The corona crisis has so far led to the cancellation of fashion shows and major events: The Couture Week (Paris), Men’s Fashion Week (Paris), Chanel’s cruise collection show (Capri), Dior’s cruise collection show (Lecce, Puglia) and Hermès resort show (London) have all been either cancelled, postponed or shifted to online presentations. Gucci has stopped all production and in many major cities, stores are now closed. Small, independent brands, without the financial security of the conglomerates, are particularly vulnerable and are risking immediate bankruptcy.
Even before the corona virus struck, people were well informed that the current culture of consumption was not only unsustainable but a direct threat to civilisation as we know it. Contemporary society has been driven by the mix of urges, needs and desires, transformed into a society of commodities. Granted, many of the things we buy we have a basic need for. Without food, we not only go hungry but actually die. Without garments we lack shelter from both the cold and the sun. Without travel beyond the places we already know, our imagination would lack inspiration. But these needs have been fuelled by our wants, and in tandem with industries that profit from our desires, this has created a viscous cycle that will inevitably lead to the destruction of the very lifestyle these objects symbolize.
In the same way that we know smoking is bad for us, we know that it is bad for the environment to buy too many garments and to eat too much meat. Yet, most people do it. Why? Because it’s fun and gives our existence a silver lining. Buying stuff creates a sense of reward for working. It’s tangible evidence that your work has paid off. Even though we know that on a larger scale it is bad for us and will affect future generations negatively, we still buy the clothes we want, go on the vacation we have planned, and eat the meat that we have selected at the local supermarket.
The lockdown being enforced in many countries has led to a strange and unfamiliar quietness. The skies are bluer, the noise from the traffic has lessened and cities are calmer than usual. Articles on the subject are being shared and discussed optimistically on social media, as if a few days without tourists in Venice and Sardinia will undo decades of daily damages. In media – fashion-related and otherwise – people are engaged in daily discussions on the dramatic effects of the current pandemic. Will the corona virus finally be able to stop us from destroying our societies and help us slow down climate change? Is the tipping moment we have been waiting for?
In many ways, the questions are reasonable. In the past, pandemics have indeed brought with them a long-lasting impact on society. But it is also naïve to wish for the change to be brought to us from an outside force. By hoping that the pandemic will bring changes to the international fashion system and its horrific over-production, use of toxics and exploitation of the workforce, we are attempting to free ourselves of responsibility and instead handing over agency to a faceless virus. This situation illustrates in a nutshell why fashion will never become sustainable: we are constantly hoping for someone else to do the work, so that we don’t have to. As soon as the most acute crisis is averted, business will in all probability return to its usual intensive pace and reckless promotion of constantly new stuff for people to buy, use and discard. It will take some time to rebuild, but in time, there will be very few traces left of this temporary respite from overproduction and mindless consumption that we are now experiencing.