With the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and the seventh anniversary of the Rana Plaza disaster on the horizon, Fashinnovation hosted its Worldwide Talks. The event culminated in over 25 virtual panels including namesakes like Diane von Furstenberg and Kenneth Cole, as well as sustainable thought leaders such as Tomorrow Consulting’s Julie Gilhart and analysts from Boston Consulting Group and Coresight Research, among others.
Fashinnovation made its debut in 2018 at New York Fashion Week, but in light of the coronavirus, all sessions in its Worldwide Talks were available via livestream on its web site for free. The conference was held in partnership with the U.N. Office for Partnerships and ushers in the seventh annual Fashion Revolution Week.
One Tuesday morning session tied together innovation and social impact, with a range of diverse perspectives.
The panel featured Oskar Metsavaht, artist, founder of Osklen and UNESCO goodwill ambassador for culture of peace and sustainability; Burak Cakmak, dean of fashion at Parsons School of Design at The New School; Sarah Willersdorf, managing director and partner as well as global head of luxury at BCG; and Gilhart, chief development officer of Tomorrow and president of Tomorrow Consulting. The conversation was moderated by Susan Rockefeller, artist, activist and founder of Musings Magazine.
Even during her time at Barneys New York nurturing new talent, Gilhart was one of the “outliers,” in the words of Rockefeller, for her sustainability views — a reason she is busy as a consultant now as the industry is nowhere near “normal.”
“The fashion business took a nosedive,” said Gilhart. “We now know we have to rebalance and we are accepting the fact that the landscape will look radically different than what we have now. The fashion business is a business that rebounds, but the whole system will change.”
In a separate session, after a brief afternoon intermission, Marie Driscoll, managing director, luxury and fashion at Coresight Research, joined the virtual stage to discuss luxury and sustainability, adding complementary points.
Internal discussions with the Coresight team are as follows: Driscoll said “it’s not the new normal, it’s the next normal,” while the company’s founder Deborah Weinswig would interject — “No, there’s no normal.”
The debate on how sustainability’s progress will continue post-pandemic carries on, but many insist the survivors will be value-driven.
“Before even the pandemic happened we were already pushing for a big change,” said Cakmak. “I don’t expect to see the same players in place. Who are the new players we need to support? How are we thinking about the new system that we want to create?”
“It’s not about selling. It’s about connecting and establishing a bond,” said Driscoll, adding: “People will remember the brands that they have a connection with, and luxury brands are better than most at creating those relationships.”
Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer and head of international institutional affairs, at Kering Group, was scheduled to appear but could not attend due to technical issues.
Having been deep in the numbers with her team at BCG, Willersdorf affirmed how “fashion and luxury has almost been disproportionately hit” by the pandemic, with a 30 to 40 percent expected decline of total EBITDA in 2020, according to a March survey from BCG.
With respect to the present circumstances, all speakers forecast opportunities ahead, to which Willersdorf said: “Finally, now more than ever before, sustainability and brand purpose are table stakes.” She cited the acceleration of digital commerce as another shift coming out of this.
Making a similar point in her session, Gilhart said: “Technology will play a huge part as part of the efficiency of selling product and creating product,” referencing the adaptability of Shanghai Fashion Week earlier in March. Biotech fabrics are another opportunity in the fibers and textile space that Gilhart sees, of course once those innovations come to scale.
On a more philosophical note, Rockefeller spoke of how climate is “the zeitgeist of our time,” believing art and creativity arise as solutions to crisis.
“What’s going to come from this — I think it’s respect of the others,” said Metsavaht.
Willersdorf reiterated how the consumer still wants sustainability, but hurdles exist. “They want to shop sustainable. Trust is an ecosystem issue. We need to work together to get better standardization,” she added.
Without standards, industry alignment is attempted by the many sustainable nonprofits that dot the current landscape.
While demand is rightfully absent for discretionary purchases now, panelists stressed the creation of a new values system that doesn’t just apply to mission-driven brands but the entire industry.
“Give me a reason to buy something that can help the world’s situation,” Gilhart said. “If you are going to buy something, it has to fall in line with those values.” On her last point, she reiterated: “We can only do this together — I can’t emphasize that enough.”
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