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Post-COVID-19, fashion will find its soul again

For the record, the weather in Singapore this April promises lots of thundery showers. Expect lightning, and a sky overcast with the same gloominess that has blanketed many hearts around the world.

April in Paris will be colder, its empty streets offering no warm embrace that Ella Fitzgerald crooned about. London, now entering spring, will even see snowfall. And in Milan and New York, where thousands of lives have now been lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t matter what the weather forecast is.

Forecast — that’s a word used not just by meteorologists but also by the fashion industry, whose eye is perpetually trained on the next season. And yet, as much as designers had us believing that come September we would be dressed in ties and latex, who could have predicted the total upheaval of the fashion world?

In tarot, upheaval is associated with the Tower card. It depicts a scene of doom and disaster, but one that is necessary to get rid of the old ways and bring in the new. I can’t help but think how aptly the symbolism applies to the fashion industry, whose ivory tower is now in ruins.

Fashion Weeks have been cancelled, fashion brands are struggling to stay afloat, and even Anna Wintour may not be able to throw her glamorous Met Gala this year after all. And while it took us a worldwide pandemic to get here, the fashion industry is finally facing the decisions that it was long due to make.

Chanel Cruise Fall/Winter 2016 (Photo credit: Getty Images)
Chanel Cruise Fall/Winter 2016 set in Rome, one of the many extravagant locations that fashion brands usually stage their Cruise shows. (Photo credit: Getty Images)

One of them is to rethink the whole fashion calendar. Do brands really need more collections than there are seasons?

After all, fashion began with just two: one haute couture collection in spring, another in fall, and both shown only to royalty and high society. A century later, Yves Saint Laurent would democratise fashion with ready-to-wear, prompting brands to take on four collections a year. By the time the diffusion lines and the capsule collections and the Cruise shows came along, fashion had lost the plot.

It became a circus instead. That’s how Alessandro Michele described fashion at Gucci’s last show. And we’ve seen what forcing designers into a balancing act has done to them: it drove John Galliano to alcoholism at one point, Alexander McQueen to his death at another. Before his retirement, Jean Paul Gaultier traded ready-to-wear for haute couture, saying, “The frenetic pace of collections don’t leave any freedom, nor the necessary time to find fresh ideas and to innovate.”

Now, as Dutch trend forecaster Li Edelkoort believes, is the perfect time to start. “We are no longer used to doing things without rushing,” says Edelkoort. “Therefore the sudden stop on all of this by the virus takes decision-making out of our hands and will just slow things down to another, frightful pace in the beginning… Improvisation skills and creativity will become the highest assets.”

A look from Balenciaga’s S/S 2020 show. Demna Gvasalia will show his first haute couture collection for the brand next January. Will we see a haute couture revival in fashion? (Photo credit: Balenciaga)
A look from Balenciaga’s S/S 2020 show. Demna Gvasalia will show his first haute couture collection for the brand next January. Will we see a haute couture revival in fashion? (Photo credit: Balenciaga)

To me, Edelkoort is heralding the rebirth of haute couture. Consider Donatella Versace’s description: “As a reflection of the designer’s art, and as an expression of pure creativity in fashion, it is unsurpassed.” That was from 2012, when the world was just coming out of an economic crisis — the same one we’re heading to. Back then, couture was seeing a revival because, in Versace’s words, “The global downturn has made people think about the value of things.”

What is sublime about a sneaker? What is inspiring about a T-shirt? Most of the time, nothing, but luxury fashion brands have made a profit in the last decade from selling them to the suddenly fashion-conscious masses. But the spell of mass consumption is about to be broken, according to Edelkoort: “We will have to come to terms with living with fewer news feeds, less new merchandise, fewer newsletters and pop-ups. We will have to kick all our habits off as if we are going off drugs. Going cold turkey over shopping.”

Fashion brands won’t have a choice, either. “The virus will slow everything down,” says Edelkoort. “We will witness a halt in the production of consumer goods.”

In other words: death to merchandise. Death to designer T-shirts, designer slides, designer caps. The only thing that truly set them apart from their non-designer counterparts was a logo. “The logo is key,” explained fashion critic Eugene Rabkin, “because in the age of Instagram, where people curate their lives in two dimensions on a small screen, the logo is more important than the product itself.”

Dior Fall/Winter 2004 campaign (Photo credit: Dior)
Dior Fall/Winter 2004 campaign (Photo credit: Dior)

Now, we are realising that life is more important than a logo. The last time logomania reigned in fashion was the early 2000s — another period of excess like the one we have been living in. And then the Great Recession happened, and luxury became a dirty word. Status symbols, like branded bags, became markers of bad taste as people lost their jobs and struggled to make ends meet.

What followed the flashy fashion of the aughts was an era of low-key luxury: fashion that was made with as much thought and care as we are now putting into our lives. Fashion with soul.

We can already see it on the horizon today. Having recently spoken to designers like Giorgio Armani, Pierpaolo Piccioli and Silvia Venturini Fendi, fashion journalist Angelo Flaccavento revealed, “Each one in their own way, agrees on one simple fact: this crisis is an opportunity to edit down the superfluous, to regain our long-lost soul… They are working on smaller collections with stronger messages and this might be the ultimate outcome of this whole turmoil.”

Maison Margiela F/W 2020 (Photo credit: Maison Margiela)
For Maison Margiela’s F/W 2020 collection, John Galliano introduced a line of upcycled vintage clothing, defining a new kind of luxury. (Photo credit: Maison Margiela)

Post-COVID-19, commercialism will be cancelled. Artistic integrity will be everything. And so, too, will resourcefulness. As people did during the Great Depression, we will rediscover what what already have, like vintage and pre-loved fashion that has seen the world through its rises and falls.

And we will reduce, reuse and recycle. Sustainability is no longer an option — not for us, and certainly not for the fashion industry. It’s adapt or die, literally. Designers, especially young ones like Marine Serre and Bethany Williams, will show us how to choose life.

Life, like the weather, like fashion, like The Fool’s Journey in tarot, moves in cycles. And though things might look like they are coming to an end, I believe in the new beginning — much like the hopeful figure in The Star, the card that follows The Tower.

Pameyla Cambe
Senior Writer
Pameyla Cambe is a fashion and jewellery writer who believes that style and substance shouldn't be mutually exclusive. She makes sense of the world through Gothic novels, horror films and music. Lots of music.
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