As part of a series linked to our Fostering Sustainable Practices project, we have been discussing how micro and small fashion businesses are revolutionizing what fashion is and what it can be in the future (see previous posts: January, March). As it happens, two months of deceleration in the Global North drastically exposed our interdependencies and vulnerabilities, also uprooting what normal or strong means. It is now clearer than ever that the micro and small fashion businesses that have built their work on the need to do something that matters, focusing on contributing to community alongside financial viability, can corrode many of the preconceptions about what fashion business stands for.
Since our last blog, Phoebe English, along with fellow designers Bethany Williams and Holly Fulton have joined forces to set up the voluntary Emergency Designer Network that now produces much needed scrubs to protect the NHS workers. With the initial network of 10 small scale manufacturers, the EDN collective volunteer their studio resources, energy, time, and skills, showing here and now that fashion can be a reciprocal, mutually supportive process whose core focus are people, empathy, and well-being, rather than products, insatiable growth, and profit. As another example, while many leading fashion brands have been walking out on their suppliers, putting millions of garment workers worldwide at risk of sheer survival, Becky and Huw from Paynter Jacket have recently decided to launch an unplanned batch of jackets No. 3.5 with 100% of profits to go towards the support of their factory in Portugal and the NHS.
The generosity shown over the last two months by these new kinds of fashion designers-makers-founders is absolutely astonishing. Yet, as usual, there is also a flip side to the story. As brave as they have been during the Covid-19 crisis, these micro and small businesses are especially vulnerable to the disruption of the last few months. The pressure builds from all directions. As Phoebe herself explains in the Wardrobe Crisis second special on Covid 19, like many others no doubt, she has been trying her best to use her own fear and anxiety in a productive way. But the reality for most designers-owners is that their survival is very fragile, cash flow being a major challenge even at the best of times. A number of the businesses we have been working with are now in conservation mode, many suppliers going out of business, wholesale orders being cancelled without compensation, and most 2020 plans (and beyond) are veiled in uncertainty. While they are at the forefront of fashion that stands for responsibility towards both people and the planet, the Covid-19 crisis highlighted with utmost urgency that the small businesses cannot be left in this on their own. Something much bigger must happen now.
In early March, in her Dezeen interview, one of the world’s most influential trend forecasters Lidewij Edelkoort talked about how the ‘quarantine of consumption’ imposed by the Covid-19 crisis offers us a hope for a better system. Another highly influential fashion figure, the editor in chief of Vogue US and the Conde Nast artistic director Anna Wintour could later be heard saying that people’s values will have shifted by the Covid-19 experience, which brings an opportunity for us all to rethink waste, money, consumption, and excess, as well as to reshape what the industry stands for. The State of Fashion Covid update report launched in early April with a bold statement on ‘rewiring the fashion system’, anticipates that “The crisis is a catalyst that will shock the industry into change – now is the time to get ready for a post-coronavirus world. … The pandemic will bring values around sustainability into sharp focus, intensifying discussions and further polarising views around materialism, over-consumption and irresponsible business practices.” (p. 8 + 18)
On May 12, a group of designers and CEOs led by Dries Van Noten launched an Open Letter to the Fashion Industry with a petition to slow down the fashion calendar and reshape the fashion cycle to allow the industry “to become more responsible for our impact on our customers, on the planet and on the fashion community, and bring back the magic and creativity that has made fashion such an important part of our world”. In its first week the petition collected over 400 signatures from leaders across the industry, with names including Erdem, Acne, Zero + Maria Cornejo, Jil Sander, Christian Louboutin, Ann Demeulemeester, Carolina Herrera or Maison Margiela (In the meantime, a similar initiative launched on a new platform #rewiringfashion).
As more news on initiatives that propose to revolutionise fashion as we know it crop up every day, the hope for a better future that allows for diversity of both scale and purpose of fashion seems omnipresent. Yet, while we are hearing voices of change, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, fast fashion warehouses in the UK have been struggling to keep up with their on-line orders, brands carelessly putting their employees at risk in conditions that do not enable social distancing. As the news on improved air quality in China thanks to reduced industrial activity travelled the world, the global health crisis detracted attention from illegal loggers, leading to unprecedented acceleration of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest.
What such examples highlight is that once the worst is out of sight, we must act as things will not change for the better by themselves. The pre-pandemic world might be gone, but as Fashion Revolution warns “if we do nothing, the fashion industry will simply return to business as usual”.
At the time when uncertainty affects us all, although admittedly at different scales, it is no doubt hard to be decisive about the future. Our individual capacities to ‘go out and change the world’ may now be affected by more mundane but crucial concerns such as health, livelihoods and care for family. Still, one thing that those who can may perhaps try for now, is remember the people and the businesses who showed their courage, community spirit and generosity during this crisis and help them be the ones who set the tone for what fashion is at the other side of Covid-19.