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How the Pandemic Came to Be Defined by Emerging Designers

With the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a handful of emerging designers have been propelled to the forefront and consumers are taking note.


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There’s no denying that COVID-19 has changed fashion and the way all of us dress. When the pandemic first started, in early 2020, everyone was surely wondering how it would directly affect the world of fashion.

But now, it’s even more clear than ever that young, emerging designers have become some of the top choices for shoppers in the midst of a pandemic. Take, for example, three items that brands themselves and stockists have had trouble keeping on hand: the Telfar Shopping Bag (by a young Black designer), the Marine Serre Moon Shirt (loved by celebs such as Beyonce and Kylie Jenner) and the Lirika Matoshi Strawberry Dress (by a talented, young New York City designer), all which went viral at some time or other in the past few months. Telfar’s Shopping Bag is in such high-demand, for example, that the brand released a highly successful one-time pre-order program, and new bags continue to sell out in seconds. The Lirika Matoshi Strawberry Dress continues to see thousands of fan-driven illustration tributes on social media (there’s over 40k posts with the tag Strawberry Dress on Instagram alone!), which caused a surge of over 1000% increased demand in just a month in August 2020.

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For many, these rising designers straddle the line between contemporary fashion and luxury—offering price-points that are still above fast fashion but well-below many of the major European fashion houses. Telfar’s bags, for example, start at $150, while a Marine Serre shirt usually retails for under $300.

“What makes these brands resonate is that they are accessible on so many levels, and they make items for everyone instead of sticking to the confines of gender-defined clothing and accessories,” explains Lisa Aiken, Moda Operandi's Fashion and Buying Director. “The best part about discovering a new brand is when you’ve found one that has realized its strengths, and has already developed a cult following on its own. Telfar and Marine Serre are prime examples of that idea. Telfar has disrupted the contemporary handbag space with the Shopping Bag, now a luxury staple at one of the most accessible price points on the market. And everyone recognizes Marine Serre from her jersey t-shirts in her iconic moon prints.”

Perhaps the draw of the emerging designer has a lot to do with that very same disruption Aiken mentions. For example, these younger brands offer transparency on everything from diversity to production, more so than many big, well-known labels. A Lirika Matoshi Strawberry Dress is handmade to order, by three people, over the course of two days. The designer herself showcases the making process of some of her pieces on Instagram. On the other hand, Marine Serre prizes sustainability and often works with upcycled or sustainable fabrics.

“I think it's quite a challenge to transform old things into something new,” Serre told Departures earlier this year. "One important thing for me is to close the fashion circle. Maybe in three years, you don't want a Marine Serre piece from five seasons ago. So what do we do with that? Maybe we could make it into something new.”

Social media has no doubt been one of the biggest drivers of people tapping into emerging designers. When Beyonce’s Black Is King debuted for summer 2020, the singer was spotted wearing Marine Serre’s moon bodysuit, which caused a frenzy. According to fashion search platform Lyst, this caused searches for the term "Marine Serre moon bodysuit” jumped by 428 percent.

“During Lockdown, we see all designers on the same ground, at home with little to no resources,” explains trend forecaster Marie-Michèle Larivée. “Even renowned designers and brands were forced to work from home. This brought up a lot of creativity and gave the opportunity to smaller brands and creatives to be on the same channel as bigger ones; on social media. No runways, no travels, everything behind a screen. The historical channels of fashion were on pause and this did reset the clock time for broadcasting the true ideas, creativity and power of expertise.” Larivée believes that all these brands that have had great success during this time were able to tap into youth culture, activism and community through social media.

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For fashion historians who have been researching the intersection of fashion and history, the rise of the emerging designer in fashion has been something percolating for years before the pandemic. “In my mind, the primary reason is the heightened awareness of the environmental impact of fast fashion,” explains curator and historian Michelle Finamore. “With so many people at home and limited workplace and social interaction, there is not as much need to consume as much fashion. Purchasing a better quality garment from a local, independent, or emerging designer simply makes more sense.”

Finamore also makes a historical connection to the times when shoppers shifted their focus to younger, lesser known fashion names not necessarily by choice. “The immediate comparisons that pop into my mind are times of war when America was essentially cut off from the European design exports and shifted their allegiance to home-grown talent,” she says. “Those moments in history saw American consumers buying American design out of necessity, but also allowed local ingenuity and creativity to shine, and designers that rose to the challenge had a deep and lasting impact on the story of American design.”

This especially holds true as more traditional retailers, such as Nordstrom, also begin to stock up-and-coming names like Marine Serre. At Moda Operandi, there has also always been a focus on new talent as the retailer often is the first to stock newer brands that end up getting more recognition eventually. For this season in particular, Aiken has her eye on Studio Amelia, a rising label that started out as a footwear business, and then gradually expanded into handbags and finally into the ready-to-wear space. “Moda launched the collection exclusively in trunkshow for Spring 2021, and it was a major success by way of essential slip dresses, easy tailoring, and overall fluid day dressing made for the new normal.”

Related: Here's What Luxury Fashion Brands Are Doing to Help During the Coronavirus Pandemic

“I think the key takeaway from life in quarantine isn’t that people will want to live in leisurewear forever, but rather the conscious shopper will invest her money in fashion items that work double duty, and have an extensive lifetime,” adds Aiken. “If anything, this has been a time to clean out one’s closet and reevaluate what’s necessary for daily life, be it a day of endless Zoom calls, or a dinner outdoors with your closest friends.”


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