How Will the Fashion Industry Ever Recover?

COVID-19 destroyed the status quo, but now's the chance to reimagine what it can be.

mannequins in closed store window
Mannequins in closed store window in Bournemouth, UK.

Finnbarr Webster / Getty Images 

Last month, the New York Times Magazine published a fascinating story that took a deep dive into the fashion industry. This industry, which once pulsated throughout New York (and other cities) and contributed greatly to its sense of vitality, has been eviscerated by COVID-19. Not only are storefronts shuttered and fashion shows suddenly a thing of the past, but there's no online market for anything other than loungewear because nobody is going anywhere. Writer Irina Aleksander asks, "What happens then?"

Her piece, which documents the demise of countless luxury brands alongside the stratospheric success of sweatsuit-producer Entireworld (March sales were up 662% over the previous year), shows that the fashion industry was already in distress, though its cracks may not have been obvious to a casual observer. It was stretched too thin, with too many shows ("a worn-out ritual," in the words of Gucci's head designer Alessandro Michele) and too much emphasis on novelty and not enough on quality. 

Aleksander explains the crushing concept of R.T.Vs ("return to vendor"), which exists in many contracts between designers and retailers. If a collection does not sell, the retailer returns it to the designer, who's on the hook for the lost revenue. If retailers have to mark down a collection early, the designer owes them for the losses. This makes it nearly impossible to get ahead. Aleksander continues:

"In order to protect exclusivity, stores had to commit to even larger buys, ordering more clothes than they could possibly sell. Then, when they couldn’t move the stuff, they’d return it. Thanks to the rise of fast fashion and the luxury market’s simultaneous attempt to keep up with its impossible pace, it all started to feel disposable."

Anna Wintour, editor of Vogue, describes the current situation as a chance to reset and rethink; it has "crystallized a lot of conversations that the fashion industry had been having for some time," but was unable to act on because "it's so big and there are so many moving parts." (Not to mention the fact that it would be harmful to many designers to mess with the norm that had been established.) 

Wintour does not think fashion shows as we know them will ever come back. "I think it really is a time where we need to learn from what’s happened, almost about how fragile and on the edge we were all living. And that it wasn’t that solid."

Designer Marc Jacobs put it well in conversation with Vogue: 

"We’ve done everything to such excess that there is no consumer for all of it. Everyone is exhausted by it. The designers are exhausted by it. The journalists are exhausted from following it. When you’re just told to produce, to produce, to produce, it’s like having a gun to your head and saying, you know, Dance, monkey!"

To anyone who's been buying, researching, or writing about sustainable and ethical fashion, this does not come as a surprise. Ever since the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2013 that killed 1,134 people and injured more than 2,500, the state of the fashion industry as we know it has seemed precarious. Horror stories of luxury brands like Burberry incinerating its own surplus stock in 2017-18 to maintain brand value underscored the unhealthiness of the business model. Surely it would implode at some point, and COVID sped up that process.

family members commemorate Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2014
Family members commemorate the Rana Plaza factory collapse in 2014. NurPhoto / Getty Images 

But now, looking at the wreckage around us, what needs to change? People will continue to clothe themselves and to shop to assuage boredom and seek stimulation, but how can the industry reshape itself to be better and more resilient? 

I think a big part of the solution lies in changing the media's messaging. The role of media is profound. The way it shapes stories about fashion has the power to influence millions of people and to shift the sense of what's normal, healthy, and right. I'd argue that media coverage of fashion trends has more clout than the designers themselves, who are somewhat at the mercy of the Internet's interpretations of their work. So if celebrities, influencers, writers, and analysts can start asking new questions about fashion, and making these front and center in their coverage, there's potential to reshape the industry's priorities. So what should these questions be? 

We Need To Start Asking What We're Wearing, Not Who Designed It

British actress Emma Watson, a longtime ethical fashion activist, wrote,

"On the red carpet we're often asked not what we are wearing but 'who'. It’s as if the ideas behind the clothes – the label, the designer, the collection – have more meaning than the garment itself. But there’s something missing. There’s a bigger story to be told about the conditions in which our clothes are made, the resources that have been used and the impact they’ve had on communities."

Imagine if every writeup inquired about an item's provenance? The labor standards at the factory where it was made? The names, ages, and wages of the people whose hands created it? It's really no different from asking what ingredients go into making newly launched food products.

We Need to Start Re-=wearing Clothes and Showing Them Proudly

This is where online influencers and fashion bloggers can make a real difference. There's a disturbing stigma associated with rewearing clothes, and it's driving production of cheap, quasi-disposable fast-fashion pieces, while also increasing the amount of textiles going to landfill. We have to make reuse acceptable, perhaps even cool, but that will only happen if the people who do it are praised for it by the media, not criticized. [Read: Why You Should Be A Proud Outfit Repeater]

We Need to Figure Out a Way to Measure Sustainability

Right now sustainability is treated like a trend, but it needs to be a basic requirement. As Maxine Bédat, founder of fashion brand Zady and the New Standard Institute, an ethical fashion think tank, told Grist recently, "You can’t manage what you don’t measure." Energy, chemical usage, wages, and working conditions are all definable and quantifiable, but doing so has not been a priority up until now. Bédat goes on: "If we’re not actually measuring these things, we don’t know whether we’re making progress or we’re just selling another shirt."

We Need to Stop Saying That Some Things Are in Style and Others Are Not

Not only could this curb consumption somewhat, which is desperately needed from an environmental standpoint, but it could take some of the pressure off designers, who are scrambling to keep up with impossibly packed schedules. Aleksander's article points out the absurdity of perfectly good inventory becoming devalued as soon as it's from a previous season, but notes that it's an enormous challenge to fix:

"The fascinating part is that in order to do that — to give that aged inventory value again — requires literally killing fashion, that nebulous deity that says something is 'in' this year and not the next."

We need to get away from seasonal trends and implement new standards for gauging an item's value. We must start admiring clothes for their inherent quality, beauty, versatility, ethical production methods, and comfort, while actively rejecting those that fail to meet those standards. Clothes can still be a tremendous source of pleasure in a post-COVID era, but their consumption must become less about immediate and fleeting gratification, and more about lasting satisfaction. It's a tall order, for sure, but it's not impossible.