Why We Need to Help Save a Generation of Emerging Designers

Image: NJAL Black Sheep designer Tan Tan, Credit: Not Just A Label

We speak to Not Just A Label founder Stefan Siegel about the obstacles emerging designers are facing during the current crisis, and why protecting the next generation of creatives today means mapping out a more sustainable landscape for fashion tomorrow.

Since the Covid-19 crisis began, the has been endless speculation about how it will affect the fashion world. With luxury hotspots China and Italy among the first countries to shutter down production facilities and retail stores alike, it has been apparent from the onset that this pandemic is set to shift the axis on which the industry operates. 

Yet with luxury labels and fast fashion corporations at the centre of the conversation, less thought has been given to the expansive network of emerging designers that form the creative heart of the industry today. Belonging to a sector predominantly made up of small businesses and self-employed individuals, fashion’s new talents have been left to bare the financial burden of cancelled wholesale orders, sitting on a pileup of excess stock too.

It’s a story with which Stegan Siegel, founder of Not Just A Label, has become particularly familiar. Back in 2008, he launched NJAL against the backdrop of the financial crisis to facilitate evolution in the fashion industry, helping emerging designers gain exposure and finance their own progression. Now, with a whole new crisis to navigate, his platform is supporting over 35,000 creatives through by providing access to resources and essential discounts that will help them to grow.

Throughout our conversation, Stefan speaks candidly about the main difficulties that his network of creatives are currently facing. However, what shines through is his element of optimism, and belief that by successfully protecting new designers today, we can use this opportunuty to invest in a new generation of lateral thinkers – ready to shake up the status-quo of an industry in desperate need of reform.

Images: NJAL Black Sheep designers Jake Liu and Viviano, Credit: Not Just A Label

Why have emerging designers been particularly hit by the Covid-19 pandemic? 

At the onset of the pandemic, many designers were nearing the end of their month-long travels and were focused on completing orders for AW20, while simultaneously preparing to ship SS20 and design for SS21. The crisis threw a curveball at the most inopportune time for the industry as retailers scrambled to cancel incoming shipments, delay payments, and put a hold on future orders until the economy reopened. 

The antiquated system in which the industry has operated on thus far allowed large retailers to delay immediate investments in a new collection by placing the financial burden on the designer. These small businesses were left to invest in all up-front costs from production to deliveries, with assurances for high sell-throughs, and additional agreements for marketing in-store and online. Since many emerging designers rely on this presence within retailers to help bring their product to new consumers, they were unprepared for the shock of financial strain on their small businesses. 

Designers who have been shouldering the financial burdens in hope for repeat business and greater exposure are now left with stock from cancelled orders, and less capital to invest in future production or alternative routes to reach consumers directly. 

How do you see new and emerging creatives adapting their business models and production strategies following the Covid-19 pandemic? 

This unprecedented time offers huge opportunities for emerging designers who are able to stay dynamic within the changing landscape. For example, we have seen that many of our designers have stepped away from seasonality for wholesale development and are focused on building more timeless collections for their own B2C e-commerce businesses. 

In addition, with COVID came a greater emphasis on ‘glocal’ business. Designers can gain global exposure while operating at a local level but must simultaneously have a strong head for business and marketing to truly stand out. This is why it was imperative for Not Just a Label to continue to be a platform to showcase the ideas, designs, and innovations of our creative community so that their talents are continuously shared globally, even while many have been confined at home. 

Images: NJAL Black Sheep designers Iris Klaver and Malin Busck / Hi On Life, Credit: Not Just A Label

Do you believe that the fashion industry will ever go back to ‘business as usual?’ What industry-wide changes can you see happening, and how do you think this will alter the landscape for new designers? 

To be frank, we feel the fashion industry has relied on antiquated systems and strategies. It is slow, it takes itself too seriously and therefore to stay on top you have to challenge habits, you have to be willing to break the mould and reinvent yourself again and again. We are convinced that, despite the ongoing financial crises and the implications for the economic climate, brands focusing on ‘authentic luxury’ will continue to grow and prosper, resulting in one of the greatest creative opportunities in decades. We just need to continue on our mission and be strong. 

We often see that periods of difficulty and austerity are followed by an upsurge of creativity. Do you see this happening following the pandemic? 

I started the company a little over 10 years ago and things were hard amidst the financial crisis of 2008. I mean, designers might not have had a physical or digital way of showcasing their designs. They had no opportunity to sell their designs either. We’ve come a long way from that — the internet finally is being used — which means designers are now acting locally and globally at the same time. Their creativity has never ceased, but certain points of sales are missing in this world. 

You could blame the retail system, you could blame the traditional structure of the fashion industry, how it works and how a lot of designers are trained at design universities to go to fashion week twice a year and wait for a buyer to basically ‘rent’ their first collection. The missing piece at the moment is how to retail millions of individual designs and that is a very active conversation that we’re having, in terms of potentially transforming Not Just a Label into a marketplace – almost a luxury version of Etsy. 

Images: NJAL Black Sheep designers Olivia Rubens and Two Point Two, Credit: Not Just A Label

Many independent designers are now choosing to implement sustainable production strategies from the onset. Do you think they will ultimately be the ones to thank for directing the industry towards a fairer future? 

The next generation always offers innovative, new ways of thinking and creating but with technological developments and the movement towards sustainable manufacture, today’s emerging designers are setting standards for an entirely new way of making and selling fashion. The future is up to them! 

What can individuals and businesses be doing to help see the new generation of emerging designers through these difficult times? 

NJAL’s aim has always been to celebrate emerging talent and beautiful, original clothing without political or geographical borders. We maintain a belief that it isn’t about making slow fashion trendy, but furthering the movement and transformation in how we make and buy clothes. We can improve how clothes are made and reduce production but slow fashion is driven by a change in attitude from consumers. This involves emphasising slow fashion as modern luxury; offering quality, durability and exclusivity. 

I believe customers, not consumers, are starting to question the fervent pace of fast fashion and its devastating effect on resources, the environment, as well as human life. I also believe that they have started to accept that emerging designers are the future of fashion, and by supporting them at their infancy and buying their collections, it’s a way to salute the new generation and question the status-quo of fashion’s rulebook at large. In being more aware of the ethical implications of their purchases, aspects like ethical business practices, labour law justice, and environmental sustainability are becoming important factors in buying decisions.