fbpx
Loading...
Global Fashion Lawyer February 2021 Issue 2021-03-08T08:54:19-08:00

Photo © Lanvin

From Ming to Bling Dynasty: China’s Increasing Influence on US and European Fashion

Over the past decade, few macro-economic issues have dominated the attention of fashion executives and their advisors as the growing impact of China on fashion’s global ecosystem.   The acceleration in China’s influence is, with little doubt, the most important geo-political factor facing the industry and second only, in general, to the rise of DTC and the shift in power to the consumer.

Those of us with seasoned fashion practices can attest that, up until relatively recently, China’s role in the lives of our clients, and derivatively its demand for our professional attention, was limited and static.   From the 80’s (and prior) through the aughts, China practice-proficiency usually meant understanding manufacturing agreements and INCOTERMS; less frequently, distribution deals and the occasional gray market goods/IP infringement matter (assuming your client had the resources to go down that rabbit hole).

Since then, China has gone from a proverbial cog in the machine to a critical driver of strategy, growth, and resource planning for fashion clients in the US and Europe.  For obvious reasons, a full exploration of this transformation is beyond the scope of this article. We instead intend to present a “what’s market” blitz-summary of China factors potentially impacting your clients, and why you should care.

The Chinese Consumer

Perhaps no other factor in this calculus has changed as dramatically as the power of the Chinese consumer.  In the span of a generation, she has gone from inconsequential to global powerhouse. In the pall cast by COVID this past year, she has elevated even further to savior-status for many brands.

Luxury’s holy trinity of LVMH, Kering, and Richemont all saw strong double-digit growth from the mainland Chinese consumer in a year where much of the rest of the world was laid low by COVID.

LVMH reported Q3 2020 revenue in Asia (excluding Japan) increased 13% YoY, while reporting revenue contraction in all other regions for the same period.  Specifically, the US, Japan, and Europe declined 4%, 17%, and 24%, respectively.  Richemont, whose brands include Cartier, Mont Blanc and Yoox Net-a-Porter, among many others, reported for the full fiscal 2020 that mainland China more than doubled the revenue growth of North America and Europe while the rest of Asia, the Middle East and Africa saw YoY declines in revenue.  Even stronger was Kering’s China performance, with mainland China seeing Q3 revenue growth of more than 80% YoY, and no other region coming close and most regions in contraction.

Given this backdrop, it is unsurprising that in their annual Fashion/Luxury reports Bain and McKinsey both continue to sound the clarion call for focus on the Chinese consumer.  A joint report released in December 2020 by Bain and Tmall concluded that the Chinese luxury e-commerce market grew 45% in 2020 vs declines of 36%, 27% and 24% in Europe, the US and Japan, respectively.   McKinsey predicts that China fashion revenue will grow high single to low double-digits in 2021, while contracting in the US and Europe, and projected last year that 40% of all luxury consumption would be driven by China by 2025.

China Clicks & Mortar?

It would also behoove counsel to closely monitor the evolving state of physical retail in China.  What used to be a categorical non-starter for Western brands is now under close scrutiny by analysts and strategists.  It stands to reason that, as the percentage of total Chinese luxury consumption captured in country (relative to purchase made during travels to the West) continues to rise, brands will look to invest in, and develop, experiential delivery capabilities close to home.

Early-movers like Galeries Lafayette, the French luxury department store, are serving as a litmus test.  This past Fall, the chain announced that it had signed a lease for its third location in country, Guiyang, following stores in Beijing and Shanghai.  Additionally, Alibaba’s acquisition of Chinese brick and mortar chain Sun Art begs the question of whether the e-commerce giant is making moves to put a clicks to bricks infrastructure in place to leverage its Tmall digital offering.

Speaking of Tmall, perhaps nothing else has more successfully fueled the East/West luxury fusion frenzy as the Alibaba Group subsidiary.   What started as an experiment to lure Western luxury brands in 2017 gained exit velocity in 2018 with a joint venture with Yoox Net-a-Porter.  The site now boasts more than 200 global luxury brands and recently announced a partnership with Richemont and Farfetch to create Farfetch China.

According to a statement released by the partnership, the aim of the Richemont/Farfetch/Alibaba partnership is to provide Western brands with “enhanced access” to the Chinese consumer.    As a part of the deal, Farfetch will launch shopping channels on Tmall Luxury Pavillion and Luxury Soho with the ultimate goal of expanding into, and connecting with, physical spaces to super charge clicks-to-bricks engagement.

As Women’s Wear Daily noted on its reporting of the partnership “It’s a complicated bit of dealmaking, with competitors, frenemies and high-powered players all in the mix — or interested parties — across two continents.”[1]  Indeed. There are few things that catalyze these types of joint efforts among industry titans—apparently the promise of the Chinese consumer is one.

East/West M&A

Given all of this untapped potential, the Chinese consumer is sure to find herself at the core of an increasing number of M&A / investment theses over the next decade; both from Western brands and private equity seeking to unlock market access to China and from Chinese private equity and brands looking for US and European brands to satiate hometown demand.

Two notable examples, each of which closed within days of the writing of this article include Beijing-based Sequoia Capital China’s acquisition of a majority stake in Paris-based fashion brand AMI and US private equity firm Alliance Consumer Growth’s minority investment in SuperOrdinary, a Chinese company that helps US beauty brands enter the Chinese market.

The exploration of opportunities in the M&A arena should naturally include the review of Chinese companies that have already made inroads in the consumer marketplace and have established brands in their own right, even if they are China centric in their product lines. Such a strategic alliance would provide a two pronged approach to the consumer and also may provide easier protection for brands within China and additional benefits at the regulatory level.

The Takeaway

The Chinese consumer not only matters (especially in the luxury segment), but she is ignored at your clients’ peril.   Larger enterprises likely already have China at, or near, the center of their growth strategies and will next look to accelerate and protect market share against global (and increasingly, homegrown Chinese) competition.  Small-to-mid-sized businesses, on the other hand are probably tip-toeing into the very early innings of crafting a China playbook, or even more likely, just beginning to think about how to deal with this market.

The good news is that the leverage created by developments in the digital space affords even small brands the ability to reach this population. Brand ecommerce sites can be translated and currency conversion APIs deployed. Awareness can be grown via partnerships with Chinese influencers and experimenting on different social/digital platforms (WeChat, Weibo, Baidu, etc).  Of course, partnerships with Alibaba, Tmall and Farfetch have the potential of supercharging market penetration—assuming the  brand can secure a deal.

The not-so-good news is that this opportunity comes with, sometimes considerable, legal and regulatory complexity.  A client’s focus on growing a Chinese demographic will require consideration of international trade, banking and IP protection, among a host of other issues.  Additionally, given the Chinese government’s unchecked ability to censor content, special attention needs to be paid to clearance work.

In short, China long ago evolved out of solely representing factory and counterfeiting work for fashion counsel and continues to accelerate its pace increasingly occupying (if not monopolizing) brands’ strategic efforts across growth, marketing, supply chain, and financing vectors.

[1] Evan Clark, “Mega Partnership: Farfetch Links with Alibaba, Richemont,” Women’s Wear Daily, Nov. 5, 2020

Which membership is right for you?

learn more

The Outdoor Clothing Trend: Through the Pandemic and Beyond. Interview with Patrick Nebiolo

Patrick, welcome to the Global Fashion Lawyer. Could you please tell us a bit about your company and its brands Holubar and Holden?

Thank you Alessandra.  It is my pleasure to be included in your publication, as I have a law degree and have been working in fashion for the last 20 years.

In short, my brands Holubar and Holden are my most recent investments in the apparel/fashion sector and the ones I am most proud of acquiring. Founded in Boulder, Colorado in 1947, Holubar is one of the oldest US outerwear brands, which will celebrate its 75th anniversary next year as one of the most innovative mountaineering companies in history. For comparison, The North Face was founded in 1968 and Patagonia 1973, and most of the US outerwear brands were born in the 70’ and 80’s. Holden is the ultimate active luxury brand born in Venice, California. Both brands reflect aspects of my passion for outdoor activities and quality items and apparel.

Holubar’s mission statement describes the brand as “an American dream, made for global adventure”. As we are proud to have a global mission for our magazine as well, we are curious to know more about what you mean by this statement and what challenges are associated with it.

Simply put, our mission is to make Holubar a US centric, global brand. We believe that maintaining a strong US core, loyal to the roots of the brand is the key to long term success of the company and the best way to strengthen the relationship with our customers.

Turning to Holden, we understand that this brand is born and raised in Venice, Los Angeles. Where do you see the future of Holden? Is it designate

d to become global as well?

Indeed.  Same as for Holubar, Holden has to maintain its US roots but has to look at the world for global expansion.  We have opened Europe last year and this year we open Asia. All with a global coordination but local adaptations.

As an Italian entrepreneur and businessman what are the main challenges that you have faced opening and managing your business in the USA? What are the main differences, including pros and cons, between the east and west coast?

I feel I have been very fortunate to be “adopted” by the US and I love everything about it.  Coming from Italy, where I launched (and closed) my first company I have to say that starting and running a business in the US is so much simpler and more straightforward, at least for what I do. Even if we all faced major challenges during the Covid-19 pandemic, the system has supported small businesses like mine in a remarkable way. I know that we all felt hurt and unsupported at times, but I can guarantee to all my fellow entrepreneurs that the US has done a lot more than almost every other country to keep us in business, and that means a lot for me.  With regards to differences between east and west, yes they do exist but I don’t want to oversimplify and I will just say that with Holubar and Holden we have the best of both worlds. Western creativity and eastern operations. And thankfully I come from Italy, where I am accustomed to differences from all cardinal points (north vs south/east vs west) and learned to make it work.

In what ways can a lawyer be of support in protecting your brand’s DNA and know-how?

Well, I think that a good lawyer is like a good doctor.  He helps you prevent problems as much as possible and to cure them in the rare event they arise.  I think that lawyers with specific knowledge of your business and sector are invaluable and can not only help protect the brand’s DNA but can, and do, help in planning the future on strong foundations.

When hiring an attorney to help with the international development of either of your brands, do you prefer to work with big international law firms or local boutique firms with international experience and connections?

Great question.  Having spent my early years in big branded companies like Bain and Company, I typically like the network and resources that a big international firm has, but in the end it is the person that makes the difference and I will always value the professional over the firm.

Has the last year demonstrated any new opportunities for the future of outerwear? We at GFL have definitely noticed an increase in comfortable street style throughout our city.

Another great one.  Yes we have expanded our line of products in “loungewear”, as remote working has allowed us to spend more time in comfortable clothes that also look good when worn outside. I think this is a shift that will stay and we will see huge growth in this area for the next years to come.

It’s safe to say your existing and potential consumers are ready for an outdoor adventure. What is your favorite sport or activity?

I think everyone is ready to go out more. And you can see the growth in the number of people spending more on outdoor gear, apparel, and activities than in the past.  We are craving the outdoors and time outside. And personally, being a triathlete and sport enthusiast in general, I cannot get enough of my time in LA since it is the perfect place to swim, bike, or run any day of the week!

Prabal Gurung, Fall/Winter 2017, © Getty Images

Canada and US Visas for Professionals in the Fashion Industry

INTRODUCTION

Professionals working in creative roles in the fashion industry have unique immigration opportunities in Canada and the United States. Canada’s Self-Employed Artist program grants permanent residence to qualifying, self-employed applicants who want to live and work in Canada. The O-1 visa petition allows creative professionals of “extraordinary ability” to work in the United States and can serve as a pathway to permanent residence in the United States.

CANADA

Canadian cities, like Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver, are an excellent home base for professionals working in the fashion industry: excellent quality of life, diverse and evolving fashion world, and close access to the US, Europe and Asia. Successful, self-employed professionals in arts, culture and entertainment industries can make Canada their home through the Self-Employed Artist program. This immigration program is perfect for people in the fashion industry, as the definition of qualifying occupations is broad and includes: models, designers, photographers, writers, editors, pattern-makers, graphic designers, video artists, and specialty artisans (embroidery, lace, etc.).

The basic qualifications for this program are: (1) minimum two years of self-employment in their profession; (2) the ability to become successfully self-employed in Canada; and (3) the intention and ability to make a contribution to Canadian culture. People who are approved for permanent residence through this program can move to Canada with their spouse and minor children (under 22 years old) under the same application.

Specifically, applicants must first demonstrate that they have been self-employed in their profession for at least two years in the past five years. The self-employed work does not have to be the applicant’s current work or only source of income, but they have to show income and experience in their profession during at least two one-year periods when they were not doing their artistic work as an employee (on salary) of a company or other entity.

Second, they have to show that they have the intention and ability to be self-employed in Canada. This is demonstrated through a variety of means, and depends heavily on the applicant’s area of work and profession. Financially, applicants must prove that they have sufficient net assets to support themselves in Canada and that they also have the financial means to establish their upcoming work in Canada. Applicants must also show that they understand the national and local market for their area of work in order to demonstrate their intention and ability to be self-employed in Canada.

Third, applicants must also satisfy to immigration officials that they will make a cultural contribution to Canada. This component requires, for example, plans to contribute to the work of other Canadian entities in the fashion industry; developing products for the fashion industry and/or consumers; or otherwise impacting Canadian culture. There are many ways to meet this requirement. However, a person cannot satisfy this criteria if their intended cultural work will take place entirely outside of Canada.

The self-employed cultural worker stream is a unique route to becoming a permanent resident of Canada. Experienced, self-employed professionals in the fashion industry may be eligible to make a new home in Canada with this visa.

UNITED STATES

The most common visa for artists, including those in the fashion industry is the O-1 visa.  This classification is reserved for artists of “extraordinary ability,” and is available not just to fashion designers, but to all artists working in the fashion industry such as photographers, creative directors, art directors, editors and more, so long as the role is one that is creative in nature. The O-1 visa is temporary; typically issued in three-year increments, but can serve as a pathway to permanent residence (green card).

In order to qualify, the fashion industry professional must not only meet the standards in the regulations to demonstrate her extraordinary ability, but must also show that there is work lined up in the United States, and that the appropriate peer group or union does not object to her application.

It is important to note that unlike Canadian visa options, an O-1 beneficiary cannot file the petition on her own behalf; there must be a petitioner (sponsor) for the application.  The petitioner can be an employer; such as a label or magazine for whom the professional will be working directly.  Alternatively, and most common in the arts, the petitioner can be acting as an agent for the purposes of the immigration application. This allows the foreign national to work for multiple employers and multiple projects while in the United States. There are also instances where the professional’s United States-based company can file on her behalf.

The professional must also be able to demonstrate how she meets the standards for the O-1 classification, which standards can be found at 8 C.F.R. §214.2(o)(3)(iv). Specifically, she must show that she meets at least three of the enumerated criteria, which include: proof of work in a leading or critical role for a distinguished event or production; proof of press about the applicant or her work; proof of work in a leading role for a distinguished organization; proof of critical acclaim or success in the industry; proof of recognition from peers in the industry; and proof of a high salary compared with others in the industry.

One notable benefit of the O-1 visa is that the artist can also apply for her support staff to accompany her to the United States if she can show they are essential to her work. This means that the artist’s support staff who may not otherwise qualify for an O-1 visa on his own can come to the US with an O-2 visa. There is no limit on the number of support staff so long as the O-1 beneficiary can show that they are essential for her work in the United States.

CONCLUSION

Understanding the significant differences in the various options for fashion industry professionals in Canada and the United States allows people who want to make a move to choose the visa program that is best suited to their personal and professional lives and their future plans.

Alexandre Vauthier Fall/Winter Couture 2017, © Eric Abramian

Some Press is Bad Press: False Light in the Modeling Industry

Appearance is arguably the most important aspect of modeling. Whether a model is practicing poses in the mirror, or sitting in the makeup chair and being prepped for a photo shoot, the essence of a model’s job is to be a canvas, painted and altered to fit the role of the job she books. Even if a model is not altering her appearance for herself, but at the direction of the project’s creative director, presumably the model signed up for the specific gig at her own volition.

But what happens when models are not portrayed as they intended?

Models are no strangers to having their images featured all over magazines and billboards. However, the topic of models’ images being used without their consent is becoming an area of increasing concern. For instance, supermodel and actress Emily Ratajkowski recently penned an essay, cleverly titled “Buying Myself Back”, describing the battles she faced in the early days of her career regarding the use and ownership of a series of nude photographs in which she posed. Published by New York Media’s “The Cut” in September 2020, in the midst of a new era of fashion where the industry is finally beginning to alter the way it values models, this piece captured the attention of many, both inside the industry and beyond.

The issues of models not consenting to the specific way their image is used is becoming increasingly common. It should come as no shock that social media has exacerbated these concerns because it has made it so easy for everyone to disseminate photos.

Consent and power are two overlapping concepts inherent to a model’s everyday work. Whether a cover girl or an anonymous runway mannequin, a model’s job requires trading in uninhibited self-expression for the demands of creative directors, camera crews, and contracts she may not be privy to or have the background to understand. These are the reasons the work of models gives rise to false light claims so frequently.

“False light” is a cause of action that relates to someone being presented in a misleading nature.

The elements that make up a false light claim differ on a jurisdictional basis. However, on its most basic level, a model who wishes to bring a claim for false light must show 1) that information was published about her, 2) the information portrays her in a false or misleading light, 3) the information is highly offensive or embarrassing to a “reasonable” person, and 4) the person who published the information did so with reckless disregard as to the offensiveness of the information.

If Ratajkowski were to bring a false light claim against Jonathan Leder, the photographer who allegedly published without permission a book of erotic photos he shot of Ratajkowski, the element most likely in dispute between the parties would be whether the photos portray her in a misleading light taking into consideration her portfolio to date as a model.

When the topic of false light arises, it is not uncommon to also hear about defamation, which also relates to someone’s reputation being harmed. While the two causes of action may arise from similar circumstances, false light and defamation are distinctly separate claims.

If a model were to bring a defamation claim, she would be required to demonstrate 1) a person made a statement about her to a third party, 2) the statement caused damage or harm to her reputation, 3) the statement was false, and 4) as a public figure, this statement was made against her intentionally or with reckless disregard of her rights.

When a model signs a release for a modeling job, it is paramount that language used in the release does not permit use of the model’s photographs that extends beyond what the model intends. For what purpose(s) will the model’s photos be used for? Are the purposes specifically outlined? Where will the photos be distributed? Who is permitted to distribute the photos? For how many years may the photos be used? While models likely prefer the release to be narrow, rather than a wide and unrestricted use of the model’s photos, the company hiring the model and paying for the photos needs to ensure that the release captures their intended use of the photos.

A recent case was brought by a group of models, including Carmen Electra, against certain strip clubs, in which the strip clubs were allegedly using the models’ images for promotional purposes without their permission. The lawsuit describes Carmen Electra as never having worked at, hired to endorse, or received money from, the strip clubs. One of the claims brought was an invasion of privacy by false light, which was not dismissed by the court and will be part of the case going to trial.It is understandable why the false light claim was not dismissed by the court. The strip clubs published the images on social media, which the court found to reach the general public. If it is accurate that the models do not work for, or are not affiliated with the strip clubs, then the information does portray them in a false/misleading light. In addition, given the public stigma of strip clubs, a reasonable person might find being associated with a strip club as highly offensive or embarrassing. Finally, the models argued that the strip clubs did publish the information with reckless disregard.

There is a misconception in the modeling industry that “no press is bad press”.  Especially with the rise of “public figures” on social media, many people believe a model’s job is to garner the attention of as many consumers as possible to promote the brands with whom they contract. What is less frequently discussed is that modeling is an art that requires balancing self-promotion with the expectations of brands. With more content being produced comes even more responsibility for models today to avoid the risk of being presented in a misleading nature.

[1] “Defamation vs. False Light: What Is the Difference?” FindLaw, 2018, pp. 1–4, www.findlaw.com/injury/torts-and-personal-injuries/defamation-vs–false-light–what-is-the-difference-.html.

[2]  Id.

[3] BRENDA LYNN GEIGER, CARISSA ROSARIO, TARA LEIGH PATRICK a/k/a CARMEN ELECTRA, JESSICA HINTON a/k/a JESSA HINTON, CORA SKINNER, DESSIE MITCHESON, HILLARY FISHER VINSON a/k/a HILLARY HEPNER, JAMIE EASON MIDDLETON, INA SCHNITZER a/k/a JORDAN CARVER, LUCY PINDER, MEGAN DANIELS a/k/a MEGAN VOGT, and VIDA GUERRA, Plaintiffs, v. C&G OF GROTON, INC. d/b/a MYNX GROTON, SERVICE ROAD CORPORATION d/b/a MYNX HARTFORD, and ALFRED CIRALDO, Defendants, 35 (UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT DISTRICT OF CONNECTICUT).

[4]  Id.

Castiglion del Bosco, © Eric Abramian

A Vision Beyond Borders: Tips for Merging Fashion & Entertainment. Interview with Giulia Piersanti

Giulia, thank you so much for sitting down with us to chat virtually. You are one of the pioneers in bringing the fashion and entertainment worlds together through costume design. Has this always been your goal? 

Thank you. I’m not sure about the pioneer part, but i am happy to have the freedom to move freely in both the world of fashion and cinema, and to be able to be part of projects that i not only enjoy working on but I’m proud to be involved in creating. Both fashion and cinema were separate passions of mine since i was a child. I chose fashion as my primary career and fell into the costume/cinema world later on thanks to my friend Luca Guadagnino.

The New York Times describes you as having “changed the way people dress”. As both a knitwear designer/consultant to luxury brands and a freelance costume designer in Hollywood, which outlet do you feel gives you greater range to influence how society perceives and responds to fashion?

I am lucky to be able to work for and with artistic directors, in both fields, whose vision i share and respect. It allows me to bring the best out of my own work within each project.

I think cinema and fashion are equally influential through story-telling even if in different ways. Both take a vision and develop from it.

In my case i am not sure personally which gives me more space to influence. People reach out to me because of the movies. But that is because my name is on the costumes. In fashion i am a behind the scene person as i do not have my own brand.

As you know, conducting research as a lawyer helps you design your client’s case by understanding the past and present legal trends by jurisdiction. When you worked on set as a designer for “Call Me By Your Name”, how did your research help you create a world inspired by 1980s Italy that was still relevant to the fashion tastes of a modern day audience?

Most of the movies i have worked on are period films. Each project is different and must be thought of individually, but most of the characters i have dressed have such strong identities that i was able to create wardrobes that not only incorporated the period and its fashion but also a style unique to the character’s very personal background and psychology. I always look at the character’s turmoil’s and what is happening to them or what their social or political background is, what music they listen to, etc..

This is what interests me first. Then i try to balance these details with the period by choosing wardrobe pieces of the era that still feel relevant today so as not to create overly-period choices that disturb the viewer from being sucked in by the story telling.

What about knitwear inspires you to innovate? Do you think having a specialty as a designer is the key to obtaining a prestigious position at a luxury fashion house?

Being hardworking and talented helps you have a prestigious position in a luxury fashion house. It’s a world that asks for sacrifice. It is not for everybody.

Curiosity and a huge brain-data-base of everything from fashion to music to cinema to art, etc. Anything that can help communicate and speak the same language with other creatives is for me one of the most important things in this field.

Being specialized in something technical helps, i think, depending on one’s goals. A creative director has an overall view of a collection that goes from the dress to the shop interior to the fashion show, and relies on technically trained designers that can bring to life the overall vision such as knitwear or leather or accessories. So, in that case, yes it is helpful to be technical in something that others are not.

In my case, though, my technical experience is of course fundamental, but i think it is the fact that i did not start as a knitwear designer that makes me more open minded to a more interesting view of knit. If you start technical sometimes you end up being just technical, like a textile designer with no vision of a product. Instead, when you start as a more general designer you start to learn the technical part to suit what you want to achieve, which is hopefully a more interesting result.

In a market that is increasingly fascinated by slowing down production and creating only one or two collections a year, do you think consumers will make the much needed shift away from fast fashion and invest in quality garments that stand the test of time?

I had the opposite feeling that fashion is in constant increase of demand. More and more i am seeing the “see-now-buy-yesterday” attitude.

But things have hopefully taken a slowdown since COVID.

Quality doesn’t concern only the quality of a product, but the quality of life and the world in general. It sounds cliche and it is a concept that is not necessarily for a younger consumer but one of the (very few) good things that came out of the internet and social media generation is that young consumers have a lot of information at their disposal and can shop with more knowledge. Hopefully this will make them a more mature consumer? Who knows.. Only time can tell.

Lastly, if you could spend a beautiful spring afternoon in a villa in 1980s Lombardy, what would you be wearing? 

The least possible!

Experiment of Paco Rabanne, © Mia Salviati

Intertwining Fashion & Robotics. Interview with Stefano Dominella, President of UNINDUSTRIA & Maison Gattinoni

This interview is with Stefano Dominella, the President of UNINDUSTRIA Association and Maison Gattinoni.  His recent exhibition/performance entitled “Robotics. Fashion Experiments” was in Trastevere, one of Rome’s most picturesque cultural districts hub, WeGil.

Stefano, thank you very much for your time.  It seems strange to many people that there is a long-existing relationship between robotics and fashion. Could you give us a brief background as to how the two industries have been connected for over a century?

Organizing many exhibits related to the history of fashion, I have found a connection between how garments, accessories, and jewelry have become the driving force to tell a story that transcends fashion. In fact, the textile industry has provided a lot to technology since the 1920s. Few people know, for instance, that punched cards that were used on jacquard looms to reproduce ornamental motifs in the fabric have become the basis for making very precise calculations within the first calculators of IBM, which subsequently have allowed man to go to the Moon.

The worlds of astronomy and fashion are so intricately intertwined that they often play a huge role in influencing each other.  Long before 1969, designers began to draw inspiration from epic events of space exploration by launching metallic fabrics, lurex, sequins and Plexiglas. All those “moon looks” we look back at with admiration reference moonwalk and space travel. André Courrèges even presented a Space Age collection in 1964 making him the first designer ‘bewitched by the moon.’ This spacey aesthetic he was inspired by finds itself influencing collections for the French fashion house today with its newly appointed creative director Nicolas Di Felice.

It seems as though in the 60’s and 70’s the influence of “robotics” on fashion was more in terms of aesthetic, whereas in subsequent years the connection has become more impactful in the sense that it has changed the way we lead our daily lives with the development of technology. Would you say that’s accurate?

Yes, absolutely. Robotics increasingly embodies the relationship between humans and technology. There is a connection between the social change taking place within the particular era and the meaning and impact the robotics and technology makes on society and its values. Of course, fashion reflects the values of society at the time, therefore robotics are inherently woven into this equation. For instance, in the beginning of the 1980’s, the women’s shoulders silhouette was changing dramatically to reflect a new sense of female empowerment. Large padded jackets empowered women to express themselves in the professional worlds that at that time were mainly dominated by male society. The dream of protecting and also enhancing the human body could only stimulate the imagination of many stylists, especially in a historical phase of incredible acceleration in automation and artificial intelligence processes.

You recently hosted an exhibition/performance entitled “Robotics. Fashion Experiments” in Rome. What was it about, and how did you come up with the idea?

I enhanced my knowledge of the robotics industry, as it pertains to fashion, during the various trips I took to Japan. During my five months stay in Nagoya in the 80s, I became aware about Japanese Mecha culture. After returning to Italy, I started my fascination with the influence of super robots on fashion. When I conceived this idea of fashion experiments with robots, my friend, who has the largest collection of robots in Italy, began to teach me the philosophy and mechanics of each robot. For the past two years when exploring in depth giant robots, I realized that they are real ‘robots with a heart.’ Heroes, who control or ‘incarnate’ them from inside, give those robotic figures supernatural powers similar to those of the Samurai, and thus, humanize them.

For this reason, fashion experiments with robots allowed us to look inside the world of Artificial Intelligence (AI). For our theme we have chosen the garments created by renowned designers such as Moschino, Prada, Pierre Cardin, and Gianfranco Ferré, and we invited some independent fashion designers to enhance the robots’ style.  For instance, we matched an Armani jacket with an umbrella shaped skirt, which was designed purposefully for this exhibition. For this exhibition/performance we borrowed robots that are part of Roberto Pesucci’s priceless private collection. These are not robots for children, but rather “chogokin”, original metal models designed for adult collectors.

The exhibition was divided in three areas: Moon Landings, Sportswear, and Fantasy & Creativity. The key features of the exhibition were the most iconic pieces designed by Courrèges, which are also the forerunners of Sputnik culture inspired by the novels of Isaac Asimov and Philip K. Dick. “Robotics. Fashion Experiments” is also enriched by iconic garments and inspired by a giant-sized robot walking down the catwalk holding the hand of supermodel Irina Shayk and shiny jumpsuits covered with crystals created by Philipp Plein for his fashion show. This human relationship with technology will continue inspiring over centuries of literature, cinema, and fashion.

You have curated many other exhibitions emphasizing the interaction of fashion with other branches of social culture. Why do you think fashion goes beyond good and evil?

The proverb “habit does not make the monk” means that fashion projects the state of mind and psychology of those who wear their garments as well as of the designers, who choose to create particular collections. We match a blue sweater and white shirt not because the colors go well together but because of the mood we are in that makes us feel this is how we want to portray ourselves today. Fashion expresses personal satisfaction. When we dress well, we feel well. We portray a particular image of ourselves, and our garments can transform us into angels or demons, helping us present a positive self-image to others or disguise something.

Prada Spring/Summer 2021, © WWD

Fashion in Free-Fall

The global apparel market is presently worth approximately 2.5 trillion dollars.[1] This industry finds itself at the leading edge of global trade wars, Covid-19, and the resurgence of national sovereignty which has found expression in Brexit and the emotional response in the US to the mantra “America First”. This reality combined with the impact of the online digital revolution is destined to reshape fashion for decades to come.

The law has always followed the need to ensure that creative talent is rewarded, but in the world of disposable fashion where designers work for manufacturers, there is little scope for such protection. While that was not always the case, as the law was created to protect and incentivise creativity, norms changed as capital flowed into manufacturing and designers were no longer valued as driving revenue but rather became salarymen (and women) for the industry.

Increasing concern over vulnerabilities created by globalisation combined with exponential growth in the wealth generated by Asia was brought to a head by the pandemic. Businesses, with an appetite for just-in-time accounting, inexpensive labour from Asia, and appeasing ever-increasing shareholder activism, extended supply chains and reduced resilience. The pandemic started a global rethink that could move the needle providing opportunities for local production and wealth generation.

What the fashion world is experiencing is different from anything that has ever happened before, almost a perfect storm. The exponential increase in online sales and disintermediation, accelerated by Covid, is magnified by increasing distrust of international supply chains, all of which seem unlikely to be entirely reversed.

Since the industrial revolution, designers and craftsmen have been giving ground to the manufacturers. As design became work for hire, the brand was born. Chippendale hired teams of designers and craftsmen to create fine furniture to supply the fashionable interiors of Georgian London, and mass production diminished the value of craftsmen and designers. In the 90’s, conspicuous consumption drove fashion brands and celebrity designers to new financial highs, but even without seismic social and economic upheaval that growth was unsustainable.

Fashion is not confined to apparel. There is a close connection between societal themes, the ethics of the day, architecture, music, and the arts. Design and fashion both follow and lead the demand for and aesthetics of artifacts, clothing, architecture, and interior design as well as industrial and utilitarian artifacts, cars, household appliances, etc. Each epoch has its own reference points. The Utilitarian period that followed the deprivation caused by conflict gave way to the optimism of the Arts and Crafts. The clean lines of the Bauhaus were a product of post war Germany. The harsh steel structures of the industrial revolution spurred Victorian designers to embellish architecture with elaborate “Applied Art”. In the USA, post-war, the automobile became a barometer for changes in taste, optimism and the growth of the teenager. It was Chevrolet who introduced the concept of changing designs annually of what was essentially a utilitarian product. Since then, automobile design has echoed cultural, industrial and societal change.

Throughout all these periods, the law has sought to reward creative talent, with varying success. There is a fine balance between idea and individual representation, or fixation of the idea. Innovation requires expanding upon what has occurred before rather than creating monopolies in design themes or ideas.

If globalisation and the drive for economic growth created asymmetries, the growth of nationalism and a global pandemic are likely to create a host of unintended consequences. As manufacturing moved to the east, much of the production capacity of industry in the west was all but priced out of its own market. The apparel and fashion market, with low technical entry criteria and cheap labour for hand making in the East not only moved the production east but also drove wealth generation to the East, particularly to China. That wealth is looking for assets to acquire in the West. At present the US owes China approx. $1.07 trillion. China has been a keen acquiror of US bonds and debt. The only way that can be re-balanced is for the west to generate wealth, which stays where it is created. The scale of the fashion market and the low entry barriers put it at the forefront.

Country by country, the digital revolution has disintermediated supply chains and wholesalers have disappeared. The combination of rents, property taxes, and direct access to customers has caused the shuttering of retail stores worldwide. Manufacturers now sell direct, and local businesses have started to fill the gaps. Conversely, small-scale local manufacturers, craftsmen, and service suppliers who do not need expensive and unsustainable retail costs are brought back into the competitive mix.

What technology began the covid pandemic accelerated. The glue that held pundits steadfast to the mantra that consumers want the “retail experience” has been weakened by the pandemic. Changes that would ordinarily take an entire generation to implement have accelerated and been compacted into months. In the UK, the on-line brand Boo Hoo acquired the eponymous retail brand Debenhams for £50m; it did not acquire the physical retail properties.[2]  Habits, it is said, take 6 weeks to be established, so one has to ask will the new 20-somethings be so attached to disposable products or will the zero-emission in the post oil age be shocked into a new momentum? It is these events which will shape art, fashion, architecture and demand.

That is not an end of the matter, as fashion is driven by the nature of social interaction in each generation. In a recent conversation a professional lady reprised her thoughts; “I was looking in the wardrobe and wondered why I ever bought so many expensive handbags”.  Of course, those purchases may have seemed perfectly rational in the fast moving, face to face, world… but not so in a utilitarian world where fashion has been from the waist up, social interaction is limited, and conspicuous consumption is scorned when so many are unemployed. Walking (to the extent permitted by law) quickly revealed a smattering of bags being carried which were clearly artisan leather products. The point is that fashion does not exist in a vacuum and all change creates new opportunities. The disruption in the multi-store retail market creates new opportunities for creative talent.

As travel decreases, and the consumption of disposable fashion products seems less acceptable, perhaps the needle will tilt back a little giving rise to a new generation of creative talent, inspire new music and create new architecture for a population shocked into a new reality.

A visit to the supermarket revealed shortages of certain products from long distant markets. It did not take long to adapt; I guess I didn’t really need it anyway. With a bit of extra time and less commuting, we have time to look at what the local carpenter can produce, hunt out that local designer, and when the pubs open, go and listen to some local music. Of course when this is all over, the demand will return perhaps more so, but fashion will record the events just like the ice-record or the rings of a tree

[1] https://www.statista.com/forecasts/821415/value-of-the-global-apparel-market

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2021/jan/25/boohoo-buying-debenhams-a-changing-of-the-guard-in-retail

Which membership is right for you?

learn more