Why the Fashion Industry Must Redefine to Survive COVID-19

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Why the Fashion Industry Must Redefine to Survive COVID-19

What was the fashion industry before the virus? What is it now? What will it be?

Before the virus, the fashion industry was at arguably one of its most creative periods, discovering the best ways to develop a relationship with their customers and build a creative consumer experience both in-person and online. The new upbringing of fast-fashion and trends gave everyone a chance to express themselves and find both inner and outer confidence. Fashion was everywhere. It gave you a chance to reinvent yourself and was all about that freedom of having your clothes help you become who you really wanted to be.

Now, amid this pandemic, clothes seem more like a chore than a pick-me-up. People are really thinking about purchases based on necessity instead of desire. And as a result, the industry suffers. It is important to look at this suffering as it indicates the truth and future of the economy at large. “No company will get through the pandemic alone, and fashion players need to share data, strategies and insights on how to navigate the storm,” the McKinsey/Business of Fashion’s “The State of fashion 2020: Coronavirus Update” reports. “The crisis will shake out the weak, embolden the strong, and accelerate the decline of companies that were already struggling before the pandemic.” Take Neiman-Marcus for example, a company that was founded in 1907, which filed for bankruptcy. The virus tests the notion of fashion being able to readapt itself to whatever is thrown at it. In short, said by the wise words of InStyle editor-in-chief Laura Brown, “Fashion people plus virus equals absolute fucking madness.” 

Ever since I was five years old, I’ve been watching the fashion industry and sketching my own designs. Because of this, I had a deep curiosity as well as hope that fashion would survive this virus, and decided to look into finding answers. Here are my conclusions.

Brand Finance suggests that apparel brands could lose 20 percent in brand value. The virus also will impact sourcing problems in fashion, disruptions and delays for delivery being expected of up to two months, possibly resetting fashion’s seasonal schedule.

The first to be affected was the runway shows. The virus forced The Met Gala to postpone until October, and local and major trade and runway shows like the Hermès Spring 2021 Cruise Collection are cancelled. 

Next to go? The stores. Fashion companies are now relying entirely on digital platforms to make up for their affected sales, and doing lots of cost-cutting on top of this. This puts many in-store employees of both local boutiques and big-name brands out of work either temporarily or permanently. Some of the many companies that are furloughing their workers include David Yurman, Kohl’s Corp, and Urban Outfitters. Other companies are reducing salaries like Estée Lauder, and still others have completely let go their workers like Rebecca Minkoff, Tapestry (which owns Stuart Weitzman, Coach, and Kate Spade), and Everlane.

Lastly, we have companies closing all together, like 10 Corso Como (New York fashion company) and ThirdLove (lingerie startup) which have both closed their NYC stores, as well as Bldwn (L.A. based fashion brand) and True Religion filing for bankruptcy. 

Even companies still standing have all seen a dip in sales, including H&M which has reported a 46 percent decline in sales during March and Under Armour Inc. which warns that its first-quarter revenues could take a hit of $50 million to $60 million. Research published by the BBC says nearly 20 percent of all small to mid-size enterprises, or SME’s, are unlikely to get the cash they need to survive the month of April. Some companies have also closed their e-commerce sites temporarily, including Net-a-Porter, Victoria’s Secret, and TJX. 

Yet the companies themselves are not the only ones affected by cutting costs. This could be the end of influencers, which have become a pivotal part of marketing for retail. Those lucky to still have their partnerships are trying to find new ways to market from their quarantined ways of life. This can include replacing their professional photographers for their boyfriends, and having to get creative in their tiny apartment with limited spots to shoot and poor lighting. Yet how do you convince consumers that now is the time to buy a going out lace top when you can’t wear it right now? It more so seems everyone dresses down as they work from home, and not every fashion company offers this type of apparel. Also, the world has slowed down during quarantine, which means more time to make smart buying decisions, and therefore prioritizing items like food over clothes, going back to this idea of necessity.

Other influencers aren’t so lucky, getting their sponsorships cancelled all together, which is for many their main source of income. Brands like TJ Maxx and Ulta have paused their affiliate marketing programs to save money. Influencer Marie Denee, who was just let go of her sponsorship with Dillard’s, said, “I know people like to trivialize influencers, but this is people’s livelihoods. We’ve been growing and scaling our business over the last 11 years, and we’ve weathered quite a lot, but this is very traumatic.”

Another industry affected by fashion companies cutting costs are the magazines that advertise them. Limitations for them can include not being able to interview or shoot photos in-person anymore, not having events to go and report on, consumers not purchasing print versions of their magazines, and advertisers from these companies pulling back on budgets. Digiday reports 88 percent of publishing executives expect to miss their revenue targets this year.

In terms of stories, a lot of magazines are also finding it difficult to find new things to report on, as it can appear tone-deaf to still be attempting to write about fashion at a time of crisis, readers more prioritizing economy and virus updates. At the same time, some fashion fans still want that escape of reading lighter material, as they feel consumed by all of the negativity from other publications already being reported on.

On the flip side, there is some hope looking forward. Many companies are offering to help by making Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE, from LVMH swapping their perfumes for hand sanitizers and masks, to Crocs launching a new program that offers up to 10,000 pairs of shoes to U.S. healthcare workers a day.

Others are making monetary donations, like AG Jeans donating $1 million to Coronavirus relief in Los Angeles, and Ralph Lauren’s corporate foundation committing to $10 million to relief efforts for the global crisis. 

Other companies have also tried to think about the consumer, such as rag & bone dropping their prices down by 70%, Net-a-Porter using their London delivery fleet to deliver food and medicine to elderly, H&M donating $10 for every $60 spent on its U.S. e-commerce site to the customer’s organization of choice until it reaches its goal total of $150,000, Fabletics collaborating with Demi Lovato on a new collection that $5 from each item sold will go towards coronavirus relief, and Levi’s launching a new program on its Instagram Live channel to support artists and musicians while giving their customers a free virtual concert. Companies like Adidas and The North Face are also offering special discounts for frontline workers.

In terms of influencers, many that are still working are appearing more natural in their photos due to the pandemic, which can please followers as they now appear both more relatable and attainable. This could be from wearing their hair natural, not wearing makeup, or even venturing to TikTok to make dances and interact with fans. 

Publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair have tried to revamp their stories to cover heavier topics and interview more “regular people,” whether that be families infected by the virus or hospital workers. Vanity Fair Italia Editor-In-Chief Simone Marchetti believes magazines should be reminding their communities of their histories of overcoming hardships, and try to inspire coming together during this time apart. 

Magazines have also been experimenting with new ways to interact with the reader, mainly via social media, from employees doing Q&A’s to publications holding virtual events. This includes a video series of interviews with small business owners, which Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour announced, and is a fundraiser in collaboration with the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA, to benefit struggling American fashion designers. She also transformed the 2020 CFDA/Vogue Fund into the “A Common Thread” initiative, which will help raise money for fashion businesses impacted by COVID-19.

This is the opportunity for fashion to restructure its priorities and make changes. According to the McKinsey/Business of Fashion’s “The State of Fashion 2020: Coronavirus Update” report, “The coronavirus also presents fashion with a chance to reset and completely reshape the industry’s value chain — not to mention an opportunity to reassess the values by which we measure our actions.” The report suggests consumers will start “paying full price for quality,” as did happen after the 2008 financial crisis.

Valery Demure, a jewelry curator and PR consultant, hopes this virus will remind consumers to prioritize quality and true artisanship. “While the situation is unsettling, we hope that consumers become more cautious with their spending [and] shift towards consuming less but investing in brands which are more durable, better quality, more considered. Back to supporting artisans and independent designers who produce locally.”  

This may be the moment that fashion could go completely digital, as this has already been in discussion in the industry before COVID-19. It will also be hard to immediately reopen stores once quarantine ends, so it therefore may be easier to keep them closed. This also could be a more sustainable option, Achim Berg, senior partner at McKinsey & Co., suggests. This will challenge many fashion companies and run some out of business, but keep those strongest. The McKinsey/Business of Fashion report suggests “brands should take the opportunity to become not just more digitally adept, but to become digital frontrunners.”

Another question for the future is whether medical masks will be integrated into our style once self-quarantine is over. Will fashion brands start to develop masks that are considered stylish and “trendy”?  Will consumers purchase a few different masks in simple colors to match their different outfits or stick to the one? One medical supply company, CSD, has teamed up with Berlin fashion label #Damur, to reinvent the surgical mask as the next trend. These CSD x #Damur masks were showcased by models at Berlin Fashion Week on January 16th, filled with artistic designs and graffiti. On the other hand, this pandemic may spark the end of fast-fashion all together, and therefore the end of trends. 

Li Edelkoort, a trend forecasting guru, believes this virus was a grace for the industry, as it will give the fashion world time to slow down and get back to being creative. “The virus will slow everything down. We will witness a halt in production of consumer goods. It’s terrible and wonderful because we have to stop producing at this frantic pace. It is almost as if the virus was an amazing grace for the planet. It might be the reason why we survive as a species.” 

The virus gives fashion the opportunity to rediscover itself. As retail futurist Doug Stephens suggests, “Don’t let innovation stop because this could be the window of opportunity. Use this time to reinvent how you do what you do, bring consumers new alternatives, new value, and in the process even reinvent your own brand.” Stephens blames the struggles of the department stores channel during this time to be because they “never really figured itself out in the ten years since the financial crisis. They never reinvented their value for consumers.” As Stephen says, “Necessity really and truly is the mother of reinvention.” And this virus can be considered that necessity. 

Elizabeth Paton, a fashion reporter for The New York Times, is confident the fashion industry will beat this. “Fast fashion will survive COVID-19, because the dynamics driving fast fashion consumption are still there.” 

W24 defined fashion as “an institution that acts both as a social mechanism and a system that places value on the average taste of the moment, fashion is inevitably influenced by politics, culture, movements, and even pandemics.” Fashion is therefore so much more than clothes, and is about self-expression and making an impact, which are both worth preserving. “Fashion, in a sense, is change” and also sparks change. It is a “social paradox — a source of both stability and instability.”

As fashion helps so many of its fans define themselves, now is the time for the industry to define itself. As Business of Fashion reader Maria Suzzarini said on Instagram, “Don’t blame coronavirus. Fashion needed a change a long time ago. Short trends, AKA fast fashion, and too many seasons a year going on. They [also] need a change in material and how much they pay their workers. Fashion needed to slow down and rethink itself a long time ago.” 

Jenna Diiorio, a South Jersey girl who loves to shop, agrees, saying she believes the consumer will have a renewed appetite for shopping once the pandemic is over. “I think once everything’s back to normal, it might be time for a shopping spree.”

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