It’s been a tough few months in fashion’s top tier. Heads have rolled at a pace that makes the Premier League look like a model of long-term planning. The creative directors at Dior, Lanvin and Saint Laurent are among the casualties of an industry in flux. Luxury fashion is under assault, both as the Far Eastern markets it relied on to bolster its books through the recession start to contract, and the high street replicates what appears on runways ever faster. When the ship flounders, the folks at the helm pay the price.
But the ships haven’t really floundered. Raf Simons steered Dior to rave reviews and bumper profits; under Alber Elbaz, Lanvin shrugged off history to become an exciting, relevant brand for the first time in decades; and at Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane not only re-engineered the male silhouette, he doubled the brand’s profits too. So it seems petty that, before his seat was cold, bosses reinstated the ‘Yves’ Slimane had demanded be dropped when he joined the house, and deleted all record of his tenure from its Instagram account.
These designers are victims not of money, but time. The fashion calendar is rupturing. The time when a label would release simply a spring/summer and autumn/winter collection now looks quaint. These days, they’re joined by resort and pre-fall shows and regular capsules throughout the season.
Hedi Slimane is just one high profile designer to leave his post recently
The creative director’s to-do list is also filled with more than just the clothes; they oversee everything from ad campaigns and store design to the increasingly important social media output. As Raf Simons railed on departing Dior, the eight weeks he once expected for ideas to gestate had been halved. A process that once had at least some semblance of art has become a production line.
The latest sacrifice is the six-month gap between runway show and clothes hitting stores. Originally this space let brands experiment, to see what buyers and press reacted to, so that they could adjust their collections accordingly. If a designer wanted to test the water with an avant-garde cut or fabric, they could dip a toe, and not sink cash into pieces that might never sell.
However, according to the likes of Burberry and Tom Ford – both of which have changed tack to adopt a ‘see now, buy now’ strategy – this window is unbearable to the modern consumer. Customers aren’t willing to wait six months for clothes they’ve seen on Instagram – they want to wear a collection the second it’s shown.
You’ll soon be able to buy Burberry pieces the minute they hit the runway
But, in truth, this condensed calendar is a reaction not so much to audiences as high street brands, which ’emulate’ luxury on an industrial scale. Zara can design, manufacture and ship a product in less than a month. Under the current model, they’ve got six times that before the designer original is on rails.
It’s not just big brands feeling the bite. Kit Neale, the young British designer whose illustration-heavy designs have been a highlight of LCM, opted not to show for autumn/winter 2016 to make his release schedule more immediate, long before Burberry announced it was doing the same. “A friend once phoned me to say they’d seen someone wearing a lobster print tee from one of my collections,” he says.
“But it hadn’t been released yet. It was a big brand who’d done their own version.” His hope is that by cutting the time fast fashion retailers have to replicate them, he can slow the flow of his ideas onto the high street.
Zara can design, manufacture and ship a new product in less than a month
While this theft is far from laudable, the relationship between fast fashion brands and the luxury labels they leach from is more complicated than the LVMH group would have you think. Yes, consumers are hungry for novelty. And yes, the rapid turnover at H&M, Zara and their ilk – where a piece you like might be gone by next week – stokes an urge to buy now, ponder your purchase later. But if high street brands have made this disposable approach to fashion affordable, luxury brands are at least as complicit in driving our desire for newness.
Dior’s customer doesn’t weigh up the high street’s version. But if its signature pieces are recreated enough, then they lose their lustre. What air of exclusivity does your £1,000 coat bestow, when the masses are wearing something near indistinguishable, bought for a tenth of the price? So luxury’s response is to accelerate, producing more collections, changing styles at a pace it hopes outstrips the copycats. They in turn invest in bigger design teams and quicker production, to get the clothes in store first.
In the end, the customer loses. Luxury fashion is sold on quality. You buy the four-figure version because it’s better made, will last longer, than the knock-off. But when trends evaporate so quickly, your investment comes with obsolescence built in.
Louis Vuitton at Harrods
“Womenswear needs to build redundancy into its DNA,” says menswear designer Oliver Spencer. “They [brands] want people to move on quickly.” Menswear has always, thankfully, moved at a relatively glacial ebb. But as the sector grows, and men’s fashion becomes more profitable, trends are starting to cycle faster.
It’s not just western consumers who are short-changed by this breakneck pace either. “It’s very hard to psychologically relate the glamour of fashion, the colour, what seems to be innocent bits of soft, gentle material, to a dirty, chemically polluting progress,” says Jacqueline Jackson, from environmental risk analysts Trucost.
Fashion is the world’s third most polluting industry, after oil and agriculture. There are the enormous quantities of water, the chemicals and dyes pumped into fields, the factory fires and collapses that kill hundreds – all so we can get caught up in the cycle without going bankrupt.
In the last 20 years, the price of clothes has plummeted, even as the cost of raw materials rose. The average westerner now spends less on clothes than they did a decade ago, but purchases more than twice as many pieces. We each throw away, on average, 32kg of clothing a year, because we’ve bought shoddy garments, or bought into trends we’ll never wear again, at prices that don’t make us think twice about tossing them in the bin.
Fashion is the 3rd most polluting industry, after oil and agriculture
So what’s the fix? The four biggest fast fashion retailers almost doubled their profits in 2014, just a year after the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, where low-paid workers produced clothes for brands like Primark, Matalan and Zara’s parent, Inditex, collapsed, killing 1,130 people. Meanwhile luxury profits are stagnating, as consumers feel the pinch. Their fix is the hyper-rich, who can afford to spend millions, but need to be encouraged to do so by more collections, more novelty, more reasons to buy.
It’s up to consumers to stem the tide by stepping outside the system. “Look for classics, things that are going to last,” says Spencer. “Things that you’ll be excited about still wearing.” For now, menswear doesn’t spin as fast as womenswear. So you can invest in pieces that will last, knowing trends shouldn’t render it unwearable before holes do.
“People need to educate themselves on precisely what they’re wearing, and how to wear it,” says Lucy Siegle, a journalist and producer of the film The True Cost, who’s long covered the fashion industry’s lacklustre approach to sustainability.
“When you know what looks good, and what’s made well, you don’t buy things that you just throw away.” Instead, you invest in items you can wear often. And which are able to be worn in a multitude of ways. It’s about doing more with less, but buying the best you can afford. Otherwise, we all lose.