The Great Fashion Pause

Coronavirus has pressed pause on the fashion industry. Fashion houses have closed their doors and taken their lines online. Millions have been furloughed or are working from home. Garment workers in countries such as Bangladesh and India are facing starvation as orders fall. Household names, such as Guess, are set to close hundreds of stores worldwide. Global revenues have been slashed by 30% and a recession is on the way, predicted to send fashion sales spiraling.

In this post, we cover the lessons the industry has learned in the wake of COVID-19, highlighting the brands thriving and using disruption as a starting point for evolution. 

The New Waves of Fashion: The Insights We’ve Learned from the Coronavirus Pandemic

Coronavirus has put a stop to business as usual. Many in the industry have used this time to reflect on the state of fashion – where we’ve been, as well as where we could go. What do fashion companies, from best-known designers to small-brand names envision for the future?

Li Edelkoort, prominent trend forecaster, argues that while the current “quarantine on consumption” will lead to a hard-hitting economic recession and humanitarian crisis, offers industries the chance to reset their values – providing, “a blank page for a new beginning.” Over an economic crisis, Edelkoort states the coronavirus is a “disruption crisis.” The fashion industry has been shaken, and every element has been laid bare – and in this disruption lies the possibility for evolution.

In order to evolve for the better, as an industry we must look more deeply at the cracks that have been highlighted in “fashion as usual”. What should we embrace? What needs to be left behind? And how can fashion brands survive this cataclysmic shift?

Forget Relying on Seasonal Fashion: Recycling Fast Fashion into Sustainable Fashion

One of the main flaws highlighted in the fashion industry as a result of coronavirus is our over-reliance on unsustainable business practices. Most notably, fast fashion has a knock-on effect on the environment. The United States Environmental Protection Agency reports, 26 billion pounds of textiles are left to the landfills every year.

As the BoF claim in their new report, “The State of Fashion 2020: Coronavirus Update,” “The pandemic will bring values around sustainability into sharp focus, intensifying discussions and further polarising views around materialism, over-consumption and irresponsible business practices.”

Even before the crisis, fast fashion brands were struggling – as more millennials and generation Z shoppers turned their backs on unsustainable clothes. Case in point, fast-retailer Forever 21, filed for bankruptcy in 2019.

As such, the BoF draw attention to how consumers were already calling for a more sustainable fashion industry before the virus broke out. This has only intensified in recent months. In the wake of COVID-19, fashion brands are realizing they can’t afford to rely on fast fashion and unsustainable practices to keep turning a profit. As Forbes notes, the pandemic has led many consumers to reset their priorities and seek out brands that reflect the “collective good.” Following the coronavirus crisis, 15 % of consumers in the US and Europe expect more sustainable products from fashion brands.

Beyond consumers, designers and fashion brands are also beginning to reflect more on their ethical values in relation to greater sustainability. Rahemur Rahman, designer of sustainable menswear, highlights that the pandemic has forced what were only reflections on the fragility and unsustainability of many elements of fashion into actionable insight – with many brands stopping to ask about the meaning of fashion and introspectively reflect on revenue possibilities in a post-corona world.

Rahman, notes that he hopes this time of introspection will lead fashion to reassess the schedules of the past, noting many younger designers’ frustrations with the demand for a high number of annual collections. Rahman empathizes how the shift returns power back to the young designers – who wish to exert more agency over their designs and design processes, rather than designing based on the seasonal demands of the industry.

Forget Discounts and Sales for Keeping Consumer Interest

The BoF forecasts that 2020 will be plagued by the need for deep discounting throughout 2020. However, they also emphasize that deep discounts won’t be enough to keep consumers buying – as more and more people reduce spending out of economic hardship and disillusionment with the industry. 

This brings us to our second lesson. In the past, fashion brands have relied far too heavily on discounts to keep consumers buying. However, consumers are looking for value beyond bargain prices following the pandemic. As BoF argues, fashion brands should look for other ways to reinfuse value into their items, such as through the acceleration of sustainable fashion trends. Moreover, they also argue that heavy discounting may appear tone-deaf among the new wave of anti-consumerist, sustainable shoppers.

Such a shift highlights fashion’s vulnerability on over-relying on discounts and sales to engage consumers and reduce stock. While a strong culture of discounting in the fashion industry has often made it hard for companies to change strategies, the most resilient companies are focusing on driving sales through other means.

Peter Williams, CEO of UK-based Jack Wills, reflects on the company’s move towards reducing discounting in favor of a value-driven ethos, he says, “Part of the problem is that there is so much stuff for people to buy and so much of that stuff is of relatively little value. We’ve focused on making good-quality product, from high-quality fabrics, with an ethical, open supply chain.”

Forget Resisting Digital: Welcoming Digital Acceleration

Another lesson fashion has learnt as the result of the pandemic is that now more than ever, we must let go of habitual ways of selling and embrace the digital realm.

As the BoF emphasizes, social distancing has illuminated the importance of digital channels for upholding the entire value chain. Noting that intelligent companies are scaling up efforts to take the majority of business practices online in order to survive in the long-term and rise to the demands for more digital solutions from consumers.

Companies who have made the smoothest transition to a socially-distanced world are digitally agile, and have quickly sourced digital solutions to meet customer needs, including Michael Kors who debuted their latest range of customizable handbags via video, and personalized consumer experience with a mobile quiz offering personalized handbag recommendations.

The coronavirus pandemic has taught us we don’t need to rely on face-to-face events or meetings to drive sales. Due to restrictions on the number of attendees at Paris Fashion Week, designer Steven Tai created a virtual look book, including 360 videos of his clothing, to help reach of buyers not in attendance – resulting in 50% of his purchases coming from online avenues.

In addition, embracing the move to digitalisation also helps fashion brands swiftly move towards more sustainable business practices. Tokyo, Shanghai, and Moscow fashion weeks all took place online – slashing the carbon emissions involved in attendees travelling to attend the shows in person. Moreover, the rise in the use of virtual showrooms, including NuOrder’s customizable virtual showrooms, has also been tipped as having a positive impact on sustainability through reduced carbon emissions and helping brands reach new and further afield audiences.

The Lessons of the Great Fashion Pause

The fallout of the global pandemic has taught us several lessons about how fashion brands can evolve, from becoming greener to embracing digital innovation – there are many things we can take away from the great fashion pause.