Susie Lau: ‘The world has changed and so must fashion’ | Fashion


Back in mid-March, I was in full-throttle fashion mode. I had just finished up the autumn/winter shows marathon, shuttling from New York to London, and more precariously to Milan, where Giorgio Armani cancelled his show on the final day and cases of Covid-19 in the Lombardy region were rising rapidly. But in Paris, the final leg of fashion month, we were in a suspended state of decadence – going through the motions of attending shows, cocktail and dinner parties with a few scant masks floating around. By the time I finally returned to London, most of Europe had already gone into lockdown; still, fashion went on. The opening of a JW Anderson store in Soho marked the last time I got to hug friends in a crowded bar and wear a super-shiny dress out on a bustling street. We drank our cocktails like they would be the last enjoyed together in a long time. A week later, Boris Johnson gave his televised message for everyone: “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save lives.”

The ways in which the fashion industry and my line of work operate fell like dominoes. The closing of borders everywhere meant that the fashion shows that were slated to happen in May, and the numerous press trips dotted throughout the year, couldn’t go ahead. The ban on gatherings of people put a stop to the industry dinners and parties. Factories all over had ceased production, creating ripples in supply chains which dovetailed with rapidly falling demand. Quite rightly, clothes shops were deemed “non-essential” and physical stores were shuttered. Fashion, with all its ephemerality and whimsy, predicated on people expressing themselves through what they wear in public, had rightly been condemned into a non-essential sin-bin.

Susanna Lau, wearing a colorful jumpsuit, Dior bag and black shoes, seen outside Dior, during Paris Fashion Week

Before lockdown: Susie Lau during Paris fashion week in February. Photograph: Claudio Lavenia/Getty Images

Initially I retreated into a homespun distraction rhythm like the rest of the country: baking cakes (I became fixated with making complicated cartoon character chiffon cakes); creative at-home childcare with my three-year-old daughter Nico; and silly House Party meet-ups with friends. All of the work that was centred on travel had gone. Originally, in April and May I was to go to Hong Kong and Shanghai, then begin a heavy carbon-footprinted schedule of flying around for shows from Capri to Tokyo to San Francisco. Instead, I had to concentrate on working from home, taking on more copywriting gigs, and relying more on shooting content at home with a tripod and a remote control. In June, shows began to take the digital format of films and streamed conversations, and I opted to cover them remotely through Zoom “frow” conversations with other influencers like Bryanboy and Tina Craig of Bag Snob.

At the beginning of lockdown, Craig had said something to me that resonated as we navigated an uneasy period of time when we were concerned work opportunities would decrease because of our inability to travel and the downtime in the industry: “This is our time. While most industries are shutting down and trying to figure out how to work from home – working from home is what we do best. Don’t let fear immobilise your voice and talent.” From my days of starting my fashion blog Style Bubble back in 2006, being flexible and adaptable has been paramount to moving with audiences as they shifted their content consumption from the web to Twitter and Instagram and now to Tik Tok (I haven’t been brave enough to attempt a dance trend video, which is probably for the best). Although I’ve always focused on show coverage and spotlighting young designers, lockdown has also given me the opportunity to explore facets of my life that aren’t necessarily fashion-centric. Now that shows have taken on a digital form, I’d like to see them as an opportunity to create a more immediate sort of content.

As the physical vestiges of a fashion industry calendar all but disappeared, I turned to my existing wardrobe as a coping mechanism of sorts. Wearing a long, slinky Vampire’s Wife dress to fry eggs was satisfying. There was something weirdly reassuring about donning a Simone Rocha dress and watching the 5pm briefings. I put my Gucci frilly pink shoes up on the couch in front of re-runs of Line of Duty. If the outside world was becoming a monotony of park walks and fraught trips to Tesco’s, my stay-at-home attire would be a reminder of an admittedly indulgent life.

Elsewhere, lockdown created some discernible shifts in the way we dressed once we had established our WFH pattern. We developed a lopsided sartorial mode of pyjama shorts and tracksuit bottoms below the waist with something fancy and extra above, with a slick of lipstick to complete the Zoom game-face. Loungewear and athleisure have grown exponentially, which isn’t music to my ears (I don’t even own tracksuit bottoms), but the idea of people finding comfort in what they wear to work from home, if they can afford to, has fundamentally shifted our perceptions of who we dress for. If it’s for a smaller circle of people, as social distancing measures continue, do we dress down or up? How do we factor in the psychology of “dopamine dressing” at a time when we need to be uplifted within our more confined spaces?

Fashion is in an existential quandary. It sells an aspirational lifestyle to go with the life we imagine living under optimal circumstances. How do you justify spending a small fortune on a dress when the prospect of Christmas parties or festivities are dwindling? That super-extra outfit – with neon! Sequins! And feathers! – for festivals that may not happen. The floaty dress for a holiday that may be placed into a quarantine-upon-return risk jeopardy. On the bleaker end, what about the smart shirt you buy in the hope of landing the dream job that may no longer be out there? This “quarantine on consumption”, as trend forecaster Lidewij Edelkoort has termed it, has given us the chance to reassess our priorities and what we buy.

This period has taught me to distil things down to the fundamentals. What do I actually need? This needn’t mean stripping back to utilitarian basics and normcore functionality. In a wider sense, how do we allow idiosyncrasy in fashion to prevail again? Or innovation in the realms of sustainability and technology? Should success be measured by mere scale and growth in profit in businesses? Tied to that is another question I’ve been asking myself: can we collectively step back from fast-fashion and the rapacious production cycles, by buying less and better?

Susie Lau looking in her wardrobe

Homewear: dressing up in lockdown. Photograph: Susie Lau @susiebubble

What I lost this year in epic trips, far-flung location-flexing and fashion experiences, I gained in personal growth, not least because I could spend more time with my daughter. I’ve also been able to appraise the industry with fresh eyes. I’ve enjoyed seeing people who bring cause and purpose to their ventures and are mindful of environmental impact, without relying on the traditional shows. Through social media, a DIY mentality has triumphed. The handmade, ultra-feminine tops and dresses of British-based Olivia Rose the Label sell-out by Instagram word of mouth, harking back to the days of the humble dressmaker. Stylist Emma Gold of @TieDyeTogether has, with her affordable tie-dyed vintage tees, raised funds to support the NHS, combining upcycling with social mindfulness. With the ongoing backdrop of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I’ve loved seeing the amplification of Black-owned businesses – labels like Kai Collective, created by designer Fisayo Longe, who has fostered a powerful community online around her designs.

The first physical show I attended also reflected a change in values. We are looking at fashion as a craft again. Both the smaller designers and the major houses, having had time to reflect, are shifting. Art School, a progressive young label by Eden Loweth, staged an ambitious but socially distanced show in Waterlow Park in north London, paying homage to a community of LGBTQ+ and underrepresented faces with a diverse show of 50 models. With three other journalists, I watched these powerful models walk their way through a 50m-long garden path. What came across was kindness and the power of creativity in the face of adversity. “We have a voice and we realised we have a platform that we should use,” said Loweth. With like-minded designers such as Charles Jeffrey, Supriya Lele, Stefan Cooke – all young voices working in challenging circumstances – they’ve formed a community, speaking often during lockdown, determined to create a new movement, and a new generation of designers – like London titans Christopher Kane, Erdem and Roksanda, who came before them.

Faye Wei Wei, Susie Lau, Phoebe Collings-James, Alexa Chung and Greta Bellamacina attend the Simone Rocha front row during London Fashion Week, February 2020

Front row regular: at London fashion week in February. Photograph: David M Benett/Getty Images

When I had my first physical fashion shopping experience, after months of retail lockdown, in central London’s Dover Street Market, the designers who stood out were the ones with an aesthetic that they could call their own. There was Chopova Lowena, with upcycled textiles and artisanal collaging of culturally diverse fabrics into sweeping dresses and kilt skirts. I also noticed Mowalola Ogunlesi, who has recently been appointed as creative lead on Kanye West’s much-anticipated Gap collaboration. And there was my personal favourite, Molly Goddard, whose voluminous dresses balance comfort with high-octane drama. Despite the drop in physical footfall, Dover Street Market was seeing that designers with “a real point of view” were the ones that were selling. This bodes well for young designers facing an ever-more difficult retail climate.

But in fashion at large, holding on to the “show must go on” mentality is pervasive. Time will tell whether we see any actual change to how the industry showcases collections, and whether the frenetic pre-pandemic pace will return. Fashion can’t help but to reach for superlatives, excess and spectacle. The key is balancing bombast with a measured sensitivity and awareness.

Veronika Heilbrunner, Susie Lau, Bryanboy and Tina Leung attend the Gucci show during Milan Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2020 on September 22, 2019 in Milan, Italy.

Italian style: in Milan last year. Photograph: Jacopo M Raule/Getty Images for Gucci

The Covid case numbers are on the rise again and this month, which normally looms with a hefty weight of shows, is already a September like no other. New York and London fashion weeks are now mainly “phygital”, a combination of shows with physical and digital elements. Even in physical form, we will see collections through smaller shows and private appointments. And with cases on the rise again in Italy and France, there are question marks over how the big houses will stage their shows. It’s an uneasy pull between the desire of the financial powers that be in brands to return to the “old normal” and a pushback from the creatives and designers, who now want to do things differently. Fewer collections. Less product. Better ideas that meet the needs of a changed world.

I’m hopeful that intuitive creativity will prevail. We’re on the precipice of a seismic time that could spell a permanent change in our industry. In the 1920s, waists dropped, hemlines rose and hair was shorn in a post-war reaction. In the 60s, hemlines rose further, ready-to-wear was born as a result of the Youthquake. In 2020, we have a generation of designers, stylists, photographers and creatives coming to the fore with a post-globalised, post-pandemic mentality. Values and aesthetics need to go hand in hand. Lateral thinking is required for when it comes to how the industry produces, showcase collections, and sell their vision to a public, whose appetite for fashion will have changed for ever. What we wear and how we buy, should – hopefully will – change to reflect a world that needs clothes to do more.

Follow Susie Lau on Instagram @susiebubble


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