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Thursday, November 01, 2001


The Changing Forms of Fashion After September 11

Red-white-and-blue was certainly not the expected fashion flash of the season. Neither were star-and-stripe prints, the American flag, or funky ’70s-era “I love NY” logos. Firefighters were not seen as the height of urban style nor were they invited to big-time American fashion awards ceremonies. FDNY jackets and NYPD caps where far from being hot fashion accessories. Everything changed, however, on September 11.

The Day Fashion Froze, or Fashion in a State of Shock
Hitting the heart of New York during Fashion Week, the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center caused immediate casualties to the global fashion system. Important buyers, glamorous designers, and skinny catwalk queens from all over the globe had their usual date in the metropolis of American style. In town to combine business with pleasure, to place their spring and summer 2002 orders, to attend important fashion events, directional shows, must-see boutique openings, and all the parties, they ended up scared and unable to leave town, under definite and totally un-chic shock. Most New York fashion collections either retreated to private showrooms or were postponed until later notice. Appointments were canceled and orders were affected. The fashion crowd was suffering, facing an uneasy feeling of growing insecurity for the first time.

Tattered trends, last season’s camouflage, and hyped-to-death “terrorist” chic, reasonably considered to be in truly bad taste, were immediately taken out of both department stores and fashionable boutiques. In a gesture of patriotism, all the shops in New York and elsewhere replaced their window displays with huge – and popular – American flags. Red-white-and-blue had arrived.

Consumer confidence instantly became an issue, addressed within the first few days of the attacks by both President George W. Bush and ex-president Bill Clinton. “Go shopping,” New York’s mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, urged us. “The ultimate excuse for guilt-free shopping sprees had finally arrived,” a friend said, “how can I resist?” As indulgence and casual spending were transformed into a weapon against terror, patriotism drove our credit cards to their limits. Spending was now considered politically correct.

The “cancel-the-orders” epidemic
Regardless of strong and motivated public support, the international fashion system did not take long to declare itself to be one more “invisible” victim of the September 11 events. The first fashion-industry alarms went off immediately after the attack, as fashion manufacturers got caught in a dangerous “cancel-the-orders” epidemic. From small, downtown production workshops and fabric suppliers to international designer houses, and everyone in between, the fashion establishment counted its losses. Independent designers, new brands, and small businesses became the least likely to survive the order-canceling wave unharmed.

“I’ve received 13 cancellations already,” said New York-based, independent designer Nathaniel Christian on September 24. “Most were new accounts, and I estimate the damage close to $65,000, to this point.” Alice Roi, a rising star of “experimental” American fashion was also wary of the future. Her collections had broken through to the international luxury market just two seasons ago, with orders from trendy Parisian boutique Colette and the UK’s Harvey Nichols. Following the terrorist attacks, however, important luxury buyers find it “difficult” to place orders and try their hand at “alternative” design. Alice Roi is reasonably worried.

Meanwhile, French luxury giant LVMH decisively pulled the plug on two of the biggest fashion events of the season, the launch of Mark Jacobs’s debut fragrance at Harvey Nichols and the John Galliano at Dior retrospective at London’s Design Museum that was to premiere at the end of November.

Supply and retail conflicts
While average consumers tried their best to boost the global fashion economy, supply and retail seemed uninterested in “business-as-usual” scenarios. At a time when the fashion industry is facing a crisis, global fabric manufacturing seems heavily hit by the absence of significant orders and by clients pressing for lower, competitive prices. The situation is similar for the mass-market, bulk-fabric suppliers and the top-of-the-range, European fabric houses.

Indian leather trade exports have also been affected, while major American importers have chosen not to work with their usual Asian suppliers. In the latest developments, a number of companies are cutting cotton yarn, leather, and textile orders from Pakistan, representing a loss of roughly $100,000,000 for the 3.5 million people employed in those sectors.

  American designers such as Tommy Hilfiger and Perry Ellis are among those that have cut their Pakistani orders, along with American Eagle Outfitters. The Gap and Warnaco are still holding their ground, however. The decision to cancel Pakistani orders has put serious pressure on European and American fabric houses to deal with tariff issues. For apart from yarns, leather, and fabrics, the Pakistani fashion industry includes a large number of small and usually illegal workshops that are very competitive in price. Cutting off Pakistani imports will soon have an effect on our daily shopping habits, therefore, as it will send retail prices to new, unpredictable highs.

Plunging Stocks and Unfashionable Layoffs
As companies in the fashion industry have watched their stock prices drop, they have announced layoffs. Five weeks after September 11, these were some of the numbers.

  • Sears, Roebuck and Co. plans to cut 4,900 employees, most of them before the end of next year.

  • Federated Department Stores, Inc., parent of Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, sees sales running up to 30% below forecasts before the attacks.

  • The Gap is expecting a 25% drop in same-store sales, compared with an 8% rise a year ago.

  • Rumors in Milan insist that some of the big Italian luxury groups are preparing to lower prices by 25% in order to ride out the current crisis. Prada successfully applied this strategy in the past, during the 1997 crisis.

  • In New York’s Chinatown, clothing factories are working at less than 50% capacity.

  • Patrizio Bertelli says that sales at Prada’s New York shop fell 40%.

  • Nicole Miller’s Soho (New York) sales were down 80 percent at the end of October, while sales at traditionally busy international hotspots are heavily affected, including major European fashion capitals such as London and Milan.

Reconstructing the Way Fashion Looks
Within days after the World Trade Center attack, every aspect of fashion and image communications was being reexamined. Magazines were catching up with the events by reediting issues, and pulling out “aggressive” fashion editorials and articles that seemed suddenly offensive or ironic.

Advertising companies have also been re-thinking their strategies, addressing the new, emerging esthetics. Italian sportswear maker Diesel immediately took corrective measures. It not only postponed the opening of a new New York shop, but also altered the message of its current advertising campaign from “save yourself” to “stay young” and renamed its new jeans line from “Scars and Stripes” to “Stars and Stripes.”

From photographers to art directors, powerful global “image-makers” are now asked to stay “sweet and quiet.” Fashion’s intense love affair with sex, vulgarity, and aggression seemed boring and annoying some months ago. In the current light, it is regarded as dangerous and inappropriate. As a result, Abercrombie & Fitch had to drop its Christmas catalogue, which was already printed. Shot by famous fashion photographer Bruce Weber long before September 11, it is now considered “dated” and over-sexed.

Dirty denim, torn leather jackets, and disheveled looks are clearly not acceptable anymore. The fame of Raf Simons, fashion designer extraordinaire, spread throughout the world some months ago because of his “urban terrorist chic.” Now the previously “hot” fashion statement of the Belgian designer is considered dangerous.

While fashion and advertising are struggling to create the esthetics of a new “altered” reality, some seem to welcome the image industry’s reaction as a much-needed change of direction. Fashion magazines and advertising had long ago reached limits of self-centeredness and were facing communications standstills. The public had been complaining for some time of feeling unrelated to extreme fashion editorials and highly unrealistic campaigns.

A Much-Needed Change
Fresh images, and emerging atmospheres of safety, normality, and tranquility seem to be what everyone is looking for right now. The fashion industry’s communications and advertising seem to be heavily addicted to bold and often vulgar statements. Even if the new esthetics need some time to sink in, they will eventually bring a much welcome change in the global world of image-making.

The way we look affects our moods and attitudes. The images we absorb through media and communications shape our self-esteem and position us in regard to the role models of the times. It’s time for a change.

Lena Papachristophilou is a writer for the Greek edition of the French fashion magazine, L’Officiel, and is also a designer. In 1997, she won a European prize in the Masters of Linen design competition.
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