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From Competitors to Collaborators, the Forum Letter and Rewiring Fashion Groups Reflect on a Year of Change

Vogue logo Vogue 5/13/2021 Steff Yotka
© Photo: Casper Sejersen / Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

Let me tell you from experience: There are few topics as dry and mundane as discussing fashion’s show schedules, delivery cycles, and sale dates. While these systems that dictate how products are made, when they arrive for sale, and when they are discounted are the backbone of the industry, as a rule they are the stuff of excel spreadsheets: essential but not exciting.

So it’s somewhat surprising to learn that a year after the publication of the Forum Letter and the Rewiring Fashion proposal, which proposed, among other things, a two-season fashion schedule, in-season delivery dates, delayed discounting periods, and a shift to a see-now-buy-now Fashion Week schedule, designers like Dries Van Noten and Joseph Altuzarra are still thrilled to be thinking about the structural elements of the fashion business. “I think we helped a lot of people to understand what was wrong—and I think there is clearly an evolution visible,” Van Noten says on Zoom. “It was always a little bit ridiculous that everybody was looking at each other as competitors. It is interesting to see that this mentality has changed in such a positive way.”

In the year since Van Noten spearheaded the Forum Letter with designers like Altuzarra, and retailers including Lane Crawford and Selfridges, his group has joined forces with Imran Amed and Tim Blanks’s Rewiring Fashion proposition. But more than just share information, the discussions have had an inadvertent side effect: They’ve nurtured a legitimate community of independent designers and retailers. It’s a united front that spans borders, trade organizations, and types of businesses—and nothing else really exists like it in fashion.

The conversations first took form in March and April 2020, when Van Noten and Amed independently found themselves on the receiving end of messages from designers, retailers, and friends looking for advice. Van Noten’s camp met every Thursday on Zoom. Amed organized biweekly calls. “I think at the high point there were something like 70 or 80 people from all around the world who had joined these Zoom calls that we were doing twice a week,” Amed says. “It was something that grew very organically—and I hadn’t really appreciated how much time it was going to take.”

The Rewiring Fashion talks now take place quarterly, uniting a global fashion scene of mostly mostly independent stores and brands, from Kirna Zabête and Ikram to Alyx and Adam Lippes. “That community of 80-plus designers is the truest collaboration of the fashion industry,” says Wen Zhou, the CEO and cofounder of 3.1 Phillip Lim, who was part of Rewiring Fashion’s founding committee. “The people that are on those calls are genuinely interested to learn about your challenges and provide support. It’s easy to see us as competitors, but at the end of the day we are one humankind and one community.”

Joseph Altuzarra echoes this: “I think generally there’s been just an openness in the industry that I don’t think had existed before.”

Julia Clarete standing in front of a colorful dress: Jonathan Cohen fall 2021 © Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Cohen Jonathan Cohen fall 2021 a woman standing in front of a building: Jonathan Cohen fall 2021 © Photo: Courtesy of Jonathan Cohen Jonathan Cohen fall 2021

Which Solutions Are Working?

One brand that made significant changes in the last year is New York’s Jonathan Cohen. Last February, when buyers were pulling out of Paris Fashion Week appointments, Cohen and his business partner, Sarah Leff, made the decision to halt production of their fall 2020 collection, skip spring 2021, and devise a different business model.

“Before that we were very, I don’t want to say narrow-minded, but we were in our own world,” says Cohen. “We didn’t really talk to a lot of other designers, and if we did, it wasn’t as often.” He cites being selected as a finalist for the 2018 CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund as a turning point: “We started to have this understanding of one another and what the issues are. With Rewiring Fashion, we are now constantly talking with designers all over the world about how we can make fashion better.”

Cohen’s pivot involved shifting to two collections a year, each comprising three capsule drops. (His fall 2021 look book differentiates those capsules with different colored backdrops.) Each capsule arrives in stores closer to the season it’s meant for, with flirty dresses hitting in June and knits in September, which allows for a flow of new product without having to put the original pieces on sale. In addition, he has grown his own e-commerce business to better facilitate mid-season drops direct to his customers. Says Cohen: “We launched today and I already got a message from a customer saying, ‘This is exactly what I want to be wearing right now, when is it available?’ Good news: It’s available today. The system is working, which is great.” Then there’s the Dr. Biden effect. The first lady wore the designer’s aubergine coat in the lead-up to her husband’s inauguration, helping traffic to Cohen’s website shoot up 3,000%. Launching his own e-commerce helped Cohen translate that interest into sales.

In Antwerp, Belgium, Van Noten has significantly scaled down his men’s and women’s collections and launched a European e-commerce site, while also setting his sights abroad, opening a brick-and-mortar store in Los Angeles in fall 2020. “We got rid of all the clutter, let’s say, because we had felt that we had to make a lot of things just to make them,” says the designer, estimating his menswear collection has decreased in size by 40 to 45% and his womenswear by 35 to 40%. “This creates a place to do a very small capsule in collaboration with a certain client or a certain retailer once in a while,” he continues. “We have more fabrics which we carry over. And we have introduced the archive rooms in the stores, a new concept where we show really beautiful, precious pieces from past collections that we don’t have to put on sale anymore. We continue to sell them in the archive rooms in the stores.”

Van Noten says this is just a start. He and his teams are examining packaging, shipping, travel, and production, looking to trim excesses and deliver a better experience for their customers—and themselves—wherever possible. “We have, of course, limitations now, but those limitations forced us to rethink quite a lot,” he says. “I think that’s the good to come of this.”

Altuzarra has done much of the same, showing collections twice a year with three drops in each collection. “We were able to consolidate the design and development process, which is helpful for us as a company, while also offering deliveries more frequently to our retailers, which is a callout that we were hearing from them and from our own direct-to-consumer business,” says CEO Shira Sue Carmi. “We have been able to balance them both, and it’s been very successful for us.”

A scene from Altuzarra’s fall 2021 collection film
Video: Courtesy of Altuzarra

How Does Wholesale Fit Into the Puzzle?

Designers alone can’t change the fashion industry. Working more creatively with wholesale accounts is essential. “We had a lot of conversations with our retailers while we were still conceptualizing the idea and got a lot of feedback and a lot of ideas from them that we implemented into our delivery schedule,” says Altuzarra’s Carmi. “It was a very collaborative process, which I think came from the Forum discussions. It felt a lot more natural to say, ‘Well, we’re thinking this—how does that work for you from a delivery cadence? How does it work for you from a markdown cadence?’”

“I think stores are open to that,” Van Noten says. “But you have to be aware that brands, designers, and retailers are all in extremely fragile financial situations.” For stores, much like fashion media, the new schedules that have resulted in a 24/7 cycle of newness—new collections, new launches, new products, new videos, new ideas—make keeping up difficult. “One of the biggest struggles for those kinds of wholesale-based multi-brand retailers is that there is no structure,” says the Business of Fashion’s Amed. “I don’t want to speak for them, but it means that they are constantly in buying appointments. They’re spending less time on the shop floor engaging with clients. I think there is a desire to have a bit more regularity and predictability. I think something will shake out, but I don’t think it will be one model.”

Altuzarra’s spring 2021 collection film showed the making of his collection.
Video: Courtesy of Altuzarra

Can Fashion Week Survive the Industry’s Digital Sea Change?

This week’s announcement that 11 American designers would make a three-season commitment to New York Fashion Week as a part of a new IMG-backed program has put the flash of in-person runway shows on everyone’s minds. But how essential is being a part of an organized fashion system?

Even a lifelong champion of runway shows is rethinking it. “I did so many of those fashion shows, and my whole creative process was built around the fact that the grand finale was a fashion show,” says Van Noten. “But we started to learn how to do it differently,” he continues, referencing a beachside shoot with Viviane Sassen for spring 2021 and a series of melancholic portraits of dancers and models by Casper Sejersen for fall 2021.

Van Noten adds: “I don’t say that I won’t go back to fashion shows at a certain moment, but I love the freedom of what we have now, and that I’m not going to give up. I don’t think that it makes true sense to do every season again a fashion show, four a year, two for men, two for women. I think there are other ways also to show collections, maybe smaller events, more personal things, maybe once in a while, a big event. Why not? In some ways, I think that’s much more fun.”

Zhou, of 3.1 Phillip Lim, agrees: “There should never be a formula that is one-size-fits-all, or one-calendar-fits-all. The power is really within the brands to express themselves accordingly when it is right for them.”

One benefit of digital fashion weeks, designers agree, is the eradication of the perceived hierarchy between those with runway shows, and those with just look books. “Previously, I think there was a sense that if you weren’t showing, you didn’t matter as much,” says Altuzarra. “Now I think people will decide whether they want to have shows or not, and that regardless of what they decide people will still want to see their collections. There won’t be that sense of hierarchy as much.”

As for organized fashion weeks, many are happy to have attention from both inside and outside of the industry—although others are finding that standing apart can be more fruitful. “I keep comparing it to the music or film industry. What if every album, every film came out in the same month? Your big budget films, your independent films all at once. It’s too much,” says Cohen. “Even as a designer I was confused.”

a person wearing a suit and tie: 3.1 Phillip Lim fall 2021 © Photo: Courtesy of 3.1 Phillip Lim 3.1 Phillip Lim fall 2021 a man wearing a suit and tie: 3.1 Phillip Lim fall 2021 © Photo: Courtesy of 3.1 Phillip Lim 3.1 Phillip Lim fall 2021

Do Designers Have to Agree to the Same Terms?

An oft misattributed proverb says: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” So to make these changes last, do we all have to go together?

“That’s a great—and hard to answer—question,” Altuzarra says.

“Ultimately what we’ve seen is that businesses end up making the decisions that are right for them,” his CEO Carmi picks up. “I think that will always be the case, but we also have seen that the more communication there is between brands, the better we are all able to make the right decisions—decisions that are not only right for us, but also right in the context of the larger industry.”

“Conversation is always good,” Van Noten agrees. “But we have to not dictate. I think we have to suggest, but everybody has to see for themselves what works and what doesn’t work.”

Will such an open-ended mode of change stick, especially as lockdown restrictions ease and larger brands are setting up destination shows with nearly 100 looks? Altuzarra wisely points out that many of the designers in the Forum Letter and Rewiring Fashion groups are “independent designers, and especially designers in the U.S. I’ll just say, I think that sense of competitiveness hasn’t—well, I don’t know that it’s changed that much among the bigger groups or in Europe from my own experience.”

Maybe the answer is a two-pronged path that allows for international mega brands and smaller upstarts to coexist peacefully. For his part, BoF’s Amed says, “I think what’s more likely to happen is there’ll be a playbook for the big houses, and there’ll be a playbook for independent brands. There will be some overlap, but everyone’s kind of doing their own thing. In a way, this idea of a fixed, rigid, structured, single way of doing things, that’s over.”

Models dancing in Dries Van Noten’s spring 2021 film
Video: Courtesy of Dries Van Noten
Models dancing in Dries Van Noten’s spring 2021 film
Video: Courtesy of Dries Van Noten

Where Are We Going Next?

In the past year, we’ve digitized Fashion Week, made strides to make less and produce it more sustainably, and cut back on global fashion travel. The question of whether all that will continue is coupled with another: How can these groups address some of the other issues plaguing the industry? In a recent Rewiring Fashion call, Phillip Lim moderated a conversation about #StopAsianHate that several designers mentioned as being poignant and helpful. Elsewhere, committees like the Black in Fashion Council and RAISEfashion are having similar discussions about racism in fashion.

“I think the collective power of fashion played such an important role for these important social changes,” says Zhou. “I hope that this group can continue to grow and continue to evolve so that we can be a force of unity that can tackle all of these things going forward, whether it’s climate or social change.”

Making it happen, she estimates, will take more than just the independents to link arms. “I want to see the global ecosystem come together. I want to see bigger brands, bigger retailers,” she says. “If we can make this happen, why can’t we make more happen? So my question when we started and my question now is: What else? Who else can we reach? How can we include more in our missions? How can we make quicker changes?”

Even after a year of seismic shifts, well, we’re not done yet. “Changing is absolutely good,” affirms Van Noten. “We can’t continue as is. We can’t sit here crying in a corner saying, ‘Oh, in the past it was much better.’ Now, we can start thinking of change in a very positive way. I’m very positive about it because I think the things that changed had to change, and I think fashion, after all this, is going to be in a better place than before.”

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