Tuesday 23 October 2012

Between dream & debt. - crisis in the fashion industry

image: Javier Barcala
Report on debate initiated in connection to High Fashion Low Countries project:

 ‘Between dream & debt. : crisis in the fashion industry’

 • Rachid Naas (fashion producer)
 • Liesbeth in ’t Hout (Dutch Fashion Council, ex-director AMFI),
 • Raïssa Verhaeghe (ex-financial advisor Raf Simons)
 • Anne Zellien (Anne Zellien Jewelry)

   Directed by fashion journalist: Veerle Windels.

   Organization: deBuren i.s.m. Villanella / DE Studio

   Location: DeBuren, Antwerpen

Report & text by Jordi Nicolas Arias

The tough questions of the evening were: ‘Which effect does the financial crisis have on the fashion industry and what are possible solutions/alternatives to cope with these undesirable changes?’

First and foremost, it’s broadly known that the fashion industry is in a bit of a pickle; investors are coy (getting financial support is as hard as getting anna’s approval) and all-round sales are decreasing. Much like the spirits of young designers. Yet the real problem the industry is encountering nowadays is it’s own predictability and carefulness. Something that was evident throughout the debate. (which was being held by a nicely composed posse of 3 fashion professionals and 1 acclaimed designer)

The debate got off to a staggering start by doubting the very reason why they all came together; Is there a crisis in the fashion industry or is it nothing but a mere thought? The luxury sectors are doing remarkably well, start-ups are still popping up like mushrooms and there is enough young creativity to ensure us of great visuals for the years to come. It became quite clear that the crisis wouldn’t be the it-topic of the evening but that the industry itself would be taken into question. An industry that is having difficulties with adjusting in a fast-changing world. A society in full expansion.

One of the biggest problems right now is that graduates (in general) don’t possess a businessman’s mind. Do fashion students still know in what kind of a world they’ll be working? Branding, pr and strategy are unknown words to most students, yet they are the key-factors for hitting it big. Do we need to train designers like managers? Teaching them business 101 at school? It’s obvious that different fields should be working together. Something that a school like AMFI (Amsterdam Fashion Institute) has been doing for years. They provide 3 fashion courses: management, branding & design. They strive to create a perfect symbiosis between the 3. Talent alone won’t get you anywhere these days.

Further into the conversation it becomes obvious that there is a crisis within the fashion industry and not just the aftermath of an external crunch. The traditional way of doing things is not working anymore and we need to start questioning the principles. For example, is it important to have 2 shows a year? Tim van Steenbergen does 4 smaller shows instead of 2 big ones, a change asked for by his clientele. Monique van Heist is another great example. She defies fashion laws by keeping the same pieces in every collection. She plays with colours and textures but the garment remain unchanged. We’re done with throwing away whole collections after just one season. High-end brands have been doing this for a long time: their image is on the catwalk but their essence is in the showrooms. U can still buy the classic navy-white sweater by Jean Paul Gaultier.
If it works, why change a winning team?

Another interesting subject was the fashion week-phenomena. A lot of countries (except Belgium) call themselves proud owners of their very own fashion week. But are these events relevant? Can they compete with the dominant fashion weeks (Paris, London, Milan and New york) that monopolized the press? These fashion weeks are without a doubt a great stimulant for a country’s fashion scene, making it come to life once a year. It’s a great way to attract buyers and sometimes, to re-educate their population. For example; Amsterdam. Their fashion week makes a statement by letting the people know that dutch fashion exists. Something ‘Mode, dit is belgisch’ did in the early eighties. Raissa Verhaegen made an excellent comment about the timeline of these fashion weeks. A lot of fashion events take place at around the same time as the big fashion weeks. For buyers who have been travelling for six weeks in a row, Amsterdam is not an obvious stop in their world tour. It would be better if the fashion-week would be held at a different time when it can actually generate the buzz it deserves.

This debate was a perfect discussion-starter. A discussion that’s been held in workshops, showrooms & meetings for a long time now. I see an industry that is frightened by the future. Fashion is a mirror for society and right now it shows a community struggling with its own rapid evolution. Trends show a contradiction. On one hand, there is this newfound appreciation for technique & artisans and a willingness to pay a higher price for it. People want quality garments. But on the other hand there is this need for speed. Trends at the lowest price and in record time on the shelves (for example: Zara).

Personally, I felt the absence of a freshly graduated designer on the panel. They spent a great deal of time talking about the difficulties that new designers are encountering so a personal point of view would have been great for the conversation. They also failed to come up with possible solutions or brainstorm about the future. Current technological advances (for example:3D-design) that provide a world of possibilities were also shunned from the conversation. Social media wasn’t mentioned either, even though it’s a perfect (and free) tool to get your message out there and attract possible buyers/investors.

Taking everything into account, this was a brilliant initiative by the ‘High Fashion, Low Countries’ organisation. Talking about a problem is always the first step. Giving voice to a lot of concerns regarding the industry. Fact of the matter is that positivity and hard work remain essential for successful entrepreneurship. Crisis equals opportunity and creativity equals hope. When a model breaks a heel on the runway, they just continue their walk. So should we.

More about High Fashion Low Countries Exhibition:

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