Suffice it to say that 2020 was a strange year, and 2021, while a new year, is set to be equally as strange. In 2020, people all around the world redefined their normal lifestyles. They had to adapt to new changes across all spheres, be it work, education, business and administration, leisure, fashion, or anything else. The world as we knew it was redefined, and we had to embrace new trends in order to survive in the “new normal” in which we found ourselves.
The dawn of 2021 has not meant the end of Covid-19, and our new norms of living, as well as newer norms that will develop, will be around for a while. The impact that Covid-19 has had on the global fashion industry is huge and cannot be missed. The Department of Textile and Clothing Technology of the University of Moratuwa has taken advantage of 2020 and the pandemic to conduct research into global fashion and consumer trends, and how Covid-19 has affected the global rules of fashion.
The Sunday Morning Brunch spoke to Dr. Sumith Gopura of the Department of Textile and Clothing Technology, University of Moratuwa, who, together with Research Assistant Dilmini Yasara, has used his real-time exposure to the pandemic to navigate the changing rules of fashion under the impact of Covid-19 and figure out what we can expect.
What are the most notable changes to global fashion caused by Covid-19?
As the world headed into a global lockdown, the working sphere had no choice but to shift to work from home (WFH). The result was that fashion consumers were restricted to lockdown fashion, wearing clothes that made them feel great and powerful rather than adhering to traditional seasonal trends. They wore what they had in their wardrobes, moving beyond seasonal norms.
The Covid-19-related lockdown in many countries restricted the fashion consumers to digital screens and both their living and working environments became one and the same, which eventually altered their way of dressing. “Comfy” became the new formal and people concentrated more on “on-screen fashion”.
People were also given individual space and time to reflect on their interests and skills. They took time to think about what they really need in life, shaping their lives to focus more on needs rather than wants. More people have started practising, enhancing, and showcasing their unique interests than ever before.
In terms of fashion, people have shifted their notion of fashion to move away from people who inspire fashion to be an integral part of their life for purely commercial and selfish reasons, to people who value the purpose of responsible fashion.
What can the global fashion industry learn from the pandemic?
With the present money-oriented fashion industry, people had gone far beyond fulfilling the basic human need of clothing, the function of which was to cover the body and afford some protection from the environment around you. The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic made us reconsider “clothes” as a mere necessity of mankind.
This is not to say that “fashion” or “designs” are at fault. What is wrong is that the competition that fashion businesses have within them in this fast-paced money-oriented world has increased the production in large numbers, creating more and more waste that has ultimately affected the environment. The global fashion industry is responsible for 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon emission as well as a great deal of waste mismanagement that require a major rethinking by the fashion industry as a whole of its values, consumption, and waste. The pandemic has given the industry, as well as consumers, some much-needed time to rethink needs and wants in fashion and what it stands for, how to be more sustainable, and how to move away from “fast fashion” and establish more “slow” fashion that people can enjoy more.
How did the global fashion industry respond to the pandemic?
All fashion brands, both big and small, global and local, new and established, experienced a rough patch, and difficulty conducting business as usual. This was mainly because the pandemic detached consumers from physical shopping, forcing many outlets to close down.
However, fashion brands were able to make a comeback with technology, applying themselves in maximising online platforms. Fashion consumers switched to shopping online in lockdown and most fashion businesses also quickly shifted towards e-commerce via their own websites or third-party e-tailers. This new form of livelihood made social media become an essential channel to reach out to, court, and convert shoppers. Despite the devastation, brands reflected hope through positive messages, sensitively delivering the values that the consumers were missing in shopping, and reassuring the comfort, care, and relaxation of consumers by building an emotional connection with them.
Fashion Weeks and catwalk shows, a major part of the global fashion business, were either cancelling or switching to virtual reality (VR) platforms, which in some aspect disappointed loyal consumers, who still expected the experiential entity of fashion to come through in a Fashion Week format.
The survival skills of fashion brands were tested yet again when the global fashion calendar reached the traditional time to launch seasonal collections, with the industry being forced to make many unconventional decisions when it came to collections. Some brands opted to halt their production, taking control of their own pace and schedule, while some others went ahead as planned, following social-distancing rules and regulations. By choice, some designers have taken brave decisions opting to continue selling what they have shown the previous season. This is not something that works for all brands, however, and on a local level, we have been very lucky as our seasons are not mainly driven by the changes of climate.
What do you think the future will be?
The Western world as a whole is moving back to survival mode, stepping back from focusing on creativity and individual talent because they are feeling insecure about basic needs like jobs, health, and social networking.
They’re reconsidering their priorities to fit their lifestyle in the new normal. “Sustainability” and “circularity” were already important conversations within the global fashion industry. The Covid-19 pandemic has moved this dialogue into its fastest gear yet in order to build more responsible businesses.
Circularity has come to a point where segments of designer brands see waste as a key resource and placing great importance on closing the loop, from carbon emissions and street litter, to waste materials and resources.
What the industry needs to do now is to reinvent and redefine themselves to provide more sustainable products which can also be multi-purpose. The sea, soil, and air must not be polluted with waste fibre, apparel landfill, and toxic air that causes damage to all forms of living beings, and this can be achieved if emerging sustainable practices are promoted and implemented.
We’re now in a world where people have started to value “wellness” and “simplicity” over everything else. The time has come for the fashion industry to behave in a responsible manner to suit the pandemic-inspired lifestyle. Concentrating on quality raw materials with sustainable supply chain networks over the constraint parameters of fashion trends under Covid-19 will surely ensure long-term survival for fashion brands during this trying time and even beyond.
We are embracing and living through different sorts of new normal everywhere. The new normal for the fashion industry now, definitely needs to be being responsible through sustainability and circularity.