A year ago, when Fashion Week had gone entirely digital, The New York Times gathered four industry power brokers together to wrestle with the question of what the pandemic and its effects meant for the business and what we would wear. People were making all sorts of predictions about sweatpants taking over the world and the future of seasons, shows and sales — not to mention sustainability and social justice.
This week, as physical fashion shows return, we returned to that format, posing the question: “What, if anything, have we learned over the last 12 months, and where we are going?” Our panel included Anna Wintour, the chief content officer of Condé Nast (and honorary chairman of the Met gala, taking place the day after New York Fashion Week ends); Nicolas Ghesquière, the artistic director of women’s collections at Louis Vuitton; the actress, producer and entrepreneur behind the hair-care line Pattern, Tracee Ellis Ross; and José Neves, the creator of Farfetch, the global luxury online marketplace. Here is what they said.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Anna Wintour Before Covid, we were all saying there were way too many shows, too much product, too many hours, days, weeks, months spent on the road. But we’ve all been living in a kind of limbo, re-evaluating our lives and our communities, and an emotional connection has been very much missed and very much needed. For that, we have to be together.
Everyone’s been super-creative with their films and their look books online, but it’s not the same as meeting people, talking to people and seeing clothes up close. We can do it in a pared back way that is safe for everybody. The date of the Met gala was very intentional. We really wanted to inspire communities — fashion communities or the food community or the arts and the theater — to think about coming back to life.
Nicolas Ghesquière This last year we had to learn how to reach people who were at home and give them a pure moment of fashion. It was not always easy. We had to learn fast to become visual artists. It was very interesting, but a real audience is incomparable. What happens at that moment is unique. I had the experience to be the last fashion show pre-Covid, and thank God, no one was sick after the presentation. But thinking back at the responsibility we had at the moment, we really have to be careful for this month coming and make sure everyone is safe first.
Ms. Wintour I applaud Mayor de Blasio and the museums and the designers that are saying go to a museum or go to a fashion show or go to the theater, but vaccination is mandatory.
Tracee Ellis Ross I think all of us are trying to find: What’s the balance? How do you bring yourself back into your life in a way that takes care of the people around you and your community, but also has all of the things that make you a whole person? And glamour and fashion and art are really important parts of being inspired as a human being.
José Neves It may seem strange coming from someone primarily working in the online world, but I really believe in the physicality of fashion. Before Farfetch, I was a shoe designer for many, many years, and a boutique owner. I learned there’s something magical in the human relationship. I don’t think that can be replaced online. The big opportunity is the convergence of both worlds. Because the online world is not going to go away. And digital sales helped us all through Covid.
Ms. Wintour Covid has pushed us into making decisions and choices about how fashion has to move forward. I’m hopeful that designers are going to be much more focused on clothes that are extremely creative, clothes that last, the clothes that have an emotional connection to the wonderful people that wear them. And that we will help readers, customers understand that clothes are not disposable. That they can last a lifetime. That they can be something just like a piece of jewelry that you can hand down to your children. I’m hoping that all of us will encourage that kind of thinking.
Mr. Neves We have essentially two problems: One, we produce too much stuff. Two, we produce a lot of the wrong stuff. One of the ways of tackling the first problem is making sure the clothes work harder for all of us, and that means restoration services, that means rental, that means resale.
Ms. Wintour I like the word vintage. Vintage.
Mr. Neves We’ve been selling pre-owned and vintage for a number of years.
Mr. Ghesquière I like to call them living archives.
Mr. Ross That’s nice.
Mr. Ghesquière Because there’s nothing better than to know the clothes will live long. As an artistic director, my responsibility is to do new. Sometimes very quickly and sometimes too quickly, to be honest. The challenge is really inspiring and I enjoy it, but like every artistic director, my real dream is to have timeless pieces that last more than a season. I’m old enough now to have collections I did more than 20 years ago become trendy again.
Ms. Ross I think there’s a narrative change that we need to have around the consumer and how we shop. My mom always said: You can spend a lot of money on your clothes if you use them and if you take care of them. I’ve always repeated things. I feel like that’s what style is. If we allow that to be a part of the narrative of fashion, I think it allows so many more people the opportunity to feel enough and celebrate it.
Mr. Ghesquière It is very important that the entertainment industry is encouraging that by recycling all those gowns and dresses that we do for awards ceremonies or events. I really appreciate that we see more and more people wearing clothes they already wore without being afraid to wear it twice.
Mr. Wintour It’s interesting. We’ve helping a number of different people with their looks for the Met gala, and many of our guests are asking for vintage. It’s maybe important sometimes for designers to take pieces from their past and put them out on the runway with something new, to re-emphasize the importance of creativity and craft and how it really lasts.
Ms. Ross The truth is that we are all a product of our lived experiences, and you want to feel seen and heard in what you spend your money on as well as have a sense of selfhood. My experience as a C.E.O. with Pattern was that there’s so much data left off the table. And there was a demographic and a vast community and a consumer that was not being tracked appropriately. And so there was no way to actually buy appropriately because there was no data to confirm that these were people who were going to shop. We have to make a conscious effort to look into the consumers and really find out where the gaps are so that they feel seen and heard.
Ms. Wintour The more open and honest and direct you can be, taking responsibility for mistakes that you’ve made and how you intend to improve in the future, is part of the process we’ve all been going. I also feel the Zoom has brought us all together in a different, very humane way, a very open way. That’s the most important thing to me, that we don’t close the door on this time.
Ms. Ross The doors should not be closed. And that is part of a lot of my work with DEI. I always remind people it’s not just diversity and inclusion. It’s diversity, equity and inclusion. And the equity part of it is where fundamental change can occur. It’s how do we change the pipeline? How do we change the access? How do we open those doors and create a space where all of us can be around the table or other tables can be built because the ones that exist don’t actually match the world we live in. I think that’s the responsibility for all of us who have power, who have voices where we can make changes.
Mr. Neves I think the digitalization of the industry has democratized access to audiences and also wallets. This is extremely exciting. Back in 1996, as a designer, I had to convince the department store to have any chance to reach a consumer. Now a designer can come out of Parsons and in six months start selling direct on their own platforms, on Shopify or on Farfetch.
Ms. Wintour If something is well-made and crafted well, it does not necessarily have to be the most expensive. I think over 70 percent of the designers in the Costume Institute exhibition are young designers that represent the future of American fashion. I’m so grateful to Andrew Bolton, the curator at the Met, for really spotlighting that. So I actually feel, speaking particularly from the American point of view, that it has never been more inclusive.
Mr. Neves At Farfetch, we have 3,500 designers. The top 100 are maybe household names and large companies, but the vast majority are new designers and many times, family businesses. We cannot save lives. That’s not what we’re supposed to do or what we can do, but we can save businesses.
In April 2020 we launched a campaign called hashtag support boutiques. We didn’t know it was going to resonate with consumers. But the folks really, really loved that angle where they could shop from a platform and they knew it was coming from a tiny little boutique in Italy that belonged to a family that has been three generations in business and they were going to go out of business without this online flow. Customers are really paying attention.
Ms. Ross I think the digital age has given us all access to each other in a really incredible way in the beauty industry, in Hollywood and in the fashion industry. One of the things that I thought was really beautiful during this pandemic was that having digital fashion shows meant people were able to have access to fashion and luxury in a different way. People that aren’t usually front row.
But there’s a part of us catching up and going: “OK, this has been the benefit of it. How do we continue to connect to our humanity in a way that makes it better and not just takes us away from things like a photograph or a book or a magazine, that are an expression of who we are?”
Mr. Ghesquière I think it’s true that, you know, we all could use new things all the time. But there are also many ways that this fashion proposition can evolve, in reinterpreting, in reusing elements. I think transparency of how things are made is going to be essential. But it is also absolutely essential not to overproduce. If you don’t control your inventory, you do excess and you make waste.
And I think it’s a call for everyone to try to control how much they will sell the best they can. What we want is a great story from every designer, every house, that will be fun and inspiring to share by individuals. So everyone can say who they are with their clothes.
Ms. Wintour I think we’re going to see people really dressing up, having fun with fashion —- what Andrew Bolton describes as a patchwork of fashion. I think we’re going to see not one thing, not one trend, not one idea, but self-expression everywhere we go.
Ms. Ross As a virtual person, I’ve still been doing the earrings and the whole thing. I had sweatpants, but they were still really chic ones. There’s nothing that’s going to keep me away from looking glamorous. I’m so excited to be wearing beautiful clothes again that the world can see not just through Instagram.
Ms. Neves We all are listening to the same soundtrack or watching the same series on Netflix, but we’re all dressing differently. The future of fashion? To be honest, I don’t know. That’s one of the amazing things about fashion. It’s so unpredictable. And that’s absolutely part of the mystery, part of the fascination with this industry.
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