Last season, the rising tide of Covid-19 lapped at fashion’s heels as the style set moved from city to city, show to show. In New York, Chinese designers, stuck at home, missed their collection bow; as Milan began, one Italian had died of the virus. By the end of that week, Armani had decided to hold a show with no audience. In Paris, parties were canceled, masks handed out and ushers stood tall with big vats of hand sanitizer. Then, just after everyone scattered for home, the pandemic began.
This season everything has changed. Most of the shows will be digital. Some big names are sitting the whole thing out. Others are doing their own thing, on their own schedule. There’s angst in the air. But fashion is not over. It is simply in flux, grappling with big questions about old systems that for years seemed irreplaceable.
To explore what that could mean, The Times gathered four people in the thick of it all: Tory Burch, of the namesake brand; Virgil Abloh, of Off-White and Louis Vuitton men’s wear; Gwyneth Paltrow, of Goop; and Antoine Arnault, of LVMH (the largest luxury group in the world). This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Vanessa I’ve got to ask: Given all the absentees this season, what is the point of a show any more?
Virgil Recently we did a men’s wear show in Shanghai that borrowed from film and theatrical experience to give a positive message. Instead of a traditional runway show that can be very serious, with models with serious gazes on their face, walking down the runway being hangers for clothing, what I did was make it almost like a Thanksgiving Day parade. The models were street-cast, just walking down the streets as if they were conversing with friends, bestowing a feeling that we’re not generally awarded in this time. Underneath the practicality of clothes, my studio has an ambition that the world can be a better place.
Tory Strangely, before the pandemic, I decided not to show this season. We were opening a store on Mercer Street, and I thought it would be really interesting to go back to where we were when we first launched this company with a store event that lasted the day, and we had everyone stop by. I’m thinking a lot about where I’ve been, and also about the product — simplicity, quality and then showing in a more personal way.
Antoine For smaller brands it makes sense to skip a season or two. It’s definitely expensive. And when you realize the price it costs, then once you don’t do it, you’re actually quite relieved. For brands that have the means to produce shows, it’s fantastic to have this creative world live. And it is not only a personal decision. There’s a whole economy around these shows. That should not be underestimated.
Gwyneth When we started doing G Label on Goop, I did feel the fashion system was a bit hard to access — possibly a little antiquated in terms of the schedule. And I really responded to the streetwear cadence of drops, the buy now, wear now, building up some excitement and pent-up demand around a collection. During the pandemic, we’ve gotten super-scrappy. We’ve slashed every marketing budget, and we have been able to make an impact. When a business is under a bit of pressure, you’re having to get closest to that creative spirit. It’s the upside of social media, which doesn’t always have much of an upside.
Vanessa Do you think this marks a tipping point in fashion?
Antoine A lot is going to be decided after the next couple of rounds of shows. Showing is definitely not essential. However, you sometimes need to show what you’re actually creating.
Tory I think that every company is different. A lot of the schedule was driven by wholesale, and we’re 85 percent direct to consumer.
Virgil We’re looking at a watershed moment for the next generation to really take their seat. We know the names of Karl Lagerfeld, Margiela, Yves Saint Laurent — how they revolutionized the industry by switching from couture to ready-to-wear. In my generation, we brought streetwear into the fold, and now we see its effect on the luxury market. I think this is a moment where we can redefine what fashion means.
Gwyneth There will probably be a separation between the brands that are really well-funded and use those shows as an amazing marketing moment and theater, and smaller brands like mine, which will continue to focus on creating a connection with product through a cultural moment. And I think it’s good. It forces all brands, big and small, to get more creative about how to reach the customer.
Vanessa And about what they make? Is it true that sweatpants now rule the world?
Tory Obviously people are dressing more casually, but what’s interesting to me is that people are buying across categories. I don’t know where they’re going, but they’re buying things. Whether they’re dressing for Instagram or small parties or whatever, they’re looking at fashion in a way that’s helping them escape.
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Antoine I can confirm that. In a world where you can’t really go out as much, and restaurants are mostly closed, and nightclubs are closed, and events don’t happen, people still need to feel the joy of buying something they love or have desired for a long time. – The formal aspect of our sales is still very high.
Gwyneth We just had a dress launch, and we were nervous about the timing, but I was surprised at how well they did. It’s been interesting to see where people’s focus has gone from a lot of loungewear and home workout products to cookware to home and now back into fashion.
Vanessa Do trends still exist?
Virgil With social media, I would say that trends are very much alive.
Gwyneth I have a 16-year-old girl in my house. So yes, trends are very much alive. Though I tend to buy more classic trend-free pieces because I’ve had a few dodgy moments, I think, in my past.
Tory Haven’t we all! I also love the idea of things that are forever. And I think people are looking at that as well — things they can invest in. I go back to people wanting special things. I really stand by that.
Vanessa So what does that mean for the glut-of-stuff problem?
Tory One of the things people don’t talk about enough is overproducing. We are really careful with that — and getting better. When I think about sustainability, I think it’s a given that we all need to make this a top priority. It’s a bit herculean, what we have to do as an industry. But we have to do it. The customer is totally focused on what a brand stands for — particularly younger customers. They deeply care about what brands are doing to make the world a better place.
Virgil In the last LV collection I debuted the idea of collapsing all my seasons into one. I think it’s important to remove the idea that just because it’s last season, it’s devalued.
Tory Women are thinking differently about the way they shop. I don’t think they’re thinking, “I want to wear something and not wear it again.” I don’t think it’s modern. So from a season standpoint, we also are looking at it differently. It’s more about deliveries and wearing things when you want to wear them. Ten years ago, people would change their spring closet to their fall closet. That’s obsolete.
Antoine But there’s also a market reality that we have to understand. I’m not sure if we decide to have only one season for all our brands. That would really change the business.
Vanessa Certainly it feels as if consumers are increasingly asking questions of brands like yours, about this as well as the other extremely pressing issue of the moment: the social justice movement. This group is very white, which is a reflection of the faults and the reality of the industry. LVMH just announced a new designer at Fendi women’s wear, Kim Jones, who is incredibly talented but is another white man. Antoine, did you think about the issue of diversity in that choice?
Antoine To be very honest, on this particular nomination, no. We decide these things way in advance. This topic of diversity, this topic of inclusion, has been at the forefront of our priorities, but it’s not by taking a quick action, nominating a new Black designer, that anything will be solved. We’ve published our ethnic data in the United States, and when you look at the results, it’s actually pretty good in terms of representation of different races. In France, you’re not allowed to do that. However, there’s a lot of work to be done. Our board has zero nonwhite presence. That will, I very, very much hope, change in the near future.
Virgil Fashion is our occupation, but it also projects an image you see when you drive down Houston Street or drive to the airport, looking at advertisements. We have the ability to effect change. It needs to be tackled at, like, 12 different points — the education level but also the way we turn our lens toward value and who’s contributing.
Antoine One of the few positive outcomes of this pandemic is that we’re going to work much more with local communities. Before, when we did a show in L.A., we brought everyone from Paris — 60 or 70 models, the hair, the makeup, everybody. And when you open any magazine, you see that it’s always the same three photographers, the same hair and makeup. From now on, we decided, for most of these brands, events or shootings, to work with local talent. Which will get us out of this little mafia of always working with the same people. I think that’s going to end with this pandemic.
Virgil The epicenter is now the fringe. And I would say that the fringe is now the future — creativity coming from nontraditional places. Africa can be the new Berlin, or the new Paris. That’s where we’re going to see the gains in the industry.