The fashion world is embracing tech and e-commerce and figuring out how to navigate a tough economy – but as lockdowns ease, people are getting ready to strut, writes LBB’s Laura Swinton
“I don't know about you, but I can't wait to peacock!” laughs Karl Velasco, associate creative director at Cult LDN + NYC. We’re chatting about what the future holds for fashion as lockdowns lift and Karl, who works with luxury, fashion and lifestyle brands at Cult, is decked out in striking white spectacles and a bold, botanical-print shirt. A look this sharp shouldn’t be confined to Zoom.
Of course, the fashion story of Covid-19 has been one of many sharp turns. At the beginning of lockdown, there was a heady, novelty-infused period of style euphoria – freed from the judgement of our co-workers and fellow commuters, we could indulge in the flounciest, most extravagant styles solely for our own entertainment. Indeed, there was a brief flurry of ‘Put Your Bins Out in Your Ball Gown’ pics on social media in early Apri
l. As things stretched on, though, human nature reverted to type. Across the world, retailers have reported a surge in sales of pyjamas, sleepwear and jogging bottoms – the UK’s Marks and Spencer reported a 196% surge in pyjama sales and a 151% increase in sports bras
and similar patterns have been reported in Australia
and the USA
So as lockdowns lift, there’s likely to be an interesting tension, between our desire to make our social debuts in style and the comfort to which we’ve become accustomed. Sandra Bold is global creative director at Publicis Italy and works on the Bottega Veneta and Salvatore Ferragamo account. She wonders if we might see an interesting new hybrid emerge. “We’ve all seen those posts about bras and high heels, if they will ever make a comeback after the lockdown,” she muses. “What I want – and many of us do – is a marriage between style and comfort. Just because something looks fabulous shouldn’t mean it will kill your feet or murder your soul.”
And that’s not the only tension. There’s also the push and pull of straightened economic circumstances. Aside from video conferencing companies and supermarkets, most sectors are already feeling the financial pressure of Covid. People are losing their jobs, or are worried that their job might be next.
Karl predicts that while there will be an appetite for new clothes and for the novel experience of physically going shopping, people will be thinking carefully about their spending. “You know, people would want to go in stores for real life experiences, but with the uncertainty of the future and recession looming, people will probably be smarter in the way they shop, and finding new ways to be creative with what they've got,” he says. While he hopes that it will translate into people being more selective about buying quality staples, we’ve also seen in the UK huge queues for fast fashion retailers like budget megastore Primark.
Nick Stickland is the founder and ECD at creative agency ODD, a London-based boutique agency that specialises in lifestyle and luxury. He’s been learning from the behavioural shifts in markets that have already re-opened. While economic worries do come into play, it’s not all bad news for the high end of the market. “I would look East, and at trends emerging in the likes of China and South Korea, where we’re already seeing some green shoots of recovery in the luxury market as consumers indulge in “revenge spending” after not being able to shop for weeks,” he says. “Away from luxury, we’re also seeing a growing trend for DIY fashion amongst gen Z, who are up-cycling clothes to create bespoke pieces with the help of fabrics and hardwear given away for free, or sold at a fraction of the price, from their favourite brands online.”
Covid-19 hasn’t just changed what we’re buying, but how we’re buying it. Fashion has always played with and pushed against the boundaries of the possible, and therefore has embraced digital innovation. With stores closed, e-commerce has exploded – and fashion brands have played with new channels (gaming and Animal Crossing in particular), as well as immersive technologies to bring the brand experience to our homes.
“Unsurprisingly, bricks-and-mortar has been hit hard during lockdown,” says Nick. “In light of this, we’re starting to see a trend amongst fashion brands who are now diverting their attention online, and re-investing and re-imagining their digital experiences as the dependency on stores wain. Digital trends that were already catching pace within our industry are now accelerating at lightning speed, and over the coming months and years, we’re going to see the entire customer journey re-imagined in a much more holistic way. For brands to succeed, they’re going to have to work out how to replicate that IRL experience on app and mobile, and align their online and offline worlds.”
There is, notes Karl, an important gear shift underway. While fashion has embraced virtual reality and mixed reality and other creative technologies as a fun marketing ploy and creative sandpit for years, now it’s a business necessity.
“l think before the function of it was more to give you a point of difference when you were launching something. But actually, now there's a practicality that comes with it,” he says. At Cult, the team has been working on a whitepaper about what they call ‘Creatology’ since last year, about the convergence of technology in the fashion and lifestyle space – and the imperatives of the pandemic has simply sped up many of their predictions.
Technological adoption and digital transformation aren’t the only things getting a kick up the derriere in the fashion sector. Supply chains and sustainability are issues that the fashion industry has long talked about, but rather as a side issue.
Major fashion houses have started to question – and in some cases ditch entirely – the standard of ‘seasonal’ fashion, anchored around a calendar of Fashion Week events around the world.
“Armani was the first to flag this. And then Alessandro Michele from Gucci, and many more will come, for sure,” points out Sandra. “This was a topic that was buzzing in the air for a while and Covid just offered them the perfect backdrop to put things in motion.”
The predictable annual cycle has been a cornerstone of the fashion industry, but with Covid-19 giving established brands the unexpected freedom to try out new ways of working it’s also given the industry the leeway to tackle some of the long-standing problems that have been baked into the historic traditions.
“Seasons in fashion exist for three reasons: the weather, the changing nature of trends, and the annual events that sit within our calendars,” explains Nick at ODD. “As always, pioneering Gucci has no doubt set a trend of which many brands will follow. Economically, it makes sense to create more transient collections - they have more longevity and less risk attached to them from a buying perspective. Likewise, moving away from the “stale and underfed” (Alessandro Michele’s words, not mine) relentlessness the Fashion Week calendar brings, will hopefully be a big step forward in tackling one of the most-pertinent issues facing our industry: sustainability.”
It's a now-or-never moment for the sector. With physical retail and Fashion Weeks on pause, there’s never been a better time for brands to take stock and question the hows and whys of their business. For some luxury and fashion brands, like LVMH and Burberry, they’ve found an unexpected sense of social purpose in their contributions to the fight against Covid, with the former turning its perfume manufacturing facilities to the production of hand sanitiser and the latter creating PPE.
And even those who haven’t immediately pivoted to the coronavirus efforts could take the chance to question the sustainability and ethics of their supply chain – though whether that is wishful thinking is yet to be seen.
“There was this saying that you can predict the colours of the next fashion season by looking at the colours of the rivers in China. This is not sustainable. The retail world is not sustainable. Treating clothes like fast food is not sustainable,” says Sandra. “I think we’re in the perfect moment when we can take a step back, look at the impact of the industry and rethink its steps. And that can start also with us, the consumers.”
When it comes to the ethics of fashion, the Covid-crunch on supply chains and sustainability has coincided with a global push for the Black Lives Matter movements. Attention has inevitably zeroed in on the fashion industry and fashion media, which has a poor track record when it comes to failing to support Black talent whilst also appropriating Black culture. Vogue's Anna Wintour has admitted that the influential fashion media platform has not done enough to back Black designers, models, creatives and business leaders - and the #VogueChallenge has trended on social media, showcasing what Vogue front covers could look like if it embraced Black Creatives. The question will be whether the timely critiques and soul-searching postulations will translate into meaningful, long-term change.
Away from the crunch of business and ethics, there’s also the question of lockdown’s effect on fashion as a creative medium. Designers, like the rest of us, have spent most of 2020 in isolation. Starved of the outside world, might we see designers turn inwards? Will their creations become a means of fantasy and escape, or rather a channel for the stresses, worries and loneliness?
"Designers are like artists, you know?” says Karl. “I think at the end of this we will see lots of storytelling from their experiences. I think it's going to be so exciting and I think we will see collections that really pick apart their experiences, their frustrations or their celebrations.”
Looking at the bigger picture, one can’t help but come back to that old adage that clothes make the man, the old Latin proverb has found favour throughout the ages, with writers from Shakespeare to Mark Twain. The longer term fate of the fashion industry can tell us a lot about the impact of Covid-19 on society and our psyche.
“I think Covid put up big mirror, people started looking in it and we started seeing the good, the bad and the ugly of what surrounds us. The fashion industry was not spared. Many people started calling out what they were seeing. Including inside people. So the industry started changing,” says Sandra. “The ones who won’t change will stay behind.”
There are no hard and fast answers about what the future holds for fashion – but it’s an industry that has always been about creativity and making big statements, so we’d be surprised if it didn’t have a lot to say about this seismic year.
“For brands across every sector there’s been one constant during this period, and that’s uncertainty," concludes Nick. "And sometimes uncertainty can lead you to make decision at pace, that can be counter-intuitive in the long-term. The reality is, seldom in life do we have the time to stop and evaluate. And as the fashion industry moves so fast, it’s rare that there is an opportunity for true reflection. The wise will have used this time as an opportunity to take stock and pause strategically, and ensure they come out clearer and stronger on the other side.”