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LONDON, United Kingdom — This time last year, menswear designer Bianca Saunders was busy curating talks and art shows. She’d just presented her Spring/Summer collection at London Fashion Week Men’s for the second year in a row.
That work schedule went out the window when the coronavirus pandemic hit. But Saunders doesn’t anticipate a return to normal. She skipped the June menswear shows this Summer, deciding instead to host a panel with ShowStudio and launch her zine “We Are One of the Same” with photographer Joshua Woods and writer Jess Cole. Saunders isn’t planning to revert to the grind of the traditional fashion cycle as she knew it.
“This time has given me the freedom to believe that I can show whenever I want to show and not follow the industry calendar or what other designers decide to do,” she said. “Before Covid-19, if you were to skip a season and do a lookbook it was seen as radical. Now, it makes perfect sense.”
Saunders is not alone. Across fashion’s ecosystem, Covid-19 is rewriting the rules of the game in a way that is likely to endure well beyond government enforced lockdowns.
Already, the industry has had to radically shift its standard means of operation to adapt to social distancing mandates and home working. Enduring financial pressure is driving layoffs and new creative ways of working on a shoestring budget. Technologies from social media to e-commerce, already well embedded before the crisis, have become even more vital. And an ongoing socio-political revolution is forcing the industry to grapple with embedded systemic racism and challenge the status quo.
In short: fashion is undergoing seismic upheaval. But what will this mean for future generations of designers, buyers, stylists, editors and creative agents? BoF spoke with a number of industry leaders on what the future of fashion’s most coveted careers might look like in the coming years.
Even before the pandemic, the role of the talent agent was evolving rapidly. Scouts who used to rely on word of mouth to discover the latest creative talent now trawl Instagram. Agencies have had to expand their pool of photographers and stylists to keep up with the accelerated pace of content creation demanded by social media.
The current social crisis has accelerated many of these shifts and created greater demand for new and diverse talent, despite financial pressures caused by the pandemic. While traditional agencies will undeniably continue to serve a crucial role in nurturing and supporting creative talent, there is opportunity for a new wave of creative platforms that leverage social media to connect emerging artists with commercial clients on a rolling basis.
Nimble and tech-savvy operators will also be primed to adapt to an increasingly inclusive approach to talent scouting than more traditional agencies with a tight local focus.
“There has never been that bridge between the fashion industry and a kid on Instagram who doesn’t know how to curate their social media or is from a small town and can’t get their portfolio in front of someone,” said Ashleigh Kane, a curator at Thursday’s Child, a platform that promotes and mentors unrepresented photographers, filmmakers and visual artists from across the world and partners them with brands like Nike, Converse and Maison Margiela to shoot content. “It’s amazing to be able to bridge that gap and offer that opportunity to people.”
The cancellation of shoots in a bid to curb the spread of coronavirus over the last few months has hit stylists particularly hard. Some pivoted to remote styling in order to guarantee a paycheck, but even as lockdowns are lifted and shoots resume, the profession is unlikely to return to normal.
Styling jobs for digital shoots are likely to remain common, as brands experiment with new forms of remote image-making. Yii Ooi, a stylist who worked on Vogue Taiwan’s all-CGI May cover, said he will continue working for computer generated shoots.“I didn’t know that my career was going to go down this path, but it’s pretty cool,” said Ooi “You can achieve results that would cost too much money to do in real life.”
But even stylists who have returned to work on set are dealing with significant changes. Beyond the smaller teams, mandatory masks and improved sanitation that have now become compulsory on most creative productions, routine travel is no longer a given. Brands with tightened budgets are more likely to rely on local talent and the appeal of jet-set shoots has diminished. “I wouldn’t go to Paris or Tokyo for 48 hours for a shoot,” said celebrity stylist Danielle Goldberg. “I can’t imagine that happening.”
Increasingly, stylists must also consider their work within the context of the evolving cultural conversation around race and appropriation. “More so than ever, we are going to be more mindful of who we work with and how they are contributing to the conversation socially,” said Goldberg. “Who is it that you want to stand behind? It’s something that I’ve always considered, but now I take it much more seriously.”
The gilded era of fashion editors is long over, but the pandemic has accelerated the pressure on publishers. Ad revenue has shrivelled and the industry has faced a reckoning over issues of systemic racism and toxic workplace culture that has forced a slew of high-profile resignations.
On the other hand, the crisis has opened up new opportunities to shake up the role and profile of fashion’s most visible gatekeepers.
“It’s a time for us to think about where we want to position ourselves and ask questions about what we believe in and what we want to drive forward with,” said Dazed Head of Fashion Emma Hope Allwood.
Though many magazines are cutting staff, some are embracing change by redefining the purpose of a fashion publication and appointing a more diverse roster of talent.
Fashion’s next generation of editors have an opportunity to drive the conversation, but they will also need to think strategically about how to engage audiences and drive revenue in a challenged sector. That means a keen understanding of what readers care about and how they are engaging with fashion and culture.
“The future is likely to be less about entertainment and more about brainfood,” said independent fashion publisher Elise By Olsen, who is the founder and editor-in-chief of Wallet magazine.
Traditional publishing and distribution models are changing too, and editors need to adapt fast to find new business models and decrease their reliance on revenue from print ads.
“It’s going to be extremely important to reassess and restructure the way that we operate,” By Olsen said.
For years, designers sat atop the industry’s creative hierarchy, but they’ve also endured increasingly punishing schedules. The pandemic has forced a rethink of both.
Over the last few months, fashion designers have banded together to challenge the status quo and demand industry-wide change with high-profile initiatives emerging to restructure the traditional fashion calendar.
It’s a time to think about where we want to position ourselves and ask questions about what we believe in.
These changes are particularly crucial for independent designers, many of whom were expected to produce spectacular fashion shows multiple times a year despite small teams and even smaller budgets.
Tight budgets and ongoing conversations about the industry’s environmental impact are likely to prevent a wholesale reversion to old ways as the pandemic crisis subsides. Instead, designers will need to think of new and creative ways of presenting their collections in the coming years. It’s a challenge many have embraced.
“This time has given me the option to choose the right path [that makes sense for me],” said Saunders.
Changing expectations of workplace culture are also likely to lead to more emphasis on the teams involved in the creative process, and less focus on a single star designer. As an example, both Gucci and Burberry featured their production teams in their latest lookbooks.
“It’ll be less about one person who sits on this pedestal and controls everything, and more about the people who make it happen,” said designer Peter Do.
In normal times, store buyers travel from fashion shows to showrooms to shop the season’s latest collections, but the impact from months of lockdown are likely to be long lasting.
Virtual showrooms and 3D sampling may not replace the in-person experience entirely, but the technical innovations that have emerged from the pandemic will nonetheless shape the future of the job role.
“We’ve learnt how to do our job and collaborate virtually,” said Browns Buying Director Ida Petersson.
Talent scouting is another large part of a buyers’ job that will continue to evolve. While tapping new designers was mostly done through in-person networking pre-pandemic, social media has become an increasingly integral resource for store buyers to discover emerging designers online. “We felt very strongly that we still wanted to stand for discovering, supporting and nurturing new talent,” said Petersson. “We just had to learn how to do it differently this time round.”
This digital alternative to talent spotting will likely become more routine for buyers as stores seek to expand their roster of global talent. And high resolution video conferencing apps like Zoom and BlueJeans paired with improved delivery services will only continue to streamline the remote sampling process.
“We might still be some time away from virtual services totally taking over,” said Petersson. “But disregarding the virtual world won’t be an option going forward.”