“Completely scrap your plans and start again”: How fashion can survive the coronavirus

AFC CEO Leila Naja Hibri

The fashion sector has been one of the hardest hit by the global coronavirus pandemic, from manufacturing being disrupted during the outbreak in China, to the drop in local store traffic following the Government’s official advice to stay at home.

“Our industry is in a dire state,” Leila Naja Hibri, CEO of the Australian Fashion Council, told Inside Retail.

“During a crisis like this, the last thing people are thinking about is clothes shopping. They’re focused on the necessities. And the emotional toll is not conducive to clothes shopping.”

Many fashion brands are experiencing a 60-80 per cent sales decline, according to Naja Hibri, and some have even experienced negative sales due to returns.

“Wholesale orders from local retailers have been completely cancelled or postponed for months,” she said. “We’re talking [about] the big guys here.”

Given the severity of the crisis, especially the rising death toll, it can seem insensitive to look for a silver lining.

“The pain is real,” Naja Hibri said. “But the pain is there anyway, we can’t help that.”

If fashion businesses are being forced to reinvent themselves overnight, why not focus on emerging from the crisis in a more sustainable format?

“I actually really believe this is a great opportunity to change the industry into something way better,” she said. “I think we all know there are a lot of things in our industry that need to be changed.”

Naja Hibri is encouraging businesses in every part of the fashion industry, from textile manufacturing to retail stores, to participate in a survey, so the AFC can lobby the Government for more targeted support.

The AFC also plans to use the results to direct its activities over the coming months. The organisation has already kicked off a webinar series and organised a marketing campaign to promote Australian brands.

“I think it’s so important for us to be able to talk to the market and say you’re not alone,” Naja Hibri said. “There are a lot of people in your position.”

Here are Naja Hibri’s top tips for surviving COVID-19:

1. Forget business as usual: “You can’t think of the bottom line or profit margin right now. It’s time to completely scrap your plans and start again. I’m not saying the same amount of revenue will be generated. We need to change expectations in terms of margins and sales.”

2. Consider the customer’s state of mind: “The most important thing is what you do with current stock, what sort of marketing you do. If you’re still sending normal emails, that’s not going to work. There’s a way of adapting to what’s going on.”

3. Rethink the supply chain: “It’s really important to pause and think about the supply chain, merchandising and planning, and the size of your next collection. Does it need to be that big? Can you make a capsule collection? It shouldn’t be anything too flashy or extravagant.”

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