As lockdown in the French capital is set to continue for another month, six designers who show at Paris Fashion Week share how they are facing this unprecedented crisis – and why fashion must change for the better
This article is published as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign:
At the end of last month, the Fédération de la Haute Couture et de la Mode – French fashion’s governing body – announced that the upcoming men’s and couture fashion weeks in Paris, set to take place in June and July respectively, would be cancelled due to the ongoing outbreak of Covid-19. The announcement came as the fashion industry in the country had already begun to mobilise against the virus: luxury behemoth LVMH converted its fragrance factories to make hand sanitiser for hospitals, while Chanel, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent drafted their workforces to produce protective masks and overalls. “Fashion gets a hard time for being frivolous, but there is nothing frivolous about this scale of commitment to society,” wrote Dazed Media CEO and co-founder Jefferson Hack in a recent open letter to the fashion industry on AnOthermag.com.
On Monday, Emmanuel Macron announced that France’s strict lockdown measures would continue until at least May 11. What comes after that, no one knows. For the fashion industry – which makes up 2.7 per cent of France’s GDP, with fashion week bringing in €1.2 billion to the country – what is clear is that things won’t be going back to normal anytime soon. None more so than for Paris, which has long been the spiritual home of luxury fashion.
This means a distinctly uncertain future, not least for the young designers, brands and independent labels which provide an energetic counterpoint to the storied Parisian maisons. No doubt they will prove resilient, like those in other fashion capitals: over the past weeks we spoke to designers in London and New York about how their lives and businesses have been changed by the pandemic. Each provided a powerful response – whether the pragmatism of designers like Phoebe English and Charlotte Knowles in London, who have been creating clothing for the NHS, or the growing feeling among all the designers we have spoken to that fashion cannot continue in the direction it is going, these designers will be the ones who shape where fashion goes next.
This sentiment is echoed in Paris, where as part of our #CultureIsNotCancelled campaign, we asked six designers who show at the city’s fashion week – from artistic and creative directors to those with eponymous labels – about how they are facing the pandemic, and how they see the future. “How will we be remembered?” asks Glenn Martens, in a rallying call to the industry. “I hope this time of reflection will bring us some awareness,” echoing the voices of all the designers we have talked to so far. “Bring us back to the essence.”
“When lockdown started we were in the design process of men’s Spring/Summer 2021. Usually at this stage of the collection the studio is free to work however they feel comfortable. Some work from home, in the library, others do store checks, exhibitions ... I demand two meetings a week, for the rest they’re free. The first weeks of lockdown didn’t feel that awkward as we followed the same process as usual ... I had my two meetings a week with each studio member. We did it digitally. Since last week we were supposed to be in the stage of pattern-making and collection development. Obviously this is not possible. We can’t have fittings. We can’t sew toiles at the studio. I’ve been setting up three different collection plans, each adapted to a different situation. We don’t know what’s going to happen. You need to be flexible. I’m assuming there will be a collection in June. My photographer and stylist have been booked. The dates are set. My concern is what are we actually going to shoot?
“How do you think they will describe these past ten years in history books? How will we be remembered? This era is dominated by consumption. This is the era where Kylie Jenner became the youngest ‘self’ made billionaire. It really all is about business and consumption. It’s definitely not about talent or innovation. Sadly this is also relatable to our current fashion industry. We’re far away from fashion’s heydays when we celebrated Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga, Phoebe Philo, McQueen ... they are stories from the past, from a long-gone era. This conception of designers isn’t relevant today. The current star designers are a mix of celebrities and strong business-minded people. They sell a story. Nobody cares if their clothes are copies or just bluff. Innovation and creativity are just an added value.
“When I’m talking to my fellow designers, especially the ones who have started their brands about a maximum of two years ago ... none of them know if they will survive this pandemic. The majority of their orders have been cancelled. Six months from today we’ll see that all sales platforms will have lost all their diversity. They’re taking even less risks than before ... the unique, young, independent creatives won’t be represented.
“We’re all slaves to the industry. It’s about selling. I totally understand stores want to make more money. And I totally understand journalists want their articles, their magazines to be successful. We don’t do this job for nothing. [But] I hope this time of reflection will bring us some awareness ... bring us back to the essence. What is more important? Is it spending our summer in Mexico posting millions of pictures of how popular we are and how fabulous me and my friends look at the pool? How cool we are partying around? Or is it spending my summer in Mexico learning, experiencing a great culture, cherishing how privileged we are to be there?
“How am I staying calm? Every morning I open my window, have my coffee and cigarette feeling the air. I haven’t done that in so many years. Normally I wake up already too late for a meeting. Just the fact of standing still, truly embracing the cliché of ‘being in the now’ makes me smile.”
“The pandemic [has] shattered the pace of collections and a lot of certainties we thought were immutable. We will present our men’s and women’s Spring/Summer 2021 collections together in September. But as the whole industry has been put on hold for weeks, it really gave me time to reflect on what a fashion house like Ann Demeulemeester stands – or should stand – for, our legacy, how we can improve our way of producing, our human and environmental impact ... I am excited to present a new collection with, I hope, the beginning of an answer in June at the time Paris Fashion Week would have normally taken place. You know, trying to make positive things out of this terrible situation.
“But in the end, our work is manual and very practical, we won’t be able to avoid fittings and human contact forever. Our CEO, Anne Chapelle, has extensive experience in the healthcare industry; she took strong measures to protect everyone. Our atelier has been stitching masks and gowns for the Belgian hospitals, as well as for all our employees – the whole configuration of the office has been changed.
“We are forced to return to authenticity and consistency – all the superficial has become obscene all of a second. At least for now. What changes would I like to see myself? Copy and paste here Giorgio Armani’s open letter to WWD, I could not have said it better. I have been talking a lot and sharing memories with my old team from Margiela. We were a very secretive studio, very bonded together and with strong work ethics. It is like the situation is forcing us to step back to the way we were designing ten years back, when creativity and honesty were the moral values of the industry.
“I always believed that if we work with honesty, there will always be someone somewhere that will be touched. More than ever it is a time to design with your heart.”
“It’s a very difficult time for everyone. We are sad not to see our teams, our suppliers, our manufacturers. There are things that are impossible to do right now such as touching fabrics, doing fittings on our models ... But we are staying positive and using this time in a very profitable way. We are reading a lot, brainstorming, rethinking our offering, our ways of building Coperni. That’s actually fascinating.
“Our main concern is that we come out of this crisis without changing anything. We truly hope people will take this hard time to rethink their brands, collections, ways of showing, selling, et cetera. And try to have a better vision of our actual world. Our main hope is that all of this will have an impact on the world and on the sustainable side of fashion. Despite the difficult times fashion will always have the mission to dress people, create dreams and improve [people’s] daily lives. As designers, we will have to think about how to protect people and take care of their own bodies in addition to dressing them.
“People can support young labels by always being curious, always seeking newness, creativity – that often comes from young designers. People should really keep believing in young brands and not abandon them, especially retailers. The good thing about our world is that we can now interact a lot with our community and customers through social networks which is absolutely amazing.
“We’ve been sharing our professional and personal lives for about ten years. We are so fortunate to be two people and share the good and difficult times together. We are optimistic people. We use this period to call all our friends and family – more than usual actually. We are doing ‘digital drinks’ which is pretty fun. We are obviously watching a lot of movies and TV shows. And having fun on TikTok right now! People are so fun and creative during this period. You should definitely download it and escape from watching the news ... ”
“Working from home has slowed everything down to a snail’s pace. In many ways it has been frustrating but also simultaneously very liberating in other ways. OK – the world has seemingly fallen apart and our entire supply chain is momentarily paused but it’s been nice to have the time to think and develop ideas or properly fit some garments over the course of a few weeks. My whole daily routine has basically completely dissolved ... I’ve been finding myself multitasking in very strange ways like doing push-ups half-naked, while vacuuming the kitchen and drafting work emails all at the same time, maybe even while listening to a podcast. I probably look insane, but at this point it’s now becoming my new normal.
“In terms of the future of fashion, I think that there will of course be huge developments in digitally managing the whole industry from sales to shows and presentations and everything in between. It will also even the playing field across the industry as this problem has affected everyone differently and there is such an opportunity for a complete reset, regardless of how big or small a brand is. I am very curious how the next year will play out. I would like everyone to slow down a bit. This break has been so nice from the seemingly relentless fashion calendar, the constant release of collections and newness. I think a focus on quality versus quantity would be nice – you know, Quentin Tarantino has only ever made ten movies – allegedly – wouldn’t it be cool if fashion could follow a similar path?
“Now is the time to be creative within yourself and reflect on your own journey, you have everything you need to find your path already. Remember Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz: ‘If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.’ I am very grateful for Instagram right now as there are so many amazing things to see and people to follow for research or even just for fun. Leslie Jordan’s account is maybe the best thing I’ve discovered lately, he just cracks me up.”
“Straight after the confinement began, I took the decision that I was going to work all day long no matter what – my studio is on the ground floor of my building so I’m there everyday. [I’m] trying to keep it business as usual ... just without open shops, limited deliveries, no team ... I have to work with what I have in the studio. I’m forced to find new ways, new techniques, and thanks to this I realise everyday that necessity is the real inspiration.
“I’m concerned about myself and hope that after the confinement ends [we won’t] go on with a ‘normal life’, ‘just like before’ – [we] have to change, to adapt to a new world where [things like] off-shoring and international sourcing aren’t beneficial anymore, but dangerous. It’s impossible to say right now what will be the future of fashion and how it will change – I hope that small, qualitative proportions will become valued; I hope that gigantism is finally going to be considered ugly.
“How can people support brands like mine? By appreciating the work I guess – but I am not going to dictate what people should do. If they like the work I am grateful. If they hate it I have no problem with that either.
“I try to resist the temptation of finding time killers. I’m avoiding too much comfort; I am working. I try to discover reading books and watching movies that I’ve ‘missed’ because of lack of time. I’ve been reading Proudhon, watching Masaaki Yuasa ... ”