Op-Ed: If Fashion Is Dead, Where Do Trends Go?

By now, everyone knows the Coronavirus epidemic brought seismic changes. With all socio-economic activities depressed since the outbreak of COVID-19, one of the major areas which have been affected is undoubtedly the fashion industry. Fashion weeks were canceled, cruise collections were postponed or avoided altogether, ambitious magazine editorials became a pre quarantine thing. Overwhelmed, the fashion industry started making baby steps to embrace the chance and look forward to addressing the radically shifted consumers’ needs. It seemed that the fashion system, at least as we knew it, was a thing of the past.

In a recent article for The Guardian, titled Coronavirus is putting the whole idea of fashion out of fashion, journalist Rachel Cooke indeed argued that even the overall perception of fashion has been radically shifted since the coronavirus outbreak. “Fashion, it seems to me, is over, at least in the sense we’ve come to know it recently. No more flamboyant, wasteful shows. No more unnecessary collections. No more department stores in which “exclusive” versions of items from said collections – behold, an ugly zip you’ll find absolutely nowhere else! – may be sold.” she argued. This made me think: in today’s shattered reality, can we actually believe fashion is out of fashion?

Let’s take things from the start. Roland Barthes was one of the first to pinpoint that fashion is a structured system, a visual narrative that goes beyond the surface to express a multitude of things. In His first book on the subject, published in 1967, aptly titled The Fashion System, he analyses the flowery, descriptive language in fashion magazines Elle and Le Jardin des Modes, in juxtaposition to images printed in such publications. For Barthes, fashion is all about language. “it is not the object but the name that creates desire; it is not the dream but the meaning that sells” he notes.

Clothes do convey meanings in society beyond the superficial, enacting, and even creating power relations between people. This interaction is so critical to a society it cannot be overlooked. As long as we make the conscious choice of wearing clothes, we are uttering something in the language of fashion for the others to see and react to it. I dress therefore I speak. “We can lie in the language of dress, or try to tell the truth, but unless we are naked and bald it is impossible to be silent.” wrote Alison Lurie in her best seller,The Language of Clothes.

So, perhaps what is out of the calendar are trends as we know then? For those of us who work in fashion,  the radical changes of the corona epidemic have created new consumer habits and trends- trends that were in fact already in the making. Fashion can not only showcase socio-economic- changes-it can even predict them with surprising accuracy. This is hardly new.Anne Hollander, the author of Seeing Through Clothes told NYT in a 2006 article that the French Revolution was heralded by the fashionable folk of the time. Women, before 1789, began to wear “simple, belted shifts,” while men wore “plebeian garb” like “rough coats and unkempt neckwear.”

Ask any fashion forecaster and will tell you that the coronavirus epidemic showcased trends: sweat pants, sheer practicality, and minimalism. Ask again and they will admit those were trends already in the making long before the epidemic. Hoodies, streetwear hype, relaxed workwear etiquette, even masks; everything was there for those that could see it. Trends, trends, and more trends. As Barthes would say: “Every new Fashion is a refusal to inherit, subversion against the oppression of the preceding Fashion; Fashion experiences itself as a right, the natural right of the present over the past.”

After all, today’s no-trend reality is a trend by itself.

The Ganni exhibition at Copenhagen Fashion Week spring / summer 2021. Courtesy Copenhagen Fashion Week

The Fashion Shows of the Future Will Be Phygital.Or Perhaps Not.

Nothing can be as unpredictable as the future-and for fashion an industry that relies heavily on predictions and trends, the post- Coronavirus era has been a catalyst for radical changes. Social distancing and health regulations meant the idea of a fashion week as we knew it had to change-with first being the fashion shows. The most recent Copenhagen fashion week showed us that the buzz word of the future would be “phygital” – physical space and digital technologies combined.

Copenhagen Fashion Week was redesigned both as a hybrid format of virtual showrooms which allowed buyers to review the clothes and as a newly designed digital platform to host the shows that would take place both in a digital and phygital format. The advisory board made up of Ganni’s founder Nicolaj Reffstrup; Stine Goya’s CEO Thomas Hertz; Holzweiler’s creative director Susanne Holzweiler; Hope’s creative director Frida Bard; and the creative agency MOON’s CEO Martin Gjesing decided on a series of installments that included almost everything: from presentations, runways exhibitions to installations.

The experimental format performed well-that is, for a compromise. However, the organizers knew right the start it was a challenging choice. “We know from other fashion weeks that the numbers haven’t been crazy high” Cecilie Thorsmark, chief executive of Copenhagen Fashion Week told Vogue Business. Vogue Business also reported that according to Traakr, the best performing Copenhagen Fashion Week brand was Ganni, which hosted an exhibition-by-appointment instead of a runway gathering with 208 posts and over 156,000 engagements, thus  suggesting that people still want to engage in physical events,

Now that Copenhagen Fashion Week is over, the conversation about how the fashion show will evolve becomes more relevant than ever. If the fashion show is based on the shared experience-a communal feeling of participation, then how this could be reproduced in the non-physical world? How would we get the excitement, the thrill, the show? And how can consumers want to actually buy without the fantasy offered, without the immediate reaction?  “If I’m a buyer I’m not going to spend tens of thousands of pounds of my budget on a collection I haven’t physically seen. The digital platforms are great for discovering brands and great for re-orders for instance, but if I was buying from a new designer or spending vast sums, I would want to see and touch the collection first,” notes Lauretta Roberts, CEO & Editor in Chief of The Industry.fashion media.

She is not the only one who sees radical changes coming. For Evelyn Mora, the founder of Helsinki Fashion Week, the fashion industry will embrace interdisciplinary collaboration to the fullest. “It is a new start for the fashion industry and I personally see it as a positive opportunity to reinvent ourselves and our industry. “ she notes. She also feels digital shows do have a future-in a complementary form. “Digital shows might replace the physical shows as we know it but I do think that digital can never replace IRL interactions and socializing. Digital is an essential tool for the fashion industry to embrace. I don’t think that it is an either-or question. Digital compliments physical and vice versa.”

Katie Baron is an author and the Director of Brand Engagement at Stylus. For her, the future of the fashion show will be a mixture of gated, industry-only content like debates, and public-facing experiences from shows to further discussions. “One of the most significant changes will be the introduction of not only live-streamed shows that we’ll comment on akin to watching sport but also, slightly further down the line, the capacity to enter virtual environments with digital models allowing even smaller brands to showcase worlds more closely aligned with their creative vision than at present when even a basic show requires significant funding.”

For Lauretta Roberts, the catwalk, and the showroom experiences are vital. “The catwalk or runway is a device used by a designer to market their collection and present a coherent and compelling creative vision for their collection – they are important and often just joyous to watch. Yes, they are expensive to produce but the marketing benefit and the content created from it endures long after the show has ended. But the buying, from a retailer perspective, happens in the showrooms afterward when they really get a chance to get up close and personal with the collection.” She predicts the new fashion show format is here to stay. “I would not be surprised to see brands investing more in digital presentations” she notes, “either through the digital fashion weeks or through their own channels to cover off the marketing and creative vision side of the equation. “

If phygital is to stay as the new fashion show format, then technology will be vital in securing a future for the industry. “Tech will certainly put consumers in the picture to a greater extent, making shows much more of a ‘tentpole’ moment, but not necessarily bound to the conventional seasons.” remarks Katie Baron. “Consider too, she adds, a greater play on the components that constitute great shows, such as (AR)-trialling of catwalk make-up – straight to fans’ faces – allowing their audiences to continue generating the buzz.”

According to Lauretta Roberts,the change is coming-and will most likely affect both smaller designers and big brands. “There does need to be some sort of physical presentation of a collection for trade but I don’t think it needs to be four times a year and we need to give clothes a chance to sell in-store before they are discounted and moved on to allow space for new deliveries. It’s a bit insane that all the summer stock is cleared in June and the stores are full of coats and chunky knitwear in August. That has to change.”