“When the people shall have nothing more to eat, they will eat the rich.” — Jean-Jacques Rousseau
In 2012, when Miuccia Prada, sitting at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan, was trying to reconcile her own political and philosophical beliefs (she was a member of the Italian Communist party during her youth) and the idiosyncrasies of her job, she commented: “Fashion is the first step out of poverty.” Her reasoning was quite simple. Once an individual satisfies all their primary needs — food, shelter, health — one of their first desires is to look better, to change, to “elevate” themselves.
Aspiration versus accessibility, equality versus exclusivity, relatability versus uniqueness: Miuccia Prada knew that fashion did have a place in bettering this world, but she was also deeply aware of the almost irreparable craters that separated her from the masses.
Fast-forward eight years and here we are, exactly where Miuccia Prada predicted we would be: the fashion revolution is here, and it’s disturbingly ugly. The dynamics that have driven the exorbitant financial and commercial growth of the industry are the very same forces that — exasperated by a global pandemic of unthinkable proportions — are now possibly risking its extinction.
And, this time, the Revolution started at the bottom of the food chain, from the very customers that fashion, and especially the luxury sector, tried to lure into impossible aspirational dreams of never-ending consumption.
Customers are most certainly not buying into the aspiration anymore, and the reasons for their unhappiness go well beyond the scarcity and misery brought about by this pandemic.
From reports that millions of garment workers in India and Bangladesh may be reduced into starvation by the current interruption in the supply chain of major retailers, to the increasingly popular images depicting a cleaner, less polluted world due to a halt in consumption, travel and productivity, to the devastating realities of hundreds of thousands of retail workers being furloughed across the United States, fashion has never looked so broken.
And fashion customers, just like the French Revolution insurgents circling around the impossible marvel that was Versailles, are taking notice. Not just notice — action.
It’s not that surprising then that — at the time when we are all forced to cling to our own very essential version of life — most of this “stuff,” the fashion stuff, is getting cut out. McKinsey & Co. is projecting a contraction of the luxury sector of up to 40 percent in 2020. I think that may be an optimistic figure. Earnest Research reports a 70 percent drop in spending for “Apparel and Accessories” for the week ending on April 1, 2020.
Even assuming that fashion and luxury will survive in some tangible form, the reality we will go back to will not resemble our pre-pandemic world in any way.
Fashion and luxury will have to change because the audience they used to have are not there anymore. Fashion is no longer simply a monologue, and customers are emerging as much more powerful voices in this dialogue. They are shouting. They are shouting at Madonna taking a milky bath with rose petals in her mansion while philosophizing about COVID-19 being “the great equalizer.” They are shouting at Ellen DeGeneres, who is comparing her quarantine in a multimillion-dollar compound to “jail.” They are shouting at Jennifer Lopez, who is joke-complaining about quarantine with her family in a massive mansion, oblivious to her privilege and to the horrendous struggle outside of her door.
It is worth noting that many of these celebrities were, as of a few weeks ago, considered the pioneers of change for fashion. J.Lo was seen as the ambassador of “older women,” showing us that we didn’t have to dress “our age.” DeGeneres has been, and maybe still will be, a pioneer in the advancement of LGBTQ rights, both in entertainment and in fashion.
Madonna has changed the way we think about how women dress well before she wore the much-clamored Gaultier cones. But not anymore — these women are not the voices or the aspirations of the zeitgeist. They were brand ambassadors for a system that was already on the verge of collapse. Their obliviousness to this current catastrophe only accelerated a process of self-destruction.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Fashion used to be — in many ways — an invisible force behind change. Not an equalizing force, but a transformative one. Taking pleasure in beauty and design is a quintessentially human prerogative. Beyond the obvious aesthetic qualities that fashion encapsulates, fashion used to mean something to its audience.
The most famous fashion designers in history have made significant contributions to how we relate to each other in society and how we perceive who we are. Not simply about how we look.
From Coco Chanel’s rebellion against uncomfortable clothing for women, to YSL’s embrace of the androgynous to Vivienne Westwood’s anti-establishment ethos, to Pierpaolo Piccioli’s vision of inclusivity, fashion becomes successful when it relates to its audience on a deep, visceral level. Not just on a grand scale, but — most powerfully now — on a human scale.
Fashion customers, the industry audience, seem to have suddenly noticed the difference. From the founder of Something Navy, who has been subjected to vicious attacks on social media after escaping Manhattan for the Hamptons during the pandemic, to Elle Macpherson, whose brand WelleCo has been heavily criticized after it sent out promotional e-mails marketing a “Super Elixir” allegedly promoting immune support (cost: $80), fashion customers appear pretty unforgiving and quick to discard previously beloved brands. Perhaps even more tellingly, Chiara Ferragni — the Italian model and “digital entrepreneur” ranked as the number-one fashion influencer in the world by Forbes — is now advertising pasta and mascarpone cheese on her Instagram posts. No more Giambattista Valli there.
Make no mistake: These are hard times for any company that is not selling essential goods. And buying a new dress is in itself an utterly insignificant gesture. But if this dress morphs into a determination of a person’s true presence, then fashion regains its power.
Fashion perhaps can be small again, it can shrink back to human scale, its beauty as vivid as the fairness of its (new) processes. Fashion’s ambition has probably always been — indeed as Miuccia Prada said — about a desire to better ourselves. Recently, we just lost track of who we are.
So let the screams coming from social media all around the world be a powerful wake-up call for all of fashion. Because the Fashion Revolutionaries are in. And they will not eat cake.
Laura Lanteri is an adjunct professor at The New School’s Parsons School of Design.