2020 was without a doubt the worst year for the fashion industry, no thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, which forced brands and retailers to furlough staff, shutter stores and halt production lines for months on end.
Most bled heavily; some pivoted (temporarily) to making hand sanitisers and face masks to help in the fight against Covid and keep staff gainfully employed; many didn’t survive.
In the meantime, we shopped online or shopped less, as we tightened our belts while realising that safe-distancing rules meant less reason to dress up and head out.
This was reflected in our sartorial choices — athleisure and loungewear that wasn’t so much about being on-trend, but more about comfort, staying home or heading outdoors either alone or in small groups for quick meals, grocery runs or to hike, run or cycle.
Along the way, we found ourselves proclaiming we’d never, ever wear underwired bras, high heels or anything too restrictive and uncomfortable again. We also realised how much money we were saving since we didn’t shop as much.
Many of us, worried about the bleak economic outlook, took to soul-searching and Marie Kondo-ing while berating ourselves for having, in the past, blown what could have amounted to a sizeable rainy day fund (or even the ability to purchase a larger home with extra WFH space) on dozens, if not hundreds, of fashion items, such as clothes, shoes and accessories.
McKinsey’s report from 26 March 2020 on the impact of the pandemic on the fashion industry noted that offline retail had already seen massive declines in sales and traffic at the start of the crisis while online retail was not keeping pace.
It also predicted a trend towards “all casual, all the time. Many people will return to a fundamentally different work environment — one in which telecommuting, flexible hours and an emphasis on work–life balance are new norms. Comfort could become a top consideration in apparel purchases. The trend toward ‘casualisation’, which was already strong prior to the crisis, could further accelerate.”
Forbes.com reported (in November 2020) that shoppers were increasingly concerned about ethical fashion: “Consumers want to know: If I buy this product, am I doing a bad thing for the world or a good thing? They want to understand brands’ attitudes towards workers, the environment, fair wages, local production, charitable giving, disadvantaged people and many other things. And conspicuous symbols of wealth and success are less attractive now than in the past… Products that enhance (affluent consumers’) ability to enjoy what they love are now competing with what have always been luxury products… Luxury is now also about what the products say to the consumer about themselves, what they are committed to and not just about what it says to other people when it’s worn.”
Bain.com’s January 2021 report noted that the market for personal luxury goods contracted for the first time since 2009, falling by 23 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, to hit €217 billion ($350.7 billion). At the same time, online luxury purchases reached €49 billion in 2020, up from €33 billion in 2019. The share of purchases made online nearly doubled from 12 percent in 2019 to 23 percent in 2020. Meanwhile, the second-hand market for luxury goods rose by 9 percent to €28 billion.
Despite these market watchers’ dire predictions, the SS2021 fashion season saw designers optimistically anticipating a return to pre-pandemic life, and hoping to get us to buy something other than pyjamas and yoga tights.
As such, there was underwear as outerwear, wide-leg trousers, floaty sheer maxi dresses, lady-like ensembles with a touch of sportswear, tea dresses, pencil skirts with bomber jackets, preferably made from upcycled deadstock fabrics. There were also sequins, embellishments, bodycon silhouettes, voluminous flourishes and gowns.
Unfortunately for fashion (and us), the ongoing pandemic and the appearance of even more virulent Covid strains means most of us are still stuck with WFH and faced with fresh rounds of circuit breakers, and have no overseas vacays to look forward to in the near future.
Funnily enough, the upcoming FW2021 collections seem to imply we’ll be able to get all dressed up to go out and party: sequins at Prada, Giorgio Armani, Loewe, Valentino, Alberta Ferretti; vibrant hues at Jil Sander, JW Anderson, Tory Burch, Jil Sander; smart tailoring from The Row, Gucci, Valentino, Brunello Cucinelli, Lemaire; lots of fabric and patchwork at Etro, Coach, Marine Serre, Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino — deadstock still seems to be an issue. ’80s-style skin-tight catsuits for women (Tom Ford, Emilio Pucci, Salvatore Ferragamo, Saint Laurent) and jumpsuits for men (Courreges, Givenchy, Kenzo).
There was also logomania (Fendi, Valentino, Givenchy, Gucci, Versace), cocoon- or bubble-like coats and dresses (JW Anderson, Commes des Garçons, Sportmax, Louis Vuitton).
There were more practical offerings in the form of après-ski looks (Balenciaga, Paco Rabanne, Chanel, Vivienne Westwood), boldly-brash puffer coats (Roberto Cavalli, Chloé, Miu Miu, Louis Vuitton, Tod’s), cosy yet slinky two-piece knit sets and sweater dresses (Rick Owens, Proenza Schouler, Gabriela Hearst, Loro Piana), and languidly glamorous flapper-meets-nightie lace-trimmed silk dresses (Miu Miu, Jil Sander, Coach, Fendi, Chloé).
Whether these trends will get fashionistas in the mood for a serious bout of revenge shopping really hinges on whether life goes back to normal again. If not, we’re probably going to stay home in our sweats and pyjamas and yoga tights (we’ve gotten so used to them by now). Or we might just shop our wardrobes for past-season finds.
But in the meantime, the fashion industry seems to be making concerted efforts to give shoppers what they want: more sustainability, more inclusivity, more authenticity.
Several seasons of streaming digital fashion weeks have resulted in massive carbon emissions savings (since there’s no need to fly thousands of influencers and fashion editors around the fashion capitals), while pushing brands to become ever more inventive in terms of engaging online audiences and reaching more viewers.
Several brands, like Gucci and Saint Laurent, have also reduced the number of collections they put out in a year from five to two.
With people staying away from brick-and-mortar stores, livestreams, “shoppable” videos and in-store shopping services — where customers video call a sales rep who does a “show and tell” of items the customer might be interested in — provide engaging and personalised shopping experiences luxury shoppers appreciate.
To support the circular economy, brands like Burberry, Gucci and Stella McCartney have partnered with luxury second-hand reseller The RealReal.
Advances in textile technology also mean that new eco-fabrics made from banana plants, kombucha waste, seaweed, cactus, algae and corn are announced on a regular basis. There’s no reason why we have to rely on pollutive synthetics like nylon, or water- and land-intensive natural fabrics like cotton, or animal-derived ones such as wool, silk or leather.
Adidas, Stella McCartney, Lululemon and Kering (which owns brands including Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Balenciaga) have teamed up to invest in an eco-friendly vegan leather made out of mushroom roots, called Mylo.
Even Hermès, famed for its leather goods, has collaborated with California-based start-up MycoWorks to develop a sustainable fungi-derived fabric, known as Sylvania; it will feature on an eco-friendly version of the classic Victoria travel bag, alongside elements of canvas and calfskin.
More mid-tier and fast fashion brands are committing to the sustainability route as well. For example, Swedish retailer H&M plans to be 100 percent eco by 2030 while jewellery brand Pandora has announced that by 2025, it will only create recycled metal jewellery, which will work to cut carbon emissions by two thirds for silver and over 99 percent for gold.
Oscar Wilde might once have said, “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months”, while George Bernard Shaw proclaimed, “A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic.”
Hopefully, the future will see a post-pandemic world where fashion is no longer made to become unfashionable, or where women no longer “dress to be annoying to other women”, as Elsa Schiaperelli once claimed.