THE UNFORESEEABLE AND THE FASHION SYSTEM
How the rag trade reacted to the unforeseeable: the fashion industry and Covid-19
I never lose; 
either I win, or I learn.
Nelson Mandela

If something is unforeseeable, it can't be seen - or planned for - in advance. It's precisely the "non-possibility" of foreseeing or planning in advance that lends the word its sense of volatility. A few months ago, nobody could ever have imagined how our daily routines were about to be turned upside down, the "normal" course of events disrupted, forcing us to rethink everything: the economy, our modes of consumption, sustainability, the planet we live on, interpersonal relations, our very identities…

The pandemic put our whole way of life on hold. It was painful but it left us plenty of room for reflection. It gave us time to learn, to think, to try out new ideas. Nelson Mandela used to say: “I never lose; either I win, or I learn.” That's what we've all been doing lately: learning. To share, to find new ways of doing things, new ways ahead. Some of us went out on our balconies to sing along with our neighbours, some repurposed their own mothers as makers of stylish face masks, some found happiness in helping others, some learned how to bake bread or offered online courses on all kinds of subjects… The Italians are a resourceful people with an enviable stock of imagination and knowhow. The fashion world - a sector where Italy is a world leader, and not just in terms of the final garment, the thing we buy, but the whole supply chain – has risen to the challenge in these difficult times.

Take for example the words of two Italian creative directors in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Italia: Pierpaolo Piccioli, from Valentino, and Gherardo Felloni, from luxury footwear firm Roger Vivier.

"I take advantage of lockdown to reflect a little and look at things in a fresh light, re-examining deeply-cherished values and the way these values can be conveyed through my work," observed Piccioli. "Fashion has to find the way to move forward… I want new collections to react to this phase, not reflect it. With a delicacy, poetry and imagination that wasn't there before. We all need to dream, I think."
Gherardo Felloni is convinced the ordeal has made us better people.
"Will we still be the same consumers we were before, compulsive and insatiable? I doubt it. Lockdown and all it entailed has confronted us with the painful realization that we took far too many things for granted, like food or health or simply being physically close to the people we love. And it's made us more discerning when it comes to separating the essential from the superfluous."

Taken by surprise by the pandemic, the fashion industry reacted in different ways. Giorgio Armani decided to parade behind closed doors at Milan Fashion Week; then Gucci's Alessandro Michele announced the firm's decision to reduce the number of shows it held to just two a year, acknowledging nevertheless that such a retreat offered "breathing space for smaller fashion houses, in a system that favours the big names". Last June, Chanel anticipated the growing global trend for fashion weeks to use online platforms as their venues by unveiling its Cruise 2020/21 collection on social media. Dedicated to the sea and the fragrances of the Mediterranean, Cruise is an environmentally responsible collection produced from stock fabrics and adaptable for day or evening wear.

The reaction was immediate and positive, and a multiplicity of initiatives - beneficial, cultural, educational - emerged in its wake. Many brands re-structured their production to make face masks and protective smocks: Miroglio was the first to do so, and Prada, Cerruti, LVMH, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent, Dior, Havaianas, Burberry, H&M and Supima soon followed suit. Safilo made face masks and visors for Italian hospitals under the Carrera brand, and under the Polaroid and Smith brands in Spain and the United States, respectively. Spanish bridal fashion group Pronovias donated wedding dresses to future brides who, in hospitals all over the world, have worked to fight the pandemic. The list could go on. Wherever we look, the fashion world rose to the challenge, with many brands making substantial donations and organizing crowdfunding operations.

There were many initiatives in the digital world too, the idea being to promote positive feelings among a population confined to home: fashion workshops by Dolce & Gabbana, or #MirrorTheWorld, the digital campaign launched by Vivienne Westwood in collaboration with artists, writers, poets, musicians, academics and activists all over the world to create and share imaginative content and build new bridges between culture and audience.

Then there were initiatives aimed at younger consumers. McQueen launched a project, #McQueenCreators, for young and aspiring fashion designers to create designs – with the help of tutorials – made from materials found lying around the house. In Italy, the Cuoio di Toscana leather goods consortium and Unic, the Italian tanners' association, is developing an educational project for primary and lower secondary schools that aims to rediscover the beauty of manual work. The project offers children the opportunity to meet designers and make their own shoes or objects, and is expected to launch in September, once the country's schools have re-opened.

Pierpaolo Piccioli spoke of the importance of dreaming; Gherardo Felloni of the ability to tell the essential from the superfluous… Maybe they're two ends of the same piece of string. Tie them together and we have sustainability. It's a word that the pandemic has brought to our attention with renewed force. And this time we've seen for ourselves how the waters of the Venetian lagoon can get cleaner, how pollution can fall, how our planet can start to breathe again. And its inhabitants too. Sustainability: we all wish it could be more than just a trend or a buzzword for turning a fast buck (something the fashion business is often accused of), but an enduring asset instead.

And the fashion system is working to make it happen: look at the ecotoxicological guidelines introduced not only for clothing and accessories but also for the factories that make them and the boutiques that sell them, or recent figures from the tannery industry, whose use of pollutant substances has decreased dramatically in the last 30 years. Other symptoms of the same endeavour are the efforts to create a circular economy – taking in traceability, the start and end of the product life span, reuse and recycling – or the struggle for economic equality for women, or the celebration of diversity. Or the sustainability manifesto published by the Italian Chamber of Fashion back in 2012, and the yearly summits that bring us up to date on the issues, shifting the emphasis to social and technological sustainability, for example.

A long road lies ahead of us, it's true. And much remains to be done to make the fashion industry truly sustainable. Maybe we need to change our outlook: instead of trying to reduce the negative impacts, maybe we should be looking for ways of generating positive ones. The challenge is to build a virtuous circle where brands really know who their suppliers are, how they work, and who they employ. It can't be all about keeping costs as low as possible…

Because in the end, less is more.
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