Mall brands used to go to fashion week. Around the 2010s, companies with mall stores across the U.S. were starting to flirt with runway shows or participate in events surrounding New York Fashion Week.
Now, many of those companies that were edging in on the fashion elite are struggling to survive. Which isn't to say that luxury fashion is doing much better. COVID-19 has done a number on the apparel industry as a whole, with clothing and accessories down an incomprehensible 89% year over year from last April.
The entire industry, from mid-tier brands to established fashion houses, is reassessing how to market, display and sell apparel. What may at first glance look like a simple reassessment of fashion events reaches into deeper areas of discussion, including a disappearing middle class, questions around sustainability, and keeping models and buyers alike from getting sick at runway shows.
In the late 2000s into the 2010s, malls made it possible to find a category of clothing that didn't quite hit luxury prices or prestige, but still had a hint of aspiration. These clothes, when compared to fast fashion's $20 dress offerings were (in theory) a step up in quality with a known label.
Mall brands were more approachable merely because we knew them. Brand logos were visually recognizable, and it was notable when a colleague or friend had on a particular piece. They were the labels that could still make an impression, but weren't so outrageous that people were confused by what you were wearing. Because, when it comes down to it, there are only about 4,000 people globally who buy haute couture.
That, combined with the increased appearance of influencers at fashion weeks in the 2010s and the Great Recession leaving everybody broke for a number of years, meant that there was some elbow room at the table for more attainable brands to experiment with high-fashion.
J. Crew famously embodied this spirit during Jenna Lyons' tenure. In the late 2000s, then-first lady Michelle Obama was a fan of the company, wearing the brand's apparel at events, including accessories at both of President Barack Obama's inaugurations.
"They had this Obama glow-up that also helped them get more press and publicity than other brands did," said fashion designer and teacher Zoe Hong, regarding J. Crew. "They took that opportunity, that press created by Michelle Obama, and made things more expensive and less accessible."
"That wasn't the point of J. Crew," Hong added.
In 2011, the company appeared at New York Fashion Week. Vogue, at the time, wrote that J. Crew, "might not be pushing capital-F fashion forward, but it is influencing and, one could argue, changing the way real women dress. So why not show in Lincoln Center during New York Fashion Week?"
Other brands followed. Banana Republic as recently as 2017 partnered with Olivia Palmero to create pop-up shops at New York Fashion Week. "We just started with an inspiration board of Olivia's favorite things, and brought it together with our BR aesthetic," the company wrote at the time about the collaboration.
While latching on to New York Fashion Week could perhaps, in the best-case scenario, give gravitas and fashion cred to brands, some simply broke away and did runway presentations themselves. The biggest example, of course, is Victoria's Secret. In its broadcast debut in 2001, Victoria's Secret's fashion show was watched by 12 million viewers and in doing so launched two decades worth of angel-winged Halloween costumes. Until the entire thing crashed and burned in the summer of 2019.
But, in order to have a vibrant customer base that is clamoring for quasi-prestige apparel and impressed by the glitz of the runway, you need one important thing: shoppers who have disposable income. "You need a thriving middle class to shop that price point," said Hong. And, as The National Bureau of Economic Research stated this week, a recession actually began in the U.S. in February, pre-pandemic, thus ending the longest period of economic growth since the mid-1800s.
The pullback in spending of the American consumer may have been apparel's blind spot the entire time — and it's been happening for years at a slow burn. There simply was not a wake-up call with apparel retailers that economic realities were changing. According to a Deloitte report last year, "Only 20 percent of consumers were meaningfully better off in 2017 than they were in 2007, with precious little income left to spend on discretionary retail."
This means that apparel brands were experimenting with investing in the glamour of runway rather than understanding the economics impacting their customer base. The signs were there the entire time, but companies either didn't have a long view of the reality they were entering into or had the hubris to think that things would never change. J. Crew missed it when they took steps away from preppy basics. Banana Republic didn't address that the American workplace was becoming more casual. And Victoria's Secret thought that sex would always sell, instead of understanding that marketing to women could happen outside of the male gaze.
And now all of those companies, and many more, are teetering toward extinction. J. Crew filed for bankruptcy in early May, Banana Republic's parent company, Gap Inc. reported nearly $1 billion in losses in the most recent quarter, and between Sycamore Partners backing out of its agreement to purchase a 55% stake in the company and controversy over Les Wexner being in business with Jeffrey Epstein, Victoria's Secret is an all-around hot mess.
The future of fashion week
It may not be problematic that these once accessible brands can't reach the upper echelons of fashion anymore, simply because the future of fashion week itself is in question.
Runway shows have been rife with problems for a while, pre-dating the onset of COVID-19. First, there's the sheer cost. A 2019 Vogue Business article estimated the price tag of a roughly ten-minute show as somewhere between $125,000 to over $300,000. And that may not always include the price of samples.
Fashion shows are also increasingly questioned in terms of sustainability. This could be seen in the cringe-inducing Saint Laurent Spring / Summer 2020 menswear show last July. The fashion house, which had initially been denied a permit to hold the event, went on to debut its collection at a hidden beach in Malibu. In doing so, Malibu's local government said that the runway event disturbed the environment, culminating in interrupting the patterns of the grunion fish, which were expected to spawn on the sand the evening of the show.
But all of this, as Joey would say, may be a moo point, because of a more immediate threat.
For those who run in fashion week circles — buyers, designers, models, press, insta-famous personalities — fashion flu is a real occurrence. Combine shows, being smashed into small quarters, pettiness regarding the frow, all that sitting around and waiting, and then all the getting up and rushing to events where you are, once again, smashed together. And then there's all the getting smashed. It's really just a series of weeks that involves a lot of smashing, which ultimately leads to everyone's immune systems getting run down while simultaneously sharing all of those glamorous germs.
What once could be seen as a rough couple of weeks after the fashion cycle calmed down, though, is much more serious in a COVID-19 world. Which is making everyone, including luxury fashion, rethink the entire concept of how to show and market apparel.
In May, the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council put out a joint statement calling for changes in the industry, foremost being that fashion must slow down. They are pushing for a slower collection cycle, a shift for retail to sell in-season apparel and, amazingly, a call for showrooming versus runway. Essentially, they are calling for an overhaul of the approach to luxury fashion.
If luxury is in the midst of changing both brand building and selling, other apparel retailers will have to think more creatively about marketing and selling, too. Fewer collections and pulling back on the insanity of fashion month sets different expectations because runway shows are, at their core, trade shows.
While there is still room for mid-tier brands to creatively experiment on how to brand build, and that doesn't discount glamour, more basic questions of who the audience is and what they actually need have to be addressed in order for brands to survive.