Photos from New York’s last “normal” fashion week in February look almost unrecognizable to pandemic-weary eyes. Models walked down runways unmasked, those aisles lined by guests sitting shoulder-to-shoulder. People greeted each other with hugs and air kisses.
Weeks later in Milan, Anna Wintour would sit front row at Max Mara beneath her customary sunglasses, clutching her iPhone. She appeared to be her typical, laconic self—upon her return to the States, the Vogue editor in chief announced she would be “voluntarily self-quarantining” for two weeks. Ten months later, she’s still working from home.
This year has kneecapped all creative industries; many might tell you that fashion ceased to matter in 2020. That’s not entirely inaccurate if you’re referring to the industry as a whole, especially old-guard bastions of commerce.
A March report from the Boston Consulting Group estimated that the luxury category “will lose between $450 and $600 billion in sales” this year. ThreadUp, an online second-hand retailer, found that 50 percent of people have cleaned out their closets during the pandemic.
J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, and JC Penney all filed for bankruptcy in the wake of temporary store closures and losses due to the pandemic, but the demise of the department store has been well-documented even before this year. (All of those brands have since exited bankruptcy: JC Penney was bought by Simon Property Group and Brookfield Asset Management; Brooks Brothers was bought by Simon Property Group.)
Lord & Taylor shut down all stores after a nearly 200-year run, many are in liquidation now and will close after the holiday season. Century21, a designer discount haven beloved by New Yorkers, shuttered in September.
Sies Marjan, the billionaire-backed line by rising Dutch designer Sander Lak, was a favorite of critics and only 4 years old. Its star power had only just begun to crystallize; by mid-June, Sies Marjan unceremoniously ceased operations.
A global reckoning against racism further amplified the rank discrimination in fashion media, though exposés were nothing new to anyone who worked in those fields and witnessed it firsthand. Wintour was the subject of a widely-read New York Times piece by Edmund Lee where employees said she “created a work environment. . .that sidelines and tokenized women of color, especially Black women.”
Man Repeller, a blog started by Leandra Medine Cohen, was blasted by readers for its treatment of Black editors and its touting of content seemingly written for white, rich women. Cohen announced she would leave the site, which was rebranded as Repeller, before shutting down entirely in October.
After the killing of George Floyd, brands rushed to produce vaguely worded platitudes calling for “diversity and inclusion,” with few directly addressing the issue of police brutality or systemic racism in their own businesses. The “black square” on Instagram became a cliché example of what many in fashion thought was “good enough”—a blanket statement that did little to aid activists or hold the powerful accountable.
Certain “Before Time” clothing items are at risk of extinction. “We’ve definitely seen jeans have lower rate of selling out and have higher discounts this year when compared to leggings and sweatpants,” Elizabeth Shobert, VP of marketing and digital strategy for the analytics company StyleSage, told The Daily Beast. “Unsurprisingly, dresses have much higher discounts than, say, tops, which have the advantage of being visible on those Zoom calls.”
Additionally, Shobert says that “practical footwear” like boots and sneakers are “less likely to be discounted compared to footwear associated with work and going out.”
This fall, designers began to release their spring collections. Normally, those would debut on runways in various culture capitals like New York, London, Paris, or Milan. Those cities continued to hold virtual fashion weeks (with some designers, like Christian Siriano, whisking a select group of editors and influencers to socially distant shows). But many designers like Pyer Moss, Michael Kors, and Marc Jacobs ditched the schedule all together.
Bottega Veneta’s spring collection, Shobert noted, released a spring 2021 collection titled “The Importance of Wearing Clothes”—a tough sell, perhaps, when one can easily work half-naked from home. “Many of the new collections also take into account the reality that we’ve all been close to home, wearing clothing that prioritized comfort,” Shobert added. “And there’s a lot to like about this new comfort that can be applied to what we’ll wear when the world reopens.”
The Bottega Veneta lineup included knitwear and straight silhouettes that left a bit of room around the body, instead of clinging to it. “Smart designers are taking the lessons of lockdown and giving them a new life in a wardrobe meant for the outside world,” Shobret said. “We like comfort, so how can we make it look more polished?”
Charcy Evers, a trend forecaster who has worked in fashion for over 20 years, also said that 2020 has changed the way we dress. Function matters more than ever, but people still want some sparkle.
“Think of your wardrobe as a cross between a Swiss army knife and a jewelry box—ready to adapt and face whatever life throws your way, but always filled with gems when you need to be a little extra,” Evers said.
Everyone’s focusing on the top half, too. “Jackets, bombers, trucker jackets, big shoulders and boyfriend blazers,” Evers said. “There is more versatility and novelty. The thought of it potentially going from Zoom to boardroom is now front of mind.”
Grace Spann, a stylist who works in New York and Los Angeles, conducts most of her fittings over Zoom now.
“I’ve been pulling anything that is flattering, bold, and different from the waist up,” she said. “Some of my favorite designers for this are Aliétte, Hanifa, and Akin Studio. We have a client who is currently doing a virtual press tour for her upcoming Netflix film, so we want to make sure we have an array of beautiful jewelry/accessories and playful tops on hand.”
Spann agrees that comfort is “the biggest trend of the year,” and one that will be tough to give up. “I think that any fashion predictions made prior to COVID, such as 1970s-inspired suiting or cool trench coats and boots took a big hit. Elevated loungewear, lingerie-inspired slip-dresses, and recycled fabrics have fared better.”
The entire nature of the fashion world is ephemeral; trends flash by briefly and are quickly replaced. That’s why Sarah Unger, co-founder of the cultural insights and strategy consultancy Cultique, believes the industry will endure.
“Humans are adaptable, especially when it comes to creativity,” she said. “Think about what happened with masks: people will use any size, shape, and platform, even a cloth wrapped around the face, to express the human spirit.”
Consider Hillary Taymour, the designer behind Collina Strada. During the early days of the pandemic in New York, when factories were closed, Taymour and her dog, Powwow, woke up every morning and walked across the Williamsburg Bridge to her brand’s studio in downtown Manhattan. There, she made about 30 to 40 masks a day. (Assistants pitched in from the safety of their apartments.)
At first, masks came free with any Collina Strada purchase. Then, she began selling them on their own for $100. (“If you or a loved one is sick and this is out of your price range, please reach out to us directly [and] we have other masks available to send to you at no charge,” the website reads.
“I think the only brands who are going to survive this are people who are on the front lines keeping the community safe and having a voice,” Taymour told The Daily Beast back in April. “If you’re silent, why are people going to buy $2,000 worth of clothes from you?”
Now, Collina Strada’s factories are back open and Taymour no longer makes masks herself. “It has been a super-humbling and enriching experience,” she said in December. “I was walking to the studio for three months in the thick of it all and just making masks nonstop.”
“When factories opened back up, I was able to focus solely on the [spring] collection, and look at [it] in a new way,” Taymour said. “It allowed me to have some time to think about what needs to be made, [how to] cut the fluff and focus on stronger styles.”
In May, Collina Strada received part of the $2.2 million “Common Thread” relief fund for fashion professionals, which was set up by Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Anna Wintour and Tom Ford, who chairs the CFDA, made the grant for American companies that employ less than 30 people and make less than $10 million in revenue.
“Ultimately, I think things will go back to normal, but other things will continue to stand out,” Taymour said. “If this time has taught us anything, it should be that buying from smaller businesses is important. Billionaires keep getting richer and the rest of us are stuck to fend for ourselves with zero government support.”
Taymour said this year has taught her how to “engage with the community in a more personal and authentic way.” She presented at NYFW, but opted to show her clothes by releasing a video to Instagram titled “Change Is Cute.”
The video, which was made with artists Charlie Engman, Sean-Kierre Lyons, and Alicia Mersy and featured a cast that included the model Aaron Philip, the writer Kimberly Drew, and the drag queen West Dakota. Though the theme of the video was the urgency of the climate crisis, Taymour infused her presentation with a kind of homespun joy.
“This year has given me the strength to not necessarily think I have to follow the rules or do things the way others before me have,” Taymour said. “It has been a liberating year for creative freedom, but also a time to stop and reflect on how much we are producing in this industry, and why.”