What is the "pandemic aesthetic" and are fashion brands guilty of #COVIDwashing?
When fashion weeks, production and launches for upcoming collections first faced cancellations worldwide, I wondered what that signalled for big brands who complied with commercial cycles and the eager customers who might have wanted new wardrobes for spring. Would 2020 be looked back on as a fashion-less year? And how would designers justify new sentiments about health and consumerism with aesthetics the year after?
So, of course, I turned to my trusty fashion friends for advice. Admittedly some of them existed only in my head: cue the panellists on the fashion podcast, Corporate Lunch. In a recent episode, the subject of the "pandemic" aesthetic arose; to which Senior Associate Editor, Samuel Hine, commented: "I hope the clothes that are being made and designed, now and in the period when we're all under this cloud, are more forward-looking than tied to the current moment. I think when we're all out of this we're not going to want to be dressing in the "pandemic collections."
And I agree. I don't know exactly what constitutes that look yet, but I'm assuming any allusion to end-of-days via aesthetic rather than any substantial social activism would further alienate fashion from having any real street cred on change. While the most recent Balenciaga fall/winter 2020 flood-thrashing, Ten Plagues of Egypt-esque show can now be looked back upon as imminently prophetic, future iterations of emaciated patients in hospital gowns and stern medical workers in hazmat suits will only be viewed as cruel fetishism, or at best unsettling. Especially when so many countries in the world are struggling to equip their own frontline workers with enough protective apparel and face masks — now that's where the true fashion scandal lies.
Balenciaga fall/winter 20
That said, some of the best designers and brands have proven excellent exploring protection through clothes. Think Marni's brush with sustainability via hardcore patchwork coats, Raf Simon's heavyweight grosgrain sweaters and Jacques Marie Mage's professorial acetate sunglasses. A sensitivity towards an even frailer desire for peacocking and growing need for safety and severity, almost "hiding", might be the most appropriate move matching style to our emotional needs. The keyword here? Mindfulness, especially towards our surroundings and the people in it.
In a big way, consumers also seem to have developed a newfound respect for the fashion industry. Or at least I believe they should. In March, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault astutely redirected luxury perfumeries to produce hand sanitisers and face masks, of which many were donated to hospitals for healthcare workers. Independent designers have also taken to their sewing machines to make small-batch essential items, some even marked with quirky artwork (intentionally and because those textiles were what was available). Magazines pivoted content strategies, offering stories for audiences clamouring for some authority on how to think and feel.
As we become more numb to the effects of COVID-19, however, it may also give rise to #COVIDwashing. As defined by BOF's Alexandra Mondalek, "the COVID-19 equivalent of greenwashing is the co-opting of images from the crisis in order to sell clothes". In a recent conversation I had with Sharon Lim, former magazine editor and current group director for The Ate Group, I pointed out how sustainability in fashion has largely been co-opted as a "look" rather than thought of as creative culture, and the potential of that being mirrored amidst this pandemic. She commented, "Fashion should figure out what people need, not want."
And that seems to be what critics (myself included) are trying to better differentiate. Last month, Off-White was called out for their overpriced face masks on Farfetch due to insinuations that they were trying to profiteer from the desire for essential items. According to The Fashion Law, these were "face masks for sale for upwards of US$600, with price tags reaching US$1,205 for at least one style of mask that was labelled as being from the brand's spring/summer 2020 collection."
Since then, the masks have been taken down from the site but no official statements were issued. Not to mention, based on the fabric-make of these masks, some are too porous to be certified medical grade. A little unrelated but equally relevant, when race-baiting is meme-fied. I'm sure some of us remember the short-lived "Fried Bat Rice" t-shirt controversy coming from an art director at Lululemon who has since been fired.
#Lululemon has issued an apology after its art director shared a post of a #batfriedrice shirt design that was criticized as being racist. The shirt highlighted a Chinese #takeoutfood box decorated with #batwings and "no thank you" written on the back. pic.twitter.com/6pw1FUKXxT— CITY ALERT | Digital Content (@CityAlert) April 22, 2020
Other efforts that have come out of this pandemic are the appearances of labels that have started selling ironic coronavirus "merch". On such label is Corona Des Garçons. The brand ironically draws inspiration from Rei Kawakubo's Comme Des Garçons, Singapore-based Omighty's "Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino" tank tops and hints of Jun Takahashi's Undercover fall/winter 18 homage to Stanley Kubrick, but with a COVID-19 "twist". Because of this quick, tongue-in-cheek response to the times, it's even caught the attention of celebrites like Bella Hadid.
While one could be quick to accuse them as profiting in a crisis, Corona Des Garçons is tagged as a nonprofit organization on Instagram, with plans to donate 100% of their profits to the World Health Organisation's COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Evidently, their intentions are laudable. I reached out to them via Instagram DM to see if they had any thoughts in regards to COVID-washing and the "pandemic aesthethic", and while they were initially keen to participate in this story, as of press time they have since declined to comment.
In other cases, like with Singapore-based @OfficialCoronavirusMerch, t-shirts have been printed with "Coronavirus" in slime-green, and on their backs, the dates of countries that have been infected with COVID-19, in the spirit of a musician's tour merchandise.
I reached out to the team at @OfficialCoronavirus to find out more about the reasoning behind their designs, and whether or not if it would be seen as in poor taste to some. They said: "It was a concern for us, and how we started out is a story by itself. We wanted to create shirts centred around current affairs, and the first of our designs was born out of the biggest story at the time. When we made prototypes and started wearing them out, people kept asking us about them, so we decided to make more. We understand how from an external perspective what it might seem like [visually], but this project's origin was simply a collaboration between friends. Ultimately, we are still 100% thankful for the work of our essential workers, and can only imagine what the marginalised and infected are feeling, so we decided to give some of it back to the community."
The brand will also be donating 25% of their proceeds to charity.
Beyond ideas, an ignorance of the economy has also been an easy target to attack the fashion community. Whether it will have to downsize to accommodate the financial climate has yet to be decided, but with reports on how the global economy has tanked only closely behind The Great Depression, major changes are only to be expected. Stella McCartney often replies to the question on greenwashing that she doesn't care, as long as good is done. In a time of desperation (for some), brands who promise to "do good" for certain purchases made will perhaps be seen as trying rather than try-hard.
@OfficialCoronavirusMerch also commented on meme culture, another high/low-brow entertainment route, "We see it as a vehicle for people to insert topics of interest and get people talking about things. Memes currently capture the cultural zeitgeist of how people consume information. There are actually whole pages out there posting memes that pose nuanced views on various complex subjects. Many comedy talk show hosts like Trevor Noah, Seth Meyers, and John Oliver have leveraged on meme culture to deliver in-depth political commentary in bite-sized chunks for the masses to consume."
Fair point. So maybe a better question to ask is not why they're doing what they're doing, but if consumers will be interested in them after "the curve" flattens. After all, money talks. But in an approaching era of the renewed self, will we still see COVID-19 themed souvenir t-shirts as relevant?