Here we are, one year later from what will likely be remembered as the pandemic-triggered turning point in the fashion industry. Fashion week’s four city spectacle marked the dawn of a new season, a showcase of how designers are reflecting on the world, and drawing on the present to reflect the future. This time, it’s more than the clothes for the season (what does a season even mean anymore) but a chance for a brand to communicate their process, values and what they stand for.
We took it as a time to reflect and engage in some unconventional and thought-provoking conversations on the state of the industry at large. From questioning the future of the fashion calendar, to examining visual arts as a vehicle for social change, and the age-old fashion industry favorite qualm of how to make it on your own. Although many are still longing for the traditional intimate in-person experience it’s safe to say a lot of us can get used to this, and that goes beyond just abandoning the calendar, but taking steps towards systemic advancement. Albeit the challenges of this year, disruption has made room for a creative outbreak. Here’s what we learned:
The Digital Revolution, from Social Media to Virtual Reality and Politics
Virtual fashion weeks may have democratized the traditionally invite-only runway experience, but Instagram provided a platform to showcase global creativity long before. Fashion capitals are now being challenged, their relevance and influence are in question with international talents on the rise.
In an industry where social connections are often required to break in, this presents a huge shift. “It’s opened doors to endless possibilities, collaborations and communicating with people that we wouldn’t have been able to communicate with before. And that’s amazing! That never existed 20, or 50 years ago. You had to know people, or be in the same city to have those strong connections,” said designer Kakra Juma-Nuamah in our conversation on how to break into the fashion industry. “With us being so digitalized it’s been a huge shift- it can be anyone’s game now.”
In this new reality, the stakes are even higher. How do you navigate a digital presence and make sure you are seen? Visibility in a saturated space is enough of a challenge on its own, but virtual simulations have elevated the game. While some critique virtual fashion shows as a loss in the experiential sense of what it used to be, Shukri Lawrence argues otherwise. “Now we’re not only able to see how the clothing looks in 3D, but we are getting into the physics of it. The thickness of the fabric, the texture, and how it moves- that’s the most important.” Co-Founders Shukri Lawrence and Omar Braika behind Palestinian label tRASHY Clothing and Cyber Fashion Week, an international, sustainable, and accessible digital fashion week showcasing on digital platforms believe that this form of experience is here to stay. In Miilkiina’s conversation on Virtual Fashion, they touched on the accessibility of 3D, and how it can enable sustainable processes. For those who might feel overwhelmed by the technology, you are not alone. “There are many tutorials for free, it’s really the future. We used to do samples but now we work in 3D… We even did a whole fashion show,” said Omar. “It’s just a matter of patience and a lot of Youtube tutorials, and that’s how smaller creators and brands can integrate 3D,” explains Shukri.
This period has proven that above all, accountability and transparency are most appreciated. But who makes the rules when it comes to judging your authenticity? It comes down to communicating sincerely in everything that you do, explains Content Creator Nicholas Bailey in Miilkiina’s discussion on Brands and Social Media. “When it comes to sincerity on any level, if you have that built into your brand and built into who you are, people aren’t going to be knocking at your door looking for it when something happens because you constantly put that out into the world. If that’s just who you are, people aren’t going to question you about it when it’s time to speak up.”
The responsibility applies to any creative navigating the digital space, explains Roxanne Navai, founder of her boutique Toronto-based PR Agency RX Studio. “The expectation is across the board. The expectations are different for larger luxury brands because they have recently been getting called out on sustainability, social justice issues, racial and diversity issues, and they have a lot of things that they need to be accountable for. With smaller and more niche brands they need to be able to communicate their value system and what they find important.”
Then there are those choosing to disconnect as well. “I’ve been seeing a lot of people deactivating, so it’s really hard in the sense of what content do people want to see from a fashion brand?” asked Dara Hamarneh, the Jordanian designer behind the emerging handbag label.
One expectation is certainly exhibiting political awareness, specifically following the tragic and senseless acts of racial injustice this year amidst brewing global turmoil. Fashion and graphic design played a huge role in communication beyond visual storytelling, but as a source for spreading information on various movements.
“Last summer with all the protests, it felt like I couldn’t not speak up about it. I had mostly support but others were like keep politics or social justice out of your brand. That’s impossible for me as a Black person,” explains Yowie’s founder Shannon Maldonado. The creative platform, shop and design studio also encouraged its community to actionize outside of Instagram, from volunteering to donating, and checking in on shops that were affected. “At this point for us there is no turning back, it has woven into the thread of the brand. If you have a platform you have something inside of you that you feel strongly about, whatever it’s related to and you should definitely use it.”
Treating a garment as a canvas for messages can inspire social change. “Something that I’ve seen that I think will continue is graphic design has become a call to action. A flyer, referencing news, or teaching you something, any information being passed- I think that is going to continue. Graphics is almost a signal outside of social status, but brands that you are connecting with or supporting, you see someone on the street wearing that brand and it’s almost like an invisible handshake. That’s important to build community and will continue to grow,” explains Shannon.
Fashion has proven to be more than a business throughout this period, presenting designers with an opportunity to take on an active role in their communities. “It was important that all this happened. There is something about performative activism that we need to try to disconnect from. We need to try and do this on a daily basis. Everything we choose to do everyday is political, not only what we say,” said Arianna Ablondi Pedretti, founder of luxury hosiery brand tytm8.
How the Industry Can Do Better: From Seasonless Fashion to Designing with Intentionality
Though some designers were forced to skip fashion week over the last two seasons, others gladly embraced the opportunity to declare independence from it themselves. Whether it was met with relief or displeasure, the general consensus is that this system never made much sense anyways.
“We were always trying to create our own version of what we saw. The initial fashion calendar didn’t relate to me in being from LA. We have the best weather, we don’t get seasonal changes, when you create from your natural environment you create product that relates to the people and how people dress where you’re from. I’ve had this luxury and advantage to not create with the fashion calendar,” explains Kacey Lynch, founder of LA-based label Bricks & Wood in Miilkiina’s discussion on the fashion calendar.
Questioning the fashion calendar has also presented an opportunity for designers to slow down, take a closer look at how they create and why. Designer Nadine Mossallam shared how distancing from design altogether restored her creativity. “I got stuck in Canada for 7 months during the pandemic and I couldn’t make anything. I decided to surrender on design altogether, I hated the idea of consuming and went against it in many ways. I resorted to making art and sculptures, and that was how I found my voice again in designing and sewing. Whatever I put out afterwards was instantly well received.”
Designing with intentionality has come naturally to many designers, who choose to take on this phase with ease and experimentation, knowing very well that their clothes will symbolize the moment. “I had to start creating for what made sense and served a purpose in the moment, rather than creating for the next drop or season. It became about how to make the impact now. In a pandemic, who needs more clothes? I asked what makes sense for right now and when the idea came to mind, put it out right away. That was the biggest difference to how I created before,” explains Kacey.
The benefits go beyond creative recharge for designers, it simply allowed for more time to experiment and push boundaries. “We started re-branding and re-strategizing what’s important for the brand and customer. There was a lot of trial and error which is very healthy, especially in a time where you are not judged, there are more ways to discover yourself again as a brand,” explains Lebanese designer Roni Helou, founder of his namesake slow-fashion label. The designer puts sustainability at the forefront of his brand through working with dead-stock fabrics and creating modular pieces so that the garment can be worn in many ways, allowing it to have a longer life span. “I believe that behaviors change based on what we get used to. With everything that’s happening people are really seeing the effects of climate change, and are realizing that our lives are not the same anymore. They’re getting used to the idea of sustainability.” We will always need fashion that has a purpose, communicates, and moves us.
Fashion Can Be Everyone’s Game Now, but Access Is Still Limited
We asked our community before our How to Make it: Breaking into the fashion industry on your own webinar, if they had contemplated leaving the fashion industry at some point in their career. More than 60% answered yes. It may have taken a pandemic to introduce some of the changes industry professionals have been hoping for, but there is still a lot of work left to do.
Yes, we may have gotten rid of fashion capitals and calendars and yes, social media has opened the gates making it anyone’s game. But increased competition, financial pressure, and exploitative cultures of discrimination and racial injustice still exist. Real advancement will take time.
“Once you are awarded opportunities as a Black woman, you still get in spaces where you have to fight for yourself much harder because they’re not used to you even being there… You get beyond the gatekeeper door and then you have to go twenty times harder… There are so many different levels to it and I would encourage whoever is trying to break in to do so because there should be more of us. I want to share whatever spotlight I’m given with every Black and Brown person. But I would also encourage them to know the fighting to get in is much easier than the fighting to stay in, so get ready for that,” shares Telsha Anderson, founder of New York boutique T.A.
Breaking in is just one part of the equation, but the support you receive after can determine your success in the industry. Are you stood up for, advised and regularly advocated for? These are the questions that companies must ask themselves in order to be genuinely inclusive.
“To see any sort of change, it really takes time. With big brands and publications, there are so many faults in terms of how quickly they want to diversify. It’s very performative, we need to make more genuine adjustments about how everything will affect people in 10 or 15 years,” explains photographer Stephen Tayo. “They will reach out and say we’d like to talk about Black history month, but you haven’t emailed me all year, do I only function as this kind of photographer to you?” he shares. Action has no value without authenticity behind it.
For some designers and creatives, it’s empowering to be labeled by their nationality or identity. For others, it may feel like their cultural identity differentiates and therefore discriminates them against Western designers. In fashion discourse there is a tendency to compare Non-Western designers with Eurocentric designers, but many question why there is comparison in the first place. In our conversation on Identity, Nationality and Profession in the Arts, designer Wekafore Jibril of his namesake label touched on this, “Most people where I’m from don’t even have the same references. I didn’t know Dior and these luxury brands. So when I was in school and they’re teaching me history of European art, I was learning but I was like this means nothing to me. I don’t hold this in the same regard as you guys. So I had to find the parallel and see how I could connect what they are teaching me with where I’m from.”
Fashion schools play a critical role in breaking in for aspiring designers, it’s where they develop the skills of their craft and eventually the network to support them professionally. But these early influences often have a narrow standpoint, upholding Eurocentric and Western design as the norm. Non-Western designers are either expected to draw on their own cultures, or told to tone down their identity.
“In 10 years I’m dreaming of a world where we are going to see an ethnic kid come out of fashion school and not have to reference his identity, and everyone is going to eat it up and be like, that’s amazing,” said designer Rahemur Rahman. He continued “That’s the first thing I want to change, it’s the education.”
The validation no longer matters to a new generation of emerging designers and creatives who are choosing to do things differently, without seeking the approval of others. “The underlying thing of what we’re talking about is access to cultural capital and being able to cultivate it. Every city has amazing cultures but that doesn’t mean everyone can access them, and not only is it about accessing them but turning it into a career takes an immense amount of privilege. You have to have access to these things, and to these people. Our role is to open up these doors so that the next generation doesn’t have to work as hard as us to fight for the cultural capital, to sit beside a white person and say, hey I deserve to be here. I hope that we can get past that social and economic barrier.” said Rahemur Rahman.
The designers that are shaping the future will continue to challenge these systems in place. In order for fashion to be everyone’s game it must mean that those who make up the industry must have equal opportunities and resources relative to their needs. The goal is big, but certainly not impossible.