By Amber-Rose Hurst
Since the outbreak of COVID-19 has caused everyone to press pause on their daily activities, industries across the globe have grappled with the dire consequences of either intense demand or indefinite closure. Emergency services have experienced unprecedented pressure, independent brands and start-ups have fizzled out, and supermarkets have had to completely restructure operations in order to provide enough food for everyone.
Like any other industry, fashion is running into its own set of problems. But could there be light after the lockdown?
The rapid decline of the fashion industry over the last few months has caused a serious dent in the global economy. The closure of physical shops as a result of lockdown measures has led to large-scale furloughing and unemployment for individuals from across the spectrum, from artists and designers to suppliers and manufacturers.
In the subsequent sales downturns, Forbes claims that western fashion brands have cumulatively cancelled over £2.26 billion in orders from Bangladeshi suppliers alone. The loss of jobs and income on this kind of scale in a country where the average earner makes just £100 a month has the power to cause a humanitarian crisis.
On the other hand, this time of severe financial difficulty is likely going to see a decline in overall fashion consumption. With the extra time spent at home, and no reason to change out of their pyjamas, people are likely to be more selective about what they’re buying, and as we move towards a potential economic recession the frivolities of fashion are likely to no longer be seen as essential.
The demand for sustainable clothing may also see a rise as the understanding that our planet is fragile really begins to hit home. Images of clear waters in the Venice canals and news that holes in the O-Zone layer have healed give us an insight into what a slower world can do to help reverse the damage we have been inflicting on our planet over the last few centuries.
The Coronavirus outbreak has further seen a drastic halt in emissions. According to Climate Brief, 2020 is set to see the largest ever fall in co2 emissions off the back of the pandemic - more than any other economic crisis or period of war in history. As fashion is the second-largest polluter in the world, it has a massive part to play, but what will the fashion landscape look like when this is all over?
McKinsey surveyed 6,000 individuals across Europe about their purchasing behaviours during lockdown. The study revealed that consumers are becoming more aware of the fragility of our planet and what the cease in manufacturing has done to help slow the breakdown of the climate. 16% said they agree they will buy more socially and economically sustainable clothing and 21% agree that they want to reduce their overall clothing consumption in the wake of the lockdown. In the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, it's likely that we will see an intensification of sustainable and ethical initiatives from both brands and individuals, who have been given extra time to consider their values, and the ways in which these relate to their actions.
Brands that have been able to entice customers with greenwashing campaigns backed by little substance or followthrough will also find this period challenging as customers use this lockdown period to further their education, leading to a more well-informed average consumer who is able to call out brands that are failing to uphold proper ethical and environmental standards.
The scale of consumption is not all that is changing. Rewind back to February when the penultimate week of AW20 season was underway and COVID-19 had made its way to Europe, resulting in mass disruption to Milan Fashion Week. Many Chinese brands initially cancelled their shows, including MASHAMA, Uma Wang and western brands soon followed suit. Giorgio Armani cancelled on his invitees with less than 24 hours’ notice, asking them to instead watch a live stream of the catwalk.
Although currently implemented out of necessity, could this new digital form of prestigious fashion week events be the future of haute couture? On the 2nd of May, YouTube hosted the first-ever virtual fashion show, with Caroline Roitfeld, former French Vogue editor and founder of CR Fashion Book, and the amfAR Fund to fight COVID-19. The show included famous models walking their own at-home runways, with the likes of Karlie Kloss, Winnie Harlow and Joan Smalls in attendance. This kind of digital revolution has been hovering around the fashion industry for years, and the prolonged lockdown period may just be the ignition that was needed to completely reshape the future of fashion.
The crisis has shown us that the industry at present is inherently flawed. While it has created a myriad of new issues across the sector, it has also shone a light on the holes that already existed in industry practices. This awakening has caused brands, manufacturers and the fashion industry as a whole to open up to a more constructive conversation about what is working, what is not and what can change to heal the damage that that fashion has been causing to people and the planet.
Those discussions that once were solely limited to the obvious hardships and difficulties of the industry are now turning into those of solutions. Consumers have seen just how vulnerable our modern world is. The crisis has raised awareness for the need for social and environmental responsibility, even amongst those who were previously unfazed about the topic. This shift in mind-set is providing a much clearer path to recovery and a strong platform to tackle sustainability issues post-COVID-19.