THE WASHINGTON POST – It has been a lie. Fashion – as a business – has been a beautiful, intoxicating, unsustainable lie. Not all of it, but much of it. It didn’t start that way, but that’s what it ultimately became.
The economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has made this truth plain.
“They always say this is an industry of smoke and mirrors,” said Chief Executive of Hilldun Gary Wassner, whose company provides financial services that caters to fashion businesses.
“Now we’re left with nothing but dissipating smoke and broken mirrors.”
For years, designers spun whimsical garments that tantalised the imagination but mostly didn’t sell; it was their more pragmatic styles that made the cash registers sing. Brands burnished images redolent of old wealth and aspirational extravagance while their bottom line was little more than red ink and magical thinking. Success was a fabulist tale of prepaid celebrity endorsements and social media impressions. Even the vision of the industry as a place of open-minded tolerance was wishful thinking.
The thrill of this creative Shangri-La was enough to woo investors who ended up with portfolios of fool’s gold.
Bricks-and-mortar retailers opened outlet after outlet, e-commerce expanded its reach, all while discounting merchandise that customers refused to buy until it was discounted even more, because most everyone had learned to shop by the mantra: Never pay full price.
For shoppers, fashion was an all-encompassing pop culture phenomenon – but a phenomenon is not necessarily a good business.
“The industry needs to be fixed,” said President of Tomorrow Consulting and former Barneys New York Executive Julie Gilhart. “We’ve known this for a while. It was still moving, even though it was broken.”
Now that the fashion cycle has come to an abrupt halt during the pandemic, the industry is trying to suss out what needs to be discarded and what can be salvaged. Retailers, designers and other industry players have been spending hours in Zoom video conferences engaging in a kind of group therapy: discounters anonymous, debt denial, top line growth withdrawal.
They’ve written manifestos and published open letters.
And then, Black Lives Matter protests erupted following the death of George Floyd. Designer Aurora James launched the #15PercentPledge that challenges large retailers to dedicate at least 15 per cent of their shelf space to products from majority black-owned companies.
The civic upheaval has added racial justice to the challenges facing an industry trying to right itself.
To whom are designers addressing these pleas for reform? To themselves, really. Trying to get their nerve up. Trying to make sure they won’t be alone if they should shift their business model. Trying to remind themselves that they are the change they’ve been waiting for.
Some big-picture remedies under consideration include reducing the number of runway shows and the sheer volume of clothing that’s produced, delivering garments to stores in-season rather than months early, marking down merchandise only in June and January and even… abolishing Black Friday, that malignant discounting feeding frenzy.
Fashion, an industry that is forever racing forward, sees its future in its past.
White-glove service. Less stuff. Fewer stores. But enough technology to keep it fun and efficient.
The fashion industry has been spinning this web of fibs, obfuscations and misdirection for years. One bad decision led to another until fashion’s stakeholders had created a system no one liked but no one seemed able to escape. The problems facing the industry are most often caused by short-term fixes instead of long-term strategies, the belief in quantity over quality and, of course, ego and inertia.
Given the chance to stop and take stock, designer Rachel Comey has asked herself, “What kind of growth do you need in this business? What if I didn’t have to grow, from a dollar point of view, and I spent the rest of my career just doing what I love to do at a size that can support my team’s lifestyle?”
“As long as your work is reaching the people you want to reach,” Comey said, “that’s the ultimate goal.”
Designer Prabal Gurung said he has been putting money and effort into things he thought he needed, such as a big marketing budget, only to now think it was all unnecessary.
It’s hard to recall a time since the gluttonous 1980s when fashion wasn’t wobbly. But most agree that after the 2008 recession, the industry was never the same. When the economy tanked, Saks Fifth Avenue took the lead in frantically discounting merchandise, and other stores followed. Sales were already nearly incessant in some parts of the business but the recession sparked drastic markdowns of high-end goods.
“We broke the natural cycle of when things arrive and when they go on sale. I don’t think we’ve ever gotten out of that,” said Christophe Desmaison, who runs a wholesale showroom in New York, representing Nina Ricci, Vanessa Bruno, Mugler and others. “Then there was the internationalising of Black Friday as websites got bigger and bigger and more influential.”
“Then it becomes a blame game,” he said. “It’s completely amorphous.”
For consumers, the upheaval meant that winter coats arrived in the summer heat, were discounted before the leaves turned crimson and mostly gone by the first snowfall.
Stores became ravenous for new merchandise that could be sold at full price – if only for a few short weeks. And modestly financed yet still unprofitable designers were pressured to produce more and more clothing.
Instead of brands creating a single spring collection and a fall one, they were producing pre-fall and pre-spring, resort and cruise, special collections, one-offs, drops and drips and mounds of boring bits. For a while, retailers would boast that the pre-collections were filled with the most enticing but wearable ideas. Pre-collections sold well.
But good wasn’t good enough.
Design houses began putting those wonderfully accessible clothes on the runway and inviting the press – and listening to the press even though fashion editors have a different agenda than merchants. Soon the garments weren’t so commercial. The shows became costly marketing events. And the merchandise that was in stores became ever more out of sync with what customers wanted, when they wanted it and how much they were willing to pay for it.
All these seasons, all this merchandise was in service to department stores, Comey said, and now that they’re failing, they’re bringing down designers with them as they leave a trail of unpaid bills.
“The next year is going to be rough. It’s going to be tough because we’re going to have to change the way we do things,” said Gilhart, whose company advises fashion brands. “I think the thing that’s most positive is people are talking to each other and trying to figure things out because there’s a lot at stake.”
Runway shows have been slashed from the international calendar because of production delays and because it’s simply too dangerous for crowds to gather. Retailers who would normally travel to Europe in June will buy collections virtually.
Brands including Saint Laurent and Dries Van Noten have announced that they won’t be mounting live presentations in September and are reconsidering the whole premise of them. Pyer Moss is subbing in a documentary on the making of previous collections. Gucci designer Alessandro Michele posted a dear diary treatise on Instagram indicating that he was reducing the brand’s current roster of five shows to two seasonless ones. And industry organisations in New York and London that oversee each city’s fashion week schedules have strenuously urged designers to simply make less clothing.
Some of these changes are proactive. Others are reactive as losses mount: Ralph Lauren quarterly revenue is down 15 per cent. The three locations of the influential Jeffrey fashion boutiques, owned by Nordstrom, closed permanently. Neiman Marcus is in bankruptcy.
Fashion’s largest luxury conglomerates, LVMH and Kering, as well as Chanel and Hermès, essentially determine their own destiny. They are their own ecosystems complete with production facilities and boutiques. It’s the rest of the fashion industry – those with big footprints and tiny ones – that’s linked, and when one element is squeezed, everyone feels the pain. Indeed, it was designer brands’ foolhardy attempt to mimic the steady volume of merchandise produced by fast fashion companies such as H&M, the Gap and Zara that helped put them on such a nonsensical, destructive course. A USD900 shirt is not throwaway fashion; no one needs to replace it every 12 weeks.
Those best positioned for the future, if they can survive the present, may be the independent shops and the most nimble brands. Customers may be less inclined to go into large department stores and malls if they can avoid them, Gilhart said. “They may find the shop around the corner is fine for retail therapy. Or they’ll go online.”
Retailer Will Sharp has combined those divergent destinations by transforming his store in Washington’s Navy Yard neighbourhood into a giant vending machine. Shoppers can walk up to the cobalt blue facade of Somewhere, peer into the window at the T-shirts and baseball caps, scan the QR code on the wall and have the item delivered to their home.
He got the idea from trips to Japan, where billboards in the subway showcase grocery store items with QR codes, so you can shop online. “That’s perfect for what’s going on right now,” said Sharp, who founded streetwear brand Durkl.
Designer Savannah Yarborough, who’s based in Nashville, has taken the intimacy of personal tailoring online. Her brand Savas specialises in made-to-measure leather jackets, and when clients could no longer come into her shop for fittings, she created a virtual-fitting package: video consultations, a packet of fabric swatches and a self-measuring kit. The need to adapt her five-year-old business for the shutdown has given her a model for the future – and a renewed certainty in her fashion philosophy.
“I don’t want to add to the pile of stuff out there,” Yarborough said. “I will be so sad to see your jacket in your closet. It should be hanging by your front door.”
For brands like Yarborough’s, where jacket prices begin at USD2,500, the experience of the purchase is almost as important at the product itself. Yet how do you reproduce luxury with curbside pickup? Or with people leery of touching clothing racks? Well-trained, helpful staff are key. And white gloves couldn’t hurt.
Wassner suggests taking a lesson from the golden age of department stores, when sales clerks wore gloves and gingerly unfolded garments like they were handling rare artefacts. “Instead of plastic surgical gloves, wear white suede gloves,” he said. Indeed, at Maison Margiela, staff have always worn white lab coats.
Fashion serves a multitude of competing interests. When countries reopen, will brands adhere to a slower pace? Will struggling retailers even try to resist a Black Friday sale? Can the truth prevail?
“I’m always an optimist,” Wassner said. Fashion will never go away. “Every day you make a decision about what to wear. You’ll always want to be the creator of your own story.”