Coronavirus Will Change The Fashion Industry — Here's How 4 Insiders Are Navigating It All
Paris Fashion Week ended on an unusually sober note last March, just as widespread concerns about Covid-19 began to spread in the United States. Face masks — before they became the most ubiquitous and essential accessory — were passed out at the runway shows for Loewe and Dries Van Noten, factories closed in parts of Asia bringing production to a halt, but the permanent shifts the industry would experience had yet to be fully realized. From the very beginning, Coronavirus disrupted and changed the fashion industry, but its larger impact is still only starting to be understood.
That same month, in New York, Telsha Anderson was on the verge of debuting her first independent boutique, t.a., in the Meatpacking District. Like most other plans made for 2020, t.a.’s opening was postponed. “We had to slow down and take a halt which I think is important, not just for myself but our future employees,” Anderson tells TZR. She pivoted quickly, shifting to a digital e-commerce site within 24 hours, and proceeded to run her business as a one-woman show behind closed doors until the new brand was given clearance to open (albeit at a very small capacity) within the first week of July.
Anderson’s situation may be unique for a young entrepreneur, but her story mimics one of many retailers and designers during the current global health crisis. In fact, you’d hardly find a single brand or retailer who hasn’t changed course over the last several months, and furthermore, totally reevaluated how — or, sometimes, if — they’ll do business going forward.
But what does this mean for shoppers, the consumers of fashion who are passionate about their favorite brands and find joy through sartorial expressions? That was the question posed to several insiders with varying perspectives, including fashion and buying director of Moda Operandi, Lisa Aiken, Amy Smilovic of Tibi, Alejandra Alonso Rojas of her own namesake label, and Anderson of t.a. For each of them, the future of fashion remains a work in progress (see: no known Covid-19 vaccine or cure, ongoing economic hardship, and systemic racism that pervades society as much as any deadly virus). Together, they each gave insight not only on how the industry has changed since March but also what can be expected in the months and years to follow.
How Coronavirus Will Change Fashion: The End Of Business As Usual
“How I do my job has dramatically shifted in the past few months,” says Aiken plainly. Her role at Moda Operandi has placed her in the center of fashion weeks all over the globe, often acting as a catalyst between soon-to-be-huge brands and a massive retail audience, but she’s operating differently now. “I am in the midst of resort market. Usually, this would mean I am in Paris, running from one appointment to another, and looking for just five minutes in the day to have a cup of tea. This year every appointment is digital.”
Aiken says this shift has been “nice, both physically and metaphorically, to have my feet on the ground during this unprecedented time,” but she does miss the physical connection with products and people from all over the globe.
Anderson can relate. Her Meatpacking boutique was on its way to becoming a new hub for discovering contemporary designers from across the globe, including London-based Wesley Harriott, Peruvian brand Mozh Mozh, Pushbutton from Korea, or Barragán out of Mexico City. “I believe that there are certain pieces that do work best when you try [them] on first and are able to see what else is available in the store. You’re able to walk in and an employee can offer you a glass of Champagne or water, and not only walk you through a piece you like but a piece that you didn’t even think of. It’s so rare and valuable,”
Designers have also experienced a major adjustment. “When things were not looking good, I canceled production and called all the stores and told them that the orders were canceled,” says Rojas over the phone from her home where she’s been working on her luxury women’s wear line for the past several months. As a small business, Rojas’ priority was to prevent any additional costs from products that wouldn’t sell should her retailer partners close and, of course, her employees. “I produce everything here in New York, I do everything by hand, and I was not going to be risking my sewers or my team.”
For Smilovic of Tibi, she also shifted her deliveries — pre-fall orders which would have typically shipped in May were sent out in July — so that products would arrive in stores closer to the time customers would need them. With Tibi’s Fall/Winter 2020 collection already sampled, Smilovic moved forward, but produced it in a smaller quantity than usual, choosing to limit the number of stores she's working with. Plus she’s moving ahead with brevity in mind. “We’re focusing on the Spring  collection that is small.”
How Coronavirus Will Change Fashion: Do We Need All Four Seasons?
As businesses everywhere learned to adapt and hit the breaks during this time, fashion faced a unique call to action. It came quite literally in a joint letter from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and the British Fashion Council. In addition to emphasizing sustainable practices and a more thoughtful approach to events and in-person presentations, the letter asked designers to focus on two main collections per year. For some, this was welcome.
“Since I started my brand I’ve been addressing these issues,” says Rojas of her artisanal line. “I’ve been very uncomfortable as an emerging designer having to fight about only being willing to do two collections when the system is pushing us to do four. How can you afford all of that?”
Since quarantine began Rojas has decided that, in addition to only producing two seasons annually, she’s also adjusting when she presents her new collections to ensure they’re available in stores when consumers are actually shopping for them. “I do not buy a summer dress in January,” she says. “And whenever I go to buy a summer dress, it’s already 70 percent off, so as a customer I’m getting educated wrong. I’m expecting that what I’m going to buy is 70 percent off so what’s the point of having the pieces being 70 percent more expensive? Who’s buying that?”
Tibi is also cutting down. “We’re basically at a point where it’s two main deliveries a year,” echoes Smilovic, explaining how these collections will be augmented by a series of smaller capsules. “Sometimes you can’t try something new until you’re forced to do it,” she says of the general call to slow the pace. “When you’re forced to do it either you have a positive reaction to it or a negative reaction, and I think people in general have had a positive reaction to it.”
We have the opportunity to shift how we communicate towards more thoughtful and impactful storytelling and showcases that truly resonate and inform. — Lisa Aiken
From Aiken’s perspective, “Anything that enables a designer to showcase their best work is good for the industry.” But for Moda — who carries both Tibi and Alejandra Alonso Rojas, as well as massive brands like Gucci, Prada, and Versace — even the call from the CFDA or BFC is not a one-size-fits-all solution for fashion’s longstanding unsustainable pace.
“These changes need to be mutual between retailers and designers or it will never work,” Aiken says regarding seasons. “Retailers will need to reevaluate their deliveries, markdown strategies, and much more to align with a slowed down calendar. On a weekly, daily and hourly basis we are constantly marketing to clients, but how much of it is noise versus meaningful messages? We have the opportunity to shift how we communicate towards more thoughtful and impactful storytelling and showcases that truly resonate and inform.”
How Coronavirus Will Change Fashion: Retailers Reluctant To Change Could Be Left Behind
Online retailers like Moda Operandi offer accessibility to established and emerging luxury brands that are unmatched. Curated retail experiences, like those you’ll find at t.a., feel special, rare, and extremely personal. But once-mighty department stores seem to be a bit more of an uncertain shopping destination as of late.
Barneys New York’s closure and Neiman Marcus’ bankruptcy filing were not directly tied to Covid-19, but it’s hard not to compound the financial struggles of major retailers before 2020 with continued hardship as a result of the health crisis. In short, the question remains: Are department stores less important going ahead?
“Department stores and smaller design companies have always fundamentally been at odds because small companies need money sooner to fund their business,” says Smilovic, explaining that longer timetables for payments and contracts that hinged on profitability could squeeze brands without the power to negotiate.
Now that department stores are struggling, Smilovic says brands like hers also feel the burden. “They need 90-day payment terms, well okay, Tibi can’t do 90 days," she explains. "And in the financial situation that a lot of us are finding ourselves in, we can’t do margin guarantees. In some cases in the past, we had proof that we would have been better off financially if we had never shipped to department stores one item of clothing.”
This said, in some cases, luxury department stores remain an important key to success during such uncertain times. “My biggest partner right now is Saks and it’s been a great relationship with them,” says Rojas. Fall 2020 was supposed to be the second season with the retailer, she shares, "but I’m actually moving the Fall collection that I presented in February. I’m moving it as if it were a September collection so people will be buying into it for a February delivery." In the meantime, she says she's holding off on developing a new collection.
In general, Rojas's outlook on retail is optimistic, as long as partners are willing to adjust to the times. “I think the most important thing is to admit things need to change. I don’t like the term ‘the end of retail’ or anything like that ... I want my partners to embrace the new normal and my new business model in order to grow together. Whoever wants to keep doing things exactly as they were are probably not going to be my best partners.”
How Coronavirus Will Change Fashion: Prioritizing Research & Accountability
Anderson sees shoppers navigating the current climate with a new perspective on fashion, "now that we’ve all been in our homes for months we’ve also been able to look at our closets and our own style as individuals and consumers.” She sees fashion fans emerging from this time less concerned about chasing trends and more inspired looking inwards.
“t.a. is extremely intentional ... in the buy, in the sizing, in who we hire, in what we post on social. It’s even intentional in the area that we’re in,” she explains of the Meatpacking boutique. "I sought for an area that would add to a Black-owned store, benefiting from being surrounded by touristy attractions and restaurants that would encourage people to visit the boutique. Not to mention being an area that holds so much history and complements the brand well," she explains. “I know it’s going to sound weird, but it’s probably the perfect time to be opening an independent boutique, not only with what’s going on with Neiman’s or Barneys and other retailers, but because of what we’ve seen during Covid-19. Everyone is intentional about who they buy and where they buy from and who the designers are and that’s something that we offer.”
Anderson says that one of the best things shoppers can take away from the last several months of struggle, devastation, and hurt — caused by Covid-19 as well as the reckoning with systemic racism that’s historically existed but been brought to light through the Black Lives Matter movement — is the importance of research. “The influencers they follow, the designers they buy from, the brands they buy from, the media outlets they get their news from in regard to fashion,” she lists, are just a few things shoppers can scrutinize before spending money.
Retailers are aware of this, as well, and aren’t just preparing for an industry post-pandemic but also one that commits itself, in words and actions, to a more inclusive and equitable future. “We have started partnership conversations with 30+ Black-owned brands or Black designers and in 2021, 15 percent of our trunk shows will showcase Black designers,” Aiken shares of Moda Operandi’s recent commitment, adding, “Moda will diversify internally as that is equally important.”
Tibi has also made a commitment to support Black creatives through offering retail space within their store to Black designers on a weekly basis. As for Rojas, her company has been donating products and raising money to support organizations for women and girls of color. While these immediate actions may seem promising, the future of fashion doesn’t merely rely on insiders's actions today but rather sustained efforts. These can better inform consumers on who and what their money supports long after 2020 is over.
How Coronavirus Will Change Fashion: The Future's Cloudy But There's Still Joy To Be Found
Ahead of Anderson’s store opening she shared a few new rules with customers: no more than five guests were allowed in at time, masks are mandatory, and private appointments could be arranged upon request. “We have one fitting room in the store,” she adds of the 770-square-foot space. “When someone comes in and they try something on, if they purchase it, they take it. If they do not purchase it, then before putting it back on the floor we will sanitize the item.” Perhaps it's not the way she initially envisioned her grand opening, but she’s found a silver lining through the experience: speaking with her customers directly, and often, over DM.
Smilovic has been enjoying a direct connection to Tibi fans, as well, especially with her two ongoing Instagram live series, a weekly business class she holds on her personal account and a weekly Style Class on Tibi’s. “I know that doing the IG lives twice a week, if I had been at my regular pace going to the office every day...it would have been something that I’d done one day but maybe not followed up the next week.”
One of the biggest takeaways, says Rojas, is simply learning to slow down and be a little more patient. “It doesn’t matter if it takes one more day to do something, mental health is really important right now and knowing our limits,” she says. Meanwhile, at Moda Operandi, Aiken encourages consumers not to forget the power of fashion to spark joy, even when things seem dark. “There is always this mentality that during a downturn that people should invest in basics, I could not disagree more,” she shares.
These opportunities to connect, think critically, and prioritize joy will continue to help guide fashion as it looks ahead. But — like the world navigating its way through a health, and social justice, crisis — there are no hard-and-fast rules or guarantees in place. There's still work to be done and a lot left uncertain.