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Who’s wearing vinyl pants in quarantine? How the pandemic could kill fashion trends for good

COVID-19 could be an important turning point for the fashion industry, sustainability experts say. Here’s why.

Who’s wearing vinyl pants in quarantine? How the pandemic could kill fashion trends for good
[Source Image: Leon_Cheung/Blendswap (globe base mesh)]

Vinyl is in vogue. Whatever your budget, you can now find shiny, translucent clothes and accessories, from see-through Christian Louboutin pumps to shiny pink Fiorucci pants to glossy catsuits and miniskirts from ASOS. It’s no surprise that the style is in. Vinyl was all over the runways at Paris Fashion Week over the past two winters and, like many trends, it has eventually trickled down into mainstream fashion. Never mind that no one is wearing vinyl pants while stuck inside under quarantine.

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Vinyl is also terrible for the planet. “Vinyl is PVC, which is one of the worst forms of plastic,” says Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standards Institute, a nonprofit devoted to making fashion more sustainable. “It’s derived from fossil fuels, which is energy-intensive to create, and it does not biodegrade. It’s all-around bad.” When consumers inevitably realize that vinyl is a hideous trend and throw out all their offending garments, the material will likely be burnt, spewing carbon into the atmosphere, Bédat says. If not, it could end up in a landfill or ocean, where it will not decompose, but instead turn into tiny particles called microplastics, which can end up in food, rain, and drinking water. Just last year, a Yale report found that plastic is accelerating climate change and scientists found that the average human swallows more than 74,000 pieces of microplastic every year—the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of plastic—which damages the human liver. 

The sudden appearance of vinyl everywhere is ironic at a time when many fashion brands are waging a war on plastic. Everlane vowed to cut all new plastic from its supply chain last year, Rothy’s uses old water bottles for its shoes, and Summersalt uses old plastic fishing nets to make swimsuits. Even Christian Louboutin launched a handbag collection made from recycled plastic, and ASOS committed to making its mailing bags with 90% recycled plastic by the end of 2020.

If these examples reveal anything it’s that fads reign supreme in fashion. In their quest to provide novelty, fashion designers and brands trot out an endless cycle of silhouettes (skinny jeans! bell bottoms!) and materials (recycled plastic! vinyl!), even if they convey diametrically opposite values. But the industry may be at a turning point. The pandemic has battered fashion. The most recent figures from the Commerce Department show that sales of clothing were down by 21% in July compared with the previous year, and Morgan Stanley has found that foot traffic to brick-and-mortar apparel stores is down by as much as 43% compared with last year. Fashion weeks around the world have shut down, and many designers, including Tory Burch and Dries Van Noten, have pledged to stop designing seasonal collections, which are partly to blame for the constant churn of clothes on the market.

The fact is that the fashion industry didn’t have much incentive to stop chasing wasteful trends until now. But with business plummeting, trends may finally die.

[Source Image: Leon_Cheung/Blendswap (globe base mesh)]
Why do trends drive fashion in the first place? From the industry’s earliest origins, they’ve been a way to cultivate consumers’ desire for newness, which allows companies to sell us more clothes every season. But over the past two decades, we’ve taken our overconsumption to new levels. The industry doubled its production from 50 billion articles of clothing to 100 billion between 2000 and 2015. Note: There are only 8 billion people on the planet.

But responding to trends is financially risky for brands, which buy massive amounts of inventory every season. Designers take bets on which styles will be fashionable six months from now and produce enormous quantities of whatever they believe will be trendy, such as, say, vinyl. If they read the market wrong, and customers aren’t really into the new look, or if the economy takes a dip, vast quantities of products go to waste. This is bad for the planet, but it’s also bad for a brand’s bottom line. “Brands are asking themselves how they can become more resilient to these kinds of economic shocks in the future,” says Laura Balmond, a program manager focused on fashion with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

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Strategies that reduce waste can be good for business, says designer Misha Nonoo. Three years ago, she switched from designing traditional seasonal collections to creating classic clothes in timeless colors, then manufactures them using a zero-waste model. She set up her supply chain to make an outfit only when a customer orders it. This approach has allowed her to get through this pandemic relatively unscathed. She says that while sales have softened, she doesn’t have piles of unsold garments or unused fabrics she has bought sitting in a warehouse. And as demand for loungewear and sweats have increased, she has been able to quickly scale up the production of these clothes. “In so many ways, profitability and zero-waste manufacturing are totally aligned,” she says.

Balmond admits that shifting to new business models will require major systemic change for most brands. But these kind of changes tend to happen in moments of crisis, such as the one we’re currently in. And brands that want to survive might not have a choice.

Many consumers have changed their relationship with fashion during the pandemic. Part of the reason that apparel sales have declined is that many consumers aren’t interested in buying trendy clothes. Instead, they’re buying clothes that are functional and comfortable. In April, clothing sales in the United States dropped by 79%, the greatest decline in history, as The New York Times reported; the sale of sweatpants, on the other hand, grew by 80%. “Many of us are questioning what is really essential and what is not,” says Bédat. “We’re questioning how much of these trends we really want to participate in; we’re asking ourselves what is it that clothes really do for us. This mentality could stick and lead to a much healthier industry in the future.”

Sweatpants might be the wardrobe of the day while everyone’s stuck at home, but it’s unclear whether we’ll be satisfied schlepping around in the same clothes day after day once the pandemic is over and restaurant dinners, in-person meetings, and weddings resume. At the same time, the landscape of fashion will be dramatically different. Iconic department stores like Neiman Marcus and Lord & Taylor have already declared bankruptcy, as have labels like DVF, Brooks Brothers, and J.Crew. More fashion companies will surely fall. It’ll be left to a dwindling group of surviving brands to determine if trends themselves are out of style.

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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