Front of house: Big designers suffer amid shift away from luxury culture

A woman lavishly dressed for fashion week in a luxury gown.
(Megan Li • The Student Life)

Even to those not tuned in to the fashion world, New York Fashion Week is widely known as the peak of everything luxury. New York Fashion Week and its counterparts in Paris, London and Milan carry connotations of glitz and glam, star-studded runways and colorful fabrics. 

It’s a crucial moment for the fashion industry: the trends and designers that draw attention during such events will more often than not remain center stage for the rest of the fall-winter season. However, coming off the coattails of one of the most tumultuous periods in collective memory, 2020’s fashion weeks have lost a bit of their shine.

With supply chains disrupted and Americans facing job insecurity, many industries in the United States suffered as a result of the pandemic — and fashion is no exception. A report by Boston Consulting Group found that changes in consumer behavior over the course of the pandemic have been detrimental to the high-end fashion industry specifically, with more people shopping online and fewer consumers seeing room for luxury items in their budgets.

As a result, the second economic quarter of 2020 was one of the worst that the fashion industry has seen in recent years. This has been catastrophic, and not just for smaller designers who picked the wrong year to get their start. Major fashion houses and retailers such as Brooks Brothers, Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor have filed for bankruptcy since the start of the pandemic. Not only will many more landmark fashion houses likely go underwater, the work of new, independent designers emerging this year will suffer as well, hindering innovation and growth in the industry.

But, as many designers have declared, the show must go on. Fashion Week’s ability to make or break a designer’s year means that good performance this season is a necessity. Smaller designers and big-name houses alike are doing what they can to showcase their work and gain a crucial edge over competitors this season. From makeup rooms with Plexiglass dividers to keep models distanced to fully virtual shows to runways with intimate audiences, budget and pandemic-friendly shows display designers’ impressive adaptability.

What has happened to the luxury fashion industry over the course of the pandemic is part of a larger-scale shift of the general public’s interest away from the world of luxury. In the midst of the current economic crisis, the world of celebrities and opulence has become unappealing and inaccessible to many, even those that may have once been invested in it. Despite being affordable for some, given the current economic and social circumstances, it has become impractical to spend thousands of dollars on clothing.

People have become disillusioned with grandiose displays of wealth: the poor reception to celebrities’ cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the very beginning of the quarantine serves as a good example of this phenomenon. The last thing people want to hear right now is empty words from celebrities sitting in million-dollar mansions. Many celebrities, like J-Lo and Jameela Jamil, came under fire for attempting to be “relatable” despite their clear detachment from the struggles many are facing. Kylie Jenner faced similar pushback when she posted a picture flaunting her new custom Rolls Royce SUV in June, with many claiming her actions were insensitive in the midst of a period of widening wealth inequality.

This is not the first time that a period of economic uncertainty caused a dramatic shift in culture, specifically surrounding celebrity and fashion. Pop culture at the turn of the 21st century was luxuriant and over-the-top. This aesthetic, widely known as “Y2K culture,” was demarcated by rhinestones, animal print and large logos. The era of “MTV Cribs” and Paris Hilton celebrated fame and affluence. However, the appreciation for the deliberately maximalist came to a screeching halt following the 2008 recession. As many lost their jobs and families lost their homes, it became clear that the aesthetic of luxury was unattainable for most. Opulence and luxury were exchanged for the unadorned, giving way to the minimalist aesthetic of early 2010’s fashion.

It is not lost on many that we are in the midst of a major cultural shift as a country. As the pandemic continues to rage with no end in sight, it is likely that many more losses will be seen across many industries. However, the creativity designers have demonstrated through ways of adapting to these uncharted waters serves as a point of optimism that art and culture will continue to thrive, even as circumstances change.

Caelan Reeves CM ’24 is one of TSL’s pop culture columnists. She’s a government and literature dual major from Chicago, and loves everything to do with music, movies and books.

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