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Models walk at the Prada Fall/Winter 2021 Womenswear fashion show.Handout

“Fashion is that horrid little man with an evil eye who tells you that your last winter’s coat may be in perfect physical condition, but you can’t wear it,” Elizabeth Hawes writes in Fashion is Spinach. “You can’t wear it because it has a belt and this year ‘we are not showing belts.’ ”

When the pioneering designer wrote this in her her witty insider’s critique of industry principles, the year was 1938. Such style diktats don’t carry as much weight as they once did, but even in the current anything-goes economy, seasonal fashion fads have been hanging on. It isn’t a bug – it’s by design. If fashion had the Five Stages of Fad, they’d be Dismay, Coveting, Acceptance, Ubiquity and Contempt.

Fads have been inescapably tied to disposable clothing and I’ve long shared Hawes’s cynical view of the fashion system’s accelerated business model of planned obsolescence. The dramatic lifestyle shifts of the past year amidst a pandemic have changed what people expect of clothes and revealed how the wasteful short-term tenure of a fad is antithetical to quality, longevity and ethics.

Fashion critics have been been writing (and dreaming) about a postfad universe while wrestling with how to reconcile the appetite for new ideas with the untenable pace of the industry for years. The refrain usually goes something like: “The fad is dead. Here’s what you’ll have in your closet this season instead. Seven new items to know and love!” – followed by a retail roundup of products helpfully grouped into, well, fads.

How designers and professionals are adapting to the new work wardrobe

Thankfully we are now, by all accounts, in the midst of a great slowdown from the breakneck speed-to-market of constant and dramatic newness.

In April, Swiss investment bank UBS forecasted that growing awareness of the impact of fast fashion would likely result in as much as a 30-per-cent decline over the next five to 10 years. It suggested that “the compounding effect of consumers buying fewer items, but also shifting the purchases they do continue to make to items that they perceive to be more sustainable, could be severe.” Although the prediction was couched as a warning on stocks and profitability, the acknowledgement that public pressure campaigns are working and changing consumer attitudes and behaviour is welcome.

“Some 65 per cent of consumers in a McKinsey survey conducted during the COVID-19 crisis said they plan to purchase more long-lasting, high-quality items,” was the prediction in the “Less is More’” section of The State of Fashion 2021 report from the Business of Fashion website and global management consultant McKinsey & Company. “And overall, consumers considered ‘newness’ one of the least important factors in making purchases.”

But if the industry is trending towards more mindful consumption, what does that mean for the future of creativity? The many thinkpieces over the past year about reshaping the future of fashion emphasize a desire to leave trends behind. But it’s precisely the gradual shifts and thoughtful innovations of trendiness that move fashion forward. They also reflect our collective state of mind. The latter is particularly useful in the backward glance of fashion history and its study of material culture that, with the benefit of hindsight, provide valuable and nuanced insight into society as expressed through the changing shapes, silhouettes, and, yes, trends in clothes.

“Fashion is part of the daily air and it changes all the time, with all the events,” is how legendary editor Diana Vreeland put it. “You can even see the approaching of a revolution in clothes. You can see and feel everything in clothes.”

Designer Miuccia Prada articulated this recently when she spoke of her brand’s Fall 2021 collection, which was a return to principles. “By classic, I mean that it has passed the exam of history – the word ‘classic’ means there is something intrinsically necessary or clever about it, something meaningful,” she said. “I like the word ‘classic’ for that reason. It actually means something that is relevant to people, relevant to life. Often, it is very simple – through new materials, a different cut or context, something obvious, eternal, normal – with a simple gesture, it can transform.”

With less pressure to churn out fads, there’s an opportunity to refocus on a deeper form of creativity that explores ideas, rather than on change for its own sake. As Prada added, “a new energy, a new desire is mounting.” It’s not an oxymoron. That energy might be for so-called “revenge dressing” or the carefree ease of the Roaring Twenties (which has the sort of pleasing centenary symmetry that is catnip to style journalists and trend forecasters) or an enduring return to comfortable shoe styles rather than vertiginous heels, or ubiquitous elasticated waistbands.

Designers both anticipate and respond to what’s in the zeitgeist. How each metabolizes and translates these vague instincts into their collections will vary. But for the first time in decades, these trends hopefully won’t generate shopping lists – they’ll only make sense in the rear-view mirror.

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