Friday, March 11, 2016

Creative burnout and its diminishing effects on the creative process

Designing a line for a season tasks designers with the daunting exercise of creating a ludicrous amount of clothing to show on the runway with a fair portion of the line never making it into production. The arbitrary cycle of creation and destruction regarding both clothing samples as well as designs for garments has largely been accepted as the norm for many well established fashion houses. These designs, created for the sole purpose of being sent down the runway, are then archived into the label’s history and are likely never used again. It’s easy to surmise that designers would feel a healthy amount of creative burnout after experiencing this exhausting cycle season after season.

This issue is further compounded due to a commercial shift from bi-annual collections to a multitude of seasons in a year. I recently had a lengthy discussion with Paul Shkordoff, co-owner and co-buyer of Working Title, about his thoughts on this issue.

“We’ve moved away from just simply two seasons [fall/winter and spring/summer] to add pre-spring, resort, spring, summer, pre-fall, fall, winter, holiday – something like that. It’s not just the number of pieces per season, it’s the number of pieces per season multiplied by the number of seasons in a year. This is what a lot of designers are talking about when they burnout.”

One would imagine that as a designer or even as a design team, it would be extremely difficult to keep up with the creative demand expected by company shareholders or the industry norms. Looking at Comme des Garçon’s showings for Fall/Winter 2016, the audience is treated with over 70 looks split between the Homme Plus and Shirt sub-lines. Robert Geller showed over 30 looks and relative newcomer John Elliot showed 36 looks. Breaking it down further, each look is separated into upwards of five to six individual garments with little crossover between styles.
"It’s not just the number of pieces per season, it’s the number of pieces per season multiplied by the number of seasons in a year. This is what a lot of designers are talking about when they burnout."
A recent example of the effects of creative burnout culminated in world-renowned fashion designer, Raf Simons, parting ways with Dior after three and a half years of collaboration. Simons worked with Dior while so working his personal label. In his 2015 Business of Fashion interview surrounding his exit, the Belgian designer revealed that he only had one design team while working on six collections a year. “There is no more thinking time,” Simons complains. “And I don’t want to do collections where I’m not thinking.”

The industry culture surrounding fashion shows in general must be analyzed as well, with a number of brands or designers regarding the fashion show with as much importance as the pieces in the collection itself. The spectacle and showmanship these shows provide to the media and public alike further solidifies the brand’s image. It is essentially the most expensive promotion expense incurred and it happens twice a year. “Having to juggle that [fashion shows] on top of making samples and making sure production is okay – it’s another big issue. In terms of adding that on top of getting pieces ready for the show; the whole endeavor is tiring and stressful,” Paul muses. 

At this point in our conversation, I was beginning to think of the effects of creative burnout from a consumer perspective. The definition of consumer in this scenario not necessarily meaning the end user, but as a consumer at some point along the fashion supply chain. I asked Paul if as a buyer, he was able to tell if a brand he was working with was experiencing the effects of creative burnout.

“A lot of times it shows in the quality of the pieces, where a lot of designs aren’t well thought out and pieces don’t end up as they should be. The easiest way to tell is if you see pieces that lack inspiration or lack the inspiration that they usually have. Often a designer will just recycle pieces because they’ve got nothing left, these are common ones.”

Paul’s answer implicates the creative burnout is experienced by others along the supply chain as well; it isn’t exciting to enter a showroom and see iterations of the same collection every season. Just like as an end-consumer, it isn’t exciting to buy the same iterations of the same collection every season. It almost feels like the industry has buried itself in a hole, especially in regards to how the current logistical process of luxury fashion works. The generally accepted notion is that labels have six months in advance to create and show an entire collection before working on the next. Retailers then place orders six months in advance in showrooms where samples are placed physically and within the next season the merchandise will arrive.

The industry has confined itself to work within such a rigid schedule that changing it at its core is an endeavor that’s frightening to tackle. To uproot the commercial foundation that the fashion industry has built itself on could spell disaster not only for the fashion houses but for retail stores as well. “Part of the reason there is that [six month] calendar,” Paul tells me,  “is so stores can plan their buy and budget it and put things together, but so that brands also have enough lead time to make all the product.”

I inquired about further difficulties stores may face if brands did away with the schedule altogether. “For a store,” he continues, “it makes it very difficult because we aren’t working on that [untraditional] calendar so we can’t budget any money for a brand that is sort of in between buying calendars.”

All this isn’t to say that a shift in the core schedule wouldn’t work. After all, a good way to keep customers buying product year-round is to continually get new product in. Paul reiterates my point, saying “one of the goals of retail is to have product coming year round, as opposed to it being stagnant – ideally you want a steady flow of product, that’s how you keep customers coming back.”
He continues, outlining the ideal situation that could be the result of this shift. “Given that situation, there’s a way to work around it. It will require a lot of work and planning – if all these different brands want to work on different calendars and somehow it ends up being so that you have product year-round – it’ll be a large shift in how things work but I don’t think it’s impossible.”

This begs the question; whose responsibility is it to pave the way for this change in industry culture? To shift away from the rigidity and outright excess that causes creative burnout? Surely it would fall in the hands of younger and newer labels to break this mold. An already established fashion house would never dream of altering the formulaic systems that have proven to be commercially successful, albeit creatively volatile.

"If all these different brands want to work on different calendars and somehow it ends up being so that you have product year-round – it’ll be a large shift in how things work but I don’t think it’s impossible."

Surprisingly enough, Burberry spearheaded such a shift in traditional industry standards by announcing a change in their business model wherein they will show both menswear and womenswear collections twice a year, but without the six month incubatory period normally associated with shows. This means that the shown collection will immediately be available to purchase online and in Burberry stores, appealing to a more consumer centric culture. The implications of Burberry’s change in their business model is immense; one of the oldest and most recognized fashion houses in the world is open to experiment with the formula.

It is this openness to experimentation that I believe will lead to an overhaul of the industry standards. While creative burnout is impossible to fully eliminate, its effects on designers, consumers, and everyone in between can be diminished if such rigid structures weren’t in play.

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