Americans call it the “Fashion carnage”. Since the spread of Covid-19 began, the fashion industry has been going through difficult times. The effects of the health crisis should be felt strongly in the months or even years to come. One of the first impacts of the crisis, in addition to struggling production and declining sales, was the organization of fashion weeks where the collections were presented. At the end of March, the Fédération de la haute couture et de la mode decided to cancel the Parisian men’s fashion week, scheduled for late June, and the week dedicated to haute couture in July.
In recent days, several major players have taken a stand on changes to be implemented in depth. Maison Saint Laurent has just announced that it wishes to “Rethink his approach to time and establish his own calendar”. And she doesn’t “Will not present its collections within the framework of the official calendars of the year 2020. Saint Laurent will decide on its agenda and its launches will follow an optimized plan and guided by the needs of creativity”. On April 3, Giorgio Armani published an open letter in WWD calling for a general lifting: “The current emergency shows that a cautious and intelligent slowdown is the only way out, a path that will finally bring value to our work and that will allow customers to perceive its true importance and value.” Marc Jacobs, he said, during a round table organized by Vogue, “That there should be two parades a year […] The quantity of pieces that we produce seems excessive in view of the short time they will be presented [en boutique]”
Benjamin Simmenauer, professor at the French Fashion Institute (IFM) where he teaches fashion theory and brand strategy returns for Release on the effects of the crisis on this industry.
What reflections is the crisis fueling?
The very fashion project of representing and accompanying the present is put on hold. There is no more present, everyone lives in a time lapse where nothing is happening and where there is little horizon. We are in complete uncertainty as to what the world will become when we go out. The concept of fashion is questioned. This almost cultural or civilizational shock has effects on industry players. The crisis is important for the sector, not just in terms of money lost or what we are going to sell. More broadly, it is major because the whole ecosystem of presentation, parade, and relationship with the body is deprived of its meaning under the effect of a crisis that requires the suspension of time and physical distancing. The fact that there is a present, that people can meet and see each other, and that the bodies are brought together are the conditions of possibility of fashion. If we take that out, what’s left? Everyone is trying to adapt to this completely new situation, which probably seems completely absurd to them.
Is the impact of the pandemic far greater than we could have anticipated?
No one in the industry had foreseen such an upheaval. You just have to look at the last fashion weeks held in Paris. Everything went under absolutely normal conditions except for two canceled or reconfigured parades, and some masked journalists. There was a side “it’s the latest fashionable thing, the coronavirus“. The virus has so far knocked out of fashion. Fashion represents perpetual change, through seasonality and the principle of constant renewal of collections, but this show does not work, arouses desire and interest only because we are also certain of a certain stability of human relationships, social, economic organization, etc.
Fashion is also a way of being displayed, this data is also disturbed …
It’s the other thing. What good is it to dress, to put yourself on stage, if it is not to be seen by anyone? The reservation on this subject is that fashion has already been virtualized for a while: we dress as much to be seen through images and media as to be seen in real physical space. The downside is also the whole pot of influencers which continues to boil. They still receive products, they stage them, to consume, to produce images, in a context that is not quite the same and with different means. And it still seems to be working because the audience is captive: screen times are exploding and social media are breaking audience records.
If you think about all the impacts on fashion, the professions of stylist, fashion photographer, etc., are very affected since we cannot organize shootings. The models may have to become a stylist and photographer, since they will photograph themselves with the clothes we send them, and there will be no one left to take their photos. We do not know what scenarios are imagined, but in this context, the statements of major brands reveal the extent of the crisis.
Exactly what do the statements by Saint Laurent, Marc Jacobs and Armani underline in your opinion?
Saint Laurent and Armani say slightly different things. Giorgio Armani is 85 years old, he has seen others. His career is over, he doesn’t take much risk in saying that he will slow down with the idea that consumption and production patterns must change. At least for a while, it will be complicated to sell so many collections. Armani is still the man who invented the principle of declining his brand in 53 different brands, which in terms of parsimony, is not an example. But he was quite visionary in his parade in Milan [au début de la crise du Covid-19 en Italie, en février, Giorgio Armani a décidé de filmer son défilé sans public et de le diffuser sur Internet ndlr]. He felt the gravity of the situation before everyone else and it was a great stroke of com. As for Marc Jacobs, it’s hard to associate it with an idea of frugality, but he says that we’ve been in excess for a while: we make too many collections, presentations, there are too many brands, too many clothes and products, too many ads and images, too much of everything.
Saint Laurent’s problem is when brands present their collection, when the offer is revealed. It doesn’t seem completely opportunistic because it’s something they’ve already started. They had already “released” the men’s fashion week parades by presenting them once a year to a limited circle, a bit like the cruise parades, to recreate a form of exclusivity around their events. This idea of getting out of the fashion calendar and being an exception, so they have already experienced it. It seems to accelerate an emancipation strategy, rather than a complete turnaround, it’s pretty consistent with what they’ve done before. But it’s just not possible to do a fashion week right now. It was not they who decreed it: the federation cancels fashion week and therefore they have no choice but to take note. At least, Saint Laurent is among the first to announce a strategy.
Will the crisis trigger a deeper awareness of how we consume fashion and fashion images?
Because time has slowed down, we have the impression that the faster time we were in before was a time of unnecessary hyperactivity and overexcitement. As if we could see the artifice of time accelerating. It’s an effect of perspective: everything is slowed down, we live more slowly, as if we had jumped out of the arena. We see people on the merry-go-round and we say to ourselves “ah they were caught in the merry-go-round, they didn’t realize that it was a merry-go-round”. But the day when we can go back in, is the period when we gained height when we all considered ourselves as great philosophers, ready to give up luxury, and to adopt the “ascetic ideals” of which speaks Nietzsche, aren’t we going to consider this idle parenthesis as ridiculous? Aren’t we going to make fun of everyone who said to themselves “it’s still great, confinement, it allows you to focus on the essentials”?
Unfortunately, in crisis situations, we often look for the simplest explanations and we oppose things. For example, opposing needs and wants seems philosophically very doubtful to me. I don’t know where the need stops and where the desire begins. I saw that the trade unionists of the CGT were scandalized because the customers of Amazon had sex toys delivered to them, they considered that these were not basic, vital needs. But if sexuality is not a primary need, I wonder what a primary need is. The discussion on the nature of expanding needs seems doubtful to me.
If tomorrow we organize virtual fashion weeks, open to everyone, the exclusivity so dear to the fashion world will no longer exist …
Fashion is part of social distancing, but not just physical. It is difficult to distance yourself from society by being forced into physical distance. At first, the question of exclusivity will indeed arise. If the parade is broadcast live on the net, everyone will see the parade at the same time. But that was already the case. The privilege was to be in the room and we will have to abandon this principle. When the parades resume their original form of physical event, access will be even more difficult. One can imagine that the fashion shows of the future will only be aimed at the heart of the target, that is to say the buyers. The press, influencers, celebrities and other friends of the brand would stay at home. It would be a step backwards because it was like that at the beginning of the XXe century. The parades took place in the houses, it was very complicated to enter, there was very little press. We wanted to screen the copiers who could come. Going back to a differently exclusive formula may be an idea that could sprout. Today is not the subject. Today, the subject is how to arouse a desire for the brand and the collection by having more the possibility of presenting it physically.
What about small brands?
As in all economies, it is even harder for the little ones. What we can foresee is that the sector will still concentrate. This is not my specialty, but it seems to me that the laws of finance will prevail, this will be an opportunity for the major players in the system, who have the strongest back, to acquire the nuggets that they think have of potential. Small brands will have to give up their independence because it will be very difficult to find financing and above all to be supported by consumption. If this situation is to last, the little ones will suffer first.
Are the big players going to fare well?
Yes and no. They will buy a lot of brands, locations. As soon as they see an interesting opportunity, they will integrate brands at a good price. The market will be even more concentrated. Group logic will be predominant. But the problem with large luxury groups is that they are not at all as well equipped as the Internet pros. Jeff Bezos has still earned an additional $ 24 billion (compared to the same period in 2019) since the start of the coronavirus…