“To every action there is always opposed an equal reaction.” So says Isaac Newton’s third law and that formula can equally apply to fashion.
As a reflection of the times, its cultural resonance transcending the mundane need to simply get dressed, fashion can on occasion be prescient about things to come, giving its own interpretation of global circumstances on a social, economic and sometimes political level.
So what will fashion creativity look like in the aftermath of the global pandemic?
“In general fashion isn’t really about a formula, but instead it reacts to the needs of a given period and a given moment,” said fashion curator and historian Pamela Golbin.
Melissa Marra-Alvarez, curator of education and research at The Museum at FIT, predicted a multipronged approach influenced by the socio-economic circumstances that will see a different world emerge from the pandemic. “I think the thing to understand is [that] shifts in fashion are often a reaction to what came before it. Fashion is about change, and so, these reactions are what propel fashion forward,” she mused.
“On the one hand, with many of us working from home in ‘comfy’ sweats, tracksuit bottoms and yoga pants, we have adopted casual wardrobe choices. I keep thinking of Karl Lagerfeld and his comment about sweatpants being a sign of defeat, of losing control of your life. When quarantine lifts, we could see people yearning to dress up again, and a strong move toward a return to maximalist glamour as a sartorial expression of liberation,” she said.
The whole world has been upended by the outbreak and fashion has proven to be reactive to global crises in the past. As the Western world entered the postwar era in the Twenties — dominated by economic prosperity and a distinctive cultural edge — fashion embraced short and loose dresses and a generation of young women across the Atlantic, especially in the U.S. and the U.K., epitomized the free-spirited attitude of the “Roaring Decade.” Similarly, after World War II, Christian Dior ignited Paris with his extravagant, full-skirted New Look aiming to offer postwar women a dream of the good old days, in sharp contrast with the utilitarian attires and austerity that had dominated wartime.
Lilly Berelovich, president and chief creative officer of trend forecasting firm Fashion Snoops, which operates offices in New York and Europe, expects that in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, fashion will embrace an “’emotional maximalism,’ which is different from the peacocking genre of maximalism we have seen in the past, focusing instead around fabrics that feel good on the skin, color that evokes happiness and silhouettes and exaggerated details that allow us to escape from reality,” she offered.
Although Golbin believes fashion has become “very fragmented” in the past 10 years with the dictatorship of a given theme yielding to mixing and matching different aesthetics, she contends the emotional factor will be key moving forward.
“It is a very emotional period and so emotion is still very much at the core of the designers’ definition of fashion. Even more than just art or any other creative field, fashion allows for a real reflection of the emotion of a given moment…you can have a mix and match of both ends of the spectrum as long as it really is about something that is very personal,” she said, stressing the importance of consistency between the message and the final product. “You have to walk the talk and talk the walk.”
According to experts, the pandemic will also shift consumers’ spending habits and desires, both elements that designers will take into consideration. “In times of crises fashion doesn’t have the same exact meaning. As we’ve seen with the outbreak, fashion has been also a lead for social support,” said futurist, designer and educator Geraldine Wharry, referencing the industry’s contribution to provide personal protective equipment.
“There won’t be one dominant aesthetic response to the coronavirus as people will have different reactions to it. Consumers will be far more cautious in their spending, but this does not in all cases mean that they’ll be cautious in their styling,” underscored Francesca Muston, vice president of fashion content at trend forecasting firm WGSN.
“This pandemic has also hit the economy.…Economic conditions such as these, in the past, have tended to foster a minimalist aesthetic in fashion as designers look to create clothes that are versatile, functional and have a lot of mileage. Minimalist fashions tend to prioritize function; they appear simple and can register style without an ‘in-your-face’ extravagance,” noted Marra-Alvarez. She added that the pandemic could either speed up or prolong the typical fashion cycle, ping-ponging between the maximalist and minimalist aesthetics — both themes she explored in the 2019 exhibit “Minimalism/Maximalism” she curated for The Museum at FIT.
For instance, the early Nineties were defined by a minimal approach as exemplified by Miuccia Prada’s seminal collections for the family brand, somewhat subverting the excess of the previous decade. After the 2008 subprime financial debacle, it was suddenly uncool to look overtly rich and low-rise denim pants, logoed gear and flamboyant designs that had dominated the fashion scene in the early Aughts started to give way to more restrained and minimal fashion, one good example being Phoebe Philo, who joined Céline in 2008 and began to cement an understated aesthetic for the French fashion house.
“After the last recession, we saw a reduction in overt displays of spending and luxury, what we called stealth wealth, and that is likely to be even more pronounced this time around,” contended Muston.
“Creativity and upbeat maximalist looks can still exist in these circumstances. That said, there will also be a strong continuation of minimalism as consumers look to build versatility and longevity into their wardrobes with greater consideration and justification behind each purchase,” she commented. The spring 2020 runway shows already hinted at a potential return of minimalism in fashion.
Marra-Alvarez pointed especially to quality and sustainability as common traits to expect from designers’ upcoming collections, as a response to customers’ needs. “Maybe people will buy fewer, but better made and more interesting clothes — hopefully, a return to quality over quantity. I think it could really challenge designers’ creativity in a good way and help shift focus to more sustainable practices,” she said.
Berelovich echoed that sentiment as she believes “there will be a call for ‘less but better’ at retail.”
“Like we saw post-WWII, customers will desire items of quality that they’ll want to keep in their wardrobes and build upon. It’s a needed departure from disposable fashion as we shift towards more sustainable consumerism. The focus on the maker and their techniques and craft will emphasize the best reasons to buy into slightly higher ticket items in the seasons ahead,” she said, acknowledging wardrobe builders will steal the spotlight. For example, Berelovich underscored that slinky satin dresses, which were popular after the Great Depression, could also dominate post-coronavirus fashion, catering to grunge and minimalism, as well as to a dressed-up attitude.
In the post-recession landscape, in the mid-2010s, the normcore trend, which pivoted on no-branded, uncool and uncomplicated designs, started to gain popularity, drawing younger consumers. Experts do not believe in its resurgence after the crisis but predicted a strong focus on ath-leisure and loungewear styles, or as Berelovich put it, toward “essentialism,” such as “design rooted and defined by hidden functionality and protective details.”
“Certainly, our expectations around comfort have shifted up yet another notch, but aesthetically there is still a lot to be excited about beyond sweatpants and hoodies,” commented Muston.
“Minimalist garments may permit accessories to take center stage,” countered Marra-Alvarez. “Accessories can be an economical way of playing with fashion, and we are already seeing fashion being expressed in the protective masks people are wearing,” she offered. The subject will be spotlighted with the “Head to Toe” exhibit she co-curated together with assistant curator of costume at The Museum at FIT Elizabeth Way, which will look at the role accessories played in women’s wardrobes across 200 years. “We have seen that in times of crisis, such as WWII and the Great Depression in the U.S., when clothes became more pragmatic, accessories were a way of enlivening one’s look and became a fun outlet for the period’s anxieties,” said Marra-Alvarez.
As the output of designers’ creativity, fashion will feel the havoc generated by COVID-19, that might trigger new ideas: Working from home, designers have been looking perhaps to different sources of inspiration and approaching the design process differently.
“On an optimistic note, there is an opportunity for designers to step back and rethink their approach. This can be a fantastic time for creative ingenuity and innovation,” commented Muston.
“It’s a moment to slow down and quiet down, which is allowing us to feel our creative power again,” echoed Berelovich.
The trend forecaster questioned how fashion’s frenetic pace had somehow choked creative energy. “The time we spent on actually conceiving ideas or being inspired kept shrinking and timelines got shorter and shorter. We are now slowing down enough to feel, which I could sense that for many creative minds is a wake up [call] like we have not seen in a long time.”
Golbin described this shift as a return to intimacy. “These collections will be very personal. Each designer in their own way had the time or has been forced to look inward and not outward, really stating what for them is their vision.”
A more intimate search for inspiration will also be triggered by less opportunities to travel, attend trade shows and conferences, according to the Fashion Snoops’ president, but at the same time, Wharry noted, “the creative output is generally a hybrid encompassing ideas from the whole design team and the lack of exchange could provide different results.”
Inspiration aside, fashion’s entire business model is put into question and experts observed that this could also ignite a different creative approach. Berelevich pointed to a sustainable silver lining and an increased adoption of technology.
“I think that in general what COVID-19 has done, it has accelerated trends that were already there,” Golbin explained. “The emergency is an incredible opportunity for designers to step away from that reel of non-stop one collection after the other,” she said, noting how the industry has barely changed since couturier Paul Poiret first expressed concerns about the industry pace.
“It’s a period of transition for everyone, but there will be seeds sown now that will play forward,” said Marra-Alvarez. She contended that a heightened necessity to adapt and react fast to changes, as well as a reevaluation of priorities could play a role in shaping the upcoming collections.
“What was important before the pandemic may not be so important when we re-emerge from quarantine. I think designers will be thinking about what is necessary and relevant, and what is superfluous,” she offered.
This includes the spectacle of the fashion shows, which have been part of the creative process itself.
“A lot of the designers have a process in which the presentations of the collection is very much tied to the collection itself,” Golbin offered, citing John Galliano’s work for Maison Margiela as one such example. “It is about personality and how will that personality come across so that they can give their message, and have it accessed by the people that follow them in a very large spectrum.”
According to Wharry the digitization of the fashion shows could also inform the creative output.
“In these difficult and confusing moments, fashion has always brought a light and given a reason to trust the future. Fashion has always accompanied moments of great triumph but moments also of great suffering and it has been able to bring reassurance but also giving a way to express our personal identity,” Golbin said.
“Disruption brings construction,” she added.