The idea of fashion is oxymoronic in that it has a leg both the past and the future; being simultaneously resistant to change as well as constantly seeking newness. There have been calls for changes and brands answered by taking steps towards sustainability, embracing cultural nuances as well embracing the new digital landscape, but never has one of the world’s biggest industries faced a challenge like the COVID-19 pandemic.
While the fashion business suffers from consumers’ readjusted list of priorities, the art side of fashion provides a sense of solace and hope. After all, in our darkest times, we have always looked to the arts for comfort. Perhaps this crisis is the change that the fashion industry needs, a call to move away from antiquated practices and to adapt to the new world.
With that in mind, we speak to three fashion industry leaders—Nick Sullivan, creative director of the US edition of Esquire; Edward Crutchley, founder of his eponymous label and director of fabrics and graphics at Dior Men; and Bohan Qiu, founder and director of Boh Project, a digital and content agency based in China.
ON CHANGING HOW WE THINK ABOUT FASHION
NICK SULLIVAN: The COVID-19 situation will make it more essential that companies have a solid digital platform from which to operate. But there were already strong shifts developing in consumers’ expectation from men’s fashion. We have seen a clear decline in the past year in overtly branded clothing and accessories, intimations that streetwear may not continue to drive the conversation in fashion as well as an interest in tailoring, albeit worn in a very modern and comfortable way. I don’t think we will go backwards but it will be interesting to see if consumers will look for more authenticity over fast fashion on their clothes. Buy less but buy better.
EDWARD CRUTCHLEY: My hope is that we will all consider what we purchase much more and look at pieces that really make us happy and are more than an impulse purchase.
BOHAN QIU: The fashion industry is being forced to innovate the way we show, design, present and communicate. As economies go into a downturn in most parts of the world, consumers will consume more consciously, thinking twice before they make the purchase, and also looking for more impactful storytelling and long-lasting design.
"I hope we come out of this with a more common-sense notion of what a fashion edit should be."
ON WORKING WITH THE NEW NORMAL
NICK SULLIVAN: It has provided us with immense challenges logistically with many fashion offices on lockdown and the closure of photography studios and model agencies. Writing, interviewing can be done anywhere but making original art is trickier when samples of garments are harder to get. But it has forced us to think laterally about how we deliver and filter fashion for Esquire readers. That’s a very good thing. I hope we come out of this with a more common-sense notion of what a fashion edit should be.
EDWARD CRUTCHLEY: It’s been tough. Unfortunately, we may have to cancel our autumn 2020 pre-collection due to our factory closing down and it’s difficult to adapt as the situation is so uncertain. But limits provoke creativity and new ways of thinking and the only way to address this change is with openness and innovative thinking. I’m quite excited to find new ways to show what we do.
BOHAN QIU: In February, most of our work was halted. But shortly after, we got even busier with the online fashion week that happened in late March in Shanghai, and also we are working on another virtual fashion presentation that combines computer-generated imagery and 3D technologies. People are no longer interested in irrelevant inspirational stories at the moment.
What they care about is society, economy, human relations, consciousness towards the planet as a whole. So we cannot just communicate a meaningless collection but rather brands need a unique hook, or personal touch, that can resonate with how the world is feeling right now. Whether that is in innovation, unity, environmental consciousness, love, anti-racism, collaboration or just pure beauty or creativity that is uplifting to the world.
"We cannot just communicate a meaningless collection but rather brands need a unique hook, or personal touch"
ON THE FUTURE OF FASHION
NICK SULLIVAN: In terms of how the industry operates itself, it’s too early to say for sure. In many ways, like trends, the idea of fashion weeks and watch fairs were already being questioned before COVID-19 appeared. Fashion has not been based on having two collections for years, but we attend the shows twice a year.
That said having lots of brands showing in one place at one time makes sense because you get the whole picture in just a few days. We need that creatively and actually being there is vital. It won’t be business as usual, but it might be more sensible.
Oddly, although we are stuck at home and relying on digital even more than before, I see people are rediscovering the value of non-digital activity too like cooking, making things, reading. Maybe it’s just in an effort to distract themselves. I remain a big believer in both print and digital and I see both developing as complementary to each other and equally vital facets, especially of a brand like Esquire.
"I am sure more brands will go into the digital arena to create or replicate that offline fashion fantasy into the online world."
EDWARD CRUTCHLEY: Sustainability and a focus on local manufacturing is something that we have been doing since I started making collections and this is something that really cores to our practice. I hope that people will now become more mindful of what sustainability actually means, but the focus will still be on things that aren’t that effective such as PET recycling and the use of organic fabrics. If we really want to make a change, especially in the current situation, we need to focus on jobs and skill retention and elevating and explaining how clothes are made.
BOHAN QIU: Brands have to rethink their strategy to adapt to the digital world. With COVID-19, we are forced to change our lifestyles, and with digital being a huge part of it, brands will have to also be present. [The recent Shanghai Digital Fashion Week, which partnered with Alibaba’s Tmall to create an online platform for designers to showcase their wares] was a good learning curve to understand how to balance the artistic expression of a fashion brand with a human touch, while generating sales conversion.
For example, conceptual videos to present their collection, having a panel discussion during a hot-pot meal and putting on a mini- theatre programme. The key to winning is how you engage in real-time with the audience to keep them interested. Brands will need to continue innovating the artistic expression of a fashion show aspect, but this method of direct-to-consumer engagement can definitely live on.
When the brands collectively succeed in this new arena, it helps them question the cost of putting together a fashion show, flying hundreds of people around the planet and creating massive sets for a 20-minute show before disposing of them. There is also the notion of sending multiple parcels around the world for a single fashion shoot. I am sure more brands will go into the digital arena to create or replicate that offline fashion fantasy into the online world.
"I hope comes out of this it is an appreciation of the selflessness of the people around us who are working to keep us all safe."
ON THE POSITIVE ASPECTS
NICK SULLIVAN: I’m an optimist at heart so I like to believe we will come out of this with a slightly clearer vision of what matters in life and be less obsessive about immediate gratification, shallowness and maybe develop a little more refined appreciation for owning things that are genuinely worth the money.
EDWARD CRUTCHLEY: If there is one thing that I hope comes out of this it is an appreciation of the selflessness of the people around us who are working to keep us all safe.
BOHAN QIU: It’s a great time to put a pause on things. From blind consumption and environmental destruction to how society uses digital tools. It forces humans to evolve and adapt, and appreciate what really matters in life