In light of this, it may feel flippant to think towards a brighter future, especially as many stores remain shut, furloughed staff numbers increase and further cancellations add to the US$2.8 billion already wiped off the manufacturing industry’s workload. But what the fashion industry needs – right now, not just post-pandemic – is leadership that is hopeful, optimistic and visionary.
Our best bet lies not in bunkering down to weather the storm, but in taking this opportunity to better understand the enormous consumer shifts at play, and to embrace new processes that will truly set us up for the future.
We’ve done it before, we’ll do it again
As an industry, we are resilient and resourceful. For one, we are endlessly seeking newness and transformation – every quarter in fact. But it’s also true that some of our industry’s best innovation comes at our lowest ebbs.
Luxury e-commerce store Farfetch was launched in 2007, at the cusp of the global financial crisis, and rental giant Rent the Runway was born of it, in 2009. Successful operators Stitch Fix and Moda Operandi followed soon after. All four are fashion platforms that rewrote the rulebook on fashion experience.
Tory Burch acted smartly in the GFC, throwing itself into the brave new world of luxury e-commerce and iterating on its wildly popular ballet flats, which kept its sales tills ringing for the next 10 years. And ASOS doubled down in its efforts through the recession, coming out the other side triumphantly dominating the market.
It’s these mindsets we need to get inside of as we survey the current landscape. And there is so much to see once we have eyes for it.
Leading the charge
Smart brands and retailers are already pivoting successfully in light of coronavirus. There are those aligning with consumers’ current lifestyles, like Boohoo’s swift marketing of ‘The New Workwear’ for its loungewear offering, and Cotton On’s social conversation focusing on activewear and loungewear. According to Omnilytics data, Cos has been swift to up its knitwear and sweats assortment in the last few months, a 96 per cent increase from the same period last year.
There are the tech savvy, like Nike, whose Run Club and Training Club apps have seen a 100 per cent increase in sign-ups and boosted sales despite store closures. And the charitable, like LVMH, using its cosmetics factories to manufacture hand sanitiser it will donate to French health authorities, Kering producing masks and Scanlan and Theodore manufacturing scrubs. Melbourne’s Nobody Denim is readying its Thornbury factory for masks and gowns.
Consumers are setting the pace
As socially- and often geographically-distanced families pile onto Zoom calls, we’ve rapidly adopted new rituals. Around the globe consumers are hanging out together online, be it ‘cloud clubbing’ with renowned DJs from one’s living room or jumping into webinars to attend otherwise cancelled events.
Closed gyms have shifted their memberships to online classes, local coffee shops are delivering vegetable boxes and bars bottling their cocktails. Everywhere we look, we see innovation. In fashion, we have Armani debuting its winter collection online from an empty theatre in Milan, Chinese brands live streaming on Taobao and Tmall, and brands pivoting their styling to work from home ‘fits’.
Behavioural changes in the last two months are shifting centuries-old societal rituals. Things which futurists might have predicted on the 5-to-10 year roadmap, now have a fast-tracking catalyst. Take something as pedestrian as hand-shaking – it’s currently off the menu, maybe never to return. We cannot underestimate the long-term impact of the way consumers are now framing their decisions – they will affect every segment of fashion.
After the chaos of panic buying, the way consumers buy core items may change. Bulk buying of family essentials could become commonplace – take the parents who are now struggling to buy the next size up in baby clothes (as is currently happening in the UK), they may form habits of stocking up across size ranges that last more than a decade.
The rich may use their wealth differently, pushing into ultra-luxury purchasing behaviours in avoidance of the masses with a new heightened fear of hygiene and wellness. And having supported local businesses through lockdown, many people may feel a greater sense of connection with their communities and further demand information on the provenance and footprint of their wares.
Previous pandemics have had lasting effects on arts and culture, spanning centuries. The iconography of Europe changed after the plague, as artists focused on the temporal quality of life, the universality of death and the danse macabre. Hourglasses and bones featured heavily in artwork of the time, and set the tone for decades. Now we will see a renewed consumer fascination (bordering on obsession) with wellness, breaking down the societal taboos around death.
Stop flirting with new technologies
As an industry, we’ve danced around virtual reality and augmented reality tech for years, with no real impetus to integrate these technologies in meaningful ways. Suddenly AR for brand storytelling and virtual fit for ease of online shopping make a lot of sense, and we’re all gathering virtually – it’s no longer niche.
The recent e-commerce acceleration and changing relationships with department stores means many brands, normally wholesale, are going to the source for the first time. To now own that relationship with – and therefore feedback from – the customer is invaluable. AR, VR and artificial intelligence are vital tools for these brands to enchant their new audiences in direct-to-consumer channels.
Retailers that have been slow to adapt brick-and-mortar locations into destinations for retail discovery, experimentation and utmost convenience will now need to do so. How can your retail spaces serve click-and-collect shoppers seamlessly? Why should customers visit your store location over a quick web browse?
We need to be really attuned to the new online routines consumers are creating, centering around exercising, cooking, working and learning digitally, to find the spaces for offline experience. New distribution and delivery models and artificial intelligence are here to support us.
The current climate will enforce changes to the fashion calendar, which has long been broken and unsustainable. We will see an increase in season-less product from brands, as department stores and multi-brand retailers have had to change the way they work. Designers will finally be freed from the cycle of endless reinvention and fast-paced newness. Instead there will be time for reflection, the carving out of lasting identities and gold class innovation.
Thinking in more cross-seasonal, non-linear ways will have the added bonus of increased sustainability, which will further future-proof brands and retailers. Consumer backlash against disposable planet-damaging fashion has been fast-tracked by the current climate too.
Identifying strategic opportunities
Rather than assuming defence positions now, industry leaders must be on the offence. If the pandemic changes the future of the workplace, what shall we do with the workwear category? If this changes attitudes around hygiene, how are the fibres we use going to respond best to new consumer behaviours? How will our fitting rooms and returns procedures shift in line with hygiene sensitivity? And if this climate makes a case for local, how are we using our communities to tell our stories and be brand ambassadors?
In these strange, quieter times, your staff may have had time to reflect, rest and digest. They are your greatest allies. If teams have found new ways to research more, and consume a broader range of content, how can we stoke this curiosity when we return to business as usual? How can we ensure internal teams are structured to create a culture for knowledge sharing, and be an open forum for new ideas? Collaboration, flexibility and imagination are the values you must champion.
How to act right now
We’re still in the mix of things, but the seeds of innovation must be sewn. There are some simple ways that brands can future-prep now. With the online boom, go into the nitty gritty of enhancing conversion. How do your online narratives connect customers to your products? And where are your customers exactly? Pinterest has seen a huge boom in the current climate. Is your brand discoverable there? In the coming weeks, analyse carefully where customer loyalty has been retained through the lull. This is your essence – now build out from there.
Above all else, inspire teams to be free thinking and curious, to communicate authentically both internally with the business and externally to your customers. Shifting the mindset now will help us grow into the fruitful new spaces our post-pandemic world will open up.
Katie Smith is a retail and trends strategist, with a deep love of data-led insights and technology. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
This story is from the May 2020 issue of Inside Retail magazine. Subscribe here.