The Future Of The Fashion Industry In A Pandemic : It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders Hello, sweatpants. With scaled-down Fashion Weeks, department stores hurting, and more and more people opting for loungewear rather than workplace attire... where does that leave the fashion business in 2021? Sam talks to Robin Givhan, senior critic-at-large at The Washington Post, about how the very harsh reality of the pandemic has shifted an industry largely built on fantasy.

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The Future Of Fashion

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The Future Of Fashion

The Future Of Fashion

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SAM SANDERS, HOST:

You know, one of the things that I've been reflecting on and looking back on 2020 is, like, what parts of me changed the most? And I honestly think that the part of me that changed the most is, like, the clothes that I wear. I was kind of a minimalist anyway before the pandemic, but now it's like the same pair of gray sweatshorts and the same, like, five or six T-shirts, and that's it. I've even noticed that, like, Instagram has noticed, and they send me ads for that kind of attire or, like, stretchy flannel shirts. Has it changed for you, fashion critic...

ROBIN GIVHAN: Well, I...

SANDERS: ...For The Washington Post?

(LAUGHTER)

GIVHAN: I mean, I think the fashion industry is sending you those emails, saying, please, please don't do this to us.

SANDERS: That is Robin Givhan, the award-winning fashion critic at The Washington Post.

GIVHAN: Has my style of dress changed? I would say not significantly, actually.

SANDERS: Really?

GIVHAN: I'm stubbornly committed to, like, getting up, working out, showering and then putting on, like, a sweater...

SANDERS: Wow.

GIVHAN: ...A skirt, pair of pants - actual waistband - shoes. I know. I'm weird.

SANDERS: Man, that's aspirational.

Robin is on another fashion planet than the rest of us, so I sort of get it. But maybe you are more like me, working from home with nowhere to go and no one to impress. I mean, seriously, I am not lying when I say I haven't worn a shirt with buttons in weeks, perhaps months.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: You're listening to IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR. I'm Sam Sanders. And on our episode today, pandemic fashion.

As we all know by now, the pandemic has forced a lot of industries to change. But for the fashion industry, that dawning came a little more slowly.

GIVHAN: You know, I'll use that old analogy about a frog in the warm water...

SANDERS: Oh, God. Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...That slowly starts to boil.

SANDERS: Oof.

GIVHAN: I know. Like, the fashion industry slowly started to boil.

SANDERS: Robin Givhan gave me a sort of timeline.

GIVHAN: In March, April, there was a sense that everything had come to a grinding halt, certainly. But I think there was a lot of projected optimism. And then I think somewhere around the end of the summer, when it became very clear that sort of runway shows, as usual, couldn't happen, it became, oh, my God, we never realized how much we will desperately miss the old ways that we complained about so much.

SANDERS: In this chat with Robin, we're going to talk about the future of fashion and why this industry feeds on fantasy, sometimes to its own detriment. We'll also discuss the power of the Instagram ad and why some luxury companies are actually doing pretty well, despite everything. But first, I wanted to get a better sense of how the industry worked before the pandemic and how it might change after.

GIVHAN: Well, you know, there were - one of the ongoing frustrations with the industry was that it had gotten itself into a situation in which design houses, both high-end and middlebrow, were really just cranking out collections so quickly. You know, it used to be, back in the olden sort of post-war days, that, you know, there were really two collections. There was fall, and there was spring.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: And if you were a couture house, you did two couture collections. By the time the pandemic hit, if you were a brand that did couture and you also did menswear in addition to womenswear, you were producing, you know, two dozen collections a year. It was crazy.

SANDERS: Wait; seriously? So there was spring.

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean...

SANDERS: There was fall. Was it like winter, summer solstice? Like, run me through. How many (laughter) season drops were there?

GIVHAN: (Laughter) So let's say you're - you have a couture house and you also do menswear. So you have two couture collections. You have a women's fall collection that's shown on the runway. But on either side of that, you have a pre-collection, and you've got this thing called cruise or resort or whatever you might want to call it.

SANDERS: LOL (laughter).

GIVHAN: And that cruise collection often meant that you were going off to some far-flung location - Shanghai, Cuba, New York. These are places where Chanel has had shows. And you would do the collection there. The same thing would happen for the menswear.

SANDERS: Wow.

GIVHAN: And you might also have sort of these special one-off collections. So they really added up.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: And if you were a creative director, you were also flying all over the world opening stores. You were dealing with fashion shoots for advertising campaigns. So you were constantly in motion. And when the pandemic shut things down, it felt like all of that momentum came to a halt, and people thought, OK, we can rethink...

SANDERS: 'Cause folks were actually tired.

GIVHAN: People were exhausted physically and mentally.

SANDERS: Oh, totally. Well, I mean, me as a layperson, I just feel like every six weeks I would see stories for another fashion week. And for years, I was like, how many fashion weeks are there? This feels like too much. And I guess you're saying it was too much.

GIVHAN: It really was too much. And, you know, you also have to take into account that in addition to just putting the clothes on the runway, they are putting those clothes in stores and...

SANDERS: Constantly.

GIVHAN: ...Trying - you know, and hoping that consumers would buy them. So there was a lot of merchandise going into stores. It overwhelmed consumers. I mean, this was not disposable fashion. You know, we're not talking about $10 T-shirts. We're talking about $500 T-shirts.

It really felt like the industry was coming together. You know, there were, like, big Zoom meetings with designers and open letters and, you know, conglomerates talking about how they weren't going to do shows on this, you know, crazy schedule. But slowly, slowly, slowly, it sort of became clear that, you know, fashion is an entire ecosystem.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: And by slowing it down, by cutting out collections, by moving away from elaborate runway shows, you were also cutting back on the need for hairstylists, photographers, makeup artists, you know, this entire other universe that sort of depends on that cycle...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...Continuing.

SANDERS: These are jobs that are lost. And I think a lot of times when you hear Fashion with a capital F, you think of Anna Wintour. But it's like, she's not going to lose her job in the pandemic. The makeup artist and the lighting people - they lose their jobs.

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, they lose work. Stylists lose work. You know, the assistants to the stylists lose work.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

GIVHAN: The seamstresses lose work. They embroiderers - you know, all of these ancillary industries suffer. And I do - one of the stories that, you know, I wrote during this period was that I think, you know, to the fashion industry's detriment to some degree - you know, we think about the small independent restaurants - right? - that sort of make up the personality of the neighborhood. But, you know, there's also those small independent boutiques and designers who give, you know, shopping districts their character. It's one thing to go from city to city and see the same major brands in every city. But what typically delights people is not being able to go into the same store that they can go into at home. It's discovering the store that's unique to a city.

SANDERS: I hear you say that, and I think about my Aunt Betty. Whenever she travels, she wants to check out the Ross and the TJ Maxx in the city she goes to.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: And I'm like, are you good? You want to find some other sources? She's like, no, I want to see what they got over here. It's amazing to me.

(LAUGHTER)

GIVHAN: I am not one to disagree with Aunt Betty.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Coming up, we dig deeper into the outdated and kind of broken model of the department store.

So you've outlined the ways in which a somewhat bloated fashion industry kind of ground to a halt with the pandemic and maybe got a nice moment for a reset and for a pause and to say, this was too much; let's kind of scale down. What happened on the other side with consumers? I mean, it feels as if the story for consumers of clothing and fashion was that a lot of us aren't buying as many clothes anymore 'cause we aren't going out as much. And when we are buying, it's for comfort more so than style. Was that the big trend in terms of consuming fashion and clothing this year or last year?

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, that definitely was the emphasis. You know, if you were a brand that made comfort clothing, you were well positioned. You know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...It was interesting that areas that saw increased sales were in things like, you know, hair care and skin care. But what I also found interesting was that there were definitely people who continued to shop and who continued to make those high-end purchases. And what they were buying were, like, the super, extra special things, the things that they sort of thought that they would keep on hold until they could reemerge.

SANDERS: Aw.

GIVHAN: And so - you know, much to, really, my surprise, it was interesting to see that, you know, brands like Chanel, but also a brand like Hermes, did quite well...

SANDERS: Really?

GIVHAN: ...As soon as stores reopened in Asia.

SANDERS: Really? So, you know, to hear you say that some brands like Chanel did well in spite of - I wonder how all of the flux in fashion that the last year brought affected fast fashion. You know, I feel like when I was going out to buy new clothing, some of it was from some stores that could be considered fast fashion - you know, H&M, Zara. I even - yeah. I bought some ratty T-shirts at Old Navy last year - just, you know, pandemic life.

GIVHAN: Oh, Sam, don't do it. Don't do it.

SANDERS: (Laughter) I know. I know.

GIVHAN: Resist. Resist.

SANDERS: (Laughter) How much was fast fashion affected by the events of last year and the pandemic? Or did they just keep trucking along because that's what they do?

GIVHAN: You know, fast fashion already, I think, has a - squeezes its labor market because it's so cheap.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: And for a lot of companies, you know, the stress that workers saw who were working for higher-end labels, they certainly felt it. You know, they were working for fast fashion brands. And it was that much more extreme.

I think that the pressures from the pandemic also really sort of revealed the weakest links in that ecosystem, right? So, you know, if you were already a somewhat stressed brand, you tended to be an early filer for bankruptcy. You know, I know this isn't a fast fashion brand, but I think about a company like Neiman Marcus...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...Which was one of the earliest to file bankruptcy protection. And, you know, in part, you know, you could sort of blame the pandemic on being sort of the final straw. But it was already a very distressed company.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, speaking of stores like Neiman Marcus, it also seems like part of the fashion story of 2020 and pandemic was a continued decline of department stores and people buying things like clothing at department stores. We were already seeing a big push to just buy clothing online before the pandemic hit. Was coronavirus the nail in that coffin? Are we seeing the end of the department store as we know it?

GIVHAN: Well, I feel like we've been sort of pre-writing the obit for department stores for a while.

(LAUGHTER)

GIVHAN: But, yeah, I mean, the pandemic was particularly tough. And the lack of sales, in many ways - you know, not to blame the victim, but, you know, was really their own fault because, in many ways, they just sort of started to sell by the numbers, buy more of what sold the previous season except maybe in a different color, oversaturating their customers with sameness and, frankly, just offering bad clothing.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GIVHAN: I mean, there were so many conversations about, you know, what's wrong with the Gap.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: And, you know, there were many things wrong with the Gap...

SANDERS: The clothes got bad.

GIVHAN: ...But, you know, predominantly, the clothes were bad. And if you - if your product...

SANDERS: They were. And as someone who used to love the Gap, it hurt (laughter).

GIVHAN: Right. So if your product sucks, then...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

GIVHAN: And that's a technical term...

SANDERS: Yes, yes.

GIVHAN: ...Then sort of everything else just sort of starts to tumble.

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, and also, a thing that these big department stores are dealing with - you know, the Neiman Marcuses, the Nordstroms - they had to take and try to sell all of these new lines these fashion houses were making in the multiple fashion weeks every year. So if it's no longer the spring season and the fall season, every few weeks, there's a new drop. These stores buy these clothes. They have to discount them like crazy to move that product. They were in a game that really wasn't doing good numbers for them, period, because of the, you know, sped-up fashion cycle. They just had too much clothes to move, right?

GIVHAN: Yeah. I mean, when you talk to people in the industry, you know, there's a lot of finger-pointing. One of the big reasons why brands started producing all of these collections was because department stores wanted a faster flow of new merchandise onto their floor. The problem was that, you know, the merchandise was not on the sales floor very long before it was sort of being...

SANDERS: Before the next season happened.

GIVHAN: ...Pushed out...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...For the next flow of merchandise to come in. And so the merchandise would get marked down very quickly. And it had very little opportunity to sell at full price. And consumers became very trained to know that if they just waited a couple of weeks...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

GIVHAN: ...That merchandise was going to go on sale. So consumers had no incentive to really buy things at full price. And the department stores had such clout that, you know, in many cases they could say to a less powerful brand that, OK, we brought your merchandise in. It was on the sales floor, you know, for four weeks. Now we have to mark it down. And so now we want you to basically reimburse us...

SANDERS: Wow.

GIVHAN: ...For the amount that we have to mark this down.

SANDERS: Oh, wow.

GIVHAN: So - yeah, I know. It's just, like, the dark underbelly of such a glamorous industry.

SANDERS: So are you telling me that "The Devil Wears Prada" is fiction?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Don't say it. Don't say it.

GIVHAN: Actually, there are so many things in that, "The Devil Wears Prada," that are, sadly, true.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Stay with us. Why those Instagram ads for sweatpants - they might help save the fashion industry.

If coronavirus ground the fashion industry to a pretty quick halt in 2020 and everyone involved says this has become too bloated, too big, too many clothes, too many runway shows, too many seasons, in the after times when we are all vaccinated, can the fashion industry, can these stores right-size? Can they all shrink in a healthy way and survive and create a new, smaller, more sensible footprint? Is that possible? What does that look like?

GIVHAN: I think the answer to that is yes because I don't really think there is an alternative, you know? I think, in order for the fashion industry to move forward, those things will have to occur. Some of the very large luxury brands like Hermes or Chanel, for instance, really are self-contained. They own their manufacturing. They own their own stores. You know, they're very much in control of their destiny. And those have been the brands that, typically, have agitated for a return to the way things have always been.

And then, you know, there's sort of the rest of the fashion universe. And I would say that there's a good number of brands that have said, you know, we're not going to produce as much. You know, a brand like Carolina Herrera, for instance - in other times, a single collection might consist of, you know, 900, 1,000 pieces.

SANDERS: Wow.

GIVHAN: And it was half that for one of their more recent collections. So there definitely is a pulling back. And there certainly is a greater rethinking on the part of smaller brands about how they can deal directly with consumers and cut out the middleman.

SANDERS: That's what I want to ask you about. Kind of as looking towards the future, I think this is the year in which I finally became comfortable ordering clothes that I saw in Instagram ads. And I never would have thought that I would have been the guy who constantly sees the ad for the stretchy, flannel shirt in my Instagram stories and then taps yes and buys it. This direct-to-consumer fashion or what I call Instagram fashion - is that the future? Did they win pandemic? And if so, what does that future look like?

GIVHAN: Yeah, I think they probably did because, you know, if nothing else, with the struggles that larger retailers are having, I think more brands do want to be in charge of their own destiny as much as possible. I - you know, I think that in some ways, the fact that you're willing to make these purchases via an ad in your Instagram bodes well for the fashion industry because it means that brands that don't have massive advertising budgets or massive amounts of money to get some celebrity endorser can make their voices heard through all the noise.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, is there ultimately a risk of the same bloated nature of fashion in direct-to-consumer models that we saw in the brick-and-mortar fashion runway show of before pandemic? Like, if fashion of the before times was bloated and fashion of the after times is more direct-to-consumer, could that potentially get bloated as well?

GIVHAN: Well, I think within any business model, there's the potential for greed. And really...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

GIVHAN: ...Greed is what propelled the industry to becoming as bloated as it was or as it is. But, you know, the direct-to-consumer model, in many ways, does allow for a more balanced approach in terms of, you know, sort of supply meeting demand.

The other thing that I would sort of say about the direct-to-consumer system, as well as the willingness to, you know, buy via Instagram I think also bodes well to minority- and women-owned businesses that often tend to be smaller and not as deeply financed. So this is another opportunity, another window, another way for them to make inroads with consumers and to grow their brands.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Last question for you - one piece of advice for savvy fashion consumers wanting to capitalize on this moment of, like, fashion flux. Like, is now the right time to flood Neiman Marcus to see what's, like, on super discount?

GIVHAN: (Laughter).

SANDERS: Is now the time to lean into online? Like, what's the, like, life hack for winning fashion right now?

GIVHAN: You know, my mantra is always buy less and buy better.

SANDERS: Yes. Yeah.

GIVHAN: Because, you know, if nothing else, I think this moment has shown us - this extended, endless moment has shown us that we need a lot less stuff than we thought we did. And I also think that it has helped sort of clarify which of the things that we possess are the ones that make us happiest and the ones that are the most useful.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: And I think if we can kind of remember those revelations when we're in stores, I think it'll help us be better consumers, both for our bank account, but also, you know - to get all sort of touchy-feely, woo-woo and all - you know, for the environment...

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: ...And also for the people who manufacture our clothes.

SANDERS: Yeah.

GIVHAN: You know, I always try to remind people that if you're buying a $10 T-shirt, somewhere along the way, someone got really screwed in its production.

SANDERS: Yeah. I'm going to be thinking about my Old Navy runs in a different light now.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Maybe fewer of those.

GIVHAN: I'm not completely saying you should never go into - you know, you shouldn't look for a deal or you shouldn't go into Old Navy. But I just think that we should do so with much more - with greater thought.

SANDERS: Yeah. I like that. I like that.

Well, hey, Robin. It's always a treat to talk to you. Let's do it again sometime soon. And, you know, I told you that was my last question. But my last, last question - and this is really to feel better about myself - you got - I mean, you are a fashion critic for The Washington Post. But if you can tell me and our listeners that you, too, own a pair of comfy sweatpants, we'll all feel a bit better about ourselves.

GIVHAN: (Laughter).

SANDERS: You got at least one? At least one?

GIVHAN: I absolutely own...

SANDERS: OK, OK.

GIVHAN: ...Sweatpants...

SANDERS: Good, good.

GIVHAN: ...That I love and are...

SANDERS: OK.

GIVHAN: ...Super, super comfortable.

SANDERS: OK. Good.

GIVHAN: And because I'm weird, after I finish my, you know, work-from-home day, I change out of my clothes and into my sweatpants.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Thanks again to Robin Givhan. She is the senior critic-at-large at The Washington Post.

All right, listeners, don't forget; this Friday, we are back in your feeds with another episode. And for that one, we want to hear from you, per usual, sharing the best things that have happened to you all week. Record yourself on your phone and send those audio files to me via email. Email samsanders@npr.org - samsanders@npr.org.

All right, listeners, until Friday, thanks for listening. Be good to yourselves, and wear whatever you want. I'm Sam Sanders. We'll talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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