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What is the Role of Fashion and Creativity, Post-Pandemic?

When the Covid-19 pandemic is over, it will be the creative industries that help boost the world’s recovery — how do we know? History tells us so.

Courtesy JW Anderson

When the world first went into lockdown last year, the creative world was quick to respond. Museums launched virtual exhibitions and cultural programmes that could be experienced at home sprang up everywhere from Argentina to Canada to South Africa. Theatres streamed performances. Musicians collaborated via TikTok. Painters held Instagram Live art classes. Fashion designers held virtual salon-like presentations.

So, do difficult times spur creativity or merely survival?  It’s a question that’s been debated since time immemorial, often spot-lit when we find ourselves in the midst of challenging circumstances once more. During the first lockdown the question was posed again. How, people asked, will this time of disruption and loss affect what is being created and put out into the world? Will it lead to a visionary rethinking of systems and forms? Will it affect our art? Our culture? The clothes we wear? Like Shakespeare writing King Lear during one plague or Isaac Newton discovering calculus during another, what new innovations or discoveries might be made here?

’Fashion is Indestructible’, British Vogue June 1941. Courtesy of Cecil Beaton

Sure enough, the curve of history suggests some obvious alliances between seismic events — global and/or personal — and ensuing creative response.It’s obviously unhelpful to expect ingenious greatness during a time that has been tragic for plenty, relentlessly stressful for others (particularly financially for creatives) and monotonous for all. But the past year has yielded a number of innovations and imaginative solutions — as well as an overwhelming sense of curiosity at how this time may pave the way for further transformation.

The fashion industry too has called for a major rethink, with Tom Ford publishing an open letter on behalf of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) last May. “The industry will change; but change also presents an opportunity to reset, restart, and create a strong foundation for the future of American fashion,” he wrote. This letter heralded an announcement about fundraising and storytelling initiative A Common Thread, a continuation of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund set up post 9/11, which has since given more than US $5m to US businesses in need.

It is this idea of transformation and renewal that seems especially pressing right now, all over the globe. It is an idea that prompts further questions and reflections. How has South Korea’s successful response to Covid-19 intersected with the country’s dynamic, forward-looking cultural and fashion scene? What impact has an increased emphasis on digital innovation and online shopping had on African designers seeking wider audiences? What changes still lie ahead?

What does it mean to be creative under challenging circumstances?

Before we speculate further about the future, it’s worth turning for a moment to the past to look at British Vogue during the second world war. Editor Audrey Withers suddenly found herself having to balance the magazine’s more standard fashion fare with acknowledgement of her readers’ vastly altered circumstances, often enlisting the sensitive eye of American photographer Lee Miller to accurately reflect the realities of the times. In 1944, Miller travelled to France where she began documenting the allied invasion of Nazi-occupied Europe as one of only four female photographers with accreditation from the US armed forces. The harrowing images and written reports she sent back were often published in the magazine at length.

American Vogue July 1941. Courtesy of Lee Miller Archives

There are plenty of other events we might draw on that show a mix of imagination and responsiveness. One might, say, look at the cold war as a prolonged period of uncertainty and read a mingled kind of optimism and fear in the ensuing space-age designs by Pierre Cardin and Paco Rabanne, which was described by Jane Pavitt and David Crowley in their book Cold War Modern: Design 1945 to 1970 (V&A Publishing, 2008) as possessing a “duality of utopia and disaster”. Relatedly, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 cemented a small but growing techno scene and turned it into a huge, youth-led movement, fuelled by reunification, that rippled out beyond raving to incorporate art and fashion.

Pierre Cardin and Lauren Bacall with models on the set of Bacall and the Boys, 1968. Courtesy of Pierre Cardin

What is the role of the fashion industry post pandemic?

Truthfully, right now, we are in the midst of responding to circumstances as they are: sometimes imaginatively, sometimes pragmatically. Bigger change undoubtedly lies ahead. Hemlines rose and the 1920s roared because they followed the loss and social transformation of the first world war. Dior embraced a silhouette premised on excess as a riposte to the second world war’s deprivations. As former Lanvin creative director Alber Elbaz reflected on the recent launch of his new brand, AZ Factory, “after the Spanish flu and the first world war, there was a peak in creativity in France known as les année folles (the crazy years). I keep asking myself, what will happen after the pandemic? Is it going to go back to année folles?”

Loewe Menswear fall/winter 2021.

There are already plenty of inspiring hints of what’s to come. Big fashion houses have had to challenge themselves when it comes to presentations in a socially distanced age: whether it’s Loewe foregrounding tactility via shows in elaborate boxes or Balenciaga embracing digital potential through an interactive video game. As with the latter, technology is likely to play a particularly instrumental role, whatever happens next — potentially through unexpected routes such as entirely digital clothing or VR technology.

Fashion publishing has undergone some soul-searching, too. Vogue covers featuring key workers or children’s drawings suggest a willingness, much like Withers during the second world war, to move beyond normal fashion coverage and think more deeply about reflecting the realities of the times we live in. The coming together of designers and other industry professionals — whether for the purpose of creating PPE, breaking down barriers for entry to fashion or supporting smaller, independent businesses — also suggests a welcome sense of both community cohesion and desire for a better, fairer fashion world going forwards.

Kenneth Ize spring/summer 2021.

Elsewhere, it seems that the pandemic has prompted a further focus on the environment. Imaginative solutions to present limitations, such as the use of deadstock and recycled fabrics, a nod towards a potential leaner, greener future. Emphasis on slow-burn craftsmanship, perhaps through a desire for tangible creativity and making, has also found new purchase. As Nigerian designer Kenneth Izewho, during a discussion with Marc Jacobs for Vogue’s Global Conversations series last year, talked about building a new loom for his hand weavers to use at home – puts it: “Creativity never stops, no way. It needs to keep moving. You have to find a way to do it.”

Read Next: All 27 Vogues Unite on The Creativity Issue: A Global Celebration of Fashion’s Artistic Spirit

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