BY BENNETT BOYD ANDERSON II
A CHANGING WORLD
The advent of COVID-19 has rocked the globe. That’s not exactly news; the coronavirus crisis and lockdown form one of the defining events of the twenty-first century, and the fashion industry has not escaped its ravages. The effects have impacted the way fashion is designed, the way it’s presented, and even the way it’s marketed. (Case in point: There was a sixty-day period in April and May during which I hardly bothered to get dressed in the morning. It is difficult to sell clothing to a consumer who wears pajamas all day.) In many cases, the effects of COVID have accelerated preexisting industry trends of digitalization. How have designers and fashion houses adapted? Do these changes represent a step forward, or back?
DESIGNERS FACE UNCERTAINTY
Sometimes it’s easy for U.S.-based consumers to imagine that supply chains begin and end at our own borders. This is not the case; whether you’re buying Made in the U.S.A. or not, supply chains remain emphatically global.
The first half of 2020 saw fabric shortages and delays as producers across Asia and Europe grappled with outbreaks. Designers like Barcelona-based Sonia Carrasco, who sources from local factories in Spain and Italy, were forced to place orders without knowing when they would be fulfilled. Despite the uncertainty, Carrasco asserted that “this is something the whole industry should be doing, supporting their local supply chain.” But such problems invariably beget solutions. Hal Watts, CEO of Unmade, tells Forbes that digitalization streamlines the made-to-order process. New technology allows clients to monitor manufacturing processes and “digitize their supply chain to respond to what customers need and demand,” enabling companies to adapt to shortages or move production between factories.
And as for the design process—as Paul Smith said of his collection for the S/S 2021 Fashion Show in Paris: “We designed it over the phone!”
FASHION WEEKS GO DIGITAL
Anyone who’s watched The Devil Wears Prada will recall Meryl Streep’s impeccably delivered monologue about how trends are born: from designers to department stores before it finally “trickles on down into some tragic ‘casual corner’ where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.”
That’s how it used to work, but COVID has impacted this process as well. Fashion weeks have gone digital, attracting admirers and detractors alike. Some call for an overhaul of the system, citing new opportunities for increased accessibility and equality. Leanne Elliott Young of the Institute of Digital Fashion says, “We want to challenge the hierarchical system of a fashion show with augmented reality.”
Indeed, organizations worldwide have risen to the challenge. Milan and Paris have both embraced “phygital” formats for their S/S 2021 shows that blend physical catwalks with digital runways. In Milan, many designers chose to focus on soothing themes of serenity and balance to counter the perceived chaos of 2020, with Brunello Cucinelli’s “Pure Spirit” evoking themes of humanity’s innately resilient goodness. In Paris, designers like Chloé staged virtual shows presenting models scattered through the streets of Paris before funneling into the runway, embracing what Chloé’s Natacha Ramsay-Levi calls “the intimacy of real life.” More recently, the Budapest Central European Fashion week has utilized digital runway videos rather than traditional catwalks. Zsófia Bata-Jakab, CEO of the Fashion and Design Agency, touts that “the [upcoming] Budapest Fashion and Tech Summit will take place in a digital form in December 2020 and will be available to everyone free of charge.”
Other fashion houses have refused to adapt, citing an inability to replicate the experience digitally. Many designers at Milan’s Spring 2021 Fashion Week opted to host physical shows, including Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana and Giorgio Armani. Etro also chose to hold a physical show, asserting that “[we] believe in the vital energy of live interactions.”
CONSUMERS TURN TO THE INTERNET
Fashion houses aren’t alone in grappling with digitalization. Consumers too are experiencing mixed emotions, the implications of which are reflected in their purchasing behavior.
On the one hand, online sales are keeping some companies afloat in ways previously unthinkable. The luxury fashion sector is expected to experience global sales drops of 25-45 percent in 2020, but the New York Times reports that Prada has seen online sales double throughout the first quarter. Bottega Veneta’s have tripled. Online marketplaces such as Asos, Zalando and Farfetch also report increased traffic, with Asos recording a staggering 329% increase in annual profits as of August 31. On the other hand, even major players like H&M are shuttering numerous physical stores, while smaller brands and retailers are closing at alarming rates.
There are also individual drawbacks to shopping in the digital realm. Some are logistical, such as difficulties in discerning subtleties of color and fit; there’s nothing quite like ordering a crimson scarf and receiving something maroon, or a shirt that fits in the shoulders but not in the waist. Returning one item for another is time-consuming and, frankly, annoying.
Other drawbacks are emotional. LOEWE creative director Jonathan Anderson has long commented that “as humans, we naturally want to touch things.” Human beings are prone to grafting memories onto individual pieces of clothing, and digital ordering does not lend itself to this instinct. I purchased my favorite coat, a woolen green Lodenmantel, while living in Austria. Wearing it evokes a veritable trove of associations: the chilly streets of Vienna, steaming mugs of coffee, my many attempts at broken German. If I’d ordered it online and had it shipped to New Orleans, I’d have the coat but lack the memories—precisely that which renders it so precious to me.
A HUMAN TOUCH
Digitalization in the COVID era has proven a blessing as well as a curse. It enables people to avoid contact with COVID and aids in our efforts to flatten the curve, for which we can be grateful. But for every designer that claims the crisis has stoked a revitalization of the creative spirit, there is another arguing that is has been stifled. Above all, there is something precious about the face-to-face interactions that remain the lifeblood for smaller boutiques and designers; and if we lose these small but personal connections with others, we must beware losing a vital part of what it means to be human.
About the Writer:
Bennett Boyd Anderson III is a writer, editor, and linguistic activist. A Louisiana Creole with knowledge of French and German, he has lived and worked at various points in Vienna, Singapore, and Oxford. Currently he resides in New Orleans.
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