One thing I’m pretty sure we can all agree on regarding the current global COVID-19 pandemic is that there is no way we are going back to ‘normal’ as, clearly, the norm was not working. COVID-19 is like the domino-effect that shed light on all our socio-economic and environmental problems and deficiencies, one by one. The ongoing global pandemic has also exposed the flaws of the fashion industry—a sector notorious for capitalising on cultural appropriation, engaging in implicit and explicit forms of discrimination and using unethical and unsustainable production methods to gain profit.
The present-day context obliges us to do more than posting a black square and inspirational quotes on Instagram. How can we solve the problems of the fashion industry, once and for all? The answer is quite simple: build a new norm, together. Screen Shot spoke to the new generation of designers and business owners in order to understand their perspective on the future of fashion.
As an independent designer, Nicola(s) Lecourt Mansion used the lockdown to reflect on her recently founded business. For Lecourt Mansion, the “the foundation has to be set” from the early stages of a business and with time “move forward with better values.”
Bethany Williams, whose eponymous brand core business-model is already primarily focused on social and environmental issues, had time to reflect and challenge her own work by thinking of repurposing her business and production channels in time of crisis. Williams has created the Emergency Designer Network (EDN) along with London-based designers Phoebe English and Holly Fulton to manufacture PPE garments for health workers. The initiative is “a volunteer-led endeavour created to galvanise local level production offering positive solutions.” According to Williams, fashion should evolve in the future towards contributing and empowering local communities.
For Parisian-based casting director and talent agent Ibrahim Tarouhit, in order to promote diversity and social and environmental consciousness in the fashion industry, it has to rethink its internal organisations and emphasise the role of HR departments and industry leaders to recruit people from diverse backgrounds in different roles. Only preaching diversity “on catwalks and in editorials” is not enough, Tarouhit claims.
The new normal should include making fashion accessible to everyone and to reorient the industry to focus on sharing creativity and empowering new and different voices rather than promoting and capitalising on privilege and social acceptance.
There were already a few initiatives launched prior to the pandemic aimed at breaking down the elitism of fashion weeks. The British Fashion Council (BFC) allowed people to purchase or win tickets to attend London Fashion Weeks. The BFC was also the first fashion council to digitalise June’s 2020 fashion week into a genderless, digital-only platform accessible to everyone. The platform features podcasts, short films and live performances.
However, the uncertainty of COVID-19 has pushed designers, event producers and the industry at large to rethink the current format of the traditional ‘runway plus online streaming’ format to create ‘phygital’ experiences. Phygital experiences are not new—the entertainment and gaming industries have already merged physical and digital interactions.
Examples of this include Animal Crossing and the partnerships Nintendo has developed with fashion powerhouses as well as digital fashion houses like the Fabricant, which collaborated with emerging designers such as Marques Almeida on creating digital-only clothing that can be worn in the game.
The digitalisation of the fashion industry is making it more accessible and democratic but, most importantly, it also allows us to consume fashion differently. Gaming product placements and virtual fashion both allow brands to build a new form of customer loyalty from a very young age and talk to a whole new audience in a way that never existed before. It’s a win-win situation.
Surprisingly, the pandemic also helped to put the spotlight on emerging and independent designers who, for a large majority, have already established their businesses based on social and environmental ethics. COVID-19 led to heated debates around climate change, social reform and after the global social uprising supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, the work of emerging independent designers was made more visible as their core values and initiatives organically merged with what people were (and still are) fighting for.
This context allowed emerging and independent brands to reach a more mainstream audience of sociopolitical and environmentally conscious consumers that are not necessarily fashion ‘avant-gardes’.
After the announcements that Saint Laurent and Gucci decided to present their collections off-schedule at least until the end of 2020, fashion councils like the CFDA and the BFC shared their concerns and urged advertisers to not desert official calendars as their absence could drastically impact the visibility of emerging and independent designers that heavily rely on advertising brands and houses paid trips of editors, stylists, celebrities to showcase their work.
This fear doesn’t seem to be shared by some independent designers who feel, on the contrary, that the pandemic has been and might be a great opportunity long-term to empower their businesses and separate them from the traditional fashion spectrum. “New talents don’t need to align with structural organisations of the fashion weeks to become successful,” because “being a young designer or an independent designer means that you are already existing without following the system,” explained Tarouhit.
Lecourt Mansion emphasized on the importance of fashion weeks but added that the absence of powerhouses might be beneficial to young and independent designers that are too often overshadowed. “As utopic as it may sound, [maybe their non-attendance will push fashion institutions to empower a new generation of creatives to] rise together and find better ways of creating, consuming, and have a positive change day by day.”
The fashion industry needs concrete, long-term actions, as words are just not enough anymore. Instead of trying to fix a broken system, maybe we should focus on building a new one from scratch to finally shift from that overwhelming and redundant one-way perspective and evolve towards an intersectional conversation leading to real change.
It’s impossible to scroll through anything right now without being bombarded by the hashtag #coronapocalypse. The elite may run to the Hamptons clad in the latest designer masks, but none of us can escape the collective uncertainty that COVID-19 has brought.
Along with wholesale face masks, designer masks selling out is just the latest example of how the fashion industry glamourises crises. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, there was an apocalyptic tone rippling through the fashion world. Artists can’t be blamed for getting inspired by the world around us, and therefore inspiring it in return. However, when it comes to the biggest clothing brands, is the aestheticization of global chaos a thinly veiled complicity?
Surgical masks have been popping up on major runways since 2015 but in the age of a pandemic they hold a different weight. Since there is currently a global shortage of masks for health professionals, isn’t selling a stylised version for much more of the initial cost kind of insulting? Indulging in such hits a nerve for me, given that thousands of people are struggling to make ends meet with new isolation restrictions.
Masks aside, dystopian undertones are not new to the fashion industry and seem to be once more on the rise this season. Marine Serre has displayed post-apocalyptic sceneries and themes since her 2019 show where the Paris-based designer’s signature crescent moon was embossed on a black anti-pollution mask.
To accompany the doomsday gear, the brand collaborated with 3D artists Rick Farin and Claire Cochran of Actual Objects to bring forth creepily clairvoyant social commentary. The recent SS20 campaign video titled Marée Noire, which means ‘oil spill’ in French, features AI models in a 4-part story juxtaposing industrialisation and the effect it has on our environment in a dystopian realm. The artistry of this short film, like the clothing, is beautiful, however, I cannot help but question the purpose of aestheticising the dystopia beyond branding. I feel a frustrating ambivalence when watching an upcycled Marin Serre t-shirt retail for $508, making me wonder if these dystopian dreamworlds operate in their own economic realm.
Although Marine Serre is no longer affiliated with Balenciaga, the two brands shared very similar visions this season. Also released in February, the house’s Summer 2020 campaign video made waves for its uncanny social commentary and recurring questions such as: “Where is all the water going?” On brand with a politically-charged Spring 2020 RTW collection, the four minute faux newscast has irked me for similar reasons to the Marine Serre campaign.
The apocalyptic chic video addresses a variety of uneasy social issues from climate change and motor over-population to electoral politics. The dubbed mouths of the designer-clad news reporters suggest corporate control of the media. Most people have described the concept and the video as ‘cool’ but despite my enjoyment, the performance of social awareness does not translate into action. While yes, Balenciaga is holding a mirror up to the weirdness of the current social climate, this mirror allows the gaze to be diverted from the ones that are profiting.
People shouldn’t have to stop weaving sociopolitical issues into their work because the basis of culture revolves around seeking to understand through an aesthetic sense. Yet, I think there is a level of appropriation that must be extended to hold industries and high-power individuals accountable. I am tired of seeing powerful people produce watered-down trauma-porn that does not translate into direct activism. This boils down to my distaste for the neo-liberal tactic of putting the responsibility on the consumer.
Given that the fashion industry is the third largest user of water globally, Balenciaga should have some idea of where all the water used in its impressive last runway is going. As individuals, the best that we can do is consciously consume and try to hold businesses accountable. And maybe, if you’re thinking about buying a 3-figure mask, consider who that money could help instead.