It started with all the talk about how we were going back. Back to the office. Back to normalcy after two years of pandemic upheavals. Back to — maybe — actual dressing. Remember?
Turns out, when it came to fashion, one part of that was exactly right. In 2023, we went back. And not just to big 1980s shoulders and bigger Edwardian sleeves or even Y2K trends: low-rise cargos, cropped tops, Uggs.
But back to skinny models. Back to mostly white men getting the top jobs at big fashion brands. Back to the flying circus of destination show spectacles. Back to fast fashion. Backward.
With great influence (influence being the currency of fashion as it intersects with culture) comes great responsibility, to paraphrase both Spider-Man and Winston Churchill. Yet for an industry that is supposed to be about the future, it was an awfully retrograde year.
After a messy period of confusion about what happens next — maybe the metaverse, with all that implies about identity and self-expression and clothes; maybe a change in the system so we could right-season and get sales under control; definitely a future dedicated to inclusivity, diversity and cultural sensitivity — fashion is, in many ways, in the same place it was in 2019.
The first sign was on the runways. Despite real change when it comes to racial inclusivity, size inclusivity was practically nonexistent. According to Vogue Business, “95.6 percent of looks” in the fall 2023 shows, which took place in February and March, were between US size 0 and 4. Only 0.6 percent were plus size (defined as size 14 and up; the remaining 3.8 percent were midsize, or size 6 to 12).
In the most recent spring 2024 shows, held in September and October, 0.9 percent of the models were plus size, while 3.9 percent were midsize. That doesn’t even begin to take into account the narrow representations of age and physical ability.
Backstage at many shows, chaos and public nudity, decried during the immediate aftermath of the #MeToo movement, returned. The Fashion Worker’s Act, a bill introduced in New York to address the rights of models and other contract workers, fell victim to legislative gridlock and was tabled in the State Assembly until next year.
By summer, it was clear that despite the pandemic-induced hiccup in the show system, there would not be fewer shows; there would be more, involving more travel, more hoopla and more products. Not only did brands that had resisted coming back, like Ralph Lauren, stage a return to the official schedules, but mega-brands like Dior and Vuitton added new interim shows to their circuit — Dior holding its prefall show in Mumbai and Vuitton, men’s prefall in Hong Kong.
And those were just two of the destination blowouts that took place. Others included Carolina Herrera in Rio, Gucci in Seoul, MaxMara in Stockholm, Boss in Miami.
“We didn’t really learn anything from Covid-19,” Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino told me in late 2022, and it was clear he was right.
Come October, a flurry of new designer appointments took place, and though the arrival of Pharrell Williams at Louis Vuitton men’s wear in February had been an unmistakable jolt to the status quo, it turned out to be the exception, not the rule. Among the nine designers named to big jobs in 2023, there was one woman (Chemena Kamali at Chloé), one person of color (Mr. Williams) and seven white men. Many of those men didn’t just have similar resumes, they had similar facial hair.
Finally, at her spring show and at COP28, Stella McCartney showcased new materials — biodegradable sequins! Biofluff plant-based-fur! — but evidence suggests that promising as they are, such pilots are not scalable enough to make any real difference. Mylo, the mushroom leather Ms. McCartney championed in 2021 and 2022, was discontinued by its parent company, Bolt Threads, and Renewcell, the largest textile-to-textile recycling plant in the world, is pausing production, both for lack of demand. Despite incremental advances from LVMH and the members of the Fashion Pact like Kering and Prada, the industry has yet to grapple with its most elemental issue: its sheer amount of stuff.
Indeed, speaking of stuff, Shein, the biggest and fastest of the ultrafast fashion giants, recently valued at $66 billion, reportedly filed to go public, suggesting that no one thinks the consumption model is going away any time soon. Nor are the problems with supply chains. Transparentem, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental and human rights abuses, recently released a new investigation highlighting wage slavery in factories in Mauritius that produce goods for, among other Western brands, Diesel, Armani and PVH, which owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. While some of those brands have been responsive to the findings and worked to remediate the situation, others have remained silent.
“We had a phase of awareness,” said Achim Berg, a senior partner at McKinsey & Company and one of the leaders of McKinsey’s global Apparel, Fashion & Luxury Group. “Then a phase of commitment.” But we have not, he said, made enough of a leap to action. Instead, fashion, nervous in the face of an uncertain political and economic environment, is crossing its fingers, hoping technology comes to the rescue, and defaulting to the familiar while it waits.
Still, looking ahead to 2024, there are some glimmers of disruption. The recent return of full-on red carpet eccentricity after the SAG-AFTRA strike has been a reminder of the joy, and complexities, of dressing up, suggesting this could be an awards season to remember. The chaos of New York Fashion Week, full of upstart brands by nontraditional designers defining success on their own terms and with their own fan base, is exciting.
The big brands that made the most waves — Loewe, Bottega Veneta and Miu Miu — did so because of their inherent idiosyncrasy, the willingness of the designers Jonathan Anderson, Matthieu Blazy and Miuccia Prada to pave their own peculiar paths. To, for example, change the silhouette by redefining high-rise pants (Loewe) or transforming leather pants into denim (Blazy) or getting rid of pants entirely (MiuMiu). Phoebe Philo came back under her own name and in her own way: online, without any formal marketing fanfare, at the most luxurious of price points, practically demanding her clothes be viewed as long-term investments.
Maybe it will work. Maybe it won’t. But at least she’s trying something new.