“Even before the pandemic, the whole fashion industry had started to unravel. What happens now that no one has a reason to dress up?” Irina Aleksander opens her recent New York Times with this thought-provoking question.
Aptly named, “Sweatpants Forever,” Aleksander explores how the Coronavirus and its impact has highlighted the sins and missteps of the industry that now need correcting.
Aleksander dives into the shocking impact COVID-19 has had on the fashion industry – toppling fashion giants with bankruptcy, delivering mass employee lay-offs, and obliterating lesser-known labels. As Vogue Business notes, COVID-19’s lockdown led to a catastrophic first half of 2020 — one that experts perceive as the worst in modern history.
An Unlikely Fashion Success During Lockdown
Like many other designers, Scott Sternberg, winner of Council of Fashion Designers of America (C.F.D.A.) awards and once favored by Michelle Obama, laments at the beginning of lockdown, “Would people still buy clothes? How much cash do I have to keep going? When will I have to lay people off?”
However, Aleksander notes that things for Sternberg quickly began to look up. As lockdown unfolded, sales for his label ‘Entire world’ began to shoot up. But not in the normal categories of dresses, ties, and print shirts. By the end of March, the brand’s sales were up 662%, thanks to an array of technicoloured sweatsuits. The sweats popularity were followed by t-shirts, underwear, and socks, as locked-down consumers traded in their suits, jeans, and skirts for the comfort of loungewear.
The Cracks Before The Storm
Beyond the need for comfort over the need to ‘dress up’, Aleksander highlights that Sternberg’s success lay in something else. Originally a graduate of economics, Sternberg had long predicted the fall of the fashion industry – in particular, the luxury market. For many years, he had argued that the industry was a, “Giant bubble heading toward collapse.” COVID-19 simply sped-up the inevitable.
Aleksander argues that in 2008, the industry began to buckle following the economic collapse. Surplus stock owned by luxury manufacturers sat in warehouses. In a panic, stores began to sell clothing at marked reductions to move stock. This trend was replicated year after year in a bid to bring customers back – pushing the industry into overdrive.
This approach was coupled with the push for ‘novelty designs’, such as distressed accents. As Sternberg recollected, “I was basically making stuff I didn’t like because I thought a buyer wanted it, not even the customer.” Aleksander goes on to highlight how the such demands led to an industry that saw its designs as disposable in a bid to avoid the incredible losses that arose with high demand and overproduction.
Aleksander illuminates the self-destructive and unsustainable aspects of the industry that have snowballed over the years. How can the industry begin to make amends and build a more sustainable future?
D2C Brands – A Sustainable Solution?
From Sternberg’s Band of Outsiders, that played by the normal fashion rules of the industry in the mid-2000s – further disillusioning Sternberg in the process – to his current Entireworld line that Aleksander describes as, “direct-to-consumer line, with no seasons, no shows, no novelty.”
A move to a D2C brand in which he had more creative control seemed a good fit for Sternberg, allowing him to outwit what he perceived as the industry’s most self-destructive elements. She notes that the demise of the industry has led other fashion designers to follow suit – with designers cutting ties with large department stores to sell as-needed to consumers directly – wasting less and maintaining more independence in the process.
D2C brands have long incorporated sustainability into their supply chain and won consumers over with their transparency. D2C fashion label Everlane documents their factory conditions and processes for consumers to see, in the name of “radical transparency” – a core aspect of their mission statement.
A move towards more D2C brands in fashion could highlight one way out of the mess the industry has made, with smart, sustainable business choices that connect to the rise of eco-conscious consumers.
However, as Aleksander argues, investors are often looking for what Sternberg terms a “unicorn” and generally have little patience for investing in growing DTC brands. Could this be something that changes over time as consumers grow increasingly concerned with sustainability in and after lockdown?
While DTC business models offer some designers more freedom, they also come with plenty of problems beyond their sustainable advantage. DTC brands often come with a greater liability risk and can weigh brands down with far greater shipping responsibilities than working directly with retailers.
Curbing The Excess
As the designers quoted in Aleksander’s article emphasize, over-purchasing and excess stock that ends up on landfills are a key component of the unsustainable nature of the industry. Ecommerce platforms with the capacity to offer personalized linesheets can help overcome the temptation to overbuy – reducing stress for brands and helping move the industry towards a greener direction.
Roads to Recovering: Slowing Down Fast Fashion
As Aleksander illustrates, following the COVID crisis, the fashion industry has scrambled to re-conceive of a more sustainable future, one that will survive the current crisis and continue to thrive in the coming decades.
How might we achieve this? A fundamental shift in the fashion system, from frenzied to slow pace, has become a talking point. Giorgio Armani has advocated for a fashion slowdown, particularly in the luxury industry.
In an open letter to WDD, Armani argues, “Luxury cannot and must not be fast. A careful and intelligent slowdown is the only way out, a road that will finally bring value back to our work, and that will make final customers perceive its true importance and value.”
Clare Press argues that we can still derive joy from fashion while challenging the toxic systems that undermine it. “The things I’ve always loved about fashion I still love. I love the creativity, I love designers, I love beautiful clothes… Those things can exist completely independently from the systems that often mean that making them [can] have terrible impacts on the environment and the people.”
In response, the industry is turning to greener practices that focus on overhauling the industry while keeping its best elements – its creativity, artistry, and sense of community alive.
Another way the industry can address the issues of excess and its damaging impact on the planet is through technology. As the BoF reports, in lockdown, awareness is growing on the extensive carbon emissions amassed from the thousands traveling to and from fashion shows each year.
Alexandre de Betak, runway show producer asserts, “People need a better reason to travel for the shows, and we need to make a truly digital experience for each one, so that people don’t have to travel.”
Other eco-friendly digital options could stay following lockdown’s end. The rise in the use of digital showrooms during lockdown has also reduced carbon emissions – suggesting a new way for the future. NuORDER’s B2B eCommerce platform creates immersive digital catalogs, linesheets, and showrooms without the need for travel – reducing emissions.
Ecommerce platforms and other technologies can also address issues of sustainability behind the scenes. Platforms, such as NuORDER, can also be used to better optimize your supply chain and reduce paper waste.
From Buyer to Consumer-CEntric
In order to right its wrongs and move towards a more sustainable future, fashion could also do away with the buyer-centric focus highlighted by Sternberg and put the consumer voice at the focus of production. Rather than designing for buyers, and to meet the pressures of the frenzied fashion machine, a greener industry is one that listens to consumers first and foremost.
As McKinsey & Company emphasize, consumers desire a fashion industry that puts sustainability and social responsibility at the top of the agenda in the wake of COVID-19. And more than half of Gen Z shoppers ages 18-24 are willing to pay more for a sustainable product. In order to address where it has gone wrong, fashion needs to reconnect with what consumers really want, rather than making disposable, fast-fashion pieces.
Setting Things Right
The Coronavirus crisis, and subsequent lockdown, has brought home the brokenness of the fashion industry. As Aleksander explores, the deepening of the cracks in its foundations were growing more and more apparent just before COVID hit.
What can be the solution? How can the industry undo some of the harm it has done? From digital solutions to embracing a new wave of D2C brands, there are several promising steps we can take for a healthier and more sustainable industry in the future.