The fashion business model is being called into question, starting with the wellbeing of those who generate the ideas that drive luxury.
In March, just before the pandemic hit globally, cracks in the basic ecosystem of the business of fashion were beginning to show. Now, with the upcoming couture fashion schedule canceled, cruise shows postponed, and many of the menswear shows to appear via digital format, the industry has found itself in an enforced hiatus, one so colossal in its potential impact, it can only compare to the eve of the second world war in 1939.
Much discussion surrounding the topic of the unrealistic and grueling fashion calendar – and the enormous pressures facing those at its core – have been voiced before. The fashion industry currently feeds a greedy model built around an inordinately desirous hunger for profit and growth, rather than of people, values, and creativity. It would be somewhat naive to assume that a smattering of individuals who have bravely chosen to speak up, could solely impact the billion-dollar conglomerates at the helm of luxury fashion, whom until now, have chosen to remain predictably reticent.
What needs examining, is how the industry found itself in such a vulnerable trench, void of authenticity and human and environmental values?
While there is no question pace is stimulating and necessary for a successful business to thrive, the endless and all-consuming merry-go-round creatives have been conditioned to remain loyal to, and the mass drive for content it expects to be fed, must be seriously questioned if the industry is to not only survive but flourish again. What needs examining, is how the industry found itself in such a vulnerable trench, void of authenticity and human and environmental values?
Start at the beginning of the domino effect in 2015, as the industry witnessed a number of high-profile designers exit their positions as creative directors in some of the most prolific fashion houses worldwide. What were once whisperings of “burnout” was now front-page news. In the four years that followed, the departure of designers such as Hedi Slimane from Saint Laurent, Riccardo Tisci from Givenchy, Raf Simons from Dior, and Christopher Bailey from Burberry, among others, continued to unravel.
In a statement following his swift departure from Dior, Simons revealed his decision was “based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside my work.” When Bailey left Burberry in 2018, after serving as both chief creative officer and president, he told The New York Times, “I need some balancing in my life, having worked at a thousand miles an hour for so many years.”
Something was amiss. What is left of an industry based on creativity, without the wellbeing of those who create? Fast-forward to 2020, and the world finds itself in an extraordinary health and financial crisis, with the fashion industry ceasing to produce. In an open letter to WWD, Giorgio Armani expressed that this time must be used “as a unique opportunity to rectify what is skewed,” voicing the overproduction of clothing and the rhythm of commercial fashions are “criminal” and “absurd.”
In a further push toward a more sustainable future, Saint Laurent announced that it will no longer adhere to the international fashion calendar – and instead, will respond to the needs of the customer. Meanwhile, Gucci announced that it will go “seasonless,” cutting its shows from five to two per year. Further backing came from an official statement from the British Fashion Council and the Council of Fashion Designers of America, who recommended designers focus on two collections per year: “We are united in our steadfast belief that the fashion system must change, and it must happen at every level.” Middle Eastern brand Lama Jouni has also taken steps toward change, having shifted her seasonal collections into a pre-order business model. “We feel we have a responsibility to initiate change and, more importantly, be the change in order to support our planet.”
What has been lost in this mass drive for content, is the very core of luxury itself – time. Luxury cannot and should not compete with the pace that fast fashion dictates. Disposable simply implies saturation and repetition, which is the very antithesis of what drives the luxury consumer in the first place. The ball is in the court of the consumer, as it is she who dictates the speed for supply and demand.
As industry individuals remain caught up in the somewhat vulgar self-gratification of social media one-upmanship, nothing more than a basic show-and-tell of perceived productivity, they have become a homogenous workforce feeding the machine. Be it from fear of losing relevance, fashion’s social media users are following a fruitless cycle of producing quick-fire content void of meaning.
There must be a seismic shift of thought – buy less and buy local.
Certainly, the manner whereby fashion is produced and the damage the supply-and-demand chain has caused to the environment cannot continue to remain a discussion topic, but a moral and ethical necessity. Clothing should not be moving through a number of different continents to reach consumers any more than labor exploitation is used to maximize profits and timeframe. As for consumers, there must be a seismic shift of thought – buy less and buy local; buy with the intent that the item will last decades; and explore vintage shopping opportunities.
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. First and foremost, fashion has been forced into a progressive digital age, and that can be for the greater good, if operated respectfully. With the development of showroom software and the extraordinary scope to create new digital methods of communicating emotion, there is a clear path to create once again from the beginning. Mistakes will be made, but that is exactly wherein lies the beauty, for creativity thrives in new and uncharted waters.
Now, those driving must reconsider the business model. Most importantly, starting with the people who generate ideas. For those with smaller teams, expectations have become seemingly fruitless. Merciless egos that filter down from a triangle of hierarchy have been allowed to thrive on instilling fear into employees. The notion of rejection, or becoming disposable, is both flippant and simply part of a short-term machine without longevity, as the industry hovers dangerously on the periphery of ordinary.
Luxury is driven by emotion – not popular taste. There is a crucial difference. Without ample space to create, fashion will continue to produce what is dictated, rather than what is interesting or what touches people, resulting in overproduction and waste. Only by allowing creatives time to think through and develop ideas methodically, turning to the power of invention, can a fashion business muster the scope to lead opinion and influence others.
Originally published in the June 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia