Social disruption and how it impacts the past, present and future of fashion

Social disruptions have always had an impact on people’s clothes – not
only how they are worn, but also how they are made and sold. So what do the
changes of the past tell us about the present?

Disruption is a hot topic. It is the business mantra and buzzword of
keynote speakers, futurologists and rebellious designers, indicating a
divergence from the traditional, as well as a breaking point in a process
or even a society. Disruption is not a new invention and, at any given
time, there have always been events or inventions that have had a lasting
effect on everything that followed. What can we learn from past
disruptions? Where is the potential and where are the pitfalls?

Technical examples are often used when we speak of disruptions, such as
iPhones or video streaming services like Netflix, which are being
juxtaposed with their inferior predecessors such as the Nokia 3210 or the
Blockbuster video rental. The late Harvard professor, Clayton M.
Christensen, observed and formulated such disruptive innovations in his
bestseller “The Innovator’s Dilemma”. In the book, he describes the
phenomenon of innovations that create a new market or new values by
replacing formerly well-established products or services, displacing them
from the market or making them altogether obsolete.

However, in common language use, the distinction between innovation and
disruption is not always very clear. In a social and political context,
disruption describes moments of social change in its most extreme form.
When this happens, change is not only easier to think about but also to
implement, due to the interruption of past processes and habits, which
allows for new opportunities.

Inventions lead to disruption

A common example used in the context of the garment industry is that of
the industrial loom and the sewing machine. In fact, they represent the
innovations that caused the greatest social disruptions of the last two
hundred years, as they made it possible to produce clothing more quickly.
Whereas before industrialization, weavers and sewers bought and processed
materials and then resold their products, these steps were now combined in
factories, because the activity was automated and intermediaries were
reduced. Craftsmen and women could not keep up with the increase in
efficiency and so they applied for factory jobs, which caused the birth of
the working class.

This upheaval also took place in the retail sector. As women sewed their
own clothes or had them made by tailors, haberdashery shops were still
needed before the industrial revolution. Then came the department store,
where salespeople offered clothing off of the rack. This also changed
cityscapes and workers’ and villa districts were created. Large boulevards
and department stores still dominate European metropolises today – a fact
that needs to be considered further in this latest disruption.

Disruptions lead to innovation

Devastating natural disasters or wars are arguably the greatest
disruptions for societies. For example, the Second World War forced
millions of male workers to leave their factory posts for the frontline,
leaving women to take over in their stead. Naturally, this not only changed
the long-term self-image and role of women, but also their clothing. Even
though women were forced back into their roles of housewife after the war
ended, they underwent an all-changing experience. The pants that women had
worn in the factories were frowned upon again, but they were not
unthinkable. Though a destroyed Europe longed for better times and wished
to see an elegant lady with Dior’s New Look, the stylistic image of the
woman had principally broken down.

Generally, many innovations originate from warlike or military
disruptions. The fact that ready-to-wear clothing became realizable
resulted from the mass measurement of soldiers, which made it possible to
develop standardized sizes. Innovations in materials were often driven
towards military purposes and then found their way into everyday clothing.
And even the most socially far-reaching technology since the invention of
letterpress printing played a role in this context: the Internet. The
Internet has changed all areas of fashion, ranging from manufacturing,
production and trade. Nothing remained untouched by this disruption.

Opportunity: disruption from the coronavirus

Disruptions in the fashion industry have been talked about in recent
years, including the emerging resale market, various sustainability
movements and the increasing demand for transparency in the production and
supply chain. But in the end, these were all natural industry developments
that happened because there was a demand. Now, there really is a true
disruption. The coronavirus has switched up our routines completely or, at
the very least, interrupted them. But what exactly is changing?

The current tense economic situation has firstly led to a slump in
sales, especially in the clothing industry. Even e-commerce is weakening,
which could have potentially benefited from social distancing measures and
the closing of brick-and-mortar businesses. Nevertheless, the coronavirus
has further accelerated the switch from retail stores to online businesses.
Online shopping is convenient and easy, so, in the future, the customer
will need a good incentive to set foot into a physical store. After the
crisis, these incentives need to be established and society requires to be
given positive experiences.

The retail sector has shown that disruptions can be overcome if you
react in time: specialisation, emotionalisation and community building can
help. Even today there are still haberdashery shops, just like before the
industrialisation, but they have specialized in hobby tailors and fashion
students. Some shopping centers have survived the decline of malls in
recent decades, partly because they have taken on the social role of local
acting as a local meeting place for community building. And some
mail-ordering companies are still flourishing today because they
continuously provide incentives for their customer base. Though the number
of department stores will likely shrink, those who can offer customers new
and special experiences will remain. The coronavirus has not changed this
idea, but rather only accelerated and intensified it. There is no such
thing as a one-size-fits-all solution. You have to experiment, think
radically and return to the very heart of your business model and brand.

Especially in times of Covid-19, many things that were previously
thought impossible are now happening. A change in seasonal timing, a switch
to more efficient global just-in-time production, on-site manufacturing,
expansion of IT infrastructures, home offices for employees and digital
fashion weeks and showrooms. There is also a new sense of “we” that will
fuel a renewed debate about responsibility in the supply chain. After the
coronavirus crisis, brands, manufacturers and retailers will have little
choice but to rethink their businesses from top to bottom.

This article was originally published on FashionUnited.DE, translated
and edited.

Photo Credit: Engin Akyurt via Unsplash, Edwin Hopper via

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