In the last decade alone, we’ve seen rapid change in the way we eat, shop and communicate but you could argue that the fashion industry is yet to keep up. Like many other industries, the coronavirus crisis has provided both the opportunity and the much-needed trigger for fashion to self-reflect and come up with a new approach in order to survive.
The reality is that fashion has been broken for a long time. The production of clothing, and all that comes with it, is increasingly contradicting our ambition to save the planet. The fashion industry is one of the largest consumers of the global water supply and produces 10% of all humanity’s carbon emissions—more emissions than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. The synthetic textiles used in the majority of clothing production go on to pollute the oceans with micro plastics, before ending up in landfill. Yet fashion businesses are required to produce more clothing, at lower prices and in shorter timelines in order to survive. It is a business model increasingly at odds with itself.
Last week saw the unveiling of a new plan for the fashion industry. Proposed by a group of independent designers, executives and retailers from around the world and facilitated by the Business of Fashion, the idea of ‘Rewiring Fashion‘ has captured conversation at both a company and consumer level.
Models walk the runway at London Fashion Week. (Photo by Joe Maher/BFC/Getty Images)
What’s wrong with the current model?
The current industry timeline is no longer fit for the digital age that we live in. Currently, the schedule means that fashion collections are presented 6 months before they arrive in stores. In the past, when communications were mostly through print media, this allowed for controlled visibility and promotion of the final collections. However, in an age where collections are now live-streamed and shared on Instagram in real time, this allows a huge window for fast fashion brands to ‘take inspiration’ from designer collections and sell the to customers before the designers do.
The timing of delivery to stores also means that products arrive too early for retail sales and are seen as aged stock by the time the relevant purchasing period comes around. This results in more discounted items, which is seen to drive a consumer addiction to price-cuts and sales, thus lowering their appetite to spend more on full priced items later.
We’ve seen this trend reflected outside of fashion and across retail in general. Promotional events like Black Friday have become permanent fixtures in the retail calendar, although it’s open to debate whether this makes commercial sense. There’s an argument that heavy discounting can cannibalize full-price sales that would have otherwise been made, whilst reducing the impact of future sales promotions and leaving retailers in a never-ending race to the bottom line.
Finally, the growing efforts surrounding fashion shows is driving brands to spend huge amounts of time and money on full-scale productions that involve meticulous planning and cost far beyond the actual clothes that are being displayed. A 10 to 15 minute fashion show can cost anywhere from $200,000 to over $1 million, not withstanding the number of air miles and carbon emissions clocked up as fashion editors, buyers and journalists attend up to 8 shows per year, per designer.
An artificial beach made for the Chanel Spring/Summer 2019 show. (Photo by Victor Boyko/Getty … [+]
What are the changes being proposed?
Acknowledging all of the above, the Rewiring Fashion proposal suggests that we change the fashion calendar and reconsider the rules around fashion shows. Although changing the production calendar will go some way to prevent inherent discounting, the proposal also acknowledges that wider efforts are needed from retailers to break the addiction to discounts.
One of the radical changes include combining men’s and women’s fashion weeks together, in a bid to minimize travel requirements and de-gender fashion week. This may also be a nod to increasing gender fluidity which is becoming more mainstream within both fashion and beauty retail. Gen Z are among the most gender-aware and gender-diverse population in history, and will soon account for 40% of global consumers this year.
As avid users of social media, the previous model will have meant that many consumers would have seen the collections presented in real-time but unable to buy. The new calendar will allow for shows to take place right before the weather-appropriate collections reach stores—something that brands like Burberry have been trying to fix since 2016 with a ‘see now, buy now’ approach. The proposal also outlines a ‘no rules’ approach to future shows, with brands becoming free to use them to engage customers as they see fit, essentially becoming a discretionary marketing tool.
The proposed new fashion calendar
Does it go far enough?
Although this proposal is expected to be only the beginning with more to come, there is a question about what has not yet been said. Whilst the proposal calls for a slow down in the production and demand cycle, acknowledgement of the need to fix the darker side of fashion remains conspicuously absent.
It’s no secret that the success of the fashion industry is propped up by growing global inequality. Garment workers in Asia pay a high price for companies to be able to produce low cost clothes for their customers. The proposal talks about a plan to “slow down and rediscover the storytelling and magic of fashion” yet there is no clear commitment to producing better and producing more responsibly.
There is an argument that less markdowns and discounts will result in less waste but the plan is yet to address the role of circularity in fashion. Given that 85% of textiles are predicted to end up in landfill, it’s no surprise that young disruptors that address this problem are emerging and growing at scale. Peer-to-peer fashion marketplaces, like Depop, facilitate the buying and selling of preloved and vintage pieces which allow customers to prolong the lifecycle of an item and make sustainable fashion choices.
A circular solution is not out of reach for established fashion brands though. At Stella McCartney, a longtime advocate for sustainable fashion, they say “We believe that the future of fashion is circular–it will be restorative and regenerative by design and the clothes we love never end up as waste”. The challenge will be how existing brands will embrace circularity and use it to support their business model, rather than starve it.
Without a doubt, changing the current system demands unified radical transformation at both a corporate and consumer level. The idea of #RewiringFashion is the first step that shows the fashion industry actually working together with innovation in mind.
It’s a long time overdue and a welcome change for young brands trying to make it within fashion but it will be interesting to see how consumers react to the changes. The current proposal is geared towards improving the industry business model, with little incentive for the end-user. Will customers be able to wean themselves off a lifetime of discounts and seasonal promotions? Will they be prepared to eschew fast fashion brands in order to support up and coming designers? The future of fashion relies on them as much as it does the producers.