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Moved by the Pandemic, Designers Put Sustainability Front and Center in Spring Collections

2020 was chock full of debates over how fashion and the concept of fashion week would change in a post-pandemic world. Conversations about the impending new world began as early as February—a whirlwind time that saw the usual vital energy of Fall/Winter 20-21 Milan and Paris fashion weeks eclipsed by growing fear and uncertainty about Covid-19.

But months later, with cases rising again and parts of Europe entering a second lockdown, what the world watched during Spring/Summer ’21 fashion month was an example of what fashion week looks like in the midst of a pandemic. Designers offered more escapist joy than fashion watchers expected, but the real big reveal was an industry that is working hard to reduce waste, respect the Earth’s ecosystems and lean into—well, being lean.

WGSN head of catwalks Lizzy Bowring reported that the pandemic posed “burning questions” around the traditional fashion system’s long-held expectations and heightened awareness of oft-overlooked sustainable (and often more efficient) alternatives. “Sustainability is a commodity that should be at the core of every fashion house,” Bowring said. “The fact that this pandemic forced its survival out into the open was tremendous.”

To draw a direct correlation between the Covid-19 pandemic and the sector’s environmental awakening on the S/S ’21 runway would oversimplify the inroads designers are making in sustainable fashion because sustainability, if nothing else, is a never-ending work in progress. Every fashion week, designers bring more collections to the table produced with sustainable elements. Each new line is more aesthetically pleasing and offers greater commercial appeal than the last.

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In some ways the pandemic was a boon to designers, offering the rare opportunity to stop, regroup and reflect on their own contribution to the industry’s mounting environmental fallout. Just as quarantine for many around the world became a time to reexamine relationships, reconsider career paths and revisit values, Bowring said the pandemic “allowed designers time to reset, reevaluate, and reposition their brands.” The commodity of time offered players the chance to pare back the size and frequency of their collections and become better acquainted with sustainable fibers—those that are responsibly engineered or that inherently exist in nature.

While natural fibers are a seasonal favorite, Fashion Snoops material editor Nia Silva noted the widespread use of organic flax and organic cotton across S/S ’21 collections. From new youthful labels like Ottolinger, which offered organic cotton smock dresses and raw-hem tops, to heritage brands like Dior—which stepped away from its oft-dreamy designs in favor of a collection based on sleek, comfortable and wearable separates—the move to natural fibers reflected the growing demand for easy-care, durable fashion.

Linen’s versatility stood out in collections as well, adding unexpected beauty and tension to designer wares. Fendi’s ethereal linen organza spoke to the simplicity of sustainable fashion, while the perfect imperfections of MSGM’s linen denim embraced the fiber’s natural character. “While the use of organic and other certified cotton options is becoming more mainstream, this season really shone the light on linen,” said Julia Skliarova, WGSN’s senior editor, textiles, adding that the fiber’s “hardwearing practicality” and “sustainable role in regenerative agriculture” make it a viable alternative to cotton.

When speaking of sustainable fibers, materials and best practices, “Stella McCartney rules,” said Mitchell Kass, president and creative director of the trend forecasting agency Trend Council. A pioneer in sustainable fashion before it was in vogue, the designer has helped normalize recycled and ethically sourced fibers such as elevated faux fur and leather alternatives at the premium level, he added.

Prior to releasing its S/S ’21 video presentation, Stella McCartney published its “Eco Impact Report 2018/2019” that used capital accounting to measure its environmental impacts. “Positively, our results showed a slight decrease,” the report stated, showing 2018’s 8.22 million euro ($9.69 million) impact shrinking to 8.21 million euros ($9.67 million) last year. The S/S ’21 collection continued this progress. More than half of the sport-themed lineup’s fabrics were “certified” sustainable, including form-fitting silhouettes achieved with ribbed organic cotton knits and scraps of lace stitched into dresses.

In particular, the designer’s seamless shapewear made with Roica Eco-Smart fibers, an elastane produced from pre-consumer recycled content, and Econyl, a regenerated nylon from ocean plastics and textiles, is a fabrication to watch for its dual-gender appeal and readiness for both ready-to-wear and active products, said Benjamin Ayer, lead consultant for Benjamin Bellwether. Stella McCartney is also arguably the most prestigious label among the pack of denim purveyors integrating biodegradable stretch denim fabrics by Candiani Denim into S/S ’21 jeans collections.

“Stella remains a leader in [terms] of how sustainable business practices can still translate to chic garments,” Ayer said.

Denim, in general, has been hugely important amid the pandemic, serving as the foundation for timeless staples that consumers crave when faced with uncertainty, Silva said. The durable, time-honored fabric was a natural choice for upcycled and patchwork designs.

“This held true for designers as well, with a number of conscious collections honing in on indigo, from Marques Almeida’s upcycled patchwork styles to recycled fibers at Vivienne Westwood,” she said. Even Balmain—a French label that exudes excess, decided to tackle the eco conversation with its use of denim fabrics, Silva added. Creative director Olivier Rousteing claimed the line incorporated all sustainable denim fabrics for the first time this season.

Upcycled denim popped up in collections by marquee names like Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana as well, tapping denim’s versatility for their mixed-media patchwork and fabric blocking, Ayer said. It was also a part of the S/S ’21 Oak & Acorn—Only for the Rebelles collection, which combined deadstock denim with hand-dyed indigo West African cotton and fabrics crafted from hemp and recycled cotton.

“Sustainability hasn’t always been top of mind for previous fashion weeks, but I think there’s a noticeable shift happening in the way designers are sourcing and leveraging materials for their collections post pandemic,” Silva said.

The strongest sustainable messages for the season, she reported, were exemplified by the vast display of material mixing and upcycled fabrics. A number of designers like Gabriela Hearst, Collina Strada and Marni strayed away from virgin materials, instead opting for deadstock fabrics, most of which they sourced from previous collections, as their new upcycled medium. Fashion search engine Tagwalk reported that 14.4 percent of S/S ’21 collections featured sustainable, upcycled or responsible products or ways of producing—213 percent more compared with F/W ’20-21.

Indeed, Skliarova said several fashion houses touted upcycled garments. “Spliced and manipulated fabrics, engineered patchworks and openwork that we have seen as part of tighter edits from the likes of Acne Studios and Marina Moscone emerged as key trims and details for this season,” she said.

For many designers, elevating scraps and deadstock into new fashion became an effective way to fill pandemic-induced gaps in their supply chains. “The use of deadstock and recycled patchworks are by no means a new concept, and trailblazers like Bethany Williams have been using these methods from the ethical standpoint, but the lack of new fabrics due to mill closures during the pandemic has accelerated resourcefulness out of necessity,” Skliarova said.

Using material that already exists is also an easy first step into operating sustainably. “Upcycling and using deadstock were the buzz words for S/S ’21 and a fast way for designers to get on the sustainability bandwagon,” Kass said. Most notable for this, he added, is Gabriela Hearst, who in September won the CFDA’s Womenswear Designer of the Year. The American designer made her Paris Fashion Week debut with a S/S ’21 collection inspired by a shell bracelet given to her by her mother as a child that was made entirely of deadstock fabrics. Her garments also featured QR code labels that share their supply-chain journey from factory to runway.

In a poetic message illustrating the fine line between art and waste, Boss printed the artist William Farr’s creations onto leftover fabric. Preen by Thornton Bregazzi followed suit with a collection showcasing at least 70 percent deadstock fabrics and recycled garments. Meanwhile, Phoebe English’s eight-piece “Nothing New” collection exemplified how sustainable apparel (as well as zero-waste pattern cutting) embodies catwalk appeal. “She only uses deadstock fabrics and finds low-impact trims to finish the garments,” Ayer said.

If consumers latch onto the “make more with less” narrative, “it could bode well for designers who can use leftover fabric in limited runs, regional exclusives and more,” Ayer said. “It helps a brand’s CSR practices but also has the added benefit of exclusivity and luxury.” It would also give brands a more creative strategy to market sustainable fashion compared to the traditional “go green” messages that now feel redundant and hollow.

“This type of mentality is good for any fashion brand looking to make their sustainable fashion runway-worthy,” Ayer said.

Season of change

The pandemic was the impetus, but the seeds for change were planted well before the crisis struck.

“Discussions prior to March had already been in existence about how to change an already broken fashion system, driven by questions around sustainability, designer burnout, avarice, not to mention the question around how will brands reach out to a newly cognizant audience…,” Bowring said. Fashion watchers, she added, were also questioning if creativity was being sacrificed for the sake of “turning in a never-ending hamster wheel.”

The pandemic brought these realizations to light and became the tipping point for big names including Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele to abandon the “worn-out ritual” of fashion seasons and for Yves Saint Laurent to ditch the remainder of the 2020 fashion calendar altogether—decisions that come with sustainable gains if executed responsibly. “The endless seasons have always posed increased challenges to the supply chain with a profound effect on the environment,” Bowring said. “The shorter fashion weeks will also become a normal practice.”

Another positive, Moylan said, was the proliferation of smaller collections. “We finally saw designers scale their collections back to fewer, more impactful looks rather than never-ending parades,” she said. “This is something we’ve talked about a lot at Fashion Snoops; the need in this cultural climate to really take a step back, cut down on the fluff and make sure that every single item in a collection has a purpose.”

The pandemic also sped up fashion week’s digitization. With bans restricting travel and social distancing guidelines in place, the pandemic kicked fashion week’s digital transformation into high gear and forced designers who once turned their nose up at social media’s democratizing influence to embrace the medium to share their seasonal story. Tagwalk reported that physical runway shows represented just 36.3 percent of designers’ presentations for S/S ’21 with the remaining opting for look books or video presentations of some kind.

In a macro sense, Silva pointed out that the “popularity of virtual shows this season was a huge step forward in cutting back on fashion’s gigantic carbon footprint.”

With the absence of many physical shows this season, Moylan said designers went to great lengths to illustrate the inspiration behind their collections. “There is nothing quite like the thrill of a live fashion show, however the virtual presentations were a strong sign of resiliency,” she said. “The crisis pushed designers to new creative and experimental heights.”

Even before the pandemic, Ayer said fashion marketers were asking themselves how they could maximize a collection and online impressions. “With digital show infrastructure being put into place by so many brands, it will provide more opportunities for brands to do just that,” he said. “We may see large conglomerates like LVMH set up digital runway shows for their brands with virtual visitors, while still providing opportunities for in-person shows.”

With a combination of socially distanced or no-audience physical shows and an influx of virtual media that allowed watchers to remotely experience runway collections, S/S ’21 marked “the first truly hybrid fashion week,” Moylan said. It’s a strategy that experts agreed has staying power even when Covid eventually subsides. “The digital aspect proved effective to the extent that I think moving forward, most brands will incorporate a strong virtual strategy even when we are able to travel and return to physical shows,” she added.

For designers, Bowring said the interim will serve as a “litmus” test to prove to the world how they can transform a negative into a positive. “The demand to continue in the same positive manner has forced many to reevaluate what they stand for and then look to a new way forward,” she said. In some ways, hybrid strategies may become the great equalizer. Ayer said he anticipates seeing smaller brands band together to drum up ways to remain competitive during fashion week by hosting events like digital runway shows.

Though there were only 80 S/S ’21 runway shows compared to the 248 for F/W 20-21, Kass pointed out that the fact that any physical runway shows took place as the industry tries to rebuild itself “gives credit to the spirit of creativity.”

And don’t count out the full return of fashion shows just yet. “Old habits die hard,” Bowring quipped, implying that traditional in-person runway shows will continue to be reserved for buyers, while digital events will be a marketing tool for designers to woo and wow their global audience.

“Fashion shows are a means of conveying the designer’s vision, so the look, touch, feel and taste of a show is critical, adding weight to the narrative,” she said. “There is something quite exciting, dynamic and vulnerable about seeing a show, as well as the social dialogue that exists around collections. These are just part of a fashion show dynamic and one which will be hard to replace.”

This article appears in Rivet’s circularity report “In the Round.” Click here to download the full report.