“I think that any sort of challenge, crisis or limitation could breed really amazing creativity, and that is what I have to tell students. Yes, what is going on now is terrible, but this is why you study design; it is made to serve its users, so what does the user need
Last year, Marine Serre presented a post-apocalyptic Spring/Summer 2020 collection called “Marée Noire”, which I considered as a frightening far-fetched depiction of an extremely distant dystopian future. However, her forward-thinking somehow anticipated with an unexpected exactitude the current widespread need and demand for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The COVID-19 pandemic left many aspects of the fashion industry unsettled. Although the uncertainty around us makes it hard to predict what might happen next, Natalie Nudell and I discussed over the phone what could be some potential outcomes of this crisis for fashion.
Natalie Nudell is a fashion and textile historian as well as an adjunct assistant professor in the History of Art Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Her research covers the wartime and post-war American fashion industry and its culture, gender and labour through the Fashion Calendar publications by Ruth Finley between 1945 and 2014. Natalie wrote and produced a forthcoming documentary Calendar Girl which is looking at the American fashion system in the 20th century based on the figure of Ruth Finley, the exclusive publisher of the American fashion schedule. The film was set to release later in 2020. However, it is currently paused due to the pandemic, and we are looking forward to its release. Natalie is also an associate editor of The Fashion Studies Journal, an online journal publishing academic and critical pieces on fashion. Additionally, she is a founding member of the Fashion Studies Alliance, a network of scholars and practitioners based in NYC but also opened to the world.
Alexia: Global crises shape society differently; for example, an increase in standardized clothing production punctuated the post-World War II society. Do you think that the current global pandemic will result in an opposite effect where we will transition from a global to a local fashion production model?
Natalie: Tentatively, there are two answers. First, in the short term, the most recent Fashion Week concluded a week before the world shut down, so collections were already designed. Now the problem is that with this ever entangled global supply chain in terms of acquisition of fabrics, labour, design, and corporate structures, we are facing significant interruptions in numerous key sectors. Anyone I have been speaking with who works in fashion said that regarding online retail, the amount of purchasing has minimized, so nobody will produce a full collection of whatever they presented. In the long term, the disruptive elements in the supply chain have exposed the reliance of any given country on any other. The entire fashion system has been critiqued, and this [COVID-19] will act as a catalyst to shift many different standards that have been in place since World War II, a transformational global event that majorly changed the way fashion and clothing were made and consumed. This [COVID-19] will have an equally seismic effect on how and what we consume.
Alexia: Sustainability has been a recurring subject in fashion; consumers have started realizing how important is the shift towards environmental responsibility. Some professionals claim that the pandemic might be the "restart button" the industry needed to rethink itself. Knowing that sustainable practices usually tend to be very costly and much slower, do you think it is realistic to believe that brands coming out of a difficult financial situation will opt for these methods?
Natalie: When we look back historically, fashion, garment, and textile production had been terrible to the environment. The other day, Stella McCartney was talking about how, in reality, this [COVID-19] doesn't affect her that much because her model of sustainability consists of planning the textiles in advance for the next two or three years. The reason why a lot of companies were not following this pattern is that they were trying to keep up with the fast-paced system that had already been in place.
Now that fashion is in theory on pause for the first time since World War II, there is this idea of maybe there is a correction going on. If it starts off slower, companies will be able to prioritize new values and the time to be more sustainable. It is a fact that many companies will be struggling to make it out of it, some of them will not make it, but a lot of the brands that will pivot to incorporating these ideas are going to be successful potentially. I don't think fashion will ever be able to redeem from the long-standing abuses of the capitalist system and globalization. It is a business made to look very glamorous, but when you start peeling back the layers, you see the significant negative impacts of it.
After this pandemic is over, people might shop in fast fashion stores for thousands of different looks. We have to also keep in mind that a lot of consumers will have no choice; people will be out of a job and unable to consume the way that they were before. In the foreseeable future, there won’t be so many events to wear these outfits, so it’s going to be interesting also to see the way consumers will be affected.
Giorgio Armani came in Women's Wear Daily, talking about how the entire fashion calendar needs to be thrown out the window, they need to sell in-season clothing and practice reuse. The idea that a designer would develop a textile and use it only for one season has been in place for a long time, but this is the whole idea within the culture of leaning away, this constant need of newness that is visually different from what was immediately before it. In reality, when you study design, everything is derivative.
But it remains to be seen because like everything else in fashion, who knows what's going to happen next.
Alexia: Creators are revisiting the necessity of the numerous fashion months as we know them. The idea of a digital format for these events is surfacing, and it puts to work the creativity of designers in the current context. In a post-COVID-19 world where many things will be digitized, do you consider that there is an essential aspect of design that could be lost through this digitalization?
Natalie: Before this [COVID-19] happened, a lot of people were experimenting with the digital. Derek Blasberg, the head of fashion at YouTube, was making a lot of headlines in terms of trying to make YouTube this place where all of the shows would be broadcasted. Still, we can't forget that these fashion shows were live events with audience members that are videotaped and then put online.
The thing with fashion and clothing that makes it so interesting and vital in representing culture and society is that it can't only be visually understood; it also has to be materially understood. There is this beautiful alchemy that happens when you understand an image by way of its material, by way of how it could be worn on the body. Something happens with clothing that, although can be represented visually, is always removed from that materiality.
In terms of the fashion weeks, obviously, in the foreseeable future, people won't be flying two times or more around the world to go to fashion shows. Maybe instead of everybody going to all four places every six months only one city could host. In the short term, brands will have to rely on the virtual.
I think that ultimately in fashion, there is always going to be an in-person aspect whenever we can. Some brands will focus more on the online, but I think there might be a split where the online becomes much more content, audience and consumer-driven. In contrast, personal interactions will be more industry-driven and always seen as the most important strategic marketing tools.
But this is the thing in fashion if everything goes digital the pendulum will swing in the other direction. Everybody will reject it and start doing exclusive events where nobody sees anything, so it will be interesting to see how far it gets before it swings back into the other position.
Alexia: With schools being closed due to the pandemic, fashion students all over the world are facing new challenges and have been worrying about their future opportunities as young, small designers. Do you think their future careers will be at risk once the global emergency state is lifted?
As a professor who teaches students studying design, it is so unfortunate that their trajectory for the semester had this significant change. For everyone in education, the students and the teachers, it was a huge unexpected thing to happen. It is hard for students who have to figure out how to finalize their projects and finish their designs without the benefit of studios, labs and technical material requirements you need to fulfill this type of degree.
It is unfortunate, but it is an unbelievable opportunity, and I speak to my students about this all the time. What an opportunity for textile designers to create an innovative textile with filtrating and ventilating capabilities. We will need to solve the problem that we have in front of us, how are we going to take this time and think about how we could reorganize how we create textiles and designs.
I think that any sort of challenge, crisis or limitation could breed really amazing creativity, and that is what I have to tell students. Yes, what is going on now is terrible, but this is why you study design; it is made to serve its users, so what does the user need right now.
Moving forward for them, graduating into a bad economy is a reality we are all facing. The economic downturn we are about to face will definitely affect fashion, design and different sectors, but I do think that again one needs to stay positive and see the opportunities. The most successful people are the ones that can adapt quickly and look at how they could seek a pattern in ambiguities. Maybe you will do something you were not expecting to do, but I think that eventually, we will get back from this, and we will make it work. For now, we don't know how everything will turn out, a lot has yet to be seen, but a lot is already happening.
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