Saturday, April 2, 2016

After a Fashion

Zika virus migrating north creating a lower demand on maternity clothing? Not exactly, although we are indeed watching insect patterns slowly moving disease-bearing insects north (in the Northern Hemisphere) in lockstep with rising temperatures. What surprises me is how many little stories we are seeing as a result of global climate change. Seems strange to look at this issue after the massive freezing blizzards have recent swept the country, but a momentary downward push of arctic air is hardly a change in the constantly trending rising heat levels around the world. Both NOAA and NASA have determined that 2015 was the hottest year in recorded human history.
So I stumbled upon a strange perspective on global warming. The impact on the fashion industry, both from a design perspective and dealing with retail realities. It’s a really large segment of the economy: an estimated $1.2 trillion dollar/year global market. “Talking to Co.Design, a Patagonia spokesperson called climate change ‘a serious crisis’ for its business. And while retailers like J.Crew, H&M, and Nordstrom decline to comment, the numbers speak for themselves. Uniqlo, H&M, and Gap all announced major seasonal shortfalls this year, and Macy’s is actually cutting more than 4,500 jobs following slumpish holiday sales, blaming 80% of its revenue shortcomings on cold-weather goods like jackets, hats, and scarves that just didn’t sell.”, January 27th.
Cold weather clothing. More cloth. More lining. More expensive fabrics and materials. Even with the same mark-up percentage margins, clearly more profits. People may buy one or two major cold weather purchases a year… when they feel the need for an upgrade… and when they buy, those items are often the most expensive pieces in their wardrobe. But when they see the need for winter clothes is for fewer and fewer days, well…
Before the blizzard, I remember my Central (Chicago) and East Coast friends letting me know that their cities were experiencing winter temperatures that were actually warmer than I was experiencing in Southern California! Temperatures in the high 60s and even a sneak above 70 now and again. They were sending me and posting tee-shirt photos in December. Galling!
With hotter temperatures across the board, the fashion industry is being forced to adapt. Both in terms of the nature and design of what they’re selling and the timing of when product is shipped to stores. “It’s a perfectly common practice for winter fashion to hit shelves in July. This incredible lead time is just the final step in an even greater logistical operation you don’t see: Those heavy pieces may have hit catwalks and started the journey to production anywhere from 6 to 18 months before they arrived in a store.
“And yet, for all this preplanning, nobody buys a winter coat in the sweltering days of summer—and some brands are beginning to question the long lead time.
“‘Typically the way the industry is set up is a little odd, where you sell sweaters in July in anticipation of September. It becomes this game of racing to get a fresh product a little too early I've always thought,’ says Yael Aflalo, Founder and CEO of fast US fashion brand Reformation. ‘Most people go to get sweaters when it’s cold outside. I don’t buy sweaters in July. I buy sweaters when it’s cold, and, oh my god, I need sweaters!’…
“In other cases, retailers have capitalized on delays that had summer items arriving in fall. Rebecca Minkoff admits that her business had a lucky break in this seasonal scheduling. While they had planned to ship a suede jacket in July, a delay in the tannery pushed it back to October and November. ‘But that timing was perfect,’ she says, because the mid-weight jacket happened to be the natural accoutrement to 2015's warm fall.
“To anyone outside the fashion industry, the idea of garments that are produced during the season in which they'll be worn seems obvious and logical—especially when it's increasingly tough to know what weather the next season has in store. In fact, that’s why Minkoff is changing the timing of its seasonal shows. Instead of wooing retailers several seasons in advance to place speculative orders on what people might want months in the future, Minkoff is running consumer-facing runway shows closer to actual ship dates.”, January 27th.
What is also challenging the fashion sector is the strange and often fast-moving shocks to our weather patterns that impact certain regions of the country and not areas you might otherwise expect. Where an exceptional cold front tanks specific New England towns but skips New York and points south altogether, clothing manufacturers have to be able to react quickly to place appropriate product into appropriate stores. That may mean moving items from store-to-store as needed. For bigger clothing companies, the need to manufacture and ship early, the complexity of massive movement of clothing from stores where weather is coming out to be warmer to those areas of unexpected cold requires a massive change in decades-long systems, manufacturing capacity and planning, one that they often have trouble implementing.
Then we have the question of the clothes themselves, both in terms of the impact of climate change on the fabrics and materials in their agricultural availability and cost as well as the physical design of clothing for warming temperatures. “[]]uggling when to sell the right seasonal wear is only part of the issue. We’re talking about a world in which Boston’s frozen winters will soon feel more like the slightly chilled Januaries of Georgia, or when erratic climates bounce between 60 and 6 degrees with just a day or two in between. The more obvious shift may not be the timing of clothing sales, but the design of the clothing itself.
“To some extent, the global, jet setting economy has already pushed designers to consider new, more environmentally-flexible fabrics. ‘We’ve been talking now for 20 years of trans-seasonal fashion,’ [Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology] says. ‘Between everybody traveling so much, there’s a lot of things like lightweight wool that goes from tropics to winter places, or smart fabrics that can respond to clues in the event to get warmer or cooler. Some of the big companies interested in techno luxury, like Venia, are exploring those.’…
“‘I think the weight of the materials is going to be what’s more in flux,’ Aflalo says. ‘People are going to be more opting for things like medium weights.’ And as the weather stayed warmer than expected this fall, the company countered by releasing a more balanced assortment of middle weight items, ‘more things like dresses, basic tops, more jeans, more things that are not as dependent on weather,’ Aflalo says. ‘The middle of the road stuff.’
“Likewise, Aflalo sees heavy-weight garments, like a polar fleeces, as higher risk items she’ll probably produce less of in the future. As a retailer, ‘you might not buy 1000,’ she says. ‘You’re going to hedge your bet and buy 400.’ If it gets really cold, the 400 will disappear. If it doesn’t, at least you’re not sitting there with a gigantic pile of overstock fleece…
If our most extreme cold weather gear is cut from the equation, or if everyone can wear shorts on Christmas, what defines winter fashion? What natural mechanism tells us that it’s time to get to the store and splurge on a new wardrobe? It's a question the industry has yet to answer. Ironically, even in warmer climates, traditional winter fashion may continue to define warm winter fashion. The heaviest of coats and sweaters, when produced in more limited supplies, will inherently become the statement pieces of the season, the rarer luxury garments for those who can afford to do more than dress in layers 12 months a year.”
The problem with climate change is that there are and will be thousands and thousands of “little stories,” a few creating benefits (hey Canada and Russia, enjoy new fertile agricultural lands and easier access to precious oil, gas and mineral resources) but mostly creating very costly disruptions to every aspect of our daily lives. In addition to the big land loss and mega-disasters that will both our mettle and our financial resources to deal with them, there are going to be lots of smaller incidents and realities that, in the aggregate, will cost us trillions of unexpected dollars.
It just amazes me that there is a major American political party where its most basic platform either eschews any notion of man-impacted climate change or opts to ignore it in favor of unregulated growth without environmental considerations. Are they ready to write the trillions of dollars of checks it will take “to make it right” for current and future generations?
I’m Peter Dekom, and the notion of “responsibility for our choices” seems to be moral value that escapes an entire generation of too many “conservative” (think about what that word used to mean) voters and their elected representatives.

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