What Fashion Week?

The days before Fashion Week in New York are always an exciting time to have conversations with senior industry executives to get some insights into what’s on the radar. After our trip to the city last week, we found ourselves in conversations that were less about the superficial aspects of Fashion Week, but instead about everything else: an industry in transition, with high-profile creative and senior management moves on the regular, and hanging precariously at the mercy of unstable global politics. And with NYFW up first, it’s hard to imagine that the sentiment will be any different in London, Milan or Paris.

Only two weeks following the inauguration of Donald Trump, most of our conversations surrounded the repercussions of the unpredictable politics over the next four years. Global politics are at a several-decade peak of unsteadiness, rendering most other topics all but unimportant as industry leaders look to weather the storm. As a result, the buzz surrounding recent disruptions to the normal fashion calendar is dying down – especially since the issues at hand won’t be resolved by ‘see now, buy now’ or by merging men’s and women’s shows.

Conversations in New York have been about trade, tariffs and talent - everything except fashion
Conversations in New York have been about trade, tariffs and talent – everything except fashion

A core issue for many people we spoke to surrounds how tariffs could upend the industry. The US administration has discussed any number of options surrounding import tariffs, ranging from a 20% tax on goods imported to the US from Mexico to a 45% one slapped on Chinese-made pieces. The possibilities have set fashion and retail executives on edge – although some do see a possible revival of the ‘Made in the USA’ label. There is also the potential concern that a special trade relationship between the US and the UK will form following Brexit, which may have a knock-on effect on relationships with mainland Europe, where many luxury labels are based and many luxury items are produced. But strong action taken by the likes of LVMH, Nike, Levi Strauss and Neiman Marcus could give way to more collaborative efforts across the industry, with more lobbying power among the biggest names.

The core issue is particularly sensitive given the struggles of the US department retail industry. By no means a new development, large department stores that used to find their buyers in the front rows of NYFW have been on the decline due to, among other things, increased market fragmentation and intense competition from the likes of Amazon and innovative pureplayers such as Farfetch and Moda Operandi. Brands are now catering to bloggers and social media stars instead, with only a few – such as Vêtements and Proenza Schouler – increasing the time between shows and releases rather than shrinking it. Department retailers are also struggling from the strong dollar, keeping foreigners from spending their money in the US – an issue that has a definite potential to be exacerbated by politics.

The UK finds itself in a similar situation, not fully knowing what the future holds
The UK finds itself in a similar situation, not fully knowing what the future holds

Back in London, the sentiment isn’t much different. Although our brands and retailers have certainly benefitted from the incoming tourism boom with the weak pound, this is not expected to continue as prices are adjusted. London Fashion Week starts next Saturday, but we’re not getting much buzz about the shows. Overshadowing the excitement are genuine business concerns, such as Wednesday evening’s parliament vote, and subsequently Theresa May’s Brexit White Paper that stipulates, in no uncertain terms, that Article 50 will be enacted. The problem being, of course, that the terms of the withdrawal from the EU are unknown, leaving the fashion industry – global by nature – in a state of uncertainty.

Crucially, as the world becomes ostensively more nationally entrenched, movement of people is likely to be affected, and potentially cause further disruption in the industry. Fashion is one of the sectors with the highest level of international movement across all levels – the loss of this mobility would certainly cause change in the industry. In the best-case scenario, this could lead to a resurgence of American and British fashion, but this would require funding and appetite from the government on both sides.

Dior’s Paris couture show catered to the escapist part of fashion, allowing viewers a break from global politics

Nevertheless, an industry is only as strong as its leaders. With those who are at the top of the fashion and luxury industry, there’s no doubt that brands, designers and fashion houses will come through on the other side – if not stronger then certainly more inspired. From unrest comes statements and art, two of the core elements behind fashion. Even though most collections will have been designed before November’s shock election, we can be sure to see some political statements from the likes of Jeremy Scott and Vivienne Westwood, among others – whether in the form of last-minute additions or in terms of show production.

It seems like there will be two main approaches to the shows: some designers, such as Demna Gvasalia, have made clear political statements, whereas others, including Maria Grazia Chiuri, are emphasising fashion’s escapism for those of us who need a brief pause from the world. Regardless of how much (or little) everyone is talking about it, Fashion Week is beginning, and the show must go on.