In any normal year, come the last week of January, fashion editors, influencers and models alike would normally be flocking to the cobblestoned streets of Paris donning anything shiny, oversized or striking in preparation for Couture Week. By February, the same stylish bunch would jet-set to New York, where the likes of Phillip Lim, Carolina Herrera and Ralph Lauren would present their respective autumn collections.
In the following weeks, London, Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks would follow suit, generating buzz in the industry and the media. Then the whole cycle would repeat come September. This was the way of the luxury fashion industry for decades – until the pandemic made it nearly impossible to safely gather large crowds in one place.
Frankly, seasons don’t make sense … It’s a global industry, and it’s a different season everywhere you look
Gary Wassner, CEO, Hilldun Corporation
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One by one, revered fashion houses announced that they would skip the scheduled presentation during the pandemic while they sought a new creative outlet that would showcase their designs in a different way. Fashion weeks had always centred on what was new and trending, but the interference in the cycle, paired with the new stay-at-home lifestyle that the pandemic brought about, left designers and creative directors with a unique opportunity to reinvent the fashion event as they saw fit. Suddenly, adapting a fashion collection to the four seasons was no longer a priority.
The fashion heavyweights in the luxury field interpreted this in different ways. Alessandro Michele of Gucci had some strong thoughts on foregoing the shows, which he shared publicly: “I decided to build a new path, away from deadlines that the industry consolidated, and, above all, away from an excessive performativity (sic) that today really has no raison d’Etre.” He proclaimed, through what seemed to be diary entries, that the fashion house will produce season-less collections twice a year instead.
Another house under the Kering Group had announced its upcoming absence from Paris Fashion Week a month prior. The heads at Saint Laurent wrote that the brand will “take ownership of its collections following a plan conceived with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity”. Influential names such as Balenciaga and Virgil Abloh’s Off-White opted out of the traditional calendar this year, too, while designers like Stella McCartney announced she was not ordering new fabric for 2021.
“Frankly, seasons don’t make sense,” Gary Wassner, CEO of well-known fashion financing company Hilldun Corporation, said during a recent Sourcing Journal summit. “It’s a global industry, and it’s a different season everywhere you look.”
Experts gathered last October for a virtual discussion on how brands have realigned themselves in the current situation, prompting retailers to adapt a “buy now, wear now” model for their customers.
It was not just the demand that flipped overnight – supply changed almost as rapidly. Many brands had to rethink their supply chain since the world had become temporarily immobile, posing several challenges, like sourcing materials from various countries. This, coupled with shipping delays, caused many to pause.
The season-less model made all the more sense if there were production impediments. This held true for smaller brands that were impacted by a loss of workforce and income and would have to release a smaller number of pieces than what was typical of them, explained Wassner.
As the months have passed, the industry has pivoted and pushed forward. In June, for example, London Fashion Week (LFW) launched a digital platform accessible to all that broadcast the presentations that did push through. By September, LFW found its footing by mixing socially distanced runway shows, private appointments and a digital activation that was able to attract a global audience.
“Our role with this new format – a hybrid of physical and digital – had been to use LFW to create a global meet-up point for designers, media, retailers and fashion enthusiasts, making sure the event, London and the UK, are still open to everyone worldwide,” says Caroline Rush, CEO of the British Fashion Council.
As an insider, Rush has witnessed a shift in how business is conducted and in its gender-neutral, digital-first format as well. In spite of some limitations, designers and brands took the opportunity to become more creative. “From Burberry’s outdoor show and performance to Halpern’s beautiful celebration of the frontline heroines, Bethany Williams’ digital content and Art School’s incredible diversity in their casting, the LFW designers proved how exciting and powerful British fashion is today,” shares Rush.
For the global consumer who was used to flying halfway across the world to sit at presentations, the product will now be brought to them. British Fashion Council partnered with JD.com to sate its Chinese clientele’s appetite for fashion. This made it easier for customers to access LFW content. “This helped us increase the exposure of British brands in the country and improve the recognition of British brands among their customers,” Rush says.
Export shows are another way to bring international fashion houses and luxury goods closer to home – where they were able to proceed. The Kering Group brought its brands like Gucci, Saint Laurent, Alexander McQueen and Bottega Veneta to present their latest and greatest at the China International Import Expo (CIIE) for a second year. The show highlighted the newest rendition of Gucci’s Dionysus bag, Saint Laurent Men’s spring/summer 2021 collection, and a juxtaposition of Balenciaga’s 1960s vintage dress and a newly released dress-coat. The stories that were once told on the runway unfolded differently at CIIE.
“From the first Gucci boutique in Hong Kong in 1974, to today, our stores are now present in more than 40 Chinese cities and our houses are accelerating their online presence in China,” says Cai Jinqing, president, Greater China, at Kering.
While the industry wheels continue to turn with no set format agreed upon, it’s refreshing to see luxury brands arriving at inventive ways to present their collections. “It is challenging to look at the positive side of something that has had such a devastating impact on lives, businesses and the economy, but this is a real opportunity to reset the industry for the long term and set it up for the future,” says Rush.
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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