly as well-insulated as them, were struggling with real concerns that couldn’t simply be allayed by song. When the rich and powerful urge — from sprawling mansions in upper-class neighbourhoods — their social media following to donate to pandemic aid, the masses retort by asking them to empty out their coffers instead. Evidently, social problems continue to persist — whether the wealthy are having a great time isolating at home or hobnobbing at fashion shows, all while being witnessed online by the world.
Indeed, in the same vein, the money spent on funding flights and staging extravagant shows with extravagant installations in far-flung places could be better directed elsewhere to save lives, cure illnesses and alleviate poverty. But trying to close this gap between the haves and have-nots can’t be achieved overnight, and we can’t count on a global crisis to change consumption patterns so drastically for the long-term either. From a sociological perspective, the moral and ethical dilemmas that fashion and businesses in the current global economy have had to reconcile with their bottom lines “is a very contradictory situation and as long as we are in a capitalist system that requires companies to keep growing, the dilemma will not be addressed,” says Monasterios-Tan.
Thus, in dealing with environmental issues, the middle ground comes as brands decide to take action and consumers respond by supporting businesses that are doing it right. For the British designer John Alexander Skelton, who is an ardent supporter and adopter of slow-crafted fashion, “It’s just about making the right choice and not using fabrics which have really environmentally damaging plastics. People can use an alternative or just simply just not use things which are really obviously environmentally damaging.” Skelton also believes that consumer behaviour can transform the industry. “I think that people are buying less and buying more intelligently. And I think that will provide a natural capital for a lot of larger brands,” he says.
Powerful multinational corporations like LVMH and Kering, which own the world’s top luxury brands, have pledged to reduce carbon emissions and committed to significantly reducing environmental impact within the next decade, in line with the Paris Agreement and collective pressure from individuals and communities enabled by social media.
“Many designers are interested in a more sustainable industry that will give them more time to develop collections and their creativity,” says Monasterios-Tan. “On 12 May 2020, the Business of Fashion published ‘Dries Van Noten Proposes Reset to Fashion’s Deliveries and Discounting Calendar,’ where ‘a group of designers and retailers, fronted by the Belgian designer, wants the industry to realign fashion deliveries with real-world seasons and stop early discounting.’” If the fashion industry continues to listen, this can be a positive change led by a top luxury brand and spur collective effort by conglomerates and fashion week bodies towards creating a better system.
The fashion industry is waiting to see how fashion schedules and shows play out on digital platforms. As reported on Vogue Business in May 2020, Shanghai Fashion Week live-streamed shows with live viewer commentary, reactions, product details and purchase options to considerable success; the upcoming digital fashion weeks in Paris, Milan and London will continue to put the digital model on trial.
Moving forward, Monasterios-Tan is optimistic that the cultural shifts currently underway can address the industry’s pressing social issues and hold brands accountable. “I hope to see fashion being an outlet of self-expression and not mass conformity,” she says. “People will keep and purchase clothing because they love it and want to care for it, not to keep up appearances. I also hope to see a shift in valuing craft and materials, and in doing so, paying fair wages and choosing the more transparent option.”
Subscribe to our newsletter