On the surface, fashion moves fast. What’s hot one moment becomes distinctly not in the click of a heel. But 2020, the year that saw the word “unprecedented” dominate our shared lexicon, has made the industry’s normal pace look positively glacial. As the coronavirus battered the globe and protests swept it, the fashion world’s clunkiest, creakiest mechanics were left exposed. And when the world ground to a halt, this $2-trillion industry had to move at lightning speed to adapt. Change that could have taken years happened in mere weeks. It wasn’t easy, but it was completely necessary, as business as usual hadn’t been working for a long time.
At the glitziest public-facing end of the spectrum, the changes have been obvious. For months, there were no red carpets for luxury houses to show off their wares on sparkling starlets. Glossy, mega-production magazine shoots were replaced with impromptu Zoom sessions. And fashion weeks? Largely canceled or looking inconceivably different as designers scrambled to find new ways to show their collections.
We have experienced the changes intimately as well. Behind closed doors, our attitude about getting dressed — that is, for those of us still choosing to do that — has also shifted. With nowhere to show them off, hype buys felt irrelevant. Most of us found more pleasure in the reassuring comfort of a pair of joggers. Indeed, there is something liberating about seeing the currency of cool plummeting, usurped by a more individual, authentic approach to fashion. The irony is that as our world has gotten smaller, our style prospects have become bigger than ever. What do we care if something is in or out? We are getting to know our tastes on our own accord and reconsidering what want and need actually mean.
Perhaps the biggest, most galvanizing gear change, however, has been a cultural one. This period of turmoil has encouraged all of us, from the casual Instagrammer to the multi-billion-dollar brand, to have a voice. We are no longer comfortable sitting back and shutting up, and instead are choosing to align ourselves with the designers and companies that are ushering in a positive era of inclusivity and unity. Turning a blind eye is something that’s now definitely out. And in being exposed, the fashion industry has an opportunity to come back bigger, better and brighter than ever.
So just how will 2020 shape the future of fashion? What will it mean for our clothes and closets? And where do we go from here?
New in! Just landed! Shop now! For too long, fashion’s churning out of stuff has been relentless. Even the most fervent shopper could feel fatigued by it all.
But it’s not just consumers feeling the burn. Designers have also been tussling with the moral conundrums posed by more, more, more culture, with some of them showing collections up to six times a year. Now, however, there’s an evolution afoot: Enter the era of the slowdown.
The early signs of a change in pace came back in May when Gucci released a statement from Creative Director Alessandro Michele, one of fashion’s most influential tastemakers. “I will abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows to regain a new cadence, closer to my expressive call,” he wrote, pledging to show just twice a year in “irregular, joyful and absolutely free chapters, which will be written blending rules and genres.”
That same month, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and British Fashion Council issued a joint call for “brands, designers and retailers, who are used to fashion’s fast, unforgiving pace, to slow down.” Echoing this was a group of heavy hitters who signed an open letter, spearheaded by Dries Van Noten, proposing that the current sales seasons move so that clothes are available in the actual season they are intended to be worn. This, they argued, would prevent wasted stock and unnecessary discounting (nobody is buying a puffer jacket in June).
So what does this mean for the consumer? It’s unlikely to spell the end for trends, but there should be less urgency in how they are impressed upon us. “The common thread I’ve seen with each new collection during this turbulent time is a designer homing in on a brand’s existing strengths and giving the client an update on what she already knows, then recontextualizing those pieces for the new normal,” says Moda Operandi Fashion Director Lisa Aiken.
If this year has taught us anything, it’s that there is a distinction, often blurred, between the things we want and the things we actually need. Our appetite to shop will remain, but we will be thinking more and buying less. Tellingly, at MatchesFashion.com, heirloom pieces like watches, jewelry and heritage handbags all performed well during quarantine. In short, it’s out with quick-fix flings and in with long-term commitments — at least that’s the hope.
Despite being an industry brimming with forward thinkers, the image fashion has often perpetuated is shockingly one-note: thin, young, white. Implementing change has been grindingly slow. And even when tokenistic optics suggested things were moving, behind the scenes, the power players were still usually white men.
But 2020 is rewiring the system. Following the killing of George Floyd and the ensuing Black Lives Matter protests, fashion’s murkiest corners have been exposed. “What makes this moment different is that a mirror has been held up to the fashion industry’s status quo in such a visceral way that it’s hard to deny, look away, remain complicit or indifferent,” explains Henrietta Gallina, cohost of The Conversations podcast.
Now, action over outrage is essential. Posting a black square on Instagram or pledging to “do better” without actually doing anything won’t cut it. “It’s no longer an option to sit on the sidelines and stay quiet,” says Vogue Senior Fashion News Writer Emily Farra. “Consumers want to shop brands whose values align with theirs. Ultimately, I think it will make fashion a more grounded and culturally relevant industry.”
Torn up by the knowledge that 40% of Black business owners and entrepreneurs wouldn’t make it amid the pandemic, Aurora James, the designer behind Brother Vellies, decided to do something about it. So she launched her 15 Percent Pledge, urging major retailers to allocate 15% of their shelf space to Black-owned businesses. “What started out as an Instagram post is now a fully functioning nonprofit,” she explains.
Indeed, a complete rethink is imperative. Going forward, the idea of only working with white or sample-sized models will feel wrong. And inclusivity must also translate to clothing itself, from barrier-breaking genderless fashion to increased size and adaptive offerings.
We need to get to a point where diversity is not a novelty, but just the way things are. James hopes that the industry becomes more thoughtful about everything from how it treats its own people to the image it puts out. “A lot of it has been rooted in trying to make women feel less than,” she says. “I think we should try to focus instead on having women feel like the best versions of themselves. This is what meaningful change can look like.”
From a social perspective, 2020 will go down in history as the Year That Never Happened. Glamour was put on ice, with vertiginous heels, twinkly handbags and date-night dresses left to stagnate in wardrobes. Why bother dressing up when there’s nowhere to go?
But times of turbulence have historically ushered in a new approach to style. After the First World War came the flapper; after the Second World War, the New Look. And it was after the 2008 financial crash that palette-cleansing minimalism, championed by Celine’s Phoebe Philo, took hold.
So what, then, after 2020? Certainly the desire to put on proper clothes again, for the sheer delight of it, is palpable. There can be something radical about frivolity. And the fantasy of glamour feels more urgent than ever right now. “Being able to dress up and wear certain fabrics allows me to dream,” says Oscar de la Renta Creative Director Laura Kim. “Even on a bad day, the perfect outfit makes you feel your best and can help you get through the day.”
At Erdem, the London-based label whose heart-flutteringly romantic creations have wooed everyone from Nicole Kidman to Kate Middleton, the “really special” pieces have been selling well online — even during the gloomiest of times. “I’ve wondered where clients will wear what they bought; they must be planning for the future,” muses designer Erdem Moralioglu. “There is a desire to move on from this crisis. Clothes are a form of self-expression, and dressing for a new chapter is a wonderful thing.”
You could see the green shoots of this desire in the glitzy earrings and red lipstick some donned for Zoom calls in recent months. Even face masks, currently the only accessory that actually deserves the “must-have” descriptor, have evolved from purely functional to utterly fashionable. As Moda Operandi’s Aiken puts it, “The joy of dressing up hasn’t faded away; we’re simply redefining what that means.”
Now, the essence of true glamour is to dress exclusively for yourself. “I see a grounding with women’s style toward something done for personal pleasure and not to show off to anyone but themselves,” says La Double J founder JJ Martin, a fan of exuberantly printed dresses.
Whoever we dress for, what’s certain is that the red carpets will be rolled out again, galas rescheduled, new hot spots opened. And when they do, we will relish the opportunity not just to get dressed, but to get dressed up.
At Milan Fashion Week in February, drama rippled among the attendant editors as news spread that Giorgio Armani was canceling his fall/winter 2020 show due to the escalating coronavirus crisis. As it turned out, the show did happen, but the models walked in an empty theater — no press, no celebrities, no front row. This set the scene for a year of fashion shows like no other, with the physical runways for menswear, couture and resort migrating to digital presentations to accommodate the rigorous rules of the new normal.
But true to form, designers have used this opportunity to flex their creativity. Loewe’s Jonathan Anderson opted for a Show in a Box: Editors were sent a linen file box containing paper dolls, fabric swatches, a vinyl soundtrack and more (“Fashion should be a little more humble and a little quieter,” he told the Washington Post’s Robin Givhan). Prada’s Show That Never Happened was a series of films from the likes of Juergen Teller. And Olivier Rousteing took his #BalmainArmy on a boat down the Seine for couture, live streaming it on TikTok.
There are undeniable benefits to a virtual presentation. There is something democratic about anyone, anywhere being able to watch a Dior show from their phone or laptop — no invite needed, just a Wi-Fi connection. This opening of doors allows fashion houses to connect directly with their customers. Nobody can afford to be snooty right now.
It’s also helped reframe the vocabulary around collections. Rather than simply highlighting the end result, designers like Hermès and Maison Margiela have used this opportunity to showcase their process. And at a time when we have all learned the joy of using our hands more (see Stage 1 quarantine obsession: bread making), it feels particularly prescient.
The other advantage to showing this way is that it addresses the questions many were already posing about the costs — economic, environmental and otherwise — of the standard fashion show format.
So will we even return to the physical runway? Of course. There is an alchemical magic that occurs at the best shows. Some designers have already reverted to the real-life experience, albeit socially distanced. In July, for Jacquemus’ spring/summer 2021 presentation, models weaved their way through the bucolic dreamscape of a French wheat field in insouciant tailoring and white dresses that fluttered in the breeze. It was Instagram catnip and a reminder that it is a privilege to witness a designer’s vision come to life in a moment of theater. One thing’s for sure: Whatever form they take, the shows will go on.
The rallying cry for fashion to be more sustainable has been gathering momentum for some time. But will a year that has forced us all to reassess and recalibrate finally mark a tipping point for the conscious, ethical agenda?
There certainly seems to be an appetite for it. “I can’t remember a time when we’ve seen such large-scale shifts in the collective consciousness,” explains William Defebaugh, editor-in-chief of climate and culture magazine Atmos (the very existence of this publication proves how interested we are). “With this pandemic, the world sent a message loud and clear: Our lifestyles are not sustainable. People are ready for change.”
Many designers will be thinking more about the kind of industry they want to contribute to. “COVID-19 has highlighted how imperative supply chain transparency is,” explains designer Maggie Hewitt of Maggie Marilyn. “Many businesses didn’t realize how fragmented their global supply chains were until countries started going into lockdown and production delays started like a domino effect. Localizing supply chains will be important moving forward, not only in minimizing clothing’s carbon footprint but for brands to be more involved in their local farming and manufacturing communities. Our collective vision should be for a healthy planet, empowered people and an economy that puts these things first.”
As consumers, we’ll begin to think more about where our clothes come from and who makes them, engaging in dialogues with the brands we shop. “There is still much work that needs to be done, but we’re certainly becoming more aware than even a year ago,” says Maxine Bédat, founder and director of the New Standard Institute, which seeks to accelerate sustainability efforts in the fashion industry. “The next stage for organizations like ours is to ensure that awareness translates to action.”
Then there’s this undeniable fact: The most sustainable act we can do is not shop at all — or at least not shop new. Which is why rental, resale and vintage are thriving. And even A-listers are getting in on the action, like Jennifer Aniston, who donned vintage John Galliano Dior couture at January’s SAG Awards, and Princess Beatrice, who for her July wedding opted for a repurposed 50-year-old Norman Hartnell dress once worn by Queen Elizabeth. In a fascinating twist, these felt like very modern choices. “Oh, this old thing?” might soon become the ultimate fashion brag.
“Sweatpants are a sign of defeat,” the legendary Karl Lagerfeld once acerbically quipped. “You lost control of your life, so you bought some sweatpants.” Harsh, but you can see where he was coming from. In their slobbiest iterations (rather than the luxe wear-with-heels designer versions), they were the calling card of the hungover, the disorganized and the just-can’t-be-bothered. To be kind, unless you were a specific type of tech bro, you probably wouldn’t show up to the office in them.
In Los Angeles recently, the motherland of casual, designer Tyler Ellis was wearing a button-down shirt, jeans and sandals. She ran into a friend who “looked at my outfit with sheer bewilderment as if I was wearing a ball gown! We soon came to the realization that we had worn nothing but yoga pants and T-shirts for the past few months.”
They’re not alone. Our attitude toward athleisure (which pre-pandemic was starting to lose its luster) has radically changed. As our sprawling lives were swiftly shoved into the confines of our homes, sweatpants became less a sign of giving up and more one of leaning into a new reality. With home becoming HQ for work, play and, well, everything, our outlook on getting dressed — and in some instances not getting dressed — loosened. Suddenly, we craved the comfort and practicality of leggings, baggy layers and zero makeup (bra optional).
According to global fashion search platform Lyst, as cities around the world went into lockdown, what we wanted to wear changed course. In the period from April to June, global demand for leggings increased by 72% over the same time frame in 2019, while joggers and sweatpants saw a striking 167% increase. In the second quarter of 2020, for the first time, a non-luxury brand — Nike — topped Lyst’s hottest brands index. And Birkenstocks were the top women’s product.
As we tentatively return to some semblance of real life, it seems unlikely we will be willing to let go of this newfound appreciation for comfort. Who is hungry to get back into severe suiting when we know we are capable of getting things done in pieces that swaddle rather than restrict? We have found unexpected energy in clothes that work with us rather than against us, and we won’t be going back in a hurry.
Anyone in need of a quick dopamine hit would be smart to look at Marc Jacobs’ personal Instagram (@themarcjacobs). On it, the designer chronicles his glorious, unapologetically camp, fashion-with-a-capital-F get-ups, from leopard print Celine to towering Rick Owens platforms. His favorite hashtag? #GratefulNotHateful.
It would make a great pick-me-up motto for 2020, too. In the face of global suffering, fashion has a new feeling of togetherness. Houses like Bottega Veneta and Jimmy Choo have created content programs that foster a sense of community among their customers rather than just going for the hard sell. And you could see the power of unity in the way brands both large and small banded together to launch charitable initiatives and make meaningful pivots. LVMH, for instance, started producing hand sanitizer in its perfume factories, while Kerby Jean-Raymond transformed his Pyer Moss HQ into a donation center for masks and gloves.
Consider too how labels have used this time to show off the work of their in-house teams rather than simply bolstering the egos of superstar creative directors. Gucci’s 12-hour live-streamed Epilogue collection, for example, starred the house’s own designers. Community truly starts from within.
A brand that was already harnessing the power of teamwork pre-pandemic is Danish fashion house Ganni, which fosters a feeling of community on Instagram with its #GanniGirls hashtag. At its fall/winter 2020 show in Copenhagen in January, the brand posed the following question: What will the 2020s bring? (Answer: If only we’d known!) The designer partnered with 20 female artists to create exclusive products for its pop-ups.
And it’s more than just a cynical marketing ploy. For Creative Director Ditte Reffstrup, it simply makes sense. “Here in Copenhagen, the people and brands we’ve grown up with have always felt like family,” she explains. “It’s a small place, so everyone has each other’s back. I think that the rest of the industry is starting to catch on. People are realizing that we can all learn together and help each other out. We’ve got to rethink business as usual.”
There is an under-appreciated power in kindness. In many ways, it is the common thrust that unites all the changes now swelling in the fashion industry. Perhaps, if there is one optimistic lesson to take away from 2020 it could be that, ultimately, there is only one way forward: together.