While no fashion editor trotted from show to show dressed in head-to-toe Look 5 from Christopher Kane, London Fashion Week was still a time to dress like the best version of yourself. At the very least, I’d get my roots done. Iron my shirt. Maybe put on a low heel. And then I’d moan about being stuck in heavy traffic as I traversed the city in a chauffeured car, before moaning about the tiny bench I’d been squeezed on to ahead of the next show starting.
Happy days. So much happier than the digital incarnation of London Fashion Week, which, thanks to Covid-19, was established last September and is where we find ourselves again this month. The only plus points about flipping open a laptop in my sweatpants to watch the Burberry show from the comfort of my own sofa is that it’s less time consuming and better for the environment. Two positives, for sure, but when it comes to appraising the state of the fashion industry in 2021, the negatives far outweigh them.
Worldwide, industry revenues have been decimated. After 4 per cent growth in 2019, profit is estimated to be down by 93 per cent year on year in 2020, according to a report by McKinsey. In January, a report by the UK’s Centre for Retail Research found that 2020 was the worst year for high-street job losses in more than 25 years, as the pandemic drove us to shop online. An estimated 320 shops closed every week, with 180,000 retail jobs lost.
Out of this long, hard winter of discontent, how will fashion emerge? Hopefully it will rise, phoenix-like from the ashes in Ancuta Sarca heels (she’s one to watch) and a Molly Goddard ball gown. After endless months in ketchup-stained hoodies, the desire to dress up is intense. ‘When this is all over, I’m going all-out — no nights in, no boring clothes,’ says the DJ Jodie Harsh. ‘It’s going to be time to celebrate life and express ourselves. I want sparkles, glitter, make-up and dancing shoes… and that’s just the men. It’ll be like when the Roaring Twenties hit, celebrating the joy of freedom and coming together.’
However deprived we’ve been of the opportunity to dress up, or the motive to buy clothes, one thing’s for sure: when we do eventually shrug off our loungewear, our shopping habits will have drastically changed. Even if we are desperate to browse the aisles in physical stores again, the high street that greets us will be a poorer place.
Last month, digital fast fashion group Boohoo bought Debenhams, the 243-year-old department store, for £55 million, but while it snapped up its website it declined to purchase its 130 stores. This was the same tactic Boohoo had adopted in June when it acquired the intellectual property and e-commerce businesses of Oasis and Warehouse. On 1 February, after months of rumour, Asos confirmed it had bought Topshop and Miss Selfridge in a £330m deal after parent company Arcadia collapsed into administration last year. Alas — though as a digital-first company, quite understandably — it failed to buy any of the brands’ remaining 70 stores. Out of 500 Arcadia stores, 50 had already been shut after administrators were appointed in November.
The loss of Toppers’ Oxford Circus store hits hard. For a generation of Londoners, not only was it a Mecca for the latest trends: it was a social hub, famous as much for its reputation as a hotspot for scouting models as for its clothes. Pre-Instagram, it was the only way for aspiring teenaged models to be spotted, as all the big agencies sent scouts to scour its shiny escalators for new faces. Forget Buckingham Palace: every sister, cousin and mum from out of town would make a beeline there when visiting London.
In Topshop’s heyday, the Oxford Circus branch was a treasure trove of clothes that simply weren’t available elsewhere, so the motive to visit it was strong. But the internet has democratised the buying process, allowing anyone anywhere to buy whatever is available at the click of a mouse. This isn’t a bad thing, of course, but it does somewhat alter the thrill of the chase. The thrill is still there, only it involves ‘drops’ at specific times, a trusty alarm clock and a reliable wi-fi connection. After months of stalking a certain streetwear label’s Instagram account, it finally announced a December drop on a specific date at a specific time. Unfortunately, I was in the middle of Kew Gardens with patchy 4G: by the time I’d managed to log on to the site, the item I wanted had sold out. In seven minutes.
Exciting as it feels to shop for drops, it’s a different sort of adrenaline rush from the one you experience when you clap eyes on something you love in a bricks-and-mortar store. I love the convenience of shopping online, but I miss the thrill of unearthing a vintage find in a charity shop or spotting an item I’ve been coveting for months reduced on a sale rail. Most of all, I miss stroking fabric, checking seams are straight and even trying things on (words I never thought I’d write). As a former shop girl at Miss Selfridge, I have a hate-hate relationship with changing rooms, having spent many hours hanging up dishevelled clothes cast on to the floor. But that’s a global pandemic for you: it makes you reassess the things you thought you hated and, with the passage of time (of which there’s been a surfeit), reappraise them.
Holli Rogers, CEO of Browns, believes bricks-and-mortar stores will bounce back. The 51-year-old luxury retailer is opening a new Mayfair flagship to prove it. ‘The response from our customers when our stores reopened after being closed for over three months last year was incredible,’ she says. ‘People want human connection more than ever, and they want to be inspired.’
It’s also likely that our enforced incarceration has acted as a reset, entrenching sustainable shopping habits that perhaps had previously eluded us. My own shopping rituals bring the 5:2 diet to mind: after months of consuming less, it’s made me more careful about the things I do consume. As if in anticipation of the fact that we’ll no longer run out mindlessly for a lunch break fashion fix, Zara’s parent company, Inditex, announced last year that it will close 1,200 stores globally, 16 per cent of its total. Which in no way indicates that the behemoth is in trouble: digital sales soared by 74 per cent from February to July 2020 compared with the same period in 2019.
While it’s champagne all round for online fast fashion retailers, for the designers at London Fashion Week, the future isn’t quite so bubbly. With sales already destroyed by the pandemic and the loss of tourist footfall into stores, the last thing London’s designers needed was Brexit — in particular, the end of the VAT Retail Export Scheme, which is forecast to cost retailers who sell to tourists more than £3.5 billion of tax-free retail sales. While it’s right that so much has been done to protect the fishing industry, it’s worth noting that the fashion and textiles industry contributes more to UK GDP than the fishing, music, film and motor industries combined — a staggering £35bn. Yet while the Government has offered the fishing industry a £23m support package, for fashion there is nothing.
Against this challenging financial backdrop, many London designers will be unable to afford to stage a catwalk show, even if they had wanted to. But that doesn’t mean the shows will die: their impact is too great, plus the socialising they engender is an important part of the equation. Deals don’t get done on Zoom calls: they get done at dinner. The shows are an ideas laboratory that are about so much more than just the clothes.
The pandemic has proved that fashion designers are nothing if not adaptable and resilient. They’ve had to be. Times have never been tougher, but out of the worst of times, the best of creativity grows. The retail sector employs 3.2 million people across the UK: we can’t afford to lose it. When it comes to preserving and supporting the British fashion industry, we all have our part to play.
If you love fashion, put your money where your heart is.