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Open season: Covid’s impact on the fashion industry’s rhythms

The fashion calendar has been evolving gradually for years, but the pandemic has forced players throughout the supply chain to contemplate a radical reset

Close-Up Details Of Clothing On A Woman Model In Red Suit Walks On The Fashion Show

Fashion weeks used to make sense. The way they were scheduled – about six months before the clothes on show would be delivered to retailers – enabled manufacturers, buyers and journalists to plan effectively. But things have changed. For one thing, these hitherto elitist affairs have been democratised through the access afforded by the internet, driving the consumer’s desire for instant gratification. For another, catwalk shows have become entertainment events, with many of the garments exhibited never making it into production.

Both the timing and the manner of ever more localised fashion weeks can feel remarkably antiquated, given that their premise is to showcase the new. Many industry insiders have been arguing that the system has long been broken. Could the Covid crisis be a driving force for change?

Rachel Jones is a lecturer in fashion business management at the University of Westminster. She notes that higher-end brands have “felt pressured by the speed at which trends spread, and by the breakdown of seasonality that online shopping has caused, to show and deliver at an ever more breakneck pace, even though production times can be squeezed only so much. This has accelerated the collapse of the traditional six-monthly cycle, which started when well-financed brands began introducing inter-season collections.”

Jones continues: “The break in the schedule that Covid made necessary looks to be the chance to reset the system’s timings. It has given catwalk brands a kind of permission to break free and try things in new ways that are more convenient, competitive and current.”

Exploring a technological fix

The use of livestreaming has been one response. The world’s first fashion week of any significant scale to go fully digital, Shanghai Fashion Week, reached more than 11 million livestream viewers in March 2020, for instance. Another has been the replacement of traditional media with Instagram and other social platforms. 

By relying on either of these marketing channels, brands cede control of the narrative to the consumer – a consumer who’s more vocally critical and impatient for the goods to be delivered. This factor has inspired ‘see now, buy now’ direct-to-consumer programmes of varying effectiveness. Many brands that have tried to shrink the gap between show and product availability in this way have tended to see an increase in online interest and footfall rather than actual sales.

But other brands are trying more radical approaches, opting out of the traditional fashion calendar altogether. London-based designer Mary Katrantzou, for instance, runs a couture collection in parallel with a season-less, all-year-round collection that she launched during the first national lockdown. 

“Taking the courage of my convictions has shown me how you can be liberated from the relentless pace of the fashion calendar and take the time needed to develop products, which I, as an independent designer without huge resources, find vital to creativity,” she says. “There’s an acceptance that things need to change. Many designers are feeling freer to show their collections in different ways. Showing, for instance, is increasingly about communicating values to the consumer. Working with buyers has become something separate from that, especially as they’re increasingly looking to buy all year round too.”

Breaking free from the calendar

The pandemic has prompted brands of all sizes to reappraise their approach to showcasing and producing. Yves Saint Laurent, for instance, last year announced plans to shun the traditional calendar and show on its own terms. 

Ermenegildo Zegna, one of the biggest brands of high-end menswear, has shifted its approach towards what its artistic director, Alessandro Sartori, calls a more hybrid model. He’s sceptical of the ‘see it, buy it’ approach – “it’s fake, because really it’s based on production orders just being kept on hold” – but concedes that, given the influence of fast fashion, there is increasing pressure now to “get the freshest and right collection to the consumer at the right time”, resulting in a need to shorten the production cycle. 

This cannot be done at a cost to quality, he stresses, so Zegna’s new approach is to deliver a series of ‘wardrobes’ throughout the year, with smaller production runs allowing these to be closer to delivery dates (in turn enabling a better and less wasteful response to market needs), while retaining the traditional six-month cycle for garments requiring special fabrication.

“You can do part of a collection in two months – textile makers and clothing manufacturers can generally cope with that – but not all of it, so you end up with a blended system, which strikes me as more appropriate for the fashion market of tomorrow,” Sartori argues. 

And as for presenting the collections? It says much that he has been busy in recent weeks shooting about 8,000 photos of more than 1,000 looks, while also making a series of short films. 

“This is simply about using digital media in a more clever way,” Sartori says. “If you have the digital means of showing almost every aspect of a garment, why do you need a catwalk show? The whole industry’s dynamic needs to change, but a big push is still needed to make that happen.”

Will the big push come?

Paul Alger, director of international affairs at the UK Fashion and Textile Association, reckons that some elements of the supply chain remain “in denial about the issue” and that change may be compromised by competing interests. Retailers want to buy closer to the season – with many now so cash-strapped that they’re pushing for sale-or-return contracts that small clothing firms can’t easily finance – while textile makers, which operate on longer lead times than designers, are panicked about their planning. 

If the fashion calendar were to be shortened, “manufacturers could cope”, he says. “The question is whether they’d like it. But many companies have been operating on a short-order basis for longer than people might realise. And, while change might create uncertainty in the supply chain, the challenge for all players in this industry is to be as flexible as possible.”

Yet not everyone believes that change is necessary, or desirable – at least, not when considering fashion’s place in culture. Menswear designer Oliver Spencer thinks that, while the six-monthly cycle may not work for the high street or the customer, it still works well for more considered clothing – not only in terms of quality, but also in terms of ethical and environmentally sustainable production. 

“If you espouse the idea of slow fashion and promote making things that last from a sustainability standpoint, it’s important to stick to the current system,” Spencer argues. “The high street may be able to operate on a faster one and many consumers want instant gratification, yet many others are questioning the bigger impact of that now, especially since Covid. In the longer term, the outcome will be governed by how slow fashion grows.”