In the post-COVID-19 world, fashion can’t return to what it was. Dries Van Noten led the clarion for change by first issuing an open letter to address concerns about the future of the industry. Now, moving forward, another group is calling for the resolve of “rewiring fashion” as lockdown throughout the world eases. Will they be heard? Has the fashion business become too crumpled to be ironed out of its creases?
By Raiment Young
Fashion has fallen on hard times. And before it crashes through the cutting room floor, many in the industry are calling for the change that was previously talked about, but not met with actual action. Last week, Dries Van Noten, leading a group that includes fellow designers Tory Burch, Erdem Moralioglu, as well as Acne Studio CEO Mattias Magnusson, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo and others, initiated the call with an Open Letter to the Fashion Industry that said “the current environment, although challenging, presents an opportunity for a fundamental and welcome change that will simplify our businesses, making them more environmentally and socially sustainable and ultimately align them more closely with customers’ needs.”
It went on to propose “adjusting the seasonality and flow of both womenswear and menswear goods, starting with the Autumn/Winter 2020 season (which was already shown in February/March and January respectively)”. The recommendation asked for selling seasons to be “put back” to the time frame followed in the past—fall/winter in August—January and spring/summer in February—July. In addition, it urged for a “more balanced flow of deliveries through the season to provide newness but also time for products to create desire”. And discounting provided only at the end of the season so as to “allow for more full-price selling”.
In sync with the call for long-term socio-ecological balance in fashion, the letter-writers also advocated “increase sustainability throughout the supply chain and sales calendar” by producing “less unnecessary products”, adopting “less travel”, and reviewing the traditional fashion show format. These are all pertinent proposals that have been brought up in the past, especially among brands that have not been able to enjoy the production resources and marketing might of bigger names or those who are managed by conglomerates. It is, however, the first time they’re communicated so succinctly and purposefully in one missive, signed off by noted industry figures.
Some of the signatories of the Open Letter: (from left) Acne Studios CEO Mattias Magnusson, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo, Dries Van Noten, Tory Burch, Erdem Moralioglu. Individual photos: source
Shortly after the Open Letter was announced, another group headlined by Phillip Lim, Rodarte, and Proenza Schouler put together the plan, Rewire Fashion, which was soon followed by its own independent micro-site. “Facilitated by” the industry news portal Business of Fashion (BOF), Rewire Fashion is like one group seconding the proposals of another, while going into more details by identifying the problems and offering possible solutions, with very specific call out to fashion show pressures: “that there should be no rules—imposed by convention or fashion councils—regarding the format of shows, nor any expectations that every brand should show every season”, as well as fashion retailers’ deeply-rooted “addiction” to the very modern proclivity of “extreme discounting”.
These are proposals that have no doubt been brewing for a while. However necessary the changes put forward, it may be difficult to undo the forces and practices put into momentum by powerful corporate hands for a long time. In fact, some habits are so entrenched in the fashion consumption culture of today that halting them would be just like asking the community not to consume. Take discounting: many have been weaned on buying not regular retail prices that even if the full-price selling season could be restored, most would just wait out till the end-of-season sale. The reality of fashion is that few seasonal items are so desirable that they can’t wait to be bought three months or so later.
If brands are telling consumers that early and immoderate discounting must not be encouraged, why are consumers not able to sway brands from reducing the frequency of or holding back price hikes, especially at a time when it would be unseemly to do so?
With most brands and businesses facing overstock issues this season and likely the next, or even further down the road, discounting may be a necessary evil for a while and for the duration shoppers need to get accustomed to the next new-normal. The question we find ourselves asking in response to mark downs is on the other side of the practice—mark ups. If brands are telling consumers by way of retailers that early and immoderate discounting must not be encouraged (so don’t get used to them), why are consumers not able to sway brands from reducing the frequency of or holding back price hikes, especially at a time when it would be unseemly to do so? Prices climb from an already steep leap-off point. A S$560 Gucci T-shirt that could pass off as a Uniqlo offering don’t merit a discount before purchase consideration? How many, indeed, truly shop at full price? Even members of the fashion media don’t, not when they have the unsaid but well-enjoyed privilege of press or influencer discount.
Prices of designer fashion have reached such prohibitive levels this past decade that they are driving the engine of growth of the resale market. Just look at Japan, not only is second-hand fashion a massive and expanding business, major players—they have, in fact, become chain stores—such as Ragtag have a flagship that can be as large, if not larger, than even the European brands’. What makes these Japanese resale stops the go-to among both locals and tourists is the quality of the merchandise. More often than not, they are well curated and are as good as new. And fashionable individuals know they don’t need on-season clothes to look on trend. And it does not take a fashion observer with an acute sense to see that fashion is not just the desire of the wealthy. The presence of “entry-level” goods in every luxury store is clear indication that most brands offer products beyond the reach of more than 50 percent of those in the queue to get in, to the extent that entry-level is necessary to spur growth. For those who would not be mindlessly ensnared, there are resale vendors, where, for the price of one boutique’s entry-level, they are able to score the secondhand outlet’s sartorial grail.
Fashion consumption these days may be somewhat homogeneous—the love of Dior dresses is as intense anywhere on the globe—but the time/period/season they are needed may vary. Take Asia, for example. It is widely acknowledged that China is the world’s main driver of spending on the high-end. According to McKinsey’s China Luxury Report 2019, “Chinese consumers at home and abroad spent 770 billion RMB (or 115 billion USD) on luxury items” in 2018. This is “equivalent to a third of the global spend”. If you include the rest of Asia, that would rank this continent the largest market for luxury goods. Many in this part of the world follow the lunar calendar, which makes, among other occasions, the Lunar New Year (or Spring Festival) an important date and celebration. All brands know the importance of tapping into pre-festival spending, so they release the first drop of spring/summer in December (even in November). If, according to both groups’ proposal of deliveries to match seasons, will many—in particular Southeast Asians—be shopping for Spring Festival by browsing the autumn/winter rack?
It is not yet certain how a motley gathering of fashion practitioners that include designers, buyers, and executives will be able to see the proposals through. So far, it has been a call to action, not quite a concrete plan hot-stamped on leather or fused on silk. After the past months of fashion retail standstill, the journey forward is expected to be fraught with yet-to-be experienced uncertainties and pitfalls. We’re all for change—that’s fashion’s DNA. But after extended periods of staying at home, where fashion is, at best, asleep, most consumers may be counting what they have not worn (yet?) than thinking if autumn/winter deliveries will be in time for a splurge on more clothes or bags that have done delivery schedules justice and the supply chains proud.
Illustrations: Just So