Buckle up people, fashion month is going to be wild.
I’m not talking hemlines (excuse the OG reference), I’m talking headlines — Trump’s tariff war, the U.K. in Brexit chaos and Italy trying to cobble together a new government. There is a lot of news to keep up with this season, including Tom Ford’s imprint on the CFDA and the impact of luxury brands’ new diversity councils. (Will Ava DuVernay show in the front row at Prada?)
What’s likely to be the most pressing topic, though, is sustainability, especially with climate change reminder Hurricane Dorian creeping up the East Coast; 16-year-old Swedish environmental hero Greta Thunberg building momentum for the Sept. 20 global climate strike with her rallying cry, “The house is on fire, let’s act like it,” and Extinction Rebellion turning the heat up on the British Fashion Council. At least, there are 150 brands that can say they have signed French President Emmanuel Macron’s Fashion Pact.
But with the growing public outrage, will it be enough? Can fashion week save itself from extinction?
“Theater production isn’t closing, movies are not stopping, TV shows are still being made so why should our industry not continue to showcase our form of art as well? We just need to be smarter in how we do it,” said Christian Siriano, adding his own pitch: “Making clothes locally has so much less carbon footprint. Less shipping, less overproducing, more control.”
Instead of the growing environmental movement spelling fashion week doomsday, this could be the season designers accept the challenge to create responsibly and use the runway as a platform to show us the way forward.
Compostable clothes? Why not? (I’ve always thought those starchy BioBags you put produce in at the market would make a cool fabrication.) A luxury brand-led, seasonal rental subscription service? Sign me up. If not a whole runway collection made from excess stock, what about mixing in past season, or even vintage pieces? Gucci’s Alessandro Michele could show Tom Ford-designed pieces alongside his own, and it would resonate more with the way people are shopping in the new resale economy than the relentlessness of the new.
There’s already evidence of change coming. At New York Fashion Week, Coach is hosting “The Originals” pop-up at its Madison Avenue boutique selling some bags remade from vintage remnants. (Parent company Tapestry is a Fashion Pact signatory.) In addition to showing her own collection, longtime sustainable-style leader Maria Cornejo is making a capsule of pieces made out of recycled Hyundai car seats.
That’s not all. For her main line show, she is forgoing printed invitations, using recycled paper for written materials and bringing in a clean beauty brand — new nail-care line 10 Free Chemistry — all easy actions for designers. “Sometimes, I find that the simplest things can really make the difference,” said Cornejo, whose efforts extend to collection materials. “We have some incredible and responsibly made textiles for this spring 2020 season such as a recycled polyester and organic cotton jacquard, a responsibly sourced and renewable viscose material, raincoating made from 100 percent recycled polyester and organic cotton knits. The team also works hard to keep all processes local and minimize our carbon footprint.”
“A practical approach is no plastic water bottles,” said designer Gabriela Hearst. “It takes 500 years for each piece of plastic to decompose. It has been said by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish.”
Many designers have already gotten rid of physical invitations, but not enough — and it’s worth noting that last season’s Kering-owned Gucci invitation was a plaster mask. How about sending Gucci-branded reusable water bottles instead? (I realize the onus is on attendees to do their part as well — share rides, take public transportation or the fashion bus where there is one, use recycling bins at show venues, etc.)
“I’d love to see no waste or zero-impact fashion shows,” said Julie Gilhart, founder of Julie Gilhart Consulting, who advises brands on circularity. “A lot of work and creativity goes to constructing an environment or set to showcase the clothes whether it be a runway or presentation. What happens to these sometimes elaborate sets? I’d love to know where the materials go — in the trash or are they recycled?”
One of the biggest tasks for designers will be to tell the stories of what they are doing in an easy-to-understand — and share on social media — way. “Something creatively done that goes beyond just models walking down a runway or lounging around in beautiful clothes. This can be anything from how the clothes are made to how the designers’ actions authentically portray what they believe in,” said Gilhart, who also urges designers to do more “environmental offsets,” like at Stella McCartney’s fall 2019 show in February, where she donated a tree for each attendee and put their names on the runway flooring to boost shareability. (Perhaps with an eye toward Sept. 20, she staged her own rally for hope at her spring 2020 men’s presentation in Milan, with protesters chanting “We are the weather.”)
In London, the atmosphere will likely be the most tense, after activists disrupted fashion week in February; blockaded the retail artery of Oxford Circus in April, and promised disruptive action this season, including a funeral procession starting at the main LFW venue. Caroline Rush, chief executive officer of the British Fashion Council, has met with representatives of Extinction Rebellion, and started a dialogue, though it’s not clear anything has come out of it. Last week, the BFC reiterated its Positive Fashion Initiative, launched in 2014 and developed with the help of a handful of brands, from Kering to Vivienne Westwood to up-cycler extraordinaire Christopher Raeburn, to encourage big businesses to embrace sustainable practices and highlight big and small ones that are.
New for this season is a campaign started over the summer called Switch to Blue, which has asked designers and brands to move from using plastic hangers to ones made by Arch & Hook that are 80 percent marine plastic, harvested from oceans and waterways. On the communication front, there will be a tapestry installation at the main BFC venue to inform guests about the UN’s global climate goals. (One would hope it’s made of recycled materials.)
After collaborating with the BFC last season to present a video with BBC Earth on climate change, and staging a playful presentation to bring attention to the blight of micro-plastics, Amy Powney, creative director of Mother of Pearl, is one designer who will be skipping London Fashion Week “in a bid to redirect our energies into focusing on our sustainable developments,” she said. Not that she’s off the schedule forever. “We would always consider using the platform to inspire change,” Powney added. “Fashion has a powerful ability to highlight current news and cultural zeitgeists.”
Indeed, it will be interesting to see what kind of cultural zeitgeist the Global Climate Strike will be on Sept. 20, which falls during Milan Fashion Week, on a day when Tod’s, Etro, Marni and Versace are slated to show their collections, among others. Will Italy rally around the cause? Will fashion shows be protest magnets? At least there is a feel-good moment planned — on Sept. 22, Carlo Capasa, chairman of the Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana, and Livia Firth, founder and creative director of Eco-Age, will host the third annual Green Carpet Awards honoring the virgin wool wearing Venice gondoliers.
In Paris, I’ll be anticipating fresh ideas from brands under the umbrella of Kering, the engine of Macron’s Fashion Pact, and a heightened profile from eco-fashion pioneer Stella McCartney, who is now at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Bernard Arnault’s new sustainability adviser. No doubt she’ll be looking to lead with the idea that creating responsibly isn’t just a talking point, but the new norm.