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“The current emergency…shows that a careful and intelligent slowdown is the only way out.”
So said Giorgio Armani in an open letter to WWD published on April 6. Armani wrote in response to an April 2 article in WWD in which numerous other designers discussed what they thought the ultimate impact of the coronavirus might be on the fashion industry. The consensus, voiced in different ways, agreement with Armani — a significant scaling back and slowing down are inevitable and necessary.
Armani has long been a vocal critic of many fashion practices. In fact, many of his particular pet peeves were widely shared before COVID-19 brought the issue into sharp relief, as for years he — along with countless others at all levels of the industry — have opined that it had all become too much. Yet it all rolls on, or it rolled on, until just a few weeks ago: A whirl of fashion prizes for the young; extravagant, itinerant shows from the mighty, and in between a dizzying blur of shows, merch, nonstop deliveries, feverish social media, one season rolling into the next with no separation, no breathing time, no respite from “what’s next.” The result: communal exhaustion, leaving scant time to consider the fashion itself, its power and where it needs to go.
Still, for years, the “it has to change” conversation amounted to little more than mass verbalized frustration, with the net effect akin to Mark Twain’s take on atmospheric conditions: “Everybody talks about the weather but nobody does anything about it.”
Not anymore. Fashion is forever changed. We just don’t know exactly how. We do know that some of what Armani and others have called for in recent years will happen. At the other end, when we come out of this pandemic nightmare, fashion will have to find its new normal, because the old normal is gone. Fashion will likely be slower and surely smaller — conditions that many of us have thought were necessary even before COVID-19.
Slower and smaller ring as right — necessary for the bottom-line of an overpopulated, over-flooded arena and its individual players. It also resonates philosophically, appealing both for the emotional and mental wellbeing of those on the treadmill, and for the good of our planet, damaged by excesses of production and overconsumption.
But all new directions, whether grounded in economic or ethical considerations or both, have fallout. Ultimately, however it’s worded, we’re likely to see a major downscaling of the behemoth the fashion industry has grown into over the last 20 years. There will inevitably be businesses that won’t emerge from the devastating limbo into which the virus has thrust them, many of them medium-scale and small businesses. After the immediate carnage, others won’t be able to hold on forever. Nor are only small operations at stake. Of the major furloughs we’re learning of this week — Capri, Ralph Lauren, PVH, not to mention the retailers, 125,000 workers at Macy’s alone — are all of those people likely to return to work or will a percentage of furloughs roll over into layoffs? We all know the answer.
Practices rooted in learned behavior will change, too. “This crisis is an opportunity to slow down and realign everything; to define a more meaningful landscape,” Armani said. He spoke, specifically, in the context of deliveries. In his stores, he said, “after the lockdown, the summer collections will remain in the boutiques at least until the beginning of September, as it is natural. And so we will do from now on.”
That you should be able to buy a winter coat in winter and a swimsuit in summer is a no-brainer. Yet while anecdotal conversation suggests that most people agree, such basic seasonal alignment has been an unrealized pipe dream for a good 20 years. Now, maybe, it will happen. At least in the short term, given the glut of inventory that brands and stores will face when the world reopens for business.
As for Armani’s call out of his competition for their penchant high-stakes globetrotting, he said, “Enough with fashion as pure communication, enough with cruise shows around the world to present mild ideas and entertain with grandiose shows that today seem a bit inappropriate, and even a tad vulgar — enormous but ultimately meaningless wastes of money. Special events should happen for special occasions, not as a routine.”
Armani had planned to show cruise in Dubai, but such excursions are not standard operating procedure for him. He tends to hit the road with a show when he has something going on in a market, such as a store opening. He planned the Dubai event to coincide with the reopening of his retail outpost there. Other cruise 2021 cancellations: Chanel in Capri; Dior in Lecce, Puglia; Hermès in London; Gucci near San Francisco; Max Mara in Saint Petersburg, and Prada and Versace in unconfirmed cities in Japan and the U.S., respectively.
Well before COVID-19 got everything and everyone thinking simultaneously in bottom-line and existential terms, such shows were under scrutiny — even as editors and influencers rushed to board their comped flights and be spirited off somewhere fabulous. These itinerant excursions came to represent the Goliath-slays-David dominance of the very few over the many, and increasingly, a lack of environmental responsibility, given their huge, globe-trotting footprints, and even a bit of schoolyard gamesmanship in their “anything you can do I can do bigger” extravagance. Brands marketed (and we bought into) the announcements of which cities they’d chosen as real news; the choice, sometimes under embargo, until the perfect moment. It all seems so silly now, like a celebrity baby gender reveal. Pink frosting on the expectant dad’s face — a girl!
The perception is a far cry from the early wonderment of, say, Fendi on the Great Wall of China in 2007, a show about which Bernard Arnault then quipped, “I think it’s the first fashion show visible from the moon.” At the time, staging a show on the Great Wall seemed only slightly less fantastical than staging one on the moon itself. Since that awe-filled moment, a few brands with the resources to do so have sojourned to all sorts of glorious places, faraway in distance or accessibility or both, among them the Bob Hope house in Palm Springs (Louis Vuitton); the remains of the El Badi Palace in Marrakech (Dior), and the Roman ruins in Arles, France (Gucci). Between its cruise and Métiers des Art shows, Chanel alone has visited diverse destinations including Shanghai, Salzburg, Edinburgh, Dallas, Havana and more.
The power-brand travels had been frequent enough to dull the luster of surprise a bit (even if those who attended typically returned raving), and they’d come under increasing fire for their massive carbon footprints. But these shows served a genuine purpose. Yes, they were indiscreet manifestations of power. Discretion seldom sustains an empire. But the mega-brand globetrotting developed into a major marketing tool. Give or take a Cuban excursion, the chosen destinations were typically either major markets or in close proximity to major markets. And in its way, this vast marketing machinery had a personal touch, connecting not only with each market but with its local client base, comprised of individual big-spenders who delighted in the attention. Then there’s the editor/influencer set. Getting the word out, particularly via social media, was important to brands or they wouldn’t have underwritten the global travel. And while some recipients of the largesse have taken to criticizing the brands on environmental grounds, anecdotally, few of the invited seem to have declined invitations in support of the greater good of the Earth.
The Cruise 2021 ship would have set sail in early May. Now, all stops have been canceled. While the major brands are unlikely to stop high-ticket outreach to global markets, it’s hard to imagine that their new normal will look anything like their old normal, at least for the foreseeable future.
It had all gotten too much and had to be reined in. We all knew that. Just as we’ve known, going back to Armani’s view, that fashion itself had all become too much. Yet that knowledge was often expressed in what now seems like romantic rhetoric. Reset. Readjust. Travel less. Produce less. Buy less. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. But it will all come with a price. Less of everything means just that — less of everything, including fewer companies surviving and fewer jobs. Necessary realignment? Yes. But when life beyond our own four walls resumes again, we former complainers may find ourselves missing fashion’s good old days — February.
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