Independent Designers Creating Collections at Home

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Over the past few months, the fashion industry has experienced upheaval unlike anything in recent memory. COVID-19 has forced many in the industry to stay at home, with a ripple effect of disrupting production and manufacturing chains, leaving millions unemployed. Recent protests across the U.S. over the killing of George Floyd while in police custody have added another layer to retail’s complicated reopening and strategies moving forward.

By now, one thing is clear: The fashion delivery calendar as it stands has to change. A widespread message campaign to realign deliveries with the seasons they’re intended for has been pushed by Dries van Noten and by the CFDA and British Fashion Council through a joint statement, as well as other designers and groups.

For sales, supporters argue better alignment will lead to fewer markdowns and excess inventory. For sanity, designers will be able to slow down and focus even more on the creative process. The goal for everyone is less consumption, more quality.

“I think in some ways, the pandemic ‘pause’ really made the noise go away, at least for me,” said designer Claudia Li. “Before it, the world was getting so noisy and just filled with unnecessary” stuff.

So how does the industry adapt? To start, the CFDA urged brands to skip the resort 2021 season altogether. The moment is opportune for an overhaul while the industry is on pause: delay fall deliveries that would typically hit stores in the summer through to August and September. But that task is easier said than done. The resort season, and frankly pre-fall as well, could be generalized as iterations of brand bestsellers, making the season crucial to driving business.

With retailers struggling, many fashion brands have faced canceled or reduced fall 2020 orders. For those that rely on wholesale, waiting to see what happens next is a bleak option. Stuck with excess stock, they are turning to direct-to-consumer e-commerce to balance the loss. So when a retail partner does express interest in an edited resort collection, what should a brand do?

That was the case for many of the names included here. With various factors in mind — including employee well-being and compensation and being able to implement more sustainable practices, such as reusing fabrics — they’ve forged ahead with designing collections from home.

“In my opinion, fashion serves a wider role in our society — it’s not just about setting trends, but it shapes the culture as well,” said Nanushka’s Sandra Sandor. “We very much need that, especially in these days — a culture of solidarity, resilience and a culture of belonging. During these days our community needs us more than ever to inspire them, to support them and to set the right example. We can only get through this if we work together and help each other.”

For the designers here, getting back into sketching, designing and creating has been therapeutic. Initial challenges of transforming homes into studios have been tempered with the adoption of digital tools for meetings, presentations and even virtual fittings. Showing the finished collections to buyers and press will also be done virtually.

This is unlikely to be the industry’s new normal. But for now, it’s a means to move forward. Here, WWD takes a look at how some independent brands have adapted their design practices to quarantine life.

Marina Moscone

“Now is the time to design a collection more than ever, one that’s super-focused on artistry and the relationship between the material and craftsmanship,” said Marina Moscone, who has been working on an edited resort collection at home while simultaneously producing several hundred surgical masks for local hospitals in New York.

While the official fashion calendar has urged brands not to show a resort collection, Moscone has fielded interest from wholesale partners looking for pieces that can transition easily into spring. “There is something especially meaningful to create beauty and newness during this challenging time,” she said. “Historically, in times of turmoil, people often turn to art in all its forms. Art is comforting and beautiful, it relieves and it elevates.”

At home, and away from the chaos of the city, Moscone has been able to focus on the craft behind the process. She’s working on fabric looms she recently acquired and built, utilizing deadstock Italian yarns such as cashmeres, cottons and silks to add an undercurrent of sustainability into her hallmark of artisanal luxury — minimizing waste given the fewer number of prototypes, fittings and trials required. The resort capsule will feature special custom pieces available in limited quantities and only for direct-to-consumer and private clients. As a designer who immerses herself in the creative design and development process, the clarity afforded to her at home has been cathartic.

She’s been sketching, draping, pulling art references, test dyeing and hand-weaving fabrics with meticulous attention to detail. Drapes and patterns are reviewed over FaceTime with her patternmaker who lives in Westchester County, N.Y., then sent (at times with same-day contactless delivery) to her sewer in Brooklyn to create the first toiles. Fit is done on the brand’s silhouettes as bases so that modifications will be minimal.

Moscone was fortunate enough not to have any canceled orders given her quite seasonless fabrics and silhouettes, just a few that were reduced. Excess inventory from that will be absorbed into her e-commerce. “We do not want to overload anyone, including ourselves, with merchandise,” she says.

As with many other designers reassessing the industry and their own processes, Moscone is trekking along a conscious path; she plans to travel less and work slower with only two collections a year, broken into multiple deliveries. “This time has also allowed us a moment to think about the business from a big-picture perspective — to consider ways to restructure the business, to reevaluate our multiyear plans, and generally to slow down the frenetic pace of the hamster wheel of the design cycle.”

Hanako Maeda, Adeam

Hanako Maeda hasn’t taken a break since quarantine began: working on multiple new collections, planning the launch of e-commerce, and digitally rendering past designs for Animal Crossing (the breakout game of quarantine).

In Tokyo where her factories are based, Maeda moved forward with a capsule collection for resort while simultaneously designing for spring 2021 at the behest of many of her major retail partners. “We’re known for our cozy, angel-hair cotton knitwear and wrinkle-free, machine-washable Japanese fabrics, so I think this was a huge draw for them,” she noted.

Before a national emergency was declared in Japan, Maeda had most of her samples completed and was able to finish them with patternmakers and sewers working remotely. “In the beginning, it was difficult to communicate the construction details, but we’ve learnt slowly to take close-up shots and draw diagrams of the details. Our Japan production/logistics team and our in-house patternmakers are working from home, as well as our New York-based design team. We’ve all been in communication via FaceTime or Google meets, and we’ve conducted online fittings, using body forms instead of models.”

Though difficult at first, Maeda has found tokens of positive consequences: reusing material stock to create new silhouettes, uniting different teams digitally, and finding innovative ways to present the collection she wouldn’t normally have done.

Labeled #AdeamatHome, the resort collection will be modeled by three of Maeda’s model friends inside their Tokyo homes, with photos taken on their iPhones. The plan is to promote these photos on the brand and models’ social media channels when market opens the week of June 29, with a virtual showroom for buyers. Made from machine-washable and difficult-to-wrinkle fabrics, the collection makes for ideal loungewear, yet with shapes referencing tailored clothing.

E-commerce will launch in August with pre-fall — which better aligns the collection with the season — and the integration of “Adeam Times,” a fully shoppable editorial look book.

Claudia Li

“Even before the pandemic, the industry was running on a failing system,” Claudia Li said bluntly. “I think now it’s a whole different world, a ‘restart’ button has been pushed, and now we need to set our own rules. Because obviously the old ways didn’t work and won’t work in this new environment.”

The “old ways” Li refers to include overconsumption, a fashion calendar that places too much pressure on designers to create with little time to focus on craft, and deliveries that don’t align with the season collections are meant for.

As an independent designer, it’s a tall enough order to stand out in a saturated market, but Li also feels the weight of competition against fast-fashion brands pushing T-shirts with seemingly endless marketing budgets. “We need to come out of this asking ourselves if we’ve finally realized our impact on the environment. How do we really appreciate real fashion again?”

She’s moved forward with designing resort mainly with her team in mind. “I have a small team, and they depend on me to eat and to pay their bills,” Li said, adding: “We’re focusing on international markets that are reopened for sales, doing everything digitally.” Although she has faced canceled orders here, stores in Asia are looking for summer-appropriate product.

“To my team and me, designing is not something that we have to do, but it’s something that we want to do. Yes, in many ways keeping ourselves busy will help us to get through the lockdown, but I feel that going through these hard times, we have more to say and to express. I also think creating a new collection brings hope, positivity and staying creative is a great way to help with mental stress.

“This pandemic has made me reevaluate life, how we’re living and what’s important in life, not just for me but for my team as well.”

With fewer distractions, Li has been getting work done faster and found ways to remain optimistic. “I think this pandemic has impacted the way we communicate with each other and amplified in some ways how much we want to express to one another. This for me is something that I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, finding a new way to communicate with my audience.”

As for the design process, Li and her team are using video chats to discuss the stacks of fabric samples and prints, color cards and research occupying a shared dining table Li has with her husband. And if all goes smoothly, working remotely may be Li’s permanent new normal. “I think as long as we’re organized and communicate regularly, it really doesn’t matter where we are working from.”

Sandra Sandor, Nanushka

Though widespread stay-at-home orders have forced the industry to examine some of its wasteful practices, Nanushka’s Sandra Sandor has always championed pillars of sustainability, including slow fashion and mindful consumption. Her fall collection was 52 percent made out of sustainable fabrics, and she’s only looking to grow that number with resort and spring.

During quarantine, Sandor’s atelier has been producing 2,000 reusable face masks a week, which she’s donated to retirement homes, the Red Cross, other charities and her customers.

“I think both positives and negatives will come out of this,” she said. “As we all know, the world economy is struggling, businesses are closing, and people are losing their jobs especially in the creative sector and this is sad. However, due to the pandemic, we as a whole will be able to reevaluate and rethink our ways of working, the fast-paced environment we work in, and the overconsumption that is the driver behind this.”

Though she’s faced wholesale order cancellations and reductions that have led to cutting back production for pre-fall and fall, she’s adopted new digital tools while designing a resort collection from home that she and her team can easily integrate post-quarantine: we use Google Hangouts and slides to go through design documents collaboratively, have regular online meetings and even virtual fittings with just one model and one person. “I never thought it was possible to work separated from my team, but actually I feel quite productive,” she added. “This challenging environment has taught us to be more organized, pre plan before meetings and to solve problems creatively.”

“It’s definitely a challenge as you can’t make changes by yourselves, but I have an amazing team with whom I have been working together for a decade and they understand. However, I can’t wait to have fittings in a more ‘traditional way’ very soon.”

As to the decision behind moving forward with resort when many are not, Sandor feels she has a responsibility to her customers and employees to continue producing comfortable and functional pieces with quality and longevity that will get them through a lockdown. “I think it’s important to stay positive and work toward our goals despite the hardships we are facing. Nanushka is built on values that will become even more important in the future like functionality, sustainability, longevity, mindfulness and comfort. Creativity and good design will claim back its role as the leading force behind the success of a brand.”

Danielle Hirsch, Danielle Frankel

The coronavirus hasn’t been selective about which markets to upend.

Bridalwear designer Danielle Hirsch was working on a collection for April’s Bridal Fashion Week, which was ultimately canceled.

But in the face of challenges, Hirsch decided to relaunch e-commerce, sell select styles on Amazon through the CFDA’s A Common Thread initiative, and develop a tightly edited capsule to launch very soon. The goal through all of this has been to reach a broader audience who are not familiar with the brand and establish a direct line of communication.

“We had already been in development for our collection that was supposed to launch in April. We wanted to finish some of the collection styles that we knew could be exciting for new brides and wanted to keep moving forward, even though it would be extremely difficult to do so,” Hirsch said of pieces she was finalizing under quarantine. “Right now our plan is to sell these new styles direct-to-consumer only.”

“We have never faced this kind of challenge and I am seeing the strength of my team and what we can do while faced with the impossible,” she added. A couple of the problem-solving solutions have included reusing fabric stock in the studio and handling fittings over FaceTime on her vice president of development. “Designing while at home in general can be difficult. The new work surroundings, being separated from my team and balancing motherhood with running a company can prove to be challenging.”

Though she’s made it work, there is no substitute for the physical and emotional tether to the mix of colleagues and clothing inside a shared work space. “I am itching to get back to the studio and will have more appreciation for the tactile elements of my job, such as the fabrics, techniques and fabrications I haven’t had access to over the past few months and have really missed,” she said. “I do believe collections ahead will be far stronger due to this time I’ve had to research and reset. I find that reflecting on what I am grateful for is truly important and knowing that my team and family are healthy is most important.”

Sally LaPointe

“I think there are no rules anymore. This is the part that excites me the most. It’s time to break away from old methods and think progressively. My team and I are fully ready to plow forward in a new way,” said Sally LaPointe emphatically.

Like others during lockdown, the designer has adopted digital practices and turned to Zoom for development and production fittings. “It works, probably not as great as in person, but we get it done,” she noted, adding: “The good thing is that I have had thousands of fitting in my day, so we have a bit of a routine which makes it go smoothly.

“Not staying together as a team and a company was never an option for us,” she added. “We are looking at this as an opportunity to pivot and relook at the way we do business.”

LaPointe has moved ahead with a scaled-back offering for resort featuring “best-of” styles that will sit well with the fall collection that is being delivered later than usual. Luckily, she was able to strategize with her retail partners to reorganize and shift deliveries so little had to be cancelled. Market for the resort collection will be done by virtual appointment this month.

According to the designer, this is the time for creativity and putting to use existing resources. “Our team notoriously works way ahead of time and is always incredibly organized, so we were able to use that to our advantage and use what we already have. I also think we have all been surprised at how much you can get done remotely if you put your mind to it.”

Working from home has led many designers to confront and address the flaws of the fashion calendar, and for LaPointe, time to slow down and create. “Usually things have to move so fast with the way the normal seasons fall it’s hard to feel like you have fully reached your design potential sometimes. But now it feels like there is all the time in the world.”

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