When the editor in chief of Vogue Magazine Anna Wintour explains that the Global Conversation YouTube show with various fashion designers is to figure out how to “rebuild this industry we all love so much,” you know fashion is in trouble.
The question is why? In short, it’s not just because of COVID-19.
Grieving for Fashion
Edward Enniful, the editor in chief of British Vogue, started off by interviewing none other than Marc Jacobs, who sat in the Mercer Hotel wearing a strand of pearls and dark nail polish. If he seemed to be in a somber mood, it’s because he was. “I’m in a process of grief right now. I mean I’m grieving the way I used to do things.”
“Why are you grieving Marc?” asked Enniful.
“Well, because it’s all very sad.” It soon became clear from Jacobs’s interview that fashion really can’t go on during a pandemic.
But why? I’m still buying new clothes online. I don’t get it. Well, take a closer look at the way the industry works, and the answer begins to crystallize.
Why the Fashion Industry Can’t Survive in a Pandemic
Fashion really all begins with the designs and the designer who comes up with them. As Jacobs explained it, he can’t create “within a vacuum.” His creativity comes from being with his team. It comes from life. A life that he’s now very far removed from. When the inspiration can’t come from meeting new “girls, models, photographers,” where do you find it? For Jacobs, it would seem that you don’t.
And even if you could find the necessary creative element, all of the moving parts of production and getting the merchandise to retailers in the fashion industry means, with everything shut down, the process becomes almost impossible.
Creativity comes from being with his team. It comes from life. A life that he’s now very far removed from.
So the fashion industry is in trouble, so what? Well, beyond the number of jobs employed through the fashion industry from the designers and the people who make the clothes to the models, people working in retail, and design advertising campaigns, creativity is an essential part of life. For many (including Jacobs) getting dressed up is “as essential as anything else.” And while it would seem that the pandemic has really solidified the fashion industry’s troubles, it was Jacobs himself who said, “This is a very difficult business to be in and has been for a long time.”
When I saw stores selling everything at a constant sale price throughout the pandemic, I could have told you something was wrong. When I can find beautiful dresses on sale at Neiman Marcus that fit the season for under $100, something is wrong. At first, I thought it was just related to their bankruptcy. But then I looked at the other department stores and saw the same thing. But it wasn’t just COVID — the fashion industry has been going south for a long time.
If It’s Not Just a Product of COVID-19, Then What Went Wrong?
Have you ever seen a headline about fashion week? It’s usually a crazy media circus. Does it ever seem odd to you that the spring collection is shown in the fall, and the fall collection is shown in the spring? In short, that’s done so that enough time is allowed for production.
But that timeline started to fall apart once customers could view collections online that they weren’t able to buy for another six months. So the stores wanted earlier deliveries of the collection to keep up with the new demand created by the Internet, which created a vicious cycle leading to the creation of midseason collections. The midseason collections were created to fill the gap between when fall merchandise is in stores and when the spring collections are all on sale.
Midseason collections were created to fill the gap between when fall and spring merchandise were in stores.
Do the names resort or pre-fall sound familiar? If you aren’t particularly interested in luxury fashion there’s a good chance they don’t (which is completely normal). The average person doesn’t necessarily require a whole new wardrobe for their vacation trip. They might buy a few new pieces for fall and a couple of sundresses come spring and summer. But the resort wear eventually turned into the inclusion of all kinds of clothing, not just what you would wear on a cruise ship, thus creating the phenomenon of season-less dressing (which, again, I think might be out of touch with the average person as people tend to dress for the climate they live in).
The problem? It’s too much stuff.
Designers Are Pressured To Create Too Much Too Often
Jacobs agrees and has said that he feels there should only be two shows a year because at this point the industry has “done everything to such excess that there is no consumer for all of it.” Not to mention that it removes the creativity from the process. That’s a sentiment that Julia Berolzheimer, whose brand was nowhere near the size of Jacobs’, shares. Her collections of classic dresses were the first place I looked every season. She made the decision to close her fashion business Gal Meets Glam this past August and not because the dresses weren’t selling.
Berolzheimer, when she first realized her dream of designing, had wanted to design 8-10 dresses a season, but the person she partnered with pushed her to do 30-40. I’ve never designed a dress, much less 30 or 40, but I can imagine that could feel like a chore pretty quickly even if it’s something you loved. In her words, “Over time, this problem intensified and continued to weigh on me as a designer and creator of the brand. It became very hard for me to support 30-40 new styles when the dresses that were designed with love and care were shown just thirty days prior.”
When you’re being told to “produce, produce, produce it’s like having a gun to your head and saying dance monkey.”
The schedule is exhausting for huge and smaller brands alike. To hear Jacobs tell it, when you’re being told to “produce, produce, produce it’s like having a gun to your head and saying dance monkey.”
The thing is the fast pace did work — for a while. But after the 2008 recession, the global fashion market had already created too many clothes with now not enough consumers to buy everything they made. When you’re taking a pay cut, have just lost your job, or are worried that you might, you aren’t exactly rushing into the closest Neiman Marcus or Nordstrom to buy expensive cashmere sweaters and knit dresses.
Yet the fashion industry kept overproducing each year to keep up and made their profit when the items went on sale. When you shop do you go straight to the sale section? Know anyone who does? That’s the problem with the cycle that the overproduction created.
The Internet’s Role in All of This
Then along came the internet. It created fast fashion in a way that nothing else had done before. One of the most modern things in luxury fashion is the invention of sites like Net-a-Porter. After those websites took off, every brand started to become available everywhere. What did that mean for the industry? A lot more than you might think.
Nordstrom, J.C Penny, Neiman Marcus, Bergdorf Goodman, and any other retailer you can think of needs to keep people in their store. But if shopping becomes kind of like the David Bowie lyrics “fashion look to the left, fashion look to the right” and you can get the same items at all of them, what’s to keep you there?
Stores need exclusive items to compete.
Here’s where exclusives come into play. Now designers are being asked to add all sorts of changes to their initial designs so that each store can have something exclusive to them.
Designers are asked to add all changes to their initial designs so each store can have something exclusive.
What’s so bad about that? Well, Irina Alexsander explained it best when she wrote, “If in the last decade you’ve gone looking for a simple cashmere sweater and instead encountered ones with zippers, giant animal faces, glitter shoulders or “distressed” anything — that’s novelty. If you found yourself annoyed, you were not alone.”
And this is where the problem gets a little deeper into the business side of things that the shopper doesn’t see. There’s something retailers use that’s known as an R.T.V. (return to vendor). What is it? Well, pretty much exactly what you think it is. When a store can’t sell all of the merchandise they ordered, they can send it back to the brand and get their money back. Any chance it didn’t sell because of the cut-out and the padded shoulders you asked the designer to add so it could be exclusive to you? Might be something to think about because right now designers, environmentalists, and financial experts alike would agree that there’s too much overproduction in the fashion industry.
Fashion is becoming so visible that it’s being underappreciated.
Once you get past the overproduction of the clothes themselves, then there’s the oversaturation of fashion in the media. You don’t have to spend long on social media to find thousands of different influencers telling you to buy this or that clothing item. And the oversaturation is true for couture too, with so many people holding up their phones at fashion shows now, the meaning of going to a live show is left defenseless. Jacobs believes it’s the most dangerous thing for the industry for that very reason. When everything is being done virtually (as it is now out of necessity) it becomes so visible that it’s less appreciated.
With so many people holding up their phones at fashion shows now, going to a show isn’t necessary.
And while the average person doesn’t wear couture or even high fashion ready-to-wear (as Jacobs himself acknowledged), the ideas and the imagery it produces are far-reaching. I can hear Meryl Streep as Miranda Priestley in The Devil Wears Prada delivering her monologue about the importance of a cerulean belt right about now.
The Consumer’s Role in the Future of Fashion
For Jacobs, who can’t see a way to work under current conditions, the question remains, what will fashion look like when the lockdowns finally end and we return to a worn-down economy? He doesn’t believe that everything will return to “business as usual,” expressing that he just doesn’t see the models, editors, photographers, and everyone involved in fashion shows continuing to hop on planes to go to the shows as they did before.
But if that integral piece of fashion infrastructure (at least for couture) is removed, isn’t part of the magic gone? Because it isn’t just about the clothes, but about the experience of shopping for them.
Fashion isn’t just about the clothes, but about the experience of shopping for them.
When Barneys went bankrupt in what now feels like a lifetime ago, lawyer Robert Feinstein captured the loss saying, “Barneys to New York is like Macy’s: it’s more than just a department store; it’s part of the culture of New York City… They have the Warehouse there, they have their wonderful windows [during] the holidays on Madison Avenue. We’re going to lose all of that today, and I think with a little more time we might have preserved it.”
The fashion industry has more to offer than the clothes alone. When the world finally returns to some sense of normalcy, people will have to deliberately decide what they want to return to. Do we want to click “add to cart” or do we want to look in through store windows and have the shopping experience again? Because on some level, we get to decide. If there’s one thing central to all of this, it’s that money talks, leaving the power with the consumer.
Caring about brick-and-mortar stores means shopping at them. Caring about the fashion industry means buying pieces you truly love and not heading straight to the sale section if you can afford not to. It means avoiding the Instagram swipe ups and everything that creates the fast fashion speed that ran the industry into the ground in the first place. It means continuing to get ready during COVID-19 lockdowns. So what comes next for the fashion industry? In a lot of ways, that’s up to you and me.