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Rethinking fashion’s values in a time of crisis

Updated: Jun 15, 2020

Content Note: mention of COVID-19

The world of sustainable fashion has been making headlines in recent media, as consumers of fashion have been prompted to consider the environmental and ethical impacts of their spending patterns. Whilst some may view these recent developments as ventures into truism, the vast majority of those immersed in the fashion industry have embraced the need for adaptability.

The world of luxury fashion is no stranger to sustainability either. Although the realm of luxury fashion conjures images of expensive mediums and highly specialised modes of production, designers are participating in a wider global effort to reduce fashion’s waste. One of the most renowned examples is Stella McCartney: nearly 50% of the company’s operations run on entirely renewable energy sources. McCartney casts a spotlight on sustainability within her campaigns too, having recently showcased a collection at Paris Fashion Week of which 75% was made from zero impact fabrics.

While these changes made by a select few pioneers certainly suggest the world of luxury fashion is on an upwards trajectory, the recent global crisis has given rise to increasingly urgent calls for a wider scope of change. Anna Wintour, one of fashion’s most influential proponents, spoke of such a transformation in her recent interview with Naomi Campbell. Wintour called for us, as active participants in fashion’s purchasing chain, to ‘rethink our values’; more specifically, we have been called to ‘really think about the waste, and the amount of money, and consumption, and excess’.

Wintour’s sentiments undeniably ring true in the light of the pandemic we are facing: reality has altered drastically, and consumers are forced to evaluate the way they are spending their money. Fashion, especially luxury, is no longer a feasible concept for many, which has resulted in a predicted 40% decrease in luxury sales. This will inevitably cause significant damage to the wider industry, with companies like Burberry already reporting to be struggling. As orders for brand new stock are being cancelled, garment workers, amongst others, will be out of work.

In the light of this disastrous turn of events, Wintour has called for the fashion community to ‘celebrate the art of fashion’. The industry has progressively morphed into a worldwide money machine, largely due to the emergence of trend-led culture. As fashion becomes temporary, easily replaceable and constantly changing, its followers are forced to reckon with the tide of ‘new’ items, coveted by a mass market. In our eagerness to seek out what’s currently chic, we are shunning the fashion of the past, treating garments as expendable, before dumping them on landfill sites.

Yet, with vintage and second-hand shopping rising in popularity, people seem to be turning to the old for those archived gems that just can’t be located on the high street. There’s something special about knowing the piece you’re wearing has a history attached to it, and you’re merely the next owner in a succession of people. The fact that pieces dating back twenty or thirty years ago are cropping up once again on the fashion scene contests the idea that fashion is about what’s trendy: fashion is actually cyclical. Ten years ago, skinny jeans appeared to be the uniform, and now, a day doesn’t go by where a ’90s inspired, light-wash pair of baggy jeans isn’t in my periphery. Everything comes back, even if it was once shunned as outdated.

This is why Wintour is right in prompting people to ‘slow down and enjoy [fashion] much more’. There are many ways that we can endorse this: keeping the industry thriving is gradually becoming inextricably linked with sustainability, and new labels are creating clothing from locally-sourced materials, or recycled garments. The less-polluting manufacturing process allows enjoyment of fashion in a guilt-free manner. What’s more, we can trace fashion back to its artisan roots, relishing in the complex production process. Brands like Chanel, for example, are renowned for appreciating not only high-quality manufacturing, but employ experts to produce the show-stopping, delicate garments we are used to seeing. We are being offered a chance to free designers from the constraints of a market constantly seeking more: perhaps a slower-paced designing and showcasing process will pave the way for conscious production.

Wintour’s call for change was immortalised in the most recent issue of Vogue. The cover, a testament to preserving the ‘art’ of fashion, was an illustration of a rose by Irving Penn. This issue coincided with the ‘Postcards From Home’ series, in which many of fashion’s leading figures sent in images of their best looks created from the safety of their own houses. It is a step back from the highly editorial shoots we are so accustomed to, showcasing the newest collections from designers (amidst an onslaught of advertisements). Wintour tells us, within the issue, to ‘consider the future’, and hopefully, this cover sets a new precedent for Vogue.

‘What’s new’ and ‘What’s next’ are questions that Wintour is eager to dispel, and as consumers of fashion, we should be too. Fashion is an art-form, whether used by Rick Owens to defy gendered silhouettes or by Maria Grazia Chiuri to promote her feminist sentiments. It is time that we offer an industry, that lies at the heart of culture, the chance to transform into something that can last the test of time, which at present, it cannot.

Caterina Bragoli Fashion Week & Exhibitions Director

Cambridge University Fashion & Luxury Business Society

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