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May 15,2020

by Madeline Reid

It Was a Cultural Reset

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic terrorising the globe has already begun disrupt many creative industries – film and TV productions have been postponed, many movies have had to forego their cinematic releases and fashion shows around the world have been cancelled in quick succession. New York, Milan and Paris have all cancelled their events, which had long been the pillars of the fashion calendar, along with cancellations in Australia, Helsinki, Shanghai, Beijing and Sao Paolo. 

However, some designers including Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams, Erdem Moralioglu, Joseph Altuzarra and Gabriela Hearst have confirmed they are moving forward with new collections, even if official fashion weeks are on pause. Meanwhile, Saint Laurent has announced it will no longer adhere to the industry’s calendar moving forward. It’s set an uncertain precedent for the industry post-pandemic, particularly the future of the fashion runway.

Richard-Malone-AW20-FoH-Eeva-Rinne-British-Fashion-Council-Hi-Res-08603-1

Richard Malone AW20 runway at London Fashion Week, courtesy of the British Fashion Council. 

This is not the first time we have witnessed the fashion industry impacted by and responding to disease – as early as the 1800s, women’s clothing emphasised the slender build, pale complexion and flushed cheeks of tuberculosis sufferers. This romanticised depiction of disease was repeated during the 1990s with the popular ‘heroin chic’ aesthetic. Public health campaigns to prevent the spread of tuberculosis at the time named women’s long, trailing skirts as culprits, leading to heightened skirt hemlines that resulted in a new global fascination with stylish footwear. 

When the AIDS crisis struck in the 1980s, many male designers admitted their brands had suffered from the resulting homophobia, noting customers were too fearful to buy from ‘diseased’ men.

But there have been no health crises more detrimental to human life or society than the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, where it is estimated 50 to 100 million people died. It feels somewhat eerie that one hundred years since this monumental tragedy, history could be repeating itself. In order to understand the immense impact this pandemic could have on the fashion industry, it’s imperative to consider what we can and should learn one century on.

1918-1919.-An-epidemic-of-'Spanish-Flu'-spread-around-the-world-1

1918-1919, women walking in London during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

“The 1918-1921 period is a confused era in fashion – there is no obvious progression and it's difficult to accurately date fashion during this period, as opposed to other eras of the 20th century where seasonal changes are easy to recognise. This is partly due to the Spanish Influenza but there are many factors that also have influence,” says Jonathan Walford, Director and Curator of the Fashion History Museum in Ontario, Canada.

The Spanish influenza pandemic was largely spread through young men returning from war to their homes across the globe, and young men were disproportionately affected by the outbreak. While many women had replaced men during World War I in some work sectors, their roles were often limited to secretaries, saleswomen and telephone operators. It was not until the influenza outbreak’s impact on the young male workforce, in combination with World War I casualties, that women were allowed to occupy roles they had previously been banned from, most notably the textile industry. More women than ever took jobs outside of the home, and by 1920 women made up 21% of the US workforce.

While this gender boost is often ascribed to World War I alone, women’s increased presence in the workforce would have been far less pronounced without the 1918 pandemic, particularly in textiles. The increased number of women in textile manufacturing gave rise to a stylistic reorientation, and the 1920s welcomed the success of revolutionary female fashion designers including Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin and Madeleine Vionnet.

“With peacetime, there are different movements towards reviving prewar styles, or moving forwards towards equality in dress for the modern, liberated woman,” explains Walford. “Also, immediately following the war there is a serious recession as war production ends and factories retool for peacetime production. This leads to massive unemployment, protests, political unrest, and a weak economy where fashion is not considered an important commodity. So while Spanish influenza can be added to the confusion of indeterminate styles, it is only one of many issues influencing the pursuit of style.”

Of course, the 1918 pandemic was not solely responsible for creating employment opportunities for women. It did, however, help facilitate the social shift necessary for the women’s Suffrage movement to succeed in Europe and the US. This was partially due to the necessity of women in the workforce, and therefore the societal acknowledgement of women’s necessity in society, but also speaks to a more global sense of unity. In the post-World War I society, women around the world united in their fight for more freedom, independence and a louder voice in the political arena.

So, if the Spanish influenza pandemic, while devastating, elevated women in society socially and financially, allowing for the commercial rise of the female fashion designer and garment maker, what could the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic be for fashion?

The relevance of contemporary fashion runways has been debated for some time now – thanks to the industry’s favoured social media platform, Instagram, a front-row seat is no longer necessary to witness the latest designer collections. Instead, shows are often live-streamed and rigorously posted online for all to witness. While this digitalisation has aided a more democratic industry, it also calls into question the need for such extravagant and excessive events. 

Matty-Bovan-AW20-by-Antonio-Delle-Monache-1

Backstage at Matty Bovan AW20 at London Fashion Week, shot by Antonio Delle Monache. 

“Fashion shows are fabulous – nothing matches to the experience of when those lights go up, the buzz, the clothes, makeup, hair, set; a truly sensory, 360-degrees, 3-dimensional experience. It’s a luxury,” says fashion critic and founder of High Fashion Talk, Iolo Edwards. “Luxuries are by definition not necessary, and accordingly, shows are not necessary. There are so many other alternatives today which make them less and less relevant; lookbooks, videos, presentations, virtual/augmented reality just to name a few. However, designers and brands need to present and position themselves in a way that justifies their value, and the industry seems to have put shows, probably due to tradition and history, on a pedestal.”

One change that could be on the horizon for future fashion shows is the shift towards genderless fashion events. We’ve already seen a number of designers including Burberry, Balenciaga and Calvin Klein combine their men’s and women’s collections into one co-ed fashion show during events traditionally saved for womenswear. Meanwhile, men’s fashion weeks have seen the rise in popularity of gender-neutral brands such as Art School and Eckhaus Latta, thanks to a new consumer generation who are considerably more accepting and expressive of their own gender and sexual fluidity. 

Roksanda-LFW-AW20-FOH-Shaun-James-Cox-British-Fashion-Council-HiRes.40-edited

Roksanda AW20 runway at London Fashion Week, courtesy of the British Fashion Council. 

The British Fashion Council has already announced that it will go ahead with its previously scheduled dates for London Fashion Week: Men’s in June with the event will take place online. The digital event will be gender-agnostic, enabling menswear, womenswear, and genderless labels to participate. 

Instagram Lives, social media posts, Zoom conferences, and direct-to-consumer e-tail have only become more integral to fashion brands during this lockdown period, showing that direct engagement with customers and fans is more essential than ever. If this is to translate post-pandemic, we may see the fashion show spectacle of late downsize and the resurgence of 1900s salon shows. Haute couture designers of the time Paul Poiret and Lady Duff-Gordon favoured intimate settings for clients to see the garments up close, recognising the importance of a close relationship with customers.

However, if this is truly to be a time for change, then there’s one area of improvement the fashion industry has been nervously loitering around for years – sustainability. While we may be bored of hearing the overused term by now, there has never been a more important time for the industry to consider its environmental impact on the planet and use of sustainable resources. While some changes have been seen – last season the British Fashion Council launched a ‘Positive Fashion Exhibition’ highlighting the work of those working on the front line of the climate crisis in the fashion industry, and big brands including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga announcing their commitment to ‘carbon neutrality’. If some brands are to pause or halt production, while others look to digital alternatives to showcase designs, then they have already taken the first step towards changing the production patterns designers are so accustomed to. And while designers continue to experiment with the latest technology in the search for sustainable alternatives, one frivolous expense that this pandemic may prove unnecessary is the runway extravaganza.

“The fashion month schedule seems to be the easiest and cheapest way to do a show and get the right people there at the same time,” explains Edwards. “The problem is that it’s still not easy or cheap to do this as well as the environmental cost you have to consider. I think that designers need to really weigh in the value of doing [a show], and encourage brands that put on essentially pointless shows, not to do them and do something more innovative instead.”

“I think it is possible that this lockdown will be the catalyst that effects global change, and for the best in many cases,” he continues, “however, I do think that many are greenwashing and pinkwashing their decisions made to save money or necessity in the current situation. I guess that it’s the change that we want, and it doesn’t matter why they did it in the end, as long as they have positive effects on society and the environment.”

16Arlington-LFW-AW20.-FOH-From-Brand-British-Fashion-Council-HiRes.44-1

16 Arlington AW20 runway at London Fashion Week, courtesy of the British Fashion Council. 

Edwards, however, is concerned that what may seem like a shift towards a genderless, sustainable fashion utopia may be deceiving. He says, “I am afraid for post-lockdown when a lot of brands will be out of pocket due to cancelled orders and a decimated supply chains due to factory closures, etc. I’m not even sure people outside China will be participating in revenge buying in the same way. I think this will push brands to possibly forget about their environmental goals, as well as social ones with Covid-19 being used as a scapegoat for ethical and creative shortcomings. I expect fashion to take another deep drive into logomania, wealth signifying hype again like post-recession, which has only in the last few years worn off. The brands and conglomerates counting on perpetual growth will devise potentially damaging strategies to make up for lost time and money.” 

There’s no uncertainty that the Covid-19 pandemic is a global human catastrophe, and the negative effects economically and societally will be felt for years to come, if not decades. That being said, if there’s a silver lining to be found amongst the chaos, it’s the potential for change – not the usual temporary fix, but harnessing this crisis as the necessary motivation to drive real systemic change that could revolutionise the fashion industry for the better, for good. 

May 15,2020

by Madeline Reid

It Was a Cultural Reset

There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 pandemic terrorising the globe has already begun disrupt many creative industries – film and TV productions have been postponed, many movies have had to forego their cinematic releases and fashion shows around the world have been cancelled in quick succession. New York, Milan and Paris have all cancelled their events, which had long been the pillars of the fashion calendar, along with cancellations in Australia, Helsinki, Shanghai, Beijing and Sao Paolo. 

However, some designers including Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams, Erdem Moralioglu, Joseph Altuzarra and Gabriela Hearst have confirmed they are moving forward with new collections, even if official fashion weeks are on pause. Meanwhile, Saint Laurent has announced it will no longer adhere to the industry’s calendar moving forward. It’s set an uncertain precedent for the industry post-pandemic, particularly the future of the fashion runway.

Richard-Malone-AW20-FoH-Eeva-Rinne-British-Fashion-Council-Hi-Res-08603-1

Richard Malone AW20 runway at London Fashion Week, courtesy of the British Fashion Council. 

This is not the first time we have witnessed the fashion industry impacted by and responding to disease – as early as the 1800s, women’s clothing emphasised the slender build, pale complexion and flushed cheeks of tuberculosis sufferers. This romanticised depiction of disease was repeated during the 1990s with the popular ‘heroin chic’ aesthetic. Public health campaigns to prevent the spread of tuberculosis at the time named women’s long, trailing skirts as culprits, leading to heightened skirt hemlines that resulted in a new global fascination with stylish footwear. 

When the AIDS crisis struck in the 1980s, many male designers admitted their brands had suffered from the resulting homophobia, noting customers were too fearful to buy from ‘diseased’ men.

But there have been no health crises more detrimental to human life or society than the Spanish influenza pandemic in 1918-1919, where it is estimated 50 to 100 million people died. It feels somewhat eerie that one hundred years since this monumental tragedy, history could be repeating itself. In order to understand the immense impact this pandemic could have on the fashion industry, it’s imperative to consider what we can and should learn one century on.

1918-1919.-An-epidemic-of-'Spanish-Flu'-spread-around-the-world-1

1918-1919, women walking in London during the Spanish Flu pandemic.

“The 1918-1921 period is a confused era in fashion – there is no obvious progression and it's difficult to accurately date fashion during this period, as opposed to other eras of the 20th century where seasonal changes are easy to recognise. This is partly due to the Spanish Influenza but there are many factors that also have influence,” says Jonathan Walford, Director and Curator of the Fashion History Museum in Ontario, Canada.

The Spanish influenza pandemic was largely spread through young men returning from war to their homes across the globe, and young men were disproportionately affected by the outbreak. While many women had replaced men during World War I in some work sectors, their roles were often limited to secretaries, saleswomen and telephone operators. It was not until the influenza outbreak’s impact on the young male workforce, in combination with World War I casualties, that women were allowed to occupy roles they had previously been banned from, most notably the textile industry. More women than ever took jobs outside of the home, and by 1920 women made up 21% of the US workforce.

While this gender boost is often ascribed to World War I alone, women’s increased presence in the workforce would have been far less pronounced without the 1918 pandemic, particularly in textiles. The increased number of women in textile manufacturing gave rise to a stylistic reorientation, and the 1920s welcomed the success of revolutionary female fashion designers including Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jeanne Lanvin and Madeleine Vionnet.

“With peacetime, there are different movements towards reviving prewar styles, or moving forwards towards equality in dress for the modern, liberated woman,” explains Walford. “Also, immediately following the war there is a serious recession as war production ends and factories retool for peacetime production. This leads to massive unemployment, protests, political unrest, and a weak economy where fashion is not considered an important commodity. So while Spanish influenza can be added to the confusion of indeterminate styles, it is only one of many issues influencing the pursuit of style.”

Of course, the 1918 pandemic was not solely responsible for creating employment opportunities for women. It did, however, help facilitate the social shift necessary for the women’s Suffrage movement to succeed in Europe and the US. This was partially due to the necessity of women in the workforce, and therefore the societal acknowledgement of women’s necessity in society, but also speaks to a more global sense of unity. In the post-World War I society, women around the world united in their fight for more freedom, independence and a louder voice in the political arena.

So, if the Spanish influenza pandemic, while devastating, elevated women in society socially and financially, allowing for the commercial rise of the female fashion designer and garment maker, what could the implications of the Covid-19 pandemic be for fashion?

The relevance of contemporary fashion runways has been debated for some time now – thanks to the industry’s favoured social media platform, Instagram, a front-row seat is no longer necessary to witness the latest designer collections. Instead, shows are often live-streamed and rigorously posted online for all to witness. While this digitalisation has aided a more democratic industry, it also calls into question the need for such extravagant and excessive events. 

Matty-Bovan-AW20-by-Antonio-Delle-Monache-1

Backstage at Matty Bovan AW20 at London Fashion Week, shot by Antonio Delle Monache. 

“Fashion shows are fabulous – nothing matches to the experience of when those lights go up, the buzz, the clothes, makeup, hair, set; a truly sensory, 360-degrees, 3-dimensional experience. It’s a luxury,” says fashion critic and founder of High Fashion Talk, Iolo Edwards. “Luxuries are by definition not necessary, and accordingly, shows are not necessary. There are so many other alternatives today which make them less and less relevant; lookbooks, videos, presentations, virtual/augmented reality just to name a few. However, designers and brands need to present and position themselves in a way that justifies their value, and the industry seems to have put shows, probably due to tradition and history, on a pedestal.”

One change that could be on the horizon for future fashion shows is the shift towards genderless fashion events. We’ve already seen a number of designers including Burberry, Balenciaga and Calvin Klein combine their men’s and women’s collections into one co-ed fashion show during events traditionally saved for womenswear. Meanwhile, men’s fashion weeks have seen the rise in popularity of gender-neutral brands such as Art School and Eckhaus Latta, thanks to a new consumer generation who are considerably more accepting and expressive of their own gender and sexual fluidity. 

Roksanda-LFW-AW20-FOH-Shaun-James-Cox-British-Fashion-Council-HiRes.40-edited

Roksanda AW20 runway at London Fashion Week, courtesy of the British Fashion Council. 

The British Fashion Council has already announced that it will go ahead with its previously scheduled dates for London Fashion Week: Men’s in June with the event will take place online. The digital event will be gender-agnostic, enabling menswear, womenswear, and genderless labels to participate. 

Instagram Lives, social media posts, Zoom conferences, and direct-to-consumer e-tail have only become more integral to fashion brands during this lockdown period, showing that direct engagement with customers and fans is more essential than ever. If this is to translate post-pandemic, we may see the fashion show spectacle of late downsize and the resurgence of 1900s salon shows. Haute couture designers of the time Paul Poiret and Lady Duff-Gordon favoured intimate settings for clients to see the garments up close, recognising the importance of a close relationship with customers.

However, if this is truly to be a time for change, then there’s one area of improvement the fashion industry has been nervously loitering around for years – sustainability. While we may be bored of hearing the overused term by now, there has never been a more important time for the industry to consider its environmental impact on the planet and use of sustainable resources. While some changes have been seen – last season the British Fashion Council launched a ‘Positive Fashion Exhibition’ highlighting the work of those working on the front line of the climate crisis in the fashion industry, and big brands including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga announcing their commitment to ‘carbon neutrality’. If some brands are to pause or halt production, while others look to digital alternatives to showcase designs, then they have already taken the first step towards changing the production patterns designers are so accustomed to. And while designers continue to experiment with the latest technology in the search for sustainable alternatives, one frivolous expense that this pandemic may prove unnecessary is the runway extravaganza.

“The fashion month schedule seems to be the easiest and cheapest way to do a show and get the right people there at the same time,” explains Edwards. “The problem is that it’s still not easy or cheap to do this as well as the environmental cost you have to consider. I think that designers need to really weigh in the value of doing [a show], and encourage brands that put on essentially pointless shows, not to do them and do something more innovative instead.”

“I think it is possible that this lockdown will be the catalyst that effects global change, and for the best in many cases,” he continues, “however, I do think that many are greenwashing and pinkwashing their decisions made to save money or necessity in the current situation. I guess that it’s the change that we want, and it doesn’t matter why they did it in the end, as long as they have positive effects on society and the environment.”

16Arlington-LFW-AW20.-FOH-From-Brand-British-Fashion-Council-HiRes.44-1

16 Arlington AW20 runway at London Fashion Week, courtesy of the British Fashion Council. 

Edwards, however, is concerned that what may seem like a shift towards a genderless, sustainable fashion utopia may be deceiving. He says, “I am afraid for post-lockdown when a lot of brands will be out of pocket due to cancelled orders and a decimated supply chains due to factory closures, etc. I’m not even sure people outside China will be participating in revenge buying in the same way. I think this will push brands to possibly forget about their environmental goals, as well as social ones with Covid-19 being used as a scapegoat for ethical and creative shortcomings. I expect fashion to take another deep drive into logomania, wealth signifying hype again like post-recession, which has only in the last few years worn off. The brands and conglomerates counting on perpetual growth will devise potentially damaging strategies to make up for lost time and money.” 

There’s no uncertainty that the Covid-19 pandemic is a global human catastrophe, and the negative effects economically and societally will be felt for years to come, if not decades. That being said, if there’s a silver lining to be found amongst the chaos, it’s the potential for change – not the usual temporary fix, but harnessing this crisis as the necessary motivation to drive real systemic change that could revolutionise the fashion industry for the better, for good.