Just over a year ago Li Edelkoort said the virus is possibly “a gift for the planet”. It will teach us to slow down, produce less, consume less, and use what we already have to create mindfully. The international trend forecaster and analyst delivered her thoughts on the effects of COVID-19 at the 25th Annual Design Indaba held in Cape Town. Li insinuated that a pandemic could be what the world needs for it to become kinder to people and to the environment. “It is going to take an incredible effort for all of us to sustain ourselves, our jobs, our companies, our creative thinking and everyday that passes, I feel things are going to change forever,” she said.
How have her predictions transpired? How much truth was spoken then? South Africans were still socialising and nobody had died of the virus here – yet. It was a few weeks before a national state of disaster was declared and a nation-wide lockdown implemented that would go on to last almost half a year.
During the 90-minute presentation called The Labour of Love, Li said, “People know they need to slow down the pace of overconsumption and overproduction; otherwise our planet will be lost,” she said.
How Li Edelkoort’s predictions have manifested in South African fashion
Li touched on a number of predictions from building and architectural design to fashion, but it was her emphasis on using discarded and recycled material that caught our attention. Starting with a rekindled propensity for the handmade. “There is a huge comeback of weaving and hand making. We are going back to the handmade and to the cottage industry,” she said.
“The combination of different fabrics is also important because people want to work with old fabrics, with what they already have, they want to work with recycling in mind,” adds Edelkoort. Changemaker Winner of the Twyg Awards 2020, Lara Klawikowski’s collection made entirely from plastic bags is a testament to this.
Amanda Laird Cherry’s Spring Summer 2019 and Autumn Winter 2020 collections, and Anmari Honiball’s patchwork gingham kaftan are also great examples of instances where designers are using what they already have to re-fashion new garments. Amanda Laird Cherry’s Tugela is made from a variety of deconstructed denim jeans completely tied together into a patchwork shift dress. The dress offers a dimension of multi-functionality. The length of sleeves and the hemline can be adjusted by being folded up and tied. KwaZulu-Natal-based fashion designer, Katekani Moreku interned at Amanda Laird Cherry after his studies and it is now his mission to use preloved materials and clothing to create new garments.
Li eluded to the revival of colour brown. “It is a very important colour which is going to combat black. It will take time but it is happening.” Li said that hats will be an important part of the future outfit. Crystal Birch and Simon and Mary hats are top contenders playing within South Africa’s milliner space.
“There is going to be a huge revival of knitwear. It always happens in major crises. I remember in 1972 when the oil crisis had just started we were going to have no heat, I worked in a department store and I pushed the store to buy knits. They did very well that year,” says Li. “Crisis can sometimes be good for certain categories. We are seeing a trend towards keeping mohair and wool in their natural colours firstly because the merchandise is beautiful enough with unique variation, and secondly to save on bleaching and dying costs,” adds Li.
Here we think of the works from the likes of Laduma Maxhosa of MAXHOSA, Siphelele Ntombela from African Renaissance Designs, and the elderly women of the Gerard Fitzpatrick House in Johannesburg that are The Seen Collective. “Then there is also the work of simple clothes that have been beautifully constructed with very little detail, with very pale colours,” says Li.
Li mentions that there is an ongoing trend relating to the romanticism of the ‘countryside’ where blouses, bonnets, cuffs, ruffs, pinafores, pockets and full, puffy skirts and tailored jackets take front and centre. This trend is evident in the collections of Cape Town-based designer Sindiso Khumalo.
Li says young designers are using their hands and crafting to further improve the language of design. Good Good Good’s founder Daniel Sher worked on the brand’s SS21 Hope Collection made with fabrics woven by Plettenberg Bay-based Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certified mill, Mungo, located in Plettenberg Bay in the Western Cape. The collection was created at Daniel’s home during lockdown as a comment on the state of the world and its “injustices and the flaws of systems” during 2020. According to a description of the collection on their website, Daniel was “inspired by the South African landscapes and fauna and flora,” and “designed the garments to be comfortable to lounge in, durable for outdoor activities and most importantly presentable enough for social occasions.
“Sher recognised that not only does this localised sourcing approach reduce carbon emissions, it directly feeds into creating a more financially sustainable Southern African economy,” the description adds.
Change is the only constant
Can we expect this pivotal event, the COVID-19 pandemic, to create lasting social and cultural change? History has taught us that catastrophes and crises act as one of the greatest triggers of social change. Social process designer, Doug Reeler writes in a 2007 paper titled A Three-fold Theory of Social Change that, “Crisis or stuckness sets the stage for transformative change.” In short, social norms and cultural values upon which an entire community exists can be completely reestablished when such social norms and cultural values are fundamentally challenged.
Take the following examples of how certain historical movements and moments influenced, and in some cases, changed the course of fashion:
During the ‘roaring 20s’, communities had cause to celebrate. The first world war along with one of the deadliest influenza pandemics the world had known, the Spanish flu was over and it was time to party. As waistlines dropped and hemlines lifted, frills and loose flapper dresses were the garb of the moment. As the decade of frivolity drew to a close, the 1930s ushered in a far darker time. The Great Depression has been recorded as one of the longest and most dire economic setbacks in history, the effects of which were felt in countries across the globe. Poverty and homelessness ensued and people were certainly not spending the little they had on new clothes. People made do with what they had, making, repairing and refashioning.
Pants had already started creeping into women’s wardrobes during the first world war when women found themselves working in traditionally ‘male roles’ in factories and defence plants or tending to farms while men were away at war. However, with the help of French fashion designer and trouser advocate, Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel it was only until World War II that the idea of women in pants exploded.
The advent of the contraceptive pill together with fashion designers and fashion icons like Mary Quant, André Courrèges, and Yves Saint Laurent gave rise to the miniskirt in the 1960s which came to symbolise womens’ liberation. The threat of nuclear war together with the Vietnam war, communism, disco and rock ‘n roll music in the 1960s and 1970s gave rise to an anti-establishment style: bold prints and patterns, trumpet sleeves, maxi dresses, flared-leg trousers.
According to an article published in Fashion History Timeline in 2019, the 1970s was the decade “the influence of boutique stores and diffusion lines made ready-to-wear clothing increasingly accessible. New synthetic fabrics meant that fashionable styles could be bought at any price point. So pervasive were these materials that the seventies became known as the ‘Polyester Decade’”.
The so-called ‘Polyester Decade’ not only spilled over into the coming decades but grew and morphed into a difficult-to-trace, colossal production line that pumps out 52 seasons of ‘cheap’ clothing per year at the expense of people and the planet in an infamous phenomenon we have come to know as fast fashion.
And here we are in 2021 – a decade ushered in by one of the most disruptive pandemics in history that has made us question how society is living.
Change for good
A year ago, Li said the virus is possibly “a gift for the planet” in the sense that it will (hopefully) teach us to slow down, produce less, consume less, and use what we already have to create mindfully. “There is so much stuff in the world. There are enough clothes in the world to never make anymore ever again. It is about styling, remaking and upcycling. Do not just take from the earth, but instead, ask the earth to help you make. I am positive that the only way we can work our way out of the mess we are in is by ‘doing it yourself’, bringing in amateurs, doing things as a collective and not as an individual, sharing space, sharing machines and sharing resources, and using old stuff to create new,” concluded Li.
As we struggle through economic hardships and mourn the loss of loved ones, it seems insensitive and unfeeling to reflect on Li’s optimism about this cruel virus. But, we can appreciate that this pandemic has caused a pause and a time for reflection. Now it’s up to us to ensure we create deep and systemic changes to a society that has for so long been unjust, unequal and bad for the planet.
Image credit: Renard Mundy / The Seen Collective