When fashion month began its cycle earlier this year it felt a bit like Groundhog Day, in the same way it had for many seasons.
Sure, the news that buyers and press from China and much of Asia wouldn’t be attending due to the COVID-19 outbreak added a new challenge. But for the most part, it was business as usual — at least at the beginning. Then, as Milan Fashion Week came to an abrupt close when coronavirus first surfaced in Italy and Paris Fashion Week carried on amid a pervasive sense of paranoia, it became clear this was not just another season.
Now, as much of the world is at a standstill and every day brings a new obstacle, the fashion eco-system is waiting — like everyone else — for things to return to normal. But many in the industry are hoping that it won’t. Will the pandemic be the final catalyst to propel fashion into a more modern, mindful and effective era? Retracing the past few months offers some clues.
The trail first began with concern over the virus’ effects in China, the fastest-growing market for luxury houses and many independent footwear labels. Some designers stepped up digital efforts right away. In Milan, Giuseppe Zanotti partnered with popular Chinese influencer Boynam to livestream his fashion week presentation on Weibo and other social media accounts. The livestream generated almost seven million views in China, and brought a 30% increase to Zanotti’s Tmall e-commerce store. (Boynam also partnered with Gucci, Versace, Fendi and Fila.)
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The move was just a taste of things to come. As buyers canceled their trips to Europe, brands and showrooms like Rupert Sanderson and Onward Luxury Group got scrappy, hosting virtual showrooms. By the time American retailers and editors made their way back stateside in early March, the pandemic had ramped up, and brands of all sizes had to juggle aid relief (donations, charitable online sales, face mask) with their own heavy business decisions.
Both scrapping or salvaging the season’s collections come with short-term consequences that could lead to a more permanent change in ideology. Chloe Gosselin is planning on a small run for fall that will focus on her e-commerce business. She communicates with her Italian production team almost daily on how to proceed, as the country nears reopening on some level. “Our factories, our craftsmen, they need to get back to work,” said the designer.
Others, like Ada Kokosar, are faced with fewer options. The Midnight 00 designer does not have her own e-commerce and most of her fall orders were canceled. “The last thing I want is to have a collection sitting unsold in storage,” she said. “We need to have the courage to press the reset button and adapt to this change.”
But fall ’20 is only a side note to a much larger question: Will fashion go back to its traditional seasons? “It’s the perfect time to rethink and [ask] if people really care about them. Or do we want to focus on beautiful items that
you can keep for a lifetime?” said Gosselin. Even before the pandemic, the designer had already planned on a smaller, more curated offering for fall, focusing largely on her most iconic styles. “I’m tired of that crazy cycle of fashion weeks and producing however many collections per year,” she added. “And all of us traveling for it — look at what happened.”
The exhaustion is echoed by many but especially palpable among the emerging talents, who have long had to adhere to wholesale buyer requests for traditional seasons, instead of looking to more digital-friendly retail models to guide production schedules. “It was becoming too much, too fast. You could never sit back and look at a collection,” said Marisole Cecchi, designer of Les Petits Joueurs. “It’s been six years since I launched, and at a certain point I was super stressed. This is allowing me to look at things differently.” After the brand’s major wholesale accounts canceled for fall ’20, Cecchi and her business partner, brother Andrea, are now testing styles on Instagram before deciding what to produce.
Indeed, as some stalwart multibrand retailers struggle under the weight of the pandemic and lose a bit of their command in the designer-wholesaler tango, more labels may be free to experiment with different delivery schedules, perhaps finally trying out see-now, buy-now drops instead of traditional seasons.
The model has worked well for Amina Muaddi since she launched her brand last year, and even during the pandemic: In late March, most of her 10-piece capsule with MyTheresa sold out within hours. It’s becoming clear that the winners in this pandemic-forced revolution are brands that have already adapted to the ways in which younger customers are engaging socially.
Take By Far, whose business in both wholesale and direct-to-consumer is 85% digital, along with its operations (aside from production, in Spain, Italy and Bulgaria). The label is now leaning into its social engagement with customers, offering activities like coloring pages and curated playlists. “We are becoming the media,” said co-founder Valentina Ignatova.
But as the natural selection of the situation starts to put the new order into place, the question of an actual fashion month still remains. Pre-pandemic, the event had ballooned from twice-yearly gatherings to include the exotic, bloated mega- brand outings for pre-fall and resort collections.
While the men’s and couture shows are already canceled for June and July, the spring ’21 season of September and October still looms large and un-answered. If that too is canceled (currently more likely than not), the fashion world will be forced to further adapt. Edoardo Caovilla, creative director of René Caovilla, offered one solution: “It should only happen twice a year; one week in Europe and the other in Asia,” he said, citing a significant percentage of business from the region. “We can experiment with different delivery dates, but we don’t need to meet any more (often) than that.”