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In early December, Chanel debuted its latest Métiers d’Art collection at a swanky new headquarters for its artisan studios on the outskirts of Paris. The show, which highlights the embroiderers, metalsmiths and milliners behind its collections, brought fashion to life in a way that’s been absent in the digital presentations explored by luxury brands throughout the pandemic.

The show was one of many fall events that signalled a return to the globetrotting, multi-seasonal extravaganzas that once packed the industry calendar. There was also Louis Vuitton’s men’s show in Miami during Art Basel, Gucci’s takeover of Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles and Alexander McQueen’s women’s-wear showcase staged in a transparent bubble high atop London.

Alexander McQueen’s women’s-wear showcase was staged in a transparent bubble high atop London.Handout

The return to in-person shows with blockbuster budgets, which began last September, reflect how brands are eager to reclaim the buzz that was lost when they switched to virtual events. According to online activity tracker Launchmetrics, London Fashion Week experienced 55-per-cent less social media engagement for its all-digital Spring 2021 season. But it also highlights how the call to revamp the hamster-wheel timing and presentation of new collections that came at the start of the pandemic has been tricky to implement.

In May, 2020, designer Dries Van Noten spearheaded the Forum Letter, an open letter to the fashion world that took the industry to task for being unsustainable, both business-wise and environmentally. The missive, also signed by the likes of designers Angela Missoni and Gabriela Hearst, and Nordstrom president Pete Nordstrom, decried the proliferation of fashion seasons that led to a rapid cycle of deep discounting in-store. Online outlet Business of Fashion led another proposal, Rewiring Fashion, which suggested that the industry shift its Fashion Weeks to January and June to allow designers to show closer to when collections hit stores.

Among the Rewiring Fashion signatories was Elizabeth Bowring, a professor at Palimoda Fashion School in Florence, Italy, who was the head of catwalks for trend forecaster WGSN at the time. “I really felt we needed to project ourselves into the future and think about the future fashion leaders,” she says. “I felt that the younger designers were being left behind and their voices were not being heard.”

In addition to signing the document, Bowring developed her own plan, which centred creativity as the catalyst for change. “Creativity exists not just in creating fashion, but it’s also in how you can create out of our fashion world,” she says, citing digital fashion shows, a focus on ethical, slow design and rejigging the seasonality of Fashion Weeks as concrete steps forward.

While Bowring says that all these scenarios came to fruition early in the pandemic, they were eventually put on the backburner by many luxury conglomerates and brands in favour of returning to old standards only a few months later – a move that doesn’t surprise Bowring. “Money is more important than whatever else is important in this world,” she says, noting that those steering the ship benefit from the existing structures.

Smaller designers, however, had the most to gain by switching things up. For Canadian designers, keeping up with the industry’s demanding expectations has always been challenging. It’s an issue the pandemic has only exacerbated, with local designers left holding the bag for orders cancelled by locked-down retailers and increased pressure to churn out a slick e-commerce presence.

Calgary designer Paul Hardy, who also signed Business of Fashion’s letter, moved away from seasonal collections entirely, opting for made-to-order capsule collections instead. “I became disillusioned by the commercialism of fashion and missed the artisanal aspect to design,” he says.

For some smaller designers, the open letters did signal the start of something new. “It was a vote of confidence that we could stand up for ourselves, that the whole industry felt similar,” says Parris Gordon, one of the designers of Toronto label Beaufille. “We are doing our own thing, but we are also working to meet the needs of our retailers,” she says about shifting the timing of her company’s collections.

The onset of the pandemic forced Gordon and her sister, co-designer Chloé Gordon, to launch their own e-commerce platform, something that has opened a new revenue stream and allowed them to offload older merchandise through successful archive sales. Direct-to-consumer sales provide an alternative business model that is not tied to the rush to discount favoured by most mass retailers.

“Since the 2008 recession, [deliveries of merchandise] have just gotten earlier and earlier, and constant promotions begin there,” says Lanita Layton, a luxury consultant and previously an executive at Hugo Boss, Birks and Holt Renfrew. “Now we see a decrease in that, but I don’t think sales like Black Friday will ever go away.”

According to Moneris, Canada’s largest provider of mobile, online and in-store payments, Black Friday 2020 overtook Boxing Day, a trend that was predicted to continue into 2021. “For department stores and those feeling the only way to compete with them is to follow suit, the promotional and discount cycle seems entrenched,” Layton says. “Everyone is in the cycle of, ‘Who is jumping off the cliff first?’”

This season, however, deep discounting may be showing signs of slowing. Many luxury brands held off on promoting sales until after Christmas, or haven’t been advertising them at all, instead favouring private sales for top clients. According to Layton, recent supply-chain issues will give luxury retailers an added reason to rethink the timing of promotions.

Chanel debuted its latest Métiers d’Art collection at a swanky new headquarters for its artisan studios on the outskirts of Paris.MATHIEU BONNIN/Handout

Despite the lack of a cohesive effort to reframe fashion’s direction, the past many months have shown that the industry is more flexible about its future. “For us, it’s not gone back to normal. We’re trying to reimagine what from here on looks like for us,” says Phillip Lim, the designer behind New York label 3.1 Phillip Lim. Since the pandemic, Lim has reduced the size of his collections and opted out of in-person fashion shows. “Our footprint is a lot smaller, and we are reimagining how to use resources more wisely.”

When asked if he is worried about losing market share as a result of slowing things down, Lim doesn’t seem too concerned. “We’re still part of an industry that preys on being in the [spotlight], and it depends how much you want to play into it,” he says. “There’s a cost of not playing into it – you’re not the darling – but at the same time, it’s not about being the darling, it’s about doing what’s right for you.”

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