Will COVID-19 lead to a digital and sustainable future for fashion?

Jacquemus Fall/Winter 2020-2021 – Vogue France
Jacquemus Fall/Winter 2020-2021 – Vogue France

As much as fashion is a universal language, and a reflection of culture, it is also a source of angst for the planet. The fashion industry has a reputation for polluting, not only throughout the production cycle, an often decentralized manufacturing chain, but also across countless trips to fashion weeks and other events, several times per year.

In the face of the current crisis and global push toward sustainability, the industry has come under intense pressure to adapt. And adapt, they will. “There are always opportunities in a crisis, depending on your mindset, your actions and your ideas,” Imran Amed, the CEO of the renowned fashion media company, Business of Fashion, explains. 

Different steps

To know what the opportunities are and how to seize them first requires a clear understanding of the industry’s four main steps, from the design to the retailing of a product. Opportunities can be found at every stage of the process. 

Step 1 : Designing

Designing is the process of creating an item by choosing its colors, shapes and facets. This step can take more or less time, depending on the detail and level of quality. In some cases, each button is hand-picked, each cut is measured to the dot – every detail makes a difference. The right choices can transform a simple dress into a masterpiece.

People used to design as a team, feeling the fabrics, creating patterns and so forth. Design in luxury fashion is still very traditional and has rarely embraced technologies. As a matter of fact, know-how, high quality fabrics and meticulousness are emblematic of this industry. So how can they work remotely and adapt the usual routine? How will they ensure clothes fit? Who will control the samples? 

One solution comes in the form of digitally-rendered 3D mock-ups to visualize materials, draw patterns,  and more. For example, Iris Van Herpen, has been integrating technology with traditional haute couture craftsmanship since the beginning. Their teams are split into two distinct parts: one working digitally, using the latest technological programmes, and the other working on the craftmanship and handwork, all streamlined via video calls.

Step 2 : Showing

Showing is the process of revealing and advertizing your new collection. In other words, how to present, sell and promote products to the market. This step has already been disrupted recently. Not so long ago, products were sold directly to the industry and then to the customer. Nowadays, direct and digital channels are predominant, making it possible to market products directly to the customer. In fact, where fashion buyers (B2B) were originally Fashion Weeks’ main guests, we now see celebrities, influencers and other stakeholders sitting in the front row.

Yves Saint-Laurent Fall/Winter 2020-2021 – Bureau Betak
Yves Saint-Laurent Fall/Winter 2020-2021 – Bureau Betak

Showing has also undergone additional changes recently. This stage was an oft-cited topic in the media. Fashion Week guests come from all around the world, from Milano to New York, via Paris and London, to name only the main ones. In February 2020, Chinese buyers, for example, were already quarantined. From then on, the only solution was to use video calls and other digital alternatives to replace sales appointments. They were forced to adopt a different approach that also happens to be more sustainable. 

Luxury houses like Gucci are setting a new pace by becoming seasonless and Yves Saint Laurent also declared that they wanted to break with the official rhythm of collection presentations. 

In that same vein, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode hosted the Paris Digital Fashion Week Couture and Haute Couture, which took place from 6-9 July and included organized events online. Dior, for example, unveiled 37 looks via an online film inspired by surrealism.

Dior Autumn/Winter 2020-2021 Haute Couture - Dior
Dior Autumn/Winter 2020-2021 Haute Couture - Dior

As for Valentino, they opted for a live performance available on their website, to showcase the new collection. 

Step 3 : Manufacturing

The third step is manufacturing, which is the production of the piece. It requires a great amount of manual work. Indeed, much of the manufacturing in luxury fashion is still done by hand, which brings uniqueness to each piece, especially in haute couture.

One of Chanel’s haute couture workshops
One of Chanel’s haute couture workshops

With the recent closing of manufacturing facilities, production has been significantly impacted, with certain countries affected more than others . A significant problem is that if a French brand, for example, has factories in India, those factories will not be able to benefit from French financial aid or be protected by France. In addition, a lot of buyers and retailers have canceled their orders. Therefore, tons of stock, raw material and finished product has been accumulating. Brands are now tackling how to deal with this surplus stock. Breaking prices is uncommon in the luxury industry and destroying products is a very problematic issue. Instead, upcycling is being considered as a viable alternative. From an existing product, it’s possible to create something new and, moreover, become more sustainable. For example, last year in its Spring 2020 collection, M Missoni created jackets and coats out of fabric from the archives of MissoniHome, the home decor line.

Step 4 : Retailing

Finally, it is at this stage that transactions take place, where relationships are built and where the client is in contact with the brand ambassadors who provide important input and advice. It’s important to highlight that physical channels – stores, boutiques, private sales – remain relevant because people still want to touch and try on clothes, shoes and accessories. 

This last stage has also been affected. In fact, most physical stores in many parts of the world were closed until recently. Demand is slowly increasing, but consumers’ mindsets are shifting. On one hand, customers are refraining from buying too much, and on the other hand, they want to comfort themselves with new purchases post lock-down. These trends fluctuate from one fashion house to another. For example, the Diane Von Furstenberg label made the decision to adapt its business model and has closed 18 of its 19 physical stores, shifting to a digital-only business. 

Where do we go from here?

Hermès Men's Spring-Summer 2021 collection
Hermès Men's Spring-Summer 2021 collection

When there is a crisis, there are opportunities, for brands and for people. In today’s ambiance, fashion designers are increasingly shifting to a more digital world while upholding the traditions that are worth keeping – a movement that is taking hold across all industries. Have we seen the end of fashion weeks, forever? What other ingenious solutions will designers and fashion houses come up with to weather the rapidly changing tides? If current sentiment is any indicator, fashion will no doubt become even more sustainable and digitally-focused, on a trajectory of renewal that aims to keep this everyday art alive. 

A The Consultancy Group article, written by Louise-Anne Fort

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