Not since World War II has so little and so much happened at the same time to the world of fashion. Fashion has remained virtually unchanged this year – there has been too small an audience to make much of an impact. Some manufacturers will be even re-offering their spring 2020 collection in 2021. While luxury market sales plummeted, the fashion industry has been forever altered and COVID-19 can be blamed for much of the disruption but not for everything.
There was already a growing awareness of how damaging every aspect of the fashion industry is to the environment. Wage inequality for those working in the fashion industry was heightened by reports from China of hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims being forced to pick cotton. It will be interesting to see if and how the fashion market will react because a ban on slave-cotton would lead to a global shortage of the textile.
COVID did bring traditional in-store shopping to a near standstill, expediting the death of many chain and department stores: Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, J.C. Penney, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, Ann Taylor, Lane Bryant, Aldo, Le Chateau, Top Shop… Many of the chains were teetering for years and/or were unsustainable in expensive long-term leases. Department stores have been slowly dying since the 1980s, and the few who survive the full length of the pandemic will have to reinvent their business model. Some are reorganizing or have been bought out but in the current world of fashion, without fundamental changes any restructuring is akin to rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Fashion businesses that have survived have had online sales to thank, especially if they were purveyors of athleisure: yoga pants and leggings, T-shirts and fleece hoodies – the only part of the market that was unscathed by the pandemic lockdowns.
The season-system of fashion collections was already fading. Dior and Chanel have asserted they will stay with traditional collection show launches, but more designers are switching to smaller online launches through social media that coincide with their collection’s availability.
What COVID-19 is doing to fashion is erasing a decade’s worth of gradual progress. Fashion is fast-forwarding to a new era where designers have to consider how to create and market their clothes in a new way. Where is the cloth sourced? Do the dyes pollute? Are living wages paid? Is the workplace inclusive? Do the clothes promote body positivity?
The globalism movement of the late 20th century inadvertently created a movement for cultural identity and individualism. This is made evident in the rise of nationalistic governments, but it has also resulted in the conscious consideration of others, ensuring everyone is heard, and reconciling past injustices. Fashion will be reflecting this even more in coming seasons.
The most common question I am asked as the curator of the Fashion History Museum is if I think fashion will become more casual, or if we will see a return to glamour. My answer is that both will happen as it becomes more acceptable to express yourself on your own terms – whether that’s in sweatpants or full drag.
2020 saw the passing of two important Japanese designers who shaped late 20th century fashion, Kenzo Takada, and Kansai Yamamoto, as well as Italian shoe magnate Sergio Rossi and Italian born French designer Pierre Cardin, who was the last of his generation of postwar French couturiers who steered fashion towards a more youthful chic in the 1960s. The year also saw the birth of a new garment that has entered virtually everybody’s wardrobe – the mask. It will be interesting to see how long face masks will continue after the pandemic has passed.