What does a post COVID-19 fashion landscape look like to you? I am not asking from a business standpoint, but more as a consumer. Even the most indulgent shoppers will agree that right now, it is set to be a restrained, cautious experience.
It’s not difficult to see why. As the world gets accustomed to post COVID-19 realities – brick-and-mortar stores indefinitely shut, brands looking at a digital reboot, and millions of craftsmen in production hubs like Bangladesh and India struggling to make ends meet – big and small businesses are thinking on their feet. In a report released late last month, Boston Consulting Group has predicted a sales decline of $450 billion to $600 billion in the fashion and luxury category as a whole.
So how will fashion move forward?
Among the many aspects that need attention, the pandemic has forced the fashion fraternity to understand the changing consumer mindset, the concept of runway shows, and the idea of sustainability. If you think of it, it’s a wholesome approach that takes into account the emotional as much as it does the commercial.
Digital and virtual will become the new reality
Not that virtual fashion shows and digital look books are a new idea, but luxury brands have always tried to create a more immersive experience for buyers via runways and sets. From Chanel’s glorious alpine winter wonderlands to Balenciaga’s love for drama, in the past, runways have been large-scale productions unto themselves. Is that something that’s needed in the face of the economic downturn and loss of livelihoods? Sensitivity, sustainability, costs – these can’t be ignored.
In India, ace couturier Sabyasachi Mukherjee is known for unveiling his bridal collections via Instagram. Lucknow-based Anjul Bhandari, popular for her exquisite chikankari, and Bangalore-based label Summer House known for their easy, prêt pieces have also been veering away from runway shows.
3D digital clothing sampling and virtual fit sessions could be a new reality of post-COVID fashion. London-based label Steven Tai, known for his streetwear, recently took to creating 360-degree gifs and virtual lookbooks, which he is sharing with his clients all over the world. Mumbai-based Payal Khandwala adopted this practise even before the pandemic hit. One scroll down the brand’s Instagram feed gives a holistic view of her handwoven silk sarees.
Technology and immersive experiences are set to be tied together (not that that’s anything novel, given the popularity of VR games). Mathew Drinkwater’s The Innovation Agency supported by the London College of Fashion has collaborated with young labels such as Richard Nicoll, Design Duo, and Fyodor Golan over the last few years in this field. Besides virtual catwalks, he has helped designers create technologically upgraded materials and even the world’s first interactive skirt made of Nokia Lumia 1520 smartphones.
‘The State of Fashion 2020: Coronavirus Update’, a report published by Business of Fashion states specialist tech platforms catering to fashion — from digital wholesale showroom Joor to live-stream start-up Hero — have already experienced a spike in demand, with Hero enjoying a 20 per cent uptick in average orders placed during the first two weeks of March 2020 in the US, when coronavirus outbreak was gaining speed.
E-retail to be strengthened
Even after retail stores opened in China post-crisis, it was not indicative of business as usual post COVID fashion– the footfall was 50-60 per cent less. However, interestingly the practice of ‘revenge buying’ has been soaring too. Case in point being the Hermes boutique, located at the upscale Taikoo Hui Guang-zhou shopping mall, which managed to make 19 million renminbi (which is roughly US$2.7 million, or approximately Rs 20.6 cr) on the day it reopened, according to WWD.
But that’s China, with an evolved luxury base, and this could be seen as a one-off incident. With brick and mortar spaces shut all over the globe, e-retail will need to be viewed from a serious lens. Currently, while Indian brands such as Bhane, Oceedee, Studio Metallurgy, and Cord are hosting sales and coming up discounting ideas, it has largely been a wait-and-watch approach for most big brands.
However, not all is not gloom and doom. Even with delays in delivery, retailers such as Peter England have curated a whole new category for those who are working from home, and Shoppers Stop is pushing their ready-to-wear category as stylish essentials one might opt for while working from home. Loungewear as a category has become a focus for retailers and designers – think silk pajamas and knitwear joggers. Performance activewear brand by Tory Burch, Tory Sport has been curating a day-by-day off-duty look on its Instagram, and luxury retailer Neiman Marcus has been collaborating with fashion experts on creating at-home style edits.
Mindful consumer engagement is key. Indian fashion brand AM:PM is running a series called ‘AM:PM Recommends’ on their channels, which curates interesting ideas and things-to-do whilst staying positive, bright, and productive at home. “We want to build a conscious awareness about how to tackle this pandemic. We have dedicated our social media platforms to become more conversational,” says Priyanka Modi, creative director, AM:PM.
With fast fashion seeing a downturn, the worst-hit include the workers in the lowest rung of retail. According to the Clothing Manufacturers Association of India (CMAI), the domestic apparel industry might have to incur loses nearly worth Rs 1 lakh crore, with the lockdown costing almost 50 lakh jobs. As per a Bloomberg report published on March 23, there are about 1,089 garment factories in Bangladesh that have had orders worth roughly $1.5 billion cancelled due to the outbreak.
Even though there are a handful of platforms such as Ketto and organisations like REHWA working towards their welfare, bigger government intervention is need of the hour.
Human values need to take precedence. Leading by example is a California-based non-profit Re-make. On April 3, they launched a #PayUp petition, calling out some of the largest fashion brands who owe more than $3 billion in future orders to garment factories across Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Result? Companies such as Inditex, Marks & Spencer, Kiabi, PVH Corp, and Target have agreed to follow through their commitments to pay suppliers. UK’s retail chain Primark has announced it would create a fund to pay its workers engaged in the supply chain, and British Fashion Council has transformed its young designer talent support into a relief fund for young designers in the UK suffering due to loss of sales.
In the light of the above, it’s no surprise that most conversations about the future of fashion circle conscientiousness. ‘Buying less and better’ will prevail. The Business of Fashion’s report states that sustainability will be especially prominent for Gen-Z and millennial shoppers, whose concerns for the environment were already high pre-crisis. Brands that are able to reorient their missions and business models in more sustainable ways will be able to cater to a more captive audience.
Taking a lead in these initiatives is Ralph Lauren. The brand has committed “to removing at least 170 million bottles from landfills and oceans, and will convert the use of all virgin poly-fibre to recycled poly-fibre by 2025,” says David Lauren, chief innovation officer in a recently issued press release on the eve of Earth Day. Ermenegildo Zegna is another brand that is pushing its sustainability agenda through #USETHEEXISTING. The creative team at Zegna realised that over 30 per-cent of their materials are discarded, and now plan to use innovative processes to improve the usage of wool and technical fabrics from pre-existing sources (discarded materials).
Even before the pandemic hit, brands like Gucci, Gabriela Hearst, Stella McCartney, and Anita Dongre have committed themselves to sustainability and have led efforts that include researching for sustainable alternatives for fur, reusing discarded clothe, and working towards decreasing their carbon footprints. Now more than ever, it is time to follow through on these.
No matter how long the pandemic lasts, the fashion world is mobilising to combat it in thoughtful ways while retaining creativity at its heart. But one undeniable thing is that the landscape stands changed forever.