Fashion, Sustainability, and Coronavirus: Will the Pandemic Save Fashion Shows?

By Quinn Webster

The ongoing Covid-19 crisis will push fashion houses to rethink their show schedules - Bertrand Guay/AFP

Long before the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered stores and grounded flights— putting an abrupt end to the Spring/Summer fashion week— the fashion industry was already careening towards crisis. The ever-increasing number of shows crammed into the yearly calendar has put immense pressure on designers and resources, hurting both the environment and the art of fashion.

Recently, the fashion industry’s calendar has twisted into something beyond recognition. Gone are the days of bi-annual shows where brands would present one Spring/Summer collection and one Autumn/Winter. In our modern world of rampant consumerism and ever-refreshing social media feeds, no brand can rely on just two collections to stay relevant. Today, the show schedule looks something like a fashion industry hydra: cut one show, add three more. Prior to the pandemic, fashion houses were cranking out collections faster than Forever 21. The biggest brands showed Spring/Summer, Autumn/Winter, Resort/Cruise, Couture (if they had an atelier), and men’s. Some houses even began showing pre-spring and pre-fall.

But, in the race to keep consumers glued to their screens, it appears the industry has whizzed past the question of whether these shows are sustainable or even profitable. Is churning out fashion at the speed of light a good thing? Or will it be the industry’s demise?

Most obviously, the current calendar is bad for the environment. Beyond the material damage of churning out collection after collection, fashion week necessitates hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people to trek from show to show several times a year. According to a report by Ordre, fashion buyers and designers alone contribute 241,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions annually by attending fashion shows in New York, London, Paris, and Milan— more than the total emissions of a small country like Saint Kitts and Nevis. And that doesn’t include the press, models, security, and staff which work behind the scenes to make fashion weeks happen. Furthermore, the need to keep up with trends that are changing not just season-to-season but month-to-month means that brand new clothes are being retired by wearers even more quickly. The current fashion week structure is inefficient, expensive for all involved, and offers little return on investment.

Secondly, the calendar is bad for designers. The constant pressure to get something, anything, on the runway cripples the creativity and control which defines high fashion. When Creative Director of Gucci Alessandro Michele announced the house would be cutting back its schedule from five to two shows per year he reasoned that, “so much outrageous greed made us lose the harmony and the care, the connection and the belonging.”

Pre-pandemic, a few designers were already making the decision to show on their own schedule; led by the likes of Dries van Noten, key industry figures have written open letters calling for less travel in fashion and for the industry to “review and adapt fashion shows.” Now, Covid-19 has forced many designers’ hands, driving houses to restructure their calendar and take a much-needed breath between shows.

Already, Saint Laurent has announced they will no longer show during Paris Fashion Week, opting instead to run its own schedule in response. The house said, “conscious of the current circumstance and its waves of radical change, Saint Laurent has decided to take control of its pace and reshape its schedule.” Armani also announced the Armani Privé show (which usually takes place during Paris Couture Fashion Week in July) will now be reworked into a seasonless collection for January 2021. The changing attitudes of some of the largest powerhouses might be a telling sign that real, impactful change is coming for the fashion industry.

While videos and virtual shows are the medium du jour, it’s likely the format could continue even after the world returns to normal, with in-person shows being farther and fewer between and with limited attendance outside industry professionals. Even if shows continue as before, it’s probable they’ll be more “local,” and will almost certainly give greater consideration to the pitfalls of the current system.

Covid-19 has certainly been a threat to the fashion industry, but it might also be its saving grace. The pause on fashion production has given designers a chance to revise and reshape the calendar for the better and has finally tipped the scales towards sustainability. Pandemic or not, the fashion industry must change how it shows its collections if it wants to survive.