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If you, like me, felt pure envy seeing Alicia Silverstone’s Cher Horowitz have a virtual closet that helped her pick colour-coordinated outfits in ‘Clueless’, get ready to live your best life yet. Twenty-five years on, in a COVID-19-stricken world, virtual fashion is proving to be the best solution to style with safety. 

virtual fashion

Whether it’s Ermenegildo Zegna’s SS 21 digital runway show or the digital-only Milan and London Fashion Weeks, or even our very own FDCI declaring an Indian digital fashion week, it’s clear that virtual is the way forward. Nearly all fashion brands have used lockdown time to connect with consumers, be it through Instagram lives, tutorials, or releasing interactive assets. Add to that augmented reality trial rooms and digital consultations fast gaining prominence. But as India sits bang in the middle of Phase 4 of country-wide lockdown, with government-approved relaxation allowing limited access to retail, how does shopping pan out for the consumer, retailer, and brand? 

This question becomes all the more pertinent in the case of fashion in India, given that major international brands and veteran designer labels exist in shopping malls, where restrictions still remain (standalone stores can operate everywhere except containment zones). 

Picture via Ogaan, one of India’s top multi-designer stores

Many brands are salvaging the situation, as expected, with e-commerce through websites and Instagram stores, a starting point for most young labels in India. The other option is retailing at multi-designer standalone stores like Ogaan, Aza, PerniasPopUpShop etc. 

After being in the industry for over three decades, premium multi-designer boutique Ensemble recently went digital. While the brand had been working on the process for over nine months, the launch coincided with the lockdown, making it the “centre stage of all activities”, shares executive director Tina Tahiliani. Even as Ensemble opens its store in Khan Market, where they are taking appointments and offering home delivery services, it’s the website that is allowing them to reach a larger audience. From offering exciting sales for pre-existing merchandise to “marketing the website both through our social media channels, digital marketing (included targeted ads), newsletters and other partnerships,” the brand has been pushing the envelope to capture a larger audience.  

Womenswear display at Ensemble

Brands like SHIVAN & NARRESH, which have a store at Delhi’s luxury mall DLF Emporio, and enjoy a strong digital presence, are giving customers access to a well-curated site and conducting styling consultations on Whatsapp. “Our designated sales associate will have the power to digitally take any of our connoisseurs through the store on Whatsapp, and help them pick out options and shop,” share co-founders Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja. On similar lines, designer Payal Khandwala has launched a shopping experience for those who would like to buy the brand’s products from the comfort of their homes — patrons can select pieces through the site and Instagram feed, and the clothing will be delivered to their home (currently the service is available in cities where the brand has stores). The brand has a dedicated team that diligently sanitizes each product that comes in and goes out. 

Designer Masaba Gupta recently launched a line of non-surgical masks, Maskaba, with augmented reality (AR) selfie filter on Instagram to let you ‘try them on’, and brands with pre-existing e-commerce set-ups are definitely adapting faster to this growing change. For designer Payal Singhal, the current situation means upping the ante on her label’s e-commerce store, and updating the user experience for a smoother interface. Her website is now offering options like exclusive limited period pre-order of new collections, easy to wear and newly launched pret collection access, gift cards, and special online sale offers.

Payal Singhal
Designer Payal Singhal’s new website gives customers access to sales and offers

Young designers like Shweta Kapur of 431-88, who retail through various online platforms, see digital as the future. “We’ve been working on strengthening that for the last four years. There were a lot of mistakes made that I’m glad was made early on because I would not want to be making them now when sales and customer morale is low. Most of our conversations now are happening online as expected, and it’s giving us a chance to know our customer better,” she shares. 

virtual fashion
Designer Masaba Gupta’s masks

Where standalone stores are concerned, their opening varies based on cities and contamination zones. As things ease up in Hyderabad and Bengaluru, brands are finding it easier to open stores here, but are taking time for high-risk cities like Mumbai. This past weekend saw the opening of Raw Mango’s Delhi studios in Chhatarpur and Lodhi Colony, a week after its Bengaluru opening. “Our clients’ and teams’ safety is of priority,” says founder and textile designer Sanjay Garg. “We are encouraging clients to make selections and purchases via WhatsApp and phone, and have implemented sanitisation and hygiene measures across all our stores. We are also limiting the number of people who can be in the store at any given time, to maintain social distancing norms.”

Raw Mango store Delhi
Raw Mango’s store in Delhi

But simply opening stores won’t be enough to make people step out of their homes. Despite opening their doors in Khan Market and Greater Kailash in Delhi, minimalistic Indianwear label AMPM by Ankur & Priyanka Modi are treading waters with caution, encouraging customers to shop online as well coming up with a plan to make at-home appointments possible.

“We have implemented rigorous sanitisation processes for all our merchandise, in-store practices have been modified, and we are not allowing people to try the merchandise at the store. Consequently, we have eased our return policies so that customers can safely try merchandise at home,” shares Priyanka Modi. In case of returns, the brand will store the merchandise for over 48 hours in a segregated space, after which it will be sent back to the warehouse for cleaning and disinfecting. Post this, it will arrive at the store.

virtual fashion

In the midst of reopening and relaxations, brands also need to figure out supply chain logistics. Raw Mango is relying on its craftsmen to work from home, while AMPM luckily released/produced their summer collection prior to lockdown. However, for a majority of brands, manufacturing units run simultaneously and are undergoing strict sanitisation, staff training, and policy implementation before things can run full swing. 

“As many of our staff are from out of town, our capacity is less than half and therefore we are trying to complete as much work, working only four days a week,” shares veteran designer Tarun Tahiliani, who sees e-commerce and a digital presence as the only way forward. At his manufacturing unit, he is implementing strict guidelines and protocols, including sanitising using pedal-pumps, temperature monitoring multiple times in a day, installing facial recognition machines for regulating attendance, and ensuring the artisans are well protected. “While we are planning to open our stores in Delhi, fumigation and sanitisation of the store will be a three-day operation in itself, and we will have to plan out how we can entertain customers — request them to wear masks, provide ample sanitisers, and also to minimise the number of walk-in customers at a time,” shares the designer. 

virtual fashion

The current scenario is hardest for international luxury brands — set in shopping malls and not offering e-commerce in India — that is currently waiting for government guidelines regarding operations. While some brands are open to taking pre-orders and online consultations, the absence of clear directives means that there are no fixed timelines for delivery of products, as they can only access merchandise when malls open up. 

virtual fashion

In the meantime, luxury malls are preparing themselves in the hope of an opening in the near future. Apart from the standard WHO-approved precautions such as sanitisation, disinfection, and area allocation, malls are looking to up the ante of safety, to draw the luxury consumer back to its marbled corridors. “All guests and employees should have the Arogya Setu App installed on their smartphones, and there will be social distance markings in all areas and temperature-reading using ‘Non-Touch’ thermometers. Plus, no tenant’s employee or visitors shall be physically checked or frisked at any entry point to avoid physical contact, metal detectors will be used from a distance with caution,” says Dinaz Madhukar, EVP for DLF Luxury, Retail, and Hospitality which owns luxury shopping malls The Chanakya and DLF Emporio in Delhi. There is also going to be mandatory usage of face masks, availability of spare masks for guests, PPE inventory availability along with the availability of medical emergency services on-site that are a part of the game plan.

The Chanakya
The Chanakya in Delhi

As more and more brands open doors, each is endeavouring to inform and reassure the consumer about the safety regulations followed; at the same time, designers are positive of consumption patterns post-pandemic. “I think consumption at large will be different. More than ever, people will realise true luxury means high quality – something that will last you for ages because of the finesse and detail that’s gone into it,” points Tahiliani. 

Endorsing this is Priyanka Modi. “In the post-pandemic society, people will focus more on enduring values, transparent supply chains, and holistic experiences, which should be pillars of expansion for any luxury business. This is possibly the best opportunity for the luxury industry to evolve, branch out from its vaunted and aspirational position, and focus on ethics and aesthetics.” 

And while mindfulness is the catchphrase that’s on everyone’s mind, designers Shivan Bhatiya and Narresh Kukreja feel there will be a certain joie de vivre, celebrating life and freedom, that will take over. “And luxury is simply going to reflect this in its consumption pattern.” 

All images: Getty Images and brands 

Akshita Nahar Jain

Akshita Nahar Jain is a content creator and editor based in New Delhi who has worked with various luxury publications on fashion and lifestyle. She’s currently daydreaming about the vacations she will take in 2021 while documenting the older ones.