Highsnobiety Q2 is the second in a series of quarterly insight weeks dedicated to the business behind youth culture and what makes our market tick. Head over to our Q2 hub to see the full series.
Between a global pandemic and important BLM protests, fashion isn’t likely to ever look the same. But there’s one thing that hasn’t changed in the slightest: fashion is one big illusion. Its hubris and self-importance are chief amongst the greatest findings uncovered during the pandemic as luxury brands and retailers plot their next steps. But can business really continue as usual?
In the throes of the public health emergency, the death of George Floyd sparked demonstrations consisting of thousands across the globe. The industry responded sharply with pledges to learn, change, and grow, though the optics of change have long been more appealing to the industry than actionable change. However, whether the fashion industry will truly foster systemic change in the years to come will prove to be its biggest challenge, especially in the face of a generation of socially-aware customers.
Slowly but surely, the industry is reopening as if there was never a pandemic, as if the open letters and the promises for change were yesterday’s news. While the menswear and couture shows moved largely online, across the globe, physical fashion weeks are being announced in accordance with the country’s health guidelines. Individual brands like Dolce & Gabbana, Dior, Balmain, Etro and Burberry will host their own shows.
Meanwhile retailers, too, are opening their doors, and are continuing to slash the value of clothing as excess inventory piles up. For many, it is too late. Some department stores and retailers have already filed for bankruptcy while many others face bleak prospects, hovering between staying afloat and sinking under – no matter their skill or discernment. Will the glut of unsold products serve as a wake-up call for one of the world’s most polluting industries? Have consumers expectations changed in light of the pandemic?
Publishers are tasked with the predicament of advertisers drastically cutting their marketing budgets and mandated quarantines made producing physical issues more difficult. Furthermore, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the American publishing industry faced a reckoning of its own, as it was tasked to confront racial inequity within an industry supported by outdated modes of luxury. The world of content, and those who shape it, is likely to change, though to what extent is an answer that lies ahead.
While fashion figures out the way forward, the virus continues to accelerate across the globe, with the World Health Organization warning that the worst could be yet to come. We asked industry pioneers across fashion design, journalism, buying and merchandising, public relations and communications, consultancy, and chief executives to forecast the future of fashion, and how much will actually change – here’s what they had to say.
For a long time now, fashion’s priority when it comes to change is in the optics of change, rather than enacting policy. Conversations surrounding race, feminism, and sustainability have dominated fashion’s agenda in recent years, though it is evident that real progress is moving at a glacial pace. Across social media, during the protests for racial justice which attracted thousands of demonstrators around the globe, performative activism ran amok on Instagram feeds and Twitter streams, a hollow and empty act that drew ire from critics.
Less than a few weeks later, consortiums of creatives banded together to call for real change. Within the Council of Fashion Designers of America, people like Kerby Jean-Raymond, Virgil Abloh, Public School’s Dao-Yi Chow, and womenswear designer Prabal Gurung created an actionable list of demands that the Council could be held accountable for. The Kelly Initiative, a growing list of Black professionals put together by Jason Campbell, Henrietta Gallina, and Kibwe Chase-Marshall, pressed the CFDA for “equitable inroads for Black fashion talent.” Aurora James, founder of footwear brand Brother Vellies, founded the 15 Percent Pledge which urges major retailers to dedicate at least 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses.
Teen Vogue editor Lindsay Peoples Wagner and public relations specialist Sandrine Charles co-founded the Black in Fashion Council to represent and secure the advancement of Black individuals in the fashion and beauty industry and to build an equality index for companies across the industry in the coming years. The different groups and what they individually represent are fashion’s most concerted efforts to truly signal change.
Though as fashion’s problematic relationships with sustainability and feminism have proven in recent years – issues only exacerbated by the pandemic – social change is a waiting game, though the moment is poised with endless possibilities for a rewritten system.
“Right after the tragic killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, we saw a lot of brands and influencers from across industries posting messages of solidarity, but not actually changing anything about their business. They say they stand with the Black Lives Matter movement but don’t have diversity in their boardrooms or in the content they put out. I hope that as an industry, we continue to evaluate what business as usual looks like and start thinking more about how we can diversify internally, how we are actually treating the people we work with. I am optimistic about the industry’s future. [Although] I don’t think it will happen overnight.”
“I think that the industry can change. I don’t know how rapidly it will change. If it doesn’t, if the establishment and the people in certain positions don’t change, then people like me will change it for ourselves. You can’t keep asking an oppressor — not that I’m calling anyone an oppressor — to change their ways because the person in that mindset doesn’t understand that they’re doing the thing that they’re doing most of the time. People are [now] calling out where they see an injustice or a lack of diversity. The people will change it for you if you don’t change it yourself.”
“I don’t think the industry is going to look the same. I don’t think it should look the same. None of the issues people or activists are bringing up now are new. Some companies have chosen to acknowledge those deficiencies in the past and perhaps make some incremental changes.Then there are other companies that these issues have been raised with them in the past and they have chosen, essentially, to do nothing. I think that there are some companies that have engendered enough goodwill that their gestures might be taken as more sincere or, at least, with a wait-and-see attitude. [Then] I think there are other companies that have no goodwill and their gestures will be met with extreme scepticism and even disregard; they have a lot more ground to make up.”
“Us starting Black in Fashion Council really comes from the realization that a lot of brands can say things on social media, or post the right inspirational quote but only care about this moment to make themselves look good, without implementing systematic change. We’ve gathered industry leaders from all across the industry so that we can be more proactive about change, and have productive conversations and strategies around changes that need to be made so that the next generation has a better experience. I believe systematic changes are possible when we move the conversation from canceling people and into accountability.”
“It feels across all industries that we’re on the wave of a revolution. You would hope it would stick and we can go forward. Fashion is an institutional system set up over decades; in terms of racism, it’s a question of whether institutions are willing to readdress the structures in order to tackle issues that are happening. Lockdown has been a time of reflection. After all this reflecting, it’s a question of how we’re going to put the reflection into motion for the future.”
“I don’t think the internal messaging matches the external messaging for every single brand in terms of how diverse their staff is and the content they put out, but hopefully it will in the future. A lot of brands who are posting messages of solidarity are the same people who don’t actually care about the movement behind the scenes. We really need to check people for their actions and hold them accountable for the positions they claim to stand for. Once this all settles down, that is when the real work starts.”
“Communication is the most critical thing when it comes to any business. Today’s young consumers are so used to having conversations about everything, sometimes even uncomfortable topics, [so] they will demand the same from brands. A brand or a platform needs to get comfortable to have those kinds of conversations.”
“The consumer today has more discretion and higher standards than they have ever had, and rightfully so. The brands have been veiled by the press or lack of transparency, or were never really held accountable for diversity, workplace treatment, factory, sustainability. The smart brands are going to communicate with their customer and discuss these things in a very straightforward and direct way, whether that be with Black Lives Matter, MeToo, discrimination in the workplace — if they can communicate directly with their customer, they can gain their respect.”
“This moment is a reckoning across the board. Companies will need to address racial justice issues and make sure the company is representative both at the retail floor and the executive leadership. It’s up to the leadership of the company to make the right choices. But it’s also up to the individual citizens who continue to make change a priority, demanding these things of brands. It’s a two way street and that’s how change happens. This is a call to action to stay engaged, to stay on top of brands, and to stay on top of legislators to create laws that will address social and environmental inequities.”
“Powerbrokers relied upon the cult of manufactured pedigree to maintain their strongholds on access to opportunity with glossy IG profiles eclipsing resumes and reference-checks. Then a global health-pandemic occurred, Americans initiated a world-wide #BlackLivesMatter call-to-action, and the entire fashion mechanism came tumbling down. Brands will each have unique relationships with internal culture evolution amid this complex moment; considering Anti-Blackness within boilerplate discussions of diversity-and-inclusion was a “no-no” just a couple of months ago. Many will launch smoke-and-mirrors, PR/marketing campaigns to obscure visibility of their disinterest in a redistribution of power and access, but hopefully, enough dynamic leaders of influence will commit to the hard work of atonement and, at times for some, painfully disruptive course-correction.”
Fashion week is not dead. Despite COVID-19 limiting international travel and physical gatherings, fashion councils and federations around the globe mobilized. It began with Shanghai, Moscow, and continued to the recent digital versions of London, Paris, and soon Milan Fashion Week.
But France’s Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode and the Italian Camera Nazionale della Moda are committed to physical fashion weeks to take place in September, in line with the government’s health guidelines. New York and London are looking into similar ventures. Prior to that, in August, Copenhagen Fashion Week will embrace a hybrid physical-digital experience to enhance the virtual side of things for the international press unable to travel to the event. Dolce & Gabbana will host their first physical fashion show in July with a live audience while Dior will have a live-streamed event in Lecce, Italy, but with no audience. Burberry will present its Spring/Summer 2021 collection in the great British outdoors on September 17 to accommodate attendees. Chanel is committed to six shows per year, according to Chanel’s President of Fashion, Bruno Pavlovsky. Luxury conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering have been relatively tight-lipped about changing the schedule, echoing other megabrands’ stance.
Meanwhile, consortiums of industry insiders such as those formed by Dries van Noten, or The Business of Fashion, are calling for radical, systemic change to a format that is over-reliant on tradition and a cycle that is ultimately damaging to business. While COVID-19 offered a moment to share ideas and form collaborations, great things still happen through physical human connection and one thing is clear from the current discussions: fashion week is a crucial aspect to the system, however, it becomes clear its structure and format need rethinking.
“There was a wish for a physical fashion week — not from every brand, but some brands wanted it. In July, we decided to work on an alternative project. We will see how that plays out. But the nature of a sensory or emotional experience is not the same as a digital one. Digital cannot replace physical because physical expression is so important. With September, we’re doing the exact same as we did in February and March. We’re following the government health guidelines, that’s the same now. We’re hoping that a digital fashion week will provide us with more insight into the ways physical and digital can be combined.”
“It’s hard to replace the emotions experienced at a live show or the personal interactions with brands with digital solutions. However, we need to re-evaluate physical fashion weeks. Copenhagen Fashion Week is a biannual event, we merged men’s and women’s, but even that could be rethought. Should it only be once? I don’t have the answer. For certain, there is a need to add a digital layer to fashion week and for brands to show in different ways post-pandemic. There are so many forces asking for change at the moment but it must happen collectively and collaboratively. The word ‘system’ is key because only when the response is coordinated will systemic change happen.”
“I think fashion week should change but whether it will — I can’t predict that. I think a lot of brands and designers were being forced to create on a schedule. The business stopped looking at fashion as an art form but as a commercial entity. It was treating designers as businesses — which they are, their brands are businesses — but they weren’t given the space to actually create quality products hence the rise of fast fashion, pre-collections, six fashion weeks per year, and the dilution of fashion. It watered down our industry. It took away from those collections and those runway experiences that made you gasp. I think people are just tired of it, frankly. The retailers, the organizations pushed for too much and now some artists and the designers are saying “we’ve had enough.”
“We can’t think about not having fashion shows. We definitely need a clean up because in the last couple of years there’s been too much of everything, everyone has something to say. The industry has become quantity over quality. There needs to be a slowdown, yes, but you can’t replace the fashion shows, the events, the presentations.”
“In terms of shows, for someone like myself, the physical space is quite important. I think that being able to touch clothes and see them up close is key. If it is a case where digital fashion week is what’s available, I think I could adapt performance to meet that. It would be an interesting challenge to try something.”
“You always hear ‘fashion week and fashion shows are all about the storytelling behind the collection’ but what it is sometimes is just the collection and you just want to see clothes. The core thing of fashion brands is the clothes they make. When you see a series of presentations that are anything but the clothes it makes you realise the subject is missing.”
“Being one of the newcomers, we always looked forward to being with the right people in the right place physically. Moving shows to the digital space, like Instagram. It’s harder for us to reach outside of the existing followers base. So the physical show and physical fashion week gave us the opportunity to meet and network with buyers, press, and potential new teammates. It really does help us move forward. Physical fashion week has its business value, but the cultural aspect is equally important to me. Having all of my friends and family together in place, it creates this energy that everyone looks forward to. Moving it to digital is just half of the fun.”
“Fashion is about change. I don’t think anyone has the new formula ready yet but designers seem generally excited about something new. The strongest point of view will win as always. I don’t like to take too much time to think about the what ifs but I don’t think councils or federations will have the agility to change things. After all, it took Helmut Lang to strike out on his own in 1998 to move the shows to New York.. It was Simon Porte Jacquemus who decided to show off-calendar in the lavender fields. He took action, he thought it was best for his label. This is the kind of decision-making we need.”
“Shows have evolved over the past 25 years I’ve been in the business. They’ve morphed from showing a collection to press, and key wholesale and retail partners to a message to customers. Now with the speed of information, social media and influencers they’ve become they are less important to us from a retail perspective. [Yet] I’m not sure there won’t be shows. For some brands, it’s core to their DNA and necessary for their vision and storytelling. The contentious issue is the conglomerates don’t want to change and while the young guard are all pushing to change the dates to show and sell in June and July, they don’t want to wait until September, and they want to do women’s and men’s together.”
“We need to look at fashion weeks not with a nostalgic view but with a future lens. From a buying perspective, tech innovation definitely needs to be applied to a greater extent than I have witnessed to date. At this stage, online fashion week is a really tough space to be in for a buyer. The virtual buying tools are not developed enough for the experience to be efficient and most times we are still either buying by flicking through hundreds of little photos and sketches or being shown a collection through an iPhone, resulting in the selections taking up to three times as long as a pre-COVID-19 appointment.”
As luxury shopping destinations reopen in the aftermath of a mandated lockdown, large department stores and smaller, independent boutiques, with controlled traffic, are tasked with navigating the new world order. For many businesses, the doors remained closed even when lockdown measures were lifted. Jeffrey, a Nordstrom-owned US retailer closed its doors. Others face uphill battles of regaining momentum — Neiman Marcus filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the United States. Meanwhile, a lurking global recession is compounded with fears of a second wave of infection, stores are bracing themselves for reduced footfall and sales.
Another integral aspect to the conversation surrounding retail and the consumer is the intersection between morals and resource management: the world produces an unsustainable amount of clothing that is ultimately destined for landfills. According to McKinsey & Company, the value of excess inventory from Spring/Summer 2020 collections is estimated at $160 billion to $180 billion worldwide which is more than double the normal levels for the sector. Whether retail, the physical act of experiencing a store or online-shopping, and the market that drives it, can withstand the pandemic is yet to unfurl but, undoubtedly, business is tested with unprecedented challenges.
“Regardless of what happens we’re going to keep getting dressed. There’s a real opportunity to take stock from a company perspective — and companies are doing that, with a lot of fear — and this will mean a lot for what, and how much, they produce going forward. Even the largest players are thinking about these things. That has always been the elephant in the room in terms of the sustainability conversation: how do we make this one piece more sustainable versus thinking about what the right size for the whole industry is. This isn’t rocket science, it’s a matter of prioritizing these issues.”
“It’s obvious that luxury brands need to be protected in their brand equity. So why shouldn’t independent designers? Why should there be discounting on some brands in November and May but not on others? Is there a future for retail-wholesale-independent-designer relationship or if this generation of independent will be wiped out by the next financial crisis, will they come to market as direct-to-consumer? It’s a big risk since I’m a believer in retailers as curators. We need to rewrite the rules. We are playing with rules that are fifty years old and only work for two or three conglomerates and fast fashion.”
“The last few years, everyone has said, ‘the system is broken’, but nobody has had the conviction to change it, but because of the pandemic it’s been a forced hard stop. Brands are going to take control because they are very shaken by what happened and realize how delicate the wholesale relationship is. You’ll see even small brands go after their direct-to-consumer business. They can control their own message, they can control their own sales and pricing and get products out there. They can have a relationship with the customer. The pandemic has shown us that if you have a good relationship with your customer, you’ll end up ahead.”
“The current model has been unsustainable for some time with too much product being produced and people’s mental and physical well-being from designers, through editors and buyers being tested beyond reason. We just didn’t have the headspace to sit down, take stock and explore change. It’s up to us now to ensure this progress is not just upheld but continues to be pushed forward.”
“It looks like the system is starting from scratch working with a whole new supply chain. It looks like [we’re] not plugging-in to what currently exists as we know it, but [we’re] plugging-in to how we would like the future to operate. We have to work within a whole new library of materials, factories, vendors, and people that are set up to work in the way that the world is asking us to. We can no longer retrofit failed systems; we have to start fresh and brand new.”
“There is definitely a great deal of discussion about how we manage discounting and bring it under control so we don’t have such an extensive approach to it. We’re looking at how we can be more effective at selling the right product at the right price at the right time. Because of antitrust laws, we cannot set down or agree to a global approach to discounting. But things do look likely to change.. The cadence will change as brands look at how they will design products and deliver in accordance with the new schedule we are all working towards.”
“We fully support every initiative aiming at bringing our industry closer to normality, more reasonable operation. On the other hand, at least in the short term, I’m a bit sceptical with our outlook. In the current climate, customers have decreasing disposable income, they will need more accessible price points while brands have huge amounts of excess inventory and at the same time the industry is working on a shift towards less discounting and less products on sale. It’s contradictory, it’s going to be a bumpy ride but the concept is really good and something we all have to work towards.”
“Streetwear isn’t something that’s organic to India in the global sense that it’s understood. Of course, there’s street fashion and youth labels but the way streetwear is understood is only a recent phenomenon. The good part about that is that being the only platform of streetwear in the country, we can create our own definition of streetwear in India and that’s something we are doing to the extent that our philosophy is to buy less, buy well by virtue of the fact that streetwear is expensive. People will need to feel good and wear good clothes.”
“We look at resale or secondhand as the future of fashion consumption. The journey we’re on with resale and secondhand is reframing what ‘desirability’ and ‘aspiration’ is and how to reshape those things that would usually be considered part of the traditional luxury market in order to be understood in the secondhand market too. We see sustainability and focus on environmental impact as becoming dominant themes for everyone in the future.”
The publishing industry was in a precarious situation long before COVID-19 caught the world by surprise. Staff count was diminishing, subscriptions and the number of issues dwindled, and in some cases, magazines were on the brink of folding, some did. In a fashion industry largely shaped by fast-paced, timely digital transactions, the world of magazines struggled to keep up with the pace of the industry. In light of the pandemic, there were further salary cuts, furloughs and lay-offs at editorial titles. Some publications combined issues, others moved their focus online. Editorials were captured via Zoom. Others, like Vogue Italia, have been experimenting with new forms of covers from blank slates to children’s illustrations. Editorially, there will be a shift towards a more practical function.
This new frontier was compounded with the death of George Floyd. Throughout the demonstrations, the publishing world faced a reckoning as allegations of racism surfaced. Adam Rapoport was fired from Bon Appetit following the surfacing of images of the former editor-in-chief wearing makeup derogatory to Peurto Ricans. Anna Wintour was forced to apologize for Vogue’s lack of inclusivity during her 32 year tenure. Refinery29’s Christene Barberich stepped down after women of colour shared negative experiences of working at the company. Around the same time, Samira Nasr was appointed the first Black editor of Harper’s Bazaar US.
The power structure of publishing is set to change as much as its format. The ivory towers which formerly represented fashion and its appeal are no longer considered as luxury, rather problematic. The culture of exclusivity that defined fashion of yore is outdated in the current climate. In order for publishing to strike a chord with readers, the tone must align with today’s values which are at odds with the glistening mien of old world luxury.
“From my point of view, as someone who writes for a newspaper, I honestly don’t feel the existential angst some people do if they were working specifically for a fashion magazine. I cover the news and shifts of the industry. In some ways, this is an incredibly interesting time because the industry is in a state of upheaval. There is a lot of potential to change, there is a great deal of uncertainty. Those are interesting stories that will ultimately have an impact on consumers and that’s always been my point of view in the industry. I think it’s a different situation if you are doing fashion shoots, if you are engaged with partnerships with design houses, or if the bulk of your advertising comes from the fashion industry.”
“As humans we adapt to situations. The pandemic brought us much closer, there was more exchange of ideas. There’s been an evolution of content and communication with things like Instagram, a very powerful tool in both positive and negative ways, but the magazine is at the core, it’s where everything starts. The magazine is like the house, to speak metaphorically, and you go out and choose different paths and see what’s there. We just have to think beyond digital because it can’t be the new normal.”
“I feel there is still a need for magazines — more than ever, I would say. You need some sort of distraction from scrolling through Instagram. Good pieces and an edited focus on reality really works. Interestingly, we used to always think ‘magazines have to be in print, it’s important to have the physical object in your hand’ — and I still think that — but why not also read magazines online now because I can’t be bothered for two weeks for the paper version to arrive? I care for the content. Overall, I think you see a huge desire for truth and reality. The current state of the world has made people interested in these things.”
“I’ve always taken a particular approach to the media. I think for a long time in the media, there were certain things that were considered the gold standard. If you were in this publication or had this kind of story or got your designer this profile, you ‘made it’ in a certain sense. But the democratization of fashion with social media and peoples’ access to what they like and for people to put out their own opinions — you see there’s successful apparel brands that are making more money than designers. You can talk about fashion but what is fashion without being able to sustain your business and so those designers picked up on this, ‘so what if I’m not in the most popular magazine in the world, my customers are buying my clothes.’ You have to balance that. Listen to what the brand ethos is, build a community around that and pay attention to the people who actually like what it is you do.”
“At System, we’d argue that the function itself of a fashion magazine shouldn’t necessarily need to change. But the form, the means of sharing the material, and the values are all up for grabs. Which makes this period as exciting as it is unsettling. [Our] magazine’s editorial goal is to explore the people and dialogues at the heart of fashion, in any given six-month period. The industry we focus on finds itself at a crossroads – on one hand it is in a state of flux, shifting its processes and values, its people and its possibilities; and on the other hand it feels like fashion continues to resist some of those changes because they may render it a less financially buoyant sector.”
“The customer today is so discriminating, they want a brand that represents their values. It’s extremely important. All of this has caught the brands, editors and magazines off guard. The exposure that’s happened, especially in the last few weeks, has been enormous. I think that’s a good thing and it’s very important. Today, you can’t separate fashion from society or politics.”
“The role of an editor and curator will become even more important depending on how brands and fashion weeks approach the future. How do you distil a fashion season and have a more singular approach for customers?”
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