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Op-Ed | An Enlightened Post-Pandemic Consumer? Don’t Count on It.

Some believe coronavirus will prompt fashion consumers to reassess their values and shift spending away from fast fashion and luxury megabrands. They are wrong, argues Eugene Rabkin.
A customer carries shopping bags from Louis Vuitton, Chanel and Christian Dior | Source: Getty Images
By
  • Eugene Rabkin

Recently a lot has been said by various prognosticators about how the fashion industry will change in the post-Covid-19 world. Prognosis is good business in the times of upheavals because a lot of panic-stricken people are glued to screens searching for answers. However, research shows that most of prognosticators get it wrong. Why do they persist? Because if they are right, one theory says, they get to beat their chest about it, and if they are wrong, well, people simply won't remember.

Plenty of recent prognoses have been predicting that the coronavirus crisis will prompt fashion consumers to reassess their values and shift their spending away from fast fashion and flashy, marketing-driven luxury megabrands towards quality, sustainability and general sobriety. We will consume less and consume more mindfully and responsibly, so they say. I am here to tell you that, unfortunately, they are wrong.

It is true that in times of crisis consumers re-prioritise their needs. It is equally true that once a crisis passes, they often return to previous patterns. Fashion consumption is largely driven by the fundamental need for symbols to project social standing — I am cool; I have arrived; I have this and you don't — and the industry's behemoths have gotten incredibly adept at playing into these needs. People routinely consume fashion as a treat when they feel good, and as a pick me up when they feel bad. All of this has been the case for decades, so why should it change after this pandemic?

According to prognosticators like Li Edelkoort, the world will change because people will suddenly realise what is truly valuable in life: from a feeling of greater human kinship to rising appreciation for slower, artisanal craft. It's a lovely forecast, but this idea, if indeed it's emerging at present, simply won't last and there is precedent to prove it.

The most recent major economic crisis on record was the subprime mortgage meltdown of 2008, which led to a market crash and the Great Recession. The luxury sector suffered along with the rest of the economy, less because affluent consumers lacked the money to buy and more because it was considered bad taste to shop while others were losing their homes. "Shopping is almost embarrassing, and a little vulgar right now," an editor of Allure magazine told The New York Times back in 2008.

Consumers will go right back to buying goods from luxury conglomerates and fast fashion behemoths alike.

But a few years later, plenty of people who had stopped shopping went back to consuming major luxury brands with gusto, even though the American middle class continued to suffer. Waves of newly minted millionaires in China brought up the rear and then some. Between the end of 2008 and January of this year LVMH stock has risen almost ten-fold. Over the same period, Kering’s share price increased about twenty-fold.

On the other end of the pricing spectrum we have fast fashion. Its terrible impact on the environment and the human cost of its unethical manufacturing practices have been well documented. But these are byproducts of a bigger crime: we have conditioned millions of consumers to need a near-constant supply of cheap clothing to feel cool.

Research shows that despite their stated concerns for sustainability, the majority of Millennials do not shop this way, because sustainable clothes are expensive compared to fast fashion. And when forced to choose between being cool on the cheap and being sustainable, they choose cool and cheap. What's more, for millions of consumers, buying fast fashion has become an entertainment activity to the point of addiction.

Indeed, the low-price pandemic was here way before the coronavirus and may be much harder to cure. I have a hard time envisioning how we as a consumer society will go back to buy-less-pay-more mode.

Which leads me to something I swore to never do, my own prognosis on how the fashion industry will fare. Two-three years from now, once the virus is beaten back and a vaccine is created, consumers will go right back to buying goods from luxury conglomerates and fast fashion behemoths alike. And these giants will be there to take their money, because they are best positioned to weather the crisis.

What may well be missing from the landscape? All those smaller, slower, independent labels to whom some imagined transformed consumers will flock. They provide the rich diversity of creative voices that keep fashion culturally exciting. But they also operate with limited cash runways, and most will find it very hard to survive. This tragedy, more than enlightened consumers, will shape the post-pandemic fashion world.

Eugene Rabkin is the editor of StyleZeitgeist magazine.

The views expressed in Op-Ed pieces are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Business of Fashion.

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