A Year of Disruption: 20 Designers on How 2020 Changed Fashion Forever

A Year of Disruption: 20 Designers on How 2020 Changed Fashion Forever

by Dylan Kelly

The year had started out strong: Raf Simons joined Prada as co-creative director, Miley Cyrus made a surprise appearance on Marc Jacobs' runway, Demna Gvasalia announced Balenciaga's grand return to haute couture, and Lizzo and Lil Nas X won the Grammys red carpet in double-take-worthy Versace ensembles. Everything was great, until it wasn't.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic. The world subsequently went into lockdown as PSAs for stay-at-home orders stole time from the weatherman's morning slot and round-the-clock statistics on new cases replaced sports updates on international news channels. As hospitals hit capacity and cases soared uncontrollably, the thought of next season's fashion collections suddenly felt so frivolous amidst the widespread chaos.

Several designers rebooted operations to help with shortages of medical supplies; Christian Siriano reassigned his 10 seamstresses in New York to produce thousands of masks per week, Pyer Moss' creative director Kerby Jean-Raymond converted his NYC office into a donation center for N95 masks and gloves, and Brandon Maxwell reallocated his resources to produce medical gowns for the doctors and nurses at the front lines, to name a few.

Meanwhile, brick-and-mortar stores were hurting the most — just about 14,500 stores have already closed in the wake of the pandemic. Luxury department store Neiman Marcus filed for bankruptcy on May 7, followed by major retailers including Brooks Brothers and J. Crew as shoppers turned to safer, online alternatives, leading many to believe the reality of in-store shopping is permanently changed.

The tides turned once again as hundreds of thousands of people marched against systemic racism and demanded justice for George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and the countless other Black Americans who died unjustly at the hands of the police. Many brands and designers alike utilized their substantial, digital platforms to support the Black Lives Matter movement — Nike debuted its pivotal "For Once, Don't Do It" campaign and Marc Jacobs showed support for protesters even after his stores were vandalized, stating, "Property can be replaced, human lives cannot."

That same energy carried through the lead-up to this year's critical presidential election. Saks Fifth Avenue utilized its hallmark NYC windows to encourage voting with HeadCount, Levi's partnered with Hailey Bieber to put together a powerful call-to-action for the next generation of voters, and Michael Kors pushed for widespread registration with his "Your Voice Matters" campaign. (Let's not forget Telfar's famous Shopping Bag landed on the arm of AOC, too.)

Though this year posed a multitude of unforeseen challenges, many designers surpassed expectations when it came to digitally debuting their own collections. Between the star-studded campaign for Christian Cowan's Spring 2021 collection with Lil Nas X, GCDS' fully immersive digital fashion arcade, and Collina Strada's hallucinogenic fashion film, it's evident that each visionary's creative originality is very much still at play.

Now, ahead of a hopeful new year, PAPER spoke with 20 designers on how this tumultuous past 12 months altered their perspectives on fashion forever. Below, read how 2020 has fully changed the game for an industry still feeling its effects and how it might shape the year to come.

"I don't create the same way" –Christian Siriano

I think with everything that has happened to our world this year, fashion will now and I think will forever be changed. I don't create the same way, I don't think consumers shop the same way and I think priorities have changed in so many people's lives, which ultimately changes how they wear clothes.

I'm still trying to be as creative as possible and bring fantasy to my work because that's what excites me about fashion. But I think that's mainly because we are in a direct-to-consumer business right now and retail shopping just isn't the same. We can't design the same way. Buyers don't have the control anymore and that's very new territory for a lot of brands. Clothes don't just sell themselves anymore though, you have to really work at it in a new way to get people excited to spend.

I do think it's been a reset for a lot of designers to step back and think a lot about what's important to them. I still love creating and designing but It's not just about making a pretty dress anymore I think it really has to be more than that. It has to mean more or it will be hard to survive.

"This year has also been cleansing and clarifying" –Brandon Maxwell

Like everyone else I have had my fair share of challenges this year. I am grateful that those challenges have not included any health issues. Despite these challenges, this year has also been cleansing and clarifying. The distance from my normal creative process has brought me back to my very first days of design. The time away from my studio gave me no other choice than to go back to basics and make things on a smaller scale with a more intimate group. My hope is that the fashion industry will continue to take stock of the past and evolve. 2021 will be a year of deep change, hope and joy.

"One piece at a time, one day at a time" –Batsheva Hay

It has been a real lesson in self reliance and reliance on community. The fashion world as a whole does not have your back — it is your friends, family, customers and supporters who will be there for you. There are so many problems in the "fashion industry," but we all still want to get excited by what we put on our bodies. 2020 has been a good time to cut the bullshit, the pretense, and just focus on making fun clothes for actual people to wear and feel excited about.

I am focusing more on key pieces and less on "collections." Women don't need a whole new wardrobe every season and we have all known that for years, but it is more obvious now than ever. I keep on trying to design my dream dress or my dream blouse one piece at a time. One piece at a time, one day at a time.

This year was really a shitshow, but I still love making clothes. I also love making stews, and brisket, and playing with my kids. Clothing and brisket rank about equally for me. So I think I see myself as a designer, but my life is so much more holistic and balanced now.

"2020 has allowed me to truly think outside the box" –Hillary Taymour

It was really a breath of time to stop and rethink how much product we are pumping out to consumers. It made me internally think about how to really focus on individual pieces and make sure everything I am making comes with purpose and intent — not just to hit merchandising plans. 2020 has allowed me to truly think outside the box on how I show the world my collections, giving me space to redefine a fashion show and create digital content that really speaks to the brand.

"You can't take the time that you have for granted" –Christopher John Rogers

I've realized that you can't take the time that you have for granted. While developing SS21, we had so much more time to ruminate over every little detail for all of the garments that we created, and that isn't always the case. Give yourself the time that you need to articulate your vision as much as possible and create a final product that you're fully proud of. I'm learning more and more how to lean into my own points of view. There's less of an emphasis in comparing our practices with others.

"Fashion doesn't operate in a vacuum" –Prabal Gurung

Since the inception of my brand I have always championed diversity and inclusivity, and felt that fashion and politics should not be mutually exclusive. Fashion doesn't operate in a vacuum: the world and culture influences our work. I think this experience showed us how much we have to offer by being a present and engaged citizen.

As a designer I consider myself a storyteller and feel a deep responsibility towards using my platform to speak out about causes important to me. My goal has always been to create a luxury brand with a soul. During this time, I have sharpened that vision and thought about how to continue to bring it to life in a real and meaningful way. Not only have we released beautiful clothes and collections, but we have also engaged in important social and racial justice causes, supported pandemic relief, and helped to spread the word about voting and the election.

Although this year has been difficult and uncertain in so many ways, it has also instilled in me a renewed hope for the future. With the upcoming inauguration of the new Biden-Harris administration, I feel so much joy and anticipation for what is to come. I look forward to continuing in the fight to dismantle the patriarchy and uplift matriarchal power both in my designs and with my message.

"I also challenged myself to think creatively about our usual way of doing things" –Stuart Vevers

2020 reinforced something I've always believed about fashion, which is that it should be about community. It made me appreciate what a source of inspiration, courage and support the fashion community has been — for me, and for many.

I also challenged myself to think creatively about our usual way of doing things — rethinking our collections, shows, and their impact on our communities and the environment. These were things I had been thinking of doing for a long time at Coach and sometimes wasn't sure, to be honest, how to start. The past year showed how urgent they are and inspired me to make changes, like introducing new responsible approaches in our collections, and rethinking how we cast and present our shows. It made me reflect on how fashion can change for the better, and commit to taking steps to help create positive change.

Within the year's challenges and uncertainty, there was also an opportunity to creatively reimagine the future. Personally, I found this energizing. I asked myself, what could we do now that we couldn't do before? This is when my team and I began to rethink things. The result was our most recent collection, Coach Forever — and this is just the starting point. Going forward, my teams and I have prioritized thinking of new responsible ways of doing things through a process of prototyping and learning that will continue with each collection. It's a new mindset I'm embracing as a designer, and one that I'm excited about.

"[This year] has given me a chance to breathe" –Scott Studenberg

First of all, [this year] has given me a chance to breathe and made me realize that I needed to personally pull back how much I was putting out — both in terms of product offering as well as overall energy. I realize how important mentally and creatively it is to not be continuously rushing onto the next thing.

My creative process has evolved significantly — most importantly overcoming manufacturing restrictions from COVID. For one, I've been challenged to find new ways to create new products without my usual manufacturers. I created a pseudo dye house on the back porch of my Laurel Canyon studio where I have been able to be extremely experimental and adaptable. I love being so hands-on with the production of the collection, far more than I ever have been before. Doing hand-dyed small runs of product for my retailers as well as my own direct to consumer platform has actually been really fun and something I will definitely continue when the world returns to normalcy.

"There can be much fresher and interesting ways to release a collection" –Christian Cowan

I think 2020 has made us all realize there can be much fresher and interesting ways to release a collection than just a show and a simple set of still images. It's fun to see new ways of releasing a collection, I'm all for it. The time collectively I lose daily by traveling to and from meetings has vanished. I can really sit down, and focus. We've all had time to sit down with our teams (via Zoom) and really go through what actually drives the business versus what we do just because we feel the industry expects it. So while retail has obviously taken a hit industry wide, I feel businesses may be more focused now.

"We're at a landmark moment, let's use it" –Eden Loweth

We need to put focus on making real and positive change, using everything that's happened in the past 12 months to build a new set of foundations for the industry — to do things the right way and treat our workforce in the right way too. We're at a landmark moment, let's use it.

My creative process has become a lot more reflective, I now take time to make decisions and create new work. I work more fluidly too, responding to my team's ideas and input and together building a collection reflective of us all.

I have seen the extraordinary work our creative community has done to come together, support each other and get through this difficult time. If there's one thing I'm most proud of as a designer in London is the strength my community of peers has shown during this time. Together we can ride out the storm and make real change.

"Take this shifting tide, if you will, and make a tsunami" –Harris Reed

My creative process is a lot more of a "fuck it" process. I think it went from me being like, "I need to drape this way, sew this way," to being like, "I made a full collection in lockdown with a hot glue gun." Bless this amazing intern Bella who moved in with me. We were sewing with our toes. The way of working just became so much more expressive and instinctual.

I think it was a big year that a lot of people are going to say was about thinking and reflecting and it's true, but for me it was a year about reacting and being proactive. And I think at times like this, it's sometimes people's reactions to kind of crawl back in and be inverted. But for me, it was to almost be the opposite. It was to be more expressive, be louder. Take this shifting tide, if you will, and make a tsunami. And I think that is really kind of the driving thing that this year has taught me.

"I don't feel that pressure I used to feel from the industry anymore" –Alejandro Gómez Palomo

I think this unexpected context we started to face some months ago and we are still facing has changed the industry in a more profound way than it did all the last two decades. We were forced to stop for the first time, and that was a bit scarring and satisfying at the same time. In our case, as a small company, we had to stop, but we took that time to think, to focus on our digital strategy and to try to be better when we were able to go back to the atelier.

I am lucky to live in the countryside in Southern Spain (my home and my atelier are in the same building), so during lockdown I had time to do all the things I don't usually do, to get inspired and to also analyze the company. I don't feel that pressure I used to feel from the industry anymore, and that means a lot in my creative process.

Siying Qu and Haoran Li (Private Policy)

Courtesy of Private Policy

"We learned to act fast and stay true to our brand's identity." –Siying Qu and Haoran Li

With all of the unpredictable elements in 2020, we learned to act fast and stay true to our brand's identity. This year required a big change in our presentation format, from runway shows and physical showrooms, to virtual video meetings and full digital access to product details and imagery. Surprisingly, it has been pleasantly productive with new creative ideas in the digital world with hope for a combined mens and womens/genderless fashion week system and less travel, resulting in a minimized carbon footprint.

We think 2020 really gave us a chance to do things differently, pushed us to get rid of the BS, and focus on what we really want. PRIVATE POLICY wants to further our social and political discussions more in-depth with our communities. As Asian designers, we feel the responsibility to be more outspoken about xenophobia and to contribute in cultural exchanges. We aim to continue to bring awareness to global issues, while collaborating with local organizations to assist with their community projects.

"A lot of the old rules and constructs of the industry may not apply anymore" –Barragán

I think 2020 was an eye opener that a lot of the old rules and constructs of the industry may not apply anymore. Our resilience this year was learned by taking more control of the brand and unlearning what we thought we were supposed to do.

David Koma

Photo via Getty

"Of course we go on, but do so with a new mindset of efficiency" –David Koma

The UK lockdown in March 2020 gave me an opportunity, for the first time since I started my brand 11 years ago, to take my foot off the gas pedal and pause to consider the best way forward. I had time to evaluate how to go on. What I found out, after some soul searching, is that a decade in, I still have the same love for what I do and cannot imagine a life without it. The decision came easy — of course we go on, but do so with a new mindset of efficiency and positive change.

Our industry, while always at the forefront of creativity is also set in its ways. The 'ways' are often steeped in tradition and aren't necessarily sustainable. This year we had to re-think, re-adjust and re-discuss many of the processes we took for granted and as a result make positive changes.

Zoe Champion (PH5)

Photography: Zoe Champion

"Community is such a precious resource" –Zoe Champion

2020 has reminded me that community is such a precious resource. Being part of a small team means there is so much work to do across so many areas. It also means that the people you work with will be your biggest supporters, and their energy and drive will push you to places you weren't sure you could go. I am so grateful to my business partner Wei for being on this journey with me even though physically we've been separated. Being part of a team that supports one another, always wants to innovate and improve has been such a privilege during 2020.

Prisca V. Franchetti (Priscavera)

"I still try to keep a sense of escapism and fantasy within my work" –Prisca V. Franchetti

The fashion industry in particular has been so fast paced for so long, and in effect we have been stuck in a routine where everything seems very urgent, where this and that have to be done by a certain date. Being caught up in these routines of urgency, we've never allowed ourselves to step out and think about the bigger picture — especially for us, a small company.

I've been going through a natural progression of staying inspired by the world around me. I don't really think about it in the way of designing things that I think people will buy, but more so in a natural sense of whatever feels of the moment. I still try to keep a sense of escapism and fantasy within my work, but now I'm trying to measure each idea and mix them together in a way that makes sense.

"There's more time to pay attention to detail" –Henry Levy

As everything has slowed down, it's allowed me to adapt my pace. There's more time to pay attention to detail and materializing my vision rather than rushing things to accommodate an industry that was moving too fast. I'm putting more energy into development, drawing, studying and getting better. Working harder and taking more time on my content, whether that's in the form of pressing vinyl, releasing a film we made on VHS or simply collecting and putting together rarer references.

"We believe that each of us will still want to feel good through fashion" –Dan and Dean Caten

We've truly accepted the situation for what it is, allowing us to appreciate what we have and making us more grateful than ever. And from there, we've tried to reset and adapt ourselves and our work to a new way forward. We have really tried to focus on the necessities without ever losing that concept of beauty, positivity and even lightness that characterizes our work. Times have changed and as much as this can destabilize, it helps us to be even more creative by always remaining attached to our DNA.

This period has given us even more awareness and a new way of working and communicating our vision. In the end, even after this sensitive period, we believe that each of us will still want to feel good through fashion even if our habits have changed. We love what we do and we hope to continue doing it in a fun way, allowing change but always transferring a positive message to others.

Photo courtesy of Christopher John Rogers