You have to rethink how much you’re consuming and buy things that you feel could last and stay in your closet for a long time.
THE PANDEMIC THREW nearly every industry on the planet into turmoil. Fashion was no exception. In what felt like an instant, garment factories and retail shops around the world shuttered. Travel came to a standstill, photo shoots and fashion shows were canceled, and buyers couldn’t go to showrooms to see and feel the items they might purchase. Instead, almost everyone was home, scrolling.
This new staying put era of athleisure and anxiety left some designers wondering: would anyone ever buy high-end fashion again? Fortunately for the fashion industry and its designers, the answer is yes. But it hasn’t been easy.
To celebrate this resilience, and with Fashion Week kicking off this month around the world, we sat down with 10 independent fashion designers to hear what the last year and a half was like for them. We learn how lockdowns impacted their creative process, how they kept their businesses afloat, and how the indie mindset enabled the kind of agility and flexibility the moment called for.
One thing that kept coming up was how the pandemic exposed aspects of the industry that were already problematic, and in some cases, already changing. For instance, insiders have known for a long time that the demanding fashion calendar is especially punishing for indie designers, who work with small teams on a tight budget. Many have to hustle to create collections that become obsolete almost as soon as they’re finished. The delays and closures of the past year put an extra strain on those designers struggling to keep up.
Despite the challenges, this crop of intrepid designers also say that recent changes enabled them to think small and work on more focused collections, meaning they had fewer pieces in production. Some were able to work in a different way — more as artists, rather than simply at the mercy of this exacting industry. And, considering the health of the planet, many hope that fashion as a whole is moving toward making less clothing and generating less waste.
Vivetta Ponti of Vivetta
On the unexpected positives of lockdown
The most positive thing has been the creative process because I was working alone, so I had so much time to think about collections. For me it was important to have all this time. You know, when you’re in the office, people ask you questions, there is always something that stops you from doing what you’re doing. In that way, I had the whole day to focus on the collection. And when we came back to the office, I still saved time because we couldn’t travel.
I had a really good creative moment because of all these things. I also started to think about a smaller collection, just doing one thing. Before the pandemic, I used to have collections with three prints and every print had embroidery. This time, I had just one theme and developed it. I think it’s actually more developed than the others, even though it’s smaller. They are the smallest but the best collections.
On bigger changes to the industry
We have to wait until next year to understand whether the changes we’re making will stick or not. Before the pandemic everything was going too fast. Every brand tried to present collections earlier and earlier, and you would immediately put it on social media. This was bad for the market because people start wanting things that they cannot buy yet. This is frustrating for them.
Now we all try to present smaller collections and to be focused on selling products which are to be sold right after. I am now part of a movement called #rewiringfashion which aims to take fashion back to a more normal rhythm and to be more green. Producing too many things is not healthy for the planet, and we don’t need all these things.
On the focus of her work right now
I’m trying to give to my collections a more precise Vivetta identity: fewer pieces but everything with a special detail or an idea, even the more basic ones.
On designing in a changing world
The pandemic made [my work] more focused, created even stronger valued relationships with our retailers. And with our own retail [stores], it made the in-person experience even more special and important, in addition to sharing our work online.
For my work, even though it can have different influences, it always needs to have an element of reality and have an adaptable energy and practicality. So maneuvering how we work has had to become part of our practice, without compromising the creativity.
On what it takes to make it as an indie designer
Being independent you have to have your own identity and energy, a whole world that people want to be a part of and support you. Also a great team, studio, and collaborators.
On sticking to the traditional fashion calendar
Personally the traditional calendar works with my studio and my production. I have always only shown two collections a year, as it takes that amount of time to do everything right, especially as we develop so much of my work by hand. It’s very physical and personal, and that takes time.
Anna Heinrichs of Horror Vacui
On the need for a pause
For me it was a very good year. I mean, I absolutely know that it’s been an awful year for many people, people lost their work and people died. But for me it was good. I appreciated that it was like a pause. I don’t remember who said this, but there’s a saying that in poetry or in music, you need the pause to understand the whole. So, it was actually a very unique moment in our lives because nothing like that has happened before. Maybe it will never happen again. Everything came to a standstill, the whole planet.
I think it was actually something very poetic — you could really take a step back and think about what you’re doing in your life. I listened to a lot of opera, read a lot of books, did a lot of things that all of a sudden I had time to do. But it was also this unknown, you didn’t know how things would develop, what the future would bring. It felt like you were on the edge of something.
On the unexpected growth of her business
My business has grown. In Germany, for example, a lot of brick and mortar stores had to close and I think worldwide it has been really tough for many in the industry. But for me personally, I gained new client stores which I absolutely didn’t expect, and the stores that already stocked my collection sold really well. I didn’t know how it would go, so it was such a relief.
On boundary-pushing in fashion
I think fashion is much more political now than it was, and it’s much more important that there is a purpose or a meaning. People want to know who is behind the brand, who is the designer or who’s making the clothes, what is the value system in the company. Now, things like that are much more important.
Pimdao Sukhahuta of Sretsis
On meeting customers where they are
It’s more about readjusting to a new life and the way we work, and understanding the new state of mind for people. People don’t shop the same way, our shops are not open, we can’t sell things the same way or communicate the same way.
And within the company, the whole structure of working is different. We have to meet on Zoom, we can’t do casting or shooting the same way. We’ve had to cancel fashion shows, pop-ups. Everyone is having to adapt to physical changes.
On finding new solutions
We started our Sretsis White Glove Service. We have this pink truck and we pack up the new collection and all the loungewear and bring it to your home, so the customer can have the comfort and safety of shopping in their home. [The salesperson] is wearing a uniform and white gloves. It’s something fun for the customer.
On the challenges of adapting
I wish I could say this experience made me look inside and find something, but no, not really. If I didn’t own my business, it might have been like that. But because I have to oversee the organization and change the systems of the company and the workers, I actually have less time to be focused on the collection.
And because we can’t travel, it limits our imagination. It doesn’t open your horizons. Usually I take a break after a collection and see something new and rest my brain. I think it’s an important process to get away from the norm. Now, we take inspiration from within. And it was okay for the first year, but this [is the] second year!
Because we can’t travel, I think the inspiration comes less from visuals and more from feelings. Our new Spring/Summer 2022 line is called “Today’s Special” and we want to focus on celebrating the everyday, even simple, mundane things. The joy and the happiness that can happen in a day. We hope people feel this when they put on the clothes. It’s more about the new perspective of enjoying the simple things.
On bringing her designs to China
Last year brought challenges and opportunities. For most emerging designers, it was a very hard time because the shows were canceled and buyers couldn’t travel to the showrooms. People can’t touch the fabric or feel the designs, so it’s hard to attract attention.
But at the same time, for the first time I got the chance to go back to China and have a show in Shanghai. I brought the whole collection and I met lots of people, like stylists and other industry professionals, and I made new friends. I’d been invited to show in Shanghai before, but I was never able to make it. So even though this time was challenging, there were many opportunities as well.
On finding peace at home
It was a very peaceful time. I’ve never had that long a period of staying home. Being on the computer and doing all the video calls was strange. Even other people who are in London, but still we couldn’t meet physically or touch or hug — it felt like a sci-fi movie. I felt strange, but at the same time, it brought some peace for me.
Because I didn’t have to travel, I enjoyed the time with my little kitty at home. I was hugging him all the time, and I started to do loads of planting. Before, I never had time to take care of my plants but last year I took good care of them. It was a time to recover from all the stress of the past years. It’s always like that, there’s something good and something bad.
On fashion schedules
I hope I can make my own schedule in the future. I understand that more designers are doing their own schedules, which is a good thing because each brand is different, and it’s more flexible. Making a collection is a lot of work — you have to communicate and negotiate with all your suppliers and also your own team. It’s lots of effort and it’s time consuming. So if you could make your own schedule, that would be amazing. But at the moment because we’re still small, it won’t work for us yet. If you want to attract a bigger audience, you have to follow the schedule.
On drawing inspiration from the eighteenth century
I always think of little things from early life and think about how they’re connected to what’s happening around us. I’ve been reading “Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio” [a Chinese fantasy novel from the eighteenth century]. These are female Marvel tales. I read a story about demons and ghosts and about women having their lives saved. It made me think about all the people on the [medical] front and how they have to cure the people who are in pain.
For me those connections are quite important, and [so is] my community. It’s about the women around me: female friends, my sister, my mom, and some female industry professionals. They’ve taught me and guided me toward what I’ve achieved today. All the women in the community have always encouraged me to move forward, which is very important for me as a womenswear designer.
On missing home during the pandemic
My family lives in Turkey and it was so hard. I have a routine every year going to spend time with them and go to our summer house. That’s the time that I usually charge my batteries and feed myself visually and then I come back to my London studio and create. Having that taken away affected me personally so much. We won’t get this year back, which is sad.
On making less
Most of us take everything for granted, and now we realize our resources are much more limited than we think they are. Having less has suddenly become more important in terms of business. For me, making collections that are more compact is a priority because I don’t think we need more clothes. As a designer, it’s a funny thing to say, but I think globally, we need to be much more selective.
I look at my mom and dad, they had such small wardrobes in the ’70s and ’80s, but I still wear my dad’s clothes because they’re still in such good condition because they wanted to pass them on to me. I think this is the spirit we’re going back to. A garment that’s precious because you know so much work went into it or because you know there are only 15 of them in the world. It’s going to take time, because the industry has a lot to tackle, but we will get there, I think.
On looking to the past for hope
You know how the whole world changed at the end of the ’60s and beginning of the ’70s? The whole psychedelic movement, when everything was new and fresh and there was so much hope and freedom? I’m really inspired by this period right now, and you’ll see it in this next collection. I'm bringing that hope and newness into my aesthetic and my sense of creativity. That’s keeping me high [laughs].
Rene MacDonald of Lisou
On the usefulness of her canoe metaphor
One of the key things that we really saw here at our company was that [the pandemic] was a time for independent brands. Any independent brand that had their game on point, that was used to selling direct to consumer, was ready for the pandemic. So things didn’t screech to a halt; I just kept working. Of course business dropped off a cliff for about a week and I thought, I want to go to my bed and cry because my dream is over! [Laughs] But then after a few days I said, “We need to see this as a challenge. We don’t have time for a pity party. Let’s figure out how to attack this.” As I say to my team all the time, a small brand is like a canoe. A big brand is like a cruise ship. When disaster strikes, a canoe can turn much quicker and we can adapt. A big brand is going to take a while to make that turn.
On meeting customers where they are
As much as athleisure was in, I think there were still a lot of people who wanted to dress up. There were still people for whom, in order to maintain a normality to their lifestyle, needed to get dressed. And nothing lasts forever. People were thinking, At some point, I will go back to work. I’m going to meet my friends who I haven’t seen for a year. That was the really interesting thing. Even metallic plisse things we were selling — we thought, Oh God, Christmas is canceled, this is a nightmare — but people bought it. Because I think people thought, I might be home, but I want to feel glamorous and I want to feel special. It was a really special time, on many levels. It gave us all time to step back, reflect, figure out how we want our lives to be going forward. And for the first time for a lot of people, families were together.
On making joyful designs
That’s my default setting generally. I’m quite a buoyant, up person. You need to find a sliver of joy. As cheesy as it might sound, a big part of clothing for me is joy and happiness and just love. If you’re walking down the street and see beige, beige, beige, white, black, and suddenly you see someone in a red fedora, you look! And you think, How cool! It makes other people happy, it’s not just for the wearer. If you can make someone smile, why would you not? It’s a no-brainer to me.
On being inspired in the comfort of your home
During the pandemic people asked where are you going to get your ideas from? Because normally I would travel and see things, but actually it was fine. Because what happened was I just found other places for inspiration. I got loads of art books, I watched things that inspired me. So our Fall/Winter collection that comes out now is very influenced by Henri Matisse, who’s one of my favorite artists. And that’s literally because I had a book of his and was flicking through, and thought, Oh my God.
Liushu Lei of Shushu/Tong
On creative fixes
There was one month in 2020 when I had to finish a line with one of my [garment] technicians who was stuck in his village about a thousand miles away from me. I sent something like the [Chinese equivalent of] FedEx to his town — it took about 45 minutes one way for him to pick up the package.
Luckily, his village is famous for technicians. His cousins, friends, actually everybody works as technicians. They were all back in their hometown for Chinese New Year [and had gotten stuck there after the first Covid lockdowns], so he gathered them for me. It was like a temporary factory because I had to finish the collection. During the pandemic, we had to rely on all these new techniques and work creatively.
On the importance of Fashion Week
I’ve heard people say they’re not going back to the traditional fashion calendar, but I think it’s pretty important for designers — especially small designers — because otherwise no one will have opportunities. We have the chance to meet buyers from all over the world at Fashion Week because Gucci, Prada, Louis Vuitton have the budget to invite everyone and invite all the press at one time. Social media is very important, but I want to have a show. Fashion Week is still very important.
On the fashion scene in Shanghai
I think after the pandemic the scene has actually been better, because it forced Chinese people to stay in the country and spend money in the country. You know how people like to spend when they travel. But they stayed and we can feel the growth, so there are opportunities here.
On where inspiration comes from
I just watched a movie yesterday that I thought was really good, even though it’s a little cliché, “The Seven-Year Itch.” I hadn’t watched it before. It’s the first Marilyn Monroe movie I’ve seen. But I found it to have really good styling. Obviously I’m working on the new collection now and it will carry a little bit from last season: clean cut, a little more space-age style. I want to continue on this path for one more season.
On the challenges of 2020
It was a tough year, so much changed so quickly. We made the decision to keep working and not put anyone on furlough. Our day to day in the studio is normally very hands-on. We have an old school approach — making patterns by hand, sketching, and toiling in the studio, so to suddenly be doing fittings over video calls was hard! My team all worked from home which was a real challenge, so we all stuck to a 10 a.m. video call to check in on each other.
On working as a new mother
I am currently on maternity leave with a four-month-old baby so I am figuring out how to work in a totally new way. I am the sole designer, so putting a collection together with a newborn is a real challenge! I have had to really focus my energy and make decisions quickly. When I do get a moment to work, I am researching and sketching, talking through my designs and ideas over the phone with my team. We are working on our Spring/Summer 2022 show right now, the design of which feels somewhat nostalgic. I've been looking back at the things that inspired my first collections.
On what inspires her now
1970s sportswear and children’s clothes.
Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte
On missing community
When this all happened, we had just come out of the momentum of doing a very large show and being in New York. We left the city and came back to Los Angeles and then it was a whole new life. In between that time period and now, this has become our new lifestyle.
It’s about the changing psychology of being removed from your community and realizing as a creative person how much you rely on your creative relationships to fuel your drive forward so ideas come. If you just say your ideas to yourself and your internal team, they don’t keep growing. So we definitely have stayed creative, but I think that being distanced from our community has made it harder and I think that was the main challenge this year.
The reason I feel so excited about doing a show this September is simply because I need that step, from start to finish, to do a collection and make it truly have a strong voice. You kind of count on these stages of building it, it becomes your life. It’s so important, all the people you surround yourself with.
On the perks of the periphery
We’ve always stayed a little bit on the outside and I think that’s helped us keep our creativity what it is without being too influenced by what the world is saying is fashion at the moment. That was always important, to have a clear vision of what Rodarte is, and why it is what it is. But at this point we need a show. I mean, I crave that interaction with the people we’ve worked with for years. We have relationships [with producers, stylists, and hair and makeup people] that go back 15 years. I’m ready to do something new.
On curbing consumption
I think the main thing is for people to retrain their consumption. The true way forward is for companies to make less money and sell less product and for people to buy less. I don’t know if that will ever happen but that is really the only way to solve the problems we have with mass production and overproduction.
During the pandemic, I was like, well, I’m not going to buy anything, and I didn’t feel sad about it. It didn’t make me feel good to buy things, and that’s interesting. It’s not that you shouldn’t buy things, but the point is you have to rethink how much you’re consuming and buy things that you feel could last and stay in your closet for a long time. And maybe buy fewer things that cost a little more because you know they’re made more ethically and made with nicer quality material. Having things that can be with you for a while might be a step toward solving the problems that we have.
Lucy Watson Productions
Photographer - Bex Day
Lighting Assistant - Callum Toy
Drone Operator - Christian Marot
Stylist - Leith Clark
Stylist Assistant - Aurélie Mason-Perez
Hair Stylist - Hiroshi Matsushita
Hair Stylist Assistant - Ryunoshin Tomoyose
Make-Up Artist - Marie Bruce @ Saint Luke Artists
Make-Up Artist Assistant - Ruby Weiting
Cosima Von Moreau
Casting Director - Caroline Mauger
Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a Senior Editor of Departures, based in Oakland, California. She is the author of "Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls." Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
Bex Day Photographer
Bex Day is a self-taught female fashion and documentary photographer born in London. Her images are often raw, confrontational, and controversial; hyper-detailed, sharp and striking views of alternative and utterly legitimate forms of normality. Her interest lies in empowerment and celebrates diversity, gender fluidity and freedom of choice.
Leith Clark Stylist
Leith Clark is a London-based stylist and editor. She began her career as a fashion assistant at British Vogue, later founding Lula Magazine, where she was editor-in-chief for 9 years. She then launched Violet Book, where she currently serves as editor-in-chief. Clark is also the style director-at-large at Harper’s Bazaar UK, and continues to contribute to international editions of Vogue and Vanity Fair.