Future of Fashion Retail, Thoughts

“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
Virginia Woolf

Yesterday was the birthday of my favourite Belgian designer, Dries Van Noten. Yesterday was also the day the Cannes Film Festival, a sartorial jamboree close akin to its Hollywood sisters, was supposed to have kicked off. Cannes is my favourite film festival, because its vibe is so European. The dresses are decidedly more chic and less prom queen. Julianne Moore always looks spectacular, ditto Tilda Swinton.
Below my favourite Swinton-look as she’s walking la Croisette. Coincidentally the outfit seems very “work from home” – friendly, thus much en vogue.

Swinton is wearing Haider Ackermann in Cannes, May 2013. It was an outfit that landed her both on best – and worst dressed lists. Photo by Getty Images.

Let’s take a quick moment to appreciate the outfit and the hair.


Now, back to today’s topic: future of fashion retail. Or, the ongoing speculations about the future of fashion retail.

A group of fashion designers and retailers (such as MyTheresa and Selfridges), fronted by Dries Van Noten, yesterday sent an open letter proposing to “reset” fashion’s deliveries and discounting calendar. In short, they want the fashion-seasons to correspond better with actual real-world seasons, and delay end-of year discounts that erode brand equity and profitability (this would in practise mean the death of Black Friday and similar end of year- markdown days). The Business of Fashion broke this news yesterday and wrote about it more extensively.

I’ve never sold clothes, but have bought some. It’s very clear that the clothing retail sector would have undergone seismic shifts (mainly further towards online retail) with or without pandemic, but my recent post-lockdown shopping experience got me thinking.

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Before I move on, an important notice: I do not, in any way complain about the safety measures in place, quite the contrary. These are personal observations about what shopping has, for the time being, become, and what impact it might have on the retail sector. Shopping for non-essentials is not a basic human right. *I have no problems with the current restrictions.*

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How are the specialised shops ever going to survive everybody’s mad rush to shop online, given that frequenting smaller shops was becoming so unpopular already pre-pandemic? Many people I know took their business online years ago because it is arguably very convenient, but also because they felt intimidated in smaller boutiques and wanted to try on clothes in the comfort of their own homes without extra pairs of eyes and/or opinions.

The new safety measures have brought about an unprecedented level of scrutiny and control inside the shops. Am I the only one who, in the earlier life, ever paused outside a tiny, exclusive shop just to see if anyone else was already inside, so as not to be the only customer because intimidating?
Well, I better get used to it now.

Hanging out and browsing is finished for a very, very long time being. You only want to go inside a shop if you already know what you want, buy it and leave as soon as possible. Touching items is (obviously) discouraged, which makes spur of the moment impulse buys basically impossible – and isn’t that one of the main point of any shop: to lure people in to browse nice things they do not necessary need, but quite fancy for themselves?

It’s tough for any shopkeeper, because their raison d’être is to sell as much stuff as possible. Add to that the overwhelming, almost unlimited selection that online retailers can offer, together with free return and exchange policy. It’s no wonder the sector is calling for action.

I did not go buying clothes this week, I must add, but I did lurk outside on the street and observed how people went about their shopping in those high street fashion boutiques that opened shop on Monday.

My first shop visit was to an atelier stationery shop around the corner for two reasons: First, I wanted to support them as much as possible. Second, I also knew that I will absolutely be the only customer there, because I’m very likely the only person to consider handmade stationery as essential business.

I also went to buy fabric for the face masks that I am making to raise money as part of my charity project. Inside the shop, after hand-sanitising, I was appointed a chaperone who would trail behind me and then measure and cut from my chosen fabric. Two things:
I like to fiddle with fabrics, I never know what exactly I want, I change my mind, I see something pretty that I did not come for but still actually need, oh and then there’s that as well!
The other thing: My assigned chaperone gave a very strong vibe that he’d rather teleworked on that particular day.
These two vibes did not harmoniously amalgamate on Monday.

Even though the economies and societies in Europe are slowly reopening as we speak, the mere opening of shops is not the end of the pandemic for fashion and clothes retail. “Let’s go shopping” is no longer a thing, and thinking back at the mad crowds in downtown Brussels every Saturday, it very much used to be. (Remember crowds?)

We have told to ask ourselves who made my clothes, but in the future we’ll probably need to ask ourselves where did we buy our clothes as well. What becomes of city centres if shops die?

I think about fashion almost as much as I think about my hair. Why is it thus? I shall reply with a poem this time, which I, very aptly, came across at the end of a recent Harper’s Bazaar editorial:

Still, what I want in my life
Is to be willing to be dazzled –
To cast aside the weight of facts
And maybe even to float a little
Above this difficult world.

Mary Oliver

The photo of me is obviously not recent – it’s taken almost two years ago. I chose it because I’m wearing Dries Van Noten in it, my hair is not being an asshole and it’s taken by a professional photographer Heli Sorjonen @helisorjonen in one of my favourite boltholes in Paris.

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