Balenciaga set the tone for the year back in March, when it sent models down its Fall/Winter 2020 runway surrounded by swirling fire projections and stepping through a literal flood. Rick Owens and Marine Serre followed suit with apocalypse-ready outerwear and protective gloves in their collections, too. Fashion weeks don't usually come with such heavy overtones, but the ongoing climate crisis, the start of a crucial election year in the U.S., and the growing realization of COVID-19’s devastation across the globe disrupted the norms. Now, thanks to these factors, and at a time when fall's trends should ordinarily make their retail debut, a new question is weighing on the minds of designers, shoppers, and nearly every member of the fashion supply chain: Should the trend cycle exist anymore?
“Even before the pandemic, younger generations, particularly Gen Z, were scrutinizing brands based on their behaviors and ethics,” says Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion at WGSN, a global leader in trend forecasting. Trends — be it a unique print or denim silhouette — are no longer the sole driving force for shoppers who expect more from the brands they love. Instead, consumers want to know who their money is going to and what values are being upheld. “People have choices in where they can shop and are very vocal if brands don't align with their expectations," Muston tells The Zoe Report. "Equally, they're prepared to support brands who are doing a good job.”
Muston predicts that shoppers post-pandemic will be more value-driven, not for the sake of finding the lowest prices possible, but due to consideration of the cost to workers or the environment. “It means getting value for money, so products need to fit with their lifestyle and perform well,” Muston says. Essentially, it’s shopping with intention: supporting sustainability-driven brands like Patagonia that are constantly evolving to improve their carbon footprint and encourage giving their products a second life over, say, a fast fashion brand cranking out lesser-quality garments that replicate a fleeting runway theme.
To speak about the current trend cycle, it's crucial to acknowledge how the sweeping pace of collections has influenced shopping habits. The expectation for fashion brands has been to produce four collections each year (spring/summer, pre-fall, fall/winter, and resort), not including any additional capsule collections or collaboration projects. Consumers are always looking ahead to what's next and new. Even before the global health pandemic, the faults in this constant pursuit of newness were starkly visible: Designers faced creative burnout, and retailers rushed to mark down collections. On top of that, fast fashion raced to recreate trends that luxury collections debuted first, producing garments at a lightning-fast speed and sold at a fraction of the cost of their original inspiration. In many cases, quantity was prioritized above quality, as well as the working conditions of those who made the clothing.
“When it comes to COVID-19, in some ways, it’s cracked wide open and exasperated everything that we know about how the industry’s going in the opposite direction when it comes to workers' rights and planetary degradation," says Ayesha Barenblat, founder and CEO of San Francisco-based nonprofit Remake, which advocates for transparency and accountability through social media and by empowering local community leaders. "It just has all come to a head.”
In fact, Remake launched the PayUp campaign earlier this year to recoup lost wages for garment workers, as fast fashion brands cancel ed factory orders as a result of COVID-19. “In thinking about chasing trends and the number of seasons we have, one of the things that has happened is a lot of [mass-produced fast fashion brands and retailers] have essentially pushed all risk onto manufacturers, who’ve in turn pushed risk onto workers,” says Barenblat. Remake now keeps a list of brands that do and don’t respond to the PayUp campaign as an accountability measure. She adds that to date, 19 brands have now honored those contracts, totaling a recouped $22 billion by Remake's count.
This shift applies to the luxury market, as well, especially as time inches closer to September and another Fashion Month. "We anticipate the trend cycle will continue to lengthen as many people are no longer buying seasonally and brands have shifted the show calendar,” says Fanny Moizant, president and co-founder of Vestiaire Collective. With more brands opting for season-less design or limiting new collections to two per year, the demand for trends will slow with this pace. So far, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Tory Burch, and Tom Ford are sitting this New York Fashion Week out. Gucci has announced its plan to go season-less and cut presentations to twice a year. Plus, Dries Van Noten penned a powerful letter to the fashion industry in May calling for a more sustainable future. While promising, these are all new adjustments that will require time to see the full effects both in and outside of luxury fashion's influence.
In the meantime, trends are already beginning to reflect the state of fashion and the world. According to Moizant, Vestiaire members have become even more mindful of their shopping habits as a result of COVID-19. In fact, in the company’s first biannual report, The Smart Side of Fashion, Vestiaire reported that, since January, shoppers are paying attention to brands with sustainable practices, with accelerated conversions for Loq, Marine Serre, and Veja all increasing. Shoppers are also contemplating which fashion purchases will last for years to come, especially in light of economic uncertainly. “Our members have already shifted toward buying more classic, quality pieces that will remain in style for more than a few seasons," she says. And, "savvy members are now turning toward their already-purchased investment pieces for supplementary income," with listings for certain brands up dramatically during the pandemic, she says.
“Comfort is the most obvious trend to emerge from the pandemic,” adds Muston of WGSN, “although arguably we already had high expectations of comfort going into the pandemic after 10 years of athleisure.” Comfort and practicality will remain at the forefront of fashion for the foreseeable future, she says, as well as clothing that complements shoppers' increasing interest in working out and spending time outdoors (assumedly, while wearing a mask). This focus on what clothing can do for you as opposed to how it looks in the mirror is a shift that, though exacerbated by the life changes instigated by COVID-19, also reflect a larger cultural exhaustion with the spectacle and constant need to keep up that the industry begets.
For Barenblat, the future of trends is less about wearing the one "it" item that everyone wants, and more about shopping with personal intention. She echoes Moizant in mentioning the growing popularity of resale sites, along with rental services such as Rent the Runway that allow for tons of varied fashion expression without a focus on consumption. “That may not be a trend in the traditional sense,” Barenblat says, but it indicates “something that can reach your creativity and all the aspirational, fun elements of fashion. It doesn’t have to be a disposable trend.”