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Brown alums talk future of fashion

Sophie Elgort ’08, Nicholas Picchione ’86, Robert Geller RISD ’01 offer insight on an industry in flux, digitization, democratization

To synthesize the luxury fashion industry feels a fruitless task, for it is in many ways a field emphatically characterized by the four changing seasons. The sense of the liminal permeates each fashion season, as a sundry of new garments are brought onto runways and into stores across the globe, rendering designs from only a few months prior out of trend.

But this kinetic energy was paused by the COVID-19 pandemic. With government-mandated lockdowns, the fashion industry has been forced to reckon with a society forcibly moved into the private. The public necessary to the performance of fashion was put under quarantine, and in April, as COVID-19 cases began to escalate, clothing sales fell nearly eighty percent. Consumers, now put under the duress of “work from home,” traded their suits and dresses for sweatpants and slippers. 

The synchronized fall of landmark tastemaking boutiques, then, feels anything but coincidental. In 2020, Opening Ceremony shuttered its doors, while Barneys officially filed for bankruptcy — both closures seemingly signalled that the luxury fashion house was no longer marketable. 

In Irina Aleksander’s profile for The New York Times Magazine of sweatpants designer Scott Sternberg, she described the fall of so-called fashion giants during COVID-19. “Over the next few months, J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers and J.C. Penney filed for bankruptcy,” Aleksander wrote. “Gap Inc. couldn’t pay rent on its 2,785 North American stores. By July, Diane von Furstenberg announced she would lay off 300 employees and close 18 of her 19 stores.” Fashion, an industry characterized by excess and frivolity, seemed to bear the brunt of both a health and economic crisis that denied these exact things. 

This industry apocalypse seems to be a necessary precursor to understanding fashion houses’ subsequent scramble to rethink consumer interaction. With production suddenly put on pause and in-person runway shows largely inaccessible, fashion houses accustomed to the luxury of in-person runway experience were forced to consider alternate modes of presentation and marketing. 

Yet, perhaps the halt of the interminable fashion cycle was exactly what the industry needed. Sophie Elgort ’08, a fashion photographer who has worked with the likes of Vogue and Elle, pointed to the pandemic as perhaps a catalyst for preeminent changes. 

“Fashion was sort of changing anyways already,” Elgort said. “For example, brands were sort of trying to get out of the normal fashion cycle, whether it was because they were responsible for too many collections per year and they couldn’t keep up, or whether they were just kind of fatigued by the fashion calendar.”

Menswear designer Robert Geller RISD ’01 has embraced this new mode of fashion production that Elgort pointed to. Geller previously won the GQ Best New Menswear Designer Award in 2009 and went on to receive the CFDA Swarovski Award for Menswear in 2011. 

“Because of Covid-19, I have decided to move away from the two big annual collections and work off schedule to drop products as they are ready,” Geller said. “The existing structure was kind of falling apart anyway.” 

Geller, who majored in apparel, maintains this strong sense of personal change and innovation as intrinsic to his time on College Hill.  “RISD gave me the chance to build my confidence to believe that I could have my own brand. The foundation year really made me believe that if I put my mind to something, I could come up with a good solution,” he explained. “That was the most important thing in all of my studies.”

Elgort, who has spent much of the past six months quarantining with her family in New York, saw her whole photographic calendar uprooted by the pandemic. “Basically, all of my shoots that were scheduled past March 15th were canceled,” she said. “I remember I set a reminder for a month later to reschedule all my meetings, because I thought within a month it would have been sorted.” 

But as the pandemic persisted relentlessly, the fashion world was forced to adapt. 

In April 2020, Elgort did her first shoot over Zoom and Facetime for M Milenio, a magazine based in Mexico. “I mostly shot over Zoom, and I had the actress’ mom use a phone camera to take the pictures,” Elgort said of the virtual directing process. “We had two phones going so that the actress could hear me directing her poses and so that I could direct the mom taking photos. It was kind of more like directing a film — because you’re directing both the cameraman and the subject.”

But much of the collaborative, interpersonal effort so imperative to the photographic process was lost, Elgort said. “Being able to collaborate with the other creatives on set is one of the things I love most about taking photos, so it was almost more like creating personal work or something,” she said.

And, it is this in-person experience — this intimacy with the creative process and garments — that consumers are ostensibly missing as well.

Nicholas Picchione ’86 P’20 pointed towards the difficulties of digitizing luxury fashion.

 “It could just be that the digital model has to evolve, as technology and AI evolves and such, you never know. But from the people I’ve spoken to, a digital showroom can never replace picking up a garment, trying it on, touching it, feeling it, seeing how the fabric drapes — there’s a disconnect there,” Picchione said. “With apparel, it will always be about that tactile experience — how it makes you feel, and it’s hard to replicate that digitally.”

When Picchione graduated from Brown with degrees in Biology and Economics, he knew neither medicine nor strict business were right for him, and he made his foray into fashion through retail. “I just started pounding the pavement … and applied off the street at the Armani boutique on Madison Avenue in New York, and I was hired as a cashier,” Picchione said. He has worked as senior vice president and chief merchandising officer of Ralph Lauren’s luxury Childrenswear, Men’s Purple Label and Men’s Black Label lines.

This in-person experience in luxury fashion was formative to the fondness Picchione developed for the industry. “I was super excited to be working in fashion, and even though I was making no money, I just really loved the environment,” he said.

But the fashion world is changing, Picchione explained. “There are still a few exclusive brands that still don’t consider selling online, but we’ve seen a general acceptance of the digital space,” he said. 

Although much of the digital shifts have been mandated by the pandemic, Picchione, like Elgort and Geller, suggested that this was a change already in motion. 

“I think particularly as brands need to attract a new and younger customer, you need to talk to customers in a different way,” he said. “And because those younger consumers are so digitally savvy, it was first informational and then it became transactional, and now, in the past six months, it’s for everyone.”

It is the ability to adapt to the unprecedented global and cultural shifts, to engage with the younger customer without alienating the old customer, that allows a company to succeed in the contemporary landscape, Picchione said. With the bankruptcies of household boutiques like Neiman Marcus and J. C. Penney, “a lot of people are blaming it on the pandemic, but those companies were having problems all along. This just brought it to a quicker conclusion,” Picchione said.

Picchione says that consumer priorities are more different now than ever before. Younger customers, in particular, place more value in brand authenticity and issues of ethics. “Now, you look to brands that are socially responsible, that treat their employees well, that are environmentally conscious — that becomes part of the brand message,” he said. “It’s not just about imagery in a magazine, which is what it used to be. Those digital story moments, whether it’s online on their website, or on Instagram — however they choose to convey that message — is important to connect with the customer.”

Trends have shifted during the pandemic landscape as well. “I think that the definition of luxury is changing,” Picchione said. Athleisure is the work from home uniform. 

“There has been a general casualization of how people dress — no one is buying a suit or a gown now,” Picchione said. But, he also thinks there could be a resurgence of fashion-experimentation once the pandemic is over. “I think it’s very possible the trends will change, and when people are able to go back to work and parties, they’re going to dress up like they haven’t in ages.”

And, Picchione maintains that once the pandemic is sorted, the physical shopping experience so central to the fashion landscape will be reignited as well. 

“Even with the tremendous rise in e-commerce, I think that brick and mortar stores will always be important,” he said. “It’s just a question of what that looks like.”

Geller, who has spent his quarantine in Lisbon with family, hopes to see small boutiques carrying indie designers revivified. “Here in Lisbon, there are tons of small boutiques with really amazing things, that you don’t see everywhere else,” Geller said. “Shopping became so boring, because you saw the same 10 brands in every store. There was no originality.”

Speaking to the sudden economic challenge that the pandemic poses, Geller offered his own perspective. “Sometimes (life) makes things very difficult and it is by working through these difficulties that you gain your experiences and come out stronger for having worked through the challenges,” he said. 

At the same time, Geller sees the pandemic as a possible stimulus for creativity and agility. “The one good thing from dropping rents is that it will give a chance to a boutique that has more of a vision and is willing to take chances,” he said. 

Perhaps the in-person shopping experience will be necromanced, reinvigorated with a youthful life-source that begets a new frontier in the fashion industry.


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