Designing for a Post-Pandemic World

In the midst of a retail apocalypse designers are faced with a new dilemma...

Key Takeaways

  1. The current recession is changing the way consumers shop.
  2. Along with rising unemployment and a decrease in discretionary spending, buyers are becoming more concerned with utility and sustainability.
  3. Designers will have to adapt to this shift in the market, taking into consideration the value of the goods they are creating before going into production.

In the midst of a retail apocalypse designers are faced with a new dilemma: continuing to produce clothing for seasonal trend-cycles or learning to design for a more sustainable future.

After the financial meltdown of 2008 sales declined at major department stores, yet celebrity-inspired fashion trends continued to cycle as usual, with only a hint of depression. Wool fedoras and skull-adorned Ed Hardy hoodies were in, and style icons like Mary Kate and Ashley Olsen could be spotted in ripped jeans, black oversized knits, Rayban aviators, and sold-out Balenciaga Motorcycle Bags. These outfits didn’t symbolize economic decline as much as they did a new kind of sartorial slumming: expensive, gothic-inspired looks that echoed the excess of the early aughts in emo form.  

Today’s recession promises to be more impactful, both on our wallets and our ability to express our frustration through our clothes. Not only is the unemployment rate poised to surpass that of the great depression, but we’re stuck indoors with only our Instagram accounts as tools for self-expression. With department stores and major retailers like J. Crew shuttering en-masse and suppliers running out of room to store unsold merchandise, the moment feels ripe for an industry-wide revolution. But what should fashion look like at a time when so many of us are living off government subsidies and credit card debt? Is the future of fashion design protective face masks and disposable sweatsuits? Or can we use this moment to build a more sustainable future, where clothing is created to last longer than a season?

Ashley Olsen, May 2020

The fashion industry didn’t always base production around quarterly shows and social media-inspired trends. Luxury once equated to timeless goods instead of sneakers and synthetic fabrics, and even department store basics were once built to last. This all changed with the globalization of the fashion industry in the 1980s, and the rise of fast-fashion in the early aughts. Access to cheap production resulted in cheaply-made clothes and the rise of worker exploitation in developing nations. Today, monopoly platforms like Amazon and Alibaba have exacerbated these problems, turning fast fashion items into disposable clothing seemingly designed to fall apart after one wear. All of this has culminated in a rapid trend cycle dictated by social media influencers and media-savvy brands, resulting in the proliferation of exploitative business practices and an unimaginable amount of waste. Yet after only a few months on lockdown, it feels as though all of this might change. 

With the rise of a global pandemic comes a new understanding of the impact that shopping has on our planet. “It brands” like Ganni are already looking for ways to upcycle last-season’s garments while luxury designers are praising the decline of seasonal shows. But what does this mean for young brands? Designing for the post-COVID 19 consumer might look like creating more sustainably produced sweaters and face masks made from fabric scraps; but it also means tossing out Pantone-inspired trends and clubwear designed for Instagram. When tens of thousands of people are dying due in large part to our allegiance to capitalism, five-inch stilettos in high-visibility hues are no longer desirable and neither are rompers that can only be worn during spring. If “making a t-shirt is not the answer,” as Natasha Stagg tweeted recently, what is?

Walter Van Beirendonck, S/S 1998

In a post-pandemic world, clothing purchases are more likely to be based on needs, rather than a need to be noticed, and designers will have to adapt. But that doesn’t mean that athleisure and outerwear will be the only items in-demand. Good designers know how to create desirable goods without throwing out their brand-identities or succumbing to Berghain-esque austerity. If we’ve learned anything from the trend toward utilitarianism in the past few years it’s that useful garments don’t need to look bland. This is not to say that Patagonia fleeces and I.AM.GIA cargo pants are the future of fashion, but rather that brands should consider the value of the goods they are creating before putting them into production. As Miuccia Prada once said: “When everything has been done, sometimes the only possibility left to be different is the idea of the traditional and the conservative.” In other words: we can all have our own traditions, but it no longer makes sense to keep replicating each other’s.