In a time when leaving the house feels like a luxury, fashion is facing a downfall like never before. Yes, we’re online shopping and stocking up on loungewear, but is that really enough to keep an entire industry afloat? With record dips in sales across the board and so many retailers forced to shut their doors—some physically, on their brick and mortar stores, others quite literally, as they cease to exist—the coronavirus pandemic is impacting the fashion industry in a very big, very scary way.
According to the April 15 Census Bureau release, total clothing and accessories sales (which include retail purchases both in stores and online) in March were down a whopping 50.5 percent from the previous month and 50.7 percent from 2019. (The April 2020 Advance Monthly Retail report will be available on May 15.) And it’s not just smaller businesses that are at risk: Macy’s and other department stores have been forced to furlough millions of employees due to the nationwide shutdowns. And, according to Reuters, J.C. Penney and Neiman Marcus might even file for bankruptcy as a result of the crisis.
All this begs the question: What does the coronavirus pandemic mean for the future of fashion? At the end of the day, the answer largely depends on what layer of the industry we’re talking about.
High-Fashion Designers Take Charge
Although it hadn’t yet hit the United States in full force, coronavirus concerns started to ramp up right around February—a.k.a. Fall/Winter 2020 Fashion Month. After attending New York Fashion Week and seeing little evidence of concern beyond a fashionable face mask or two, I remember feeling a tiny bit envious as I clicked through the Instagram Stories of friends who went on to continue Fashion Month abroad in London, Paris and Milan.
After watching them galavant around Italy during the latter half of the month, I then watched as they were forced to self-quarantine for weeks to ensure their luxe trips didn’t put them or their loved ones at risk. Runway shows in Milan like Giorgio Armani were canceled, later broadcast online for the fashion set to watch wistfully. Practically all of the resort couture shows scheduled for May were canceled, too. Finally came the news that the Met Gala and the CFDA Awards would be postponed, and things started to feel, well, real. The industry, much like the rest of the world, was being put on pause.
All of a sudden, fashion brands everywhere began to acknowledge the crisis at hand. While some—like Olivia von Halle, a British brand known for their luxury silk nightwear—canceled entire collections in an effort to get ahead of potential warehouse shutdowns and the delays that would follow, others—like Christian Siriano’s namesake label—took action, utilizing the creative materials in their workspaces to support frontline workers. Siriano stepped up when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that the state was low on supplies. Knowing that his seamstresses were ready and able to create medical masks, he offered his help via Twitter and got to work.
Following Siriano’s lead, plenty of other high-fashion labels have volunteered their help, while other fashion houses (like Chanel) have continued to pay their employees despite temporarily closing their doors. It’s this forward-thinking mentality and consideration for the fashion community (and the world as a whole) that makes me believe high fashion will thrive despite the pandemic’s negative effects. I mean, Jacquemus just debuted a Summer 2020 campaign photographed entirely over FaceTime. If that’s not quarantine innovation, then I’m not sure what is.
Fast Fashion Suffers, Then Adapts
Fast fashion brands—ASOS, Topshop, Zara, Forever 21 and the like—are being hit especially hard during this time, as their customers (known for impulse-buying a new work blouse or a going-out top on a whim) have little need for trendy seasonal pieces, festival outfits or vacay attire while quarantining indoors. As much as I love these affordable retailers—especially when I’m in a pinch and need a good outfit—I think it’s safe to say none of us are prioritizing clear mules, cow-print bikinis and bandana-inspired halter tops over food and essentials at the moment.
That said, some of these brands are still thriving by leaning into the demand for athleisure (I’m sure you’ve seen the tie-dye sweat sets and fluffy slippers popping up all over Instagram). One could even wonder if Jacquemus’ idea for a FaceTime-shot campaign was inspired by Zara’s latest promo images, featuring models photographed while social distancing at home.
Still, if it’s a question of whether fast fashion brands will suffer from deferred demand—causing temporary issues—or destroyed demand—causing permanent damage— the latter is a real possibility. Due to this destruction of demand and a drop in sales across the board, many fast fashion brands will have to make major cuts if they want to stay afloat and regain traction when the world enters its new normal. Associated British Foods, parent company to British fast-fashion giant Primark, announced that the company will reduce its CEO’s and financial director’s paychecks in an effort to keep the company functioning—and they won’t be the only business to do so.
Fashion Gives Back
Siriano isn’t the only household name doing his part, of course. Anne Klein, Ralph Lauren, Tom Ford, Chaco Footwear, Bulgari, Fendi, Nike, Brooks Running, Keen, PANGAIA and Alice & Olivia are just a sprinkling of the other luxury and everyday brands contributing to the cause—and consumers are paying attention.
“It has been a really difficult time in terms of freelance fashion work with so much on pause, but I’m overall so thankful and happy to see how the fashion community has banded together to help make any difference it can for our healthcare workers,” says Belle Bakst, a NYC-based fashion influencer, whose wedding gown was a Siriano original. “Seeing Christian Siriano answer the call to make more masks is just one of the things that has truly reminded me just how incredible and special the fashion community is, and how much we can do when we work together,” she says.
While the donations and mask-making efforts are undoubtedly generous, it’s worth noting that brands who pivot their processes toward contributing to the production of PPE and vital masks become qualified as essential businesses, and are therefore allowed to remain open despite social distancing rules. As a result, contributing to the cause is in some ways a means for brands to stay afloat during these unprecedented times.
The Future of Fashion
Perhaps even more at-risk than high fashion and fast fashion entities are small businesses and fashion start-ups, the underdogs of the fashion realm. While they, too, have to face the realities of deferred and destroyed demand, they also suffer pointedly from the lack of visibility that comes with not already having been household brand names prior to the pandemic’s start.
According to an April 2020 study by a team of economists from the National Bureau of Economic Research, 72 percent of small-business owners said they could carry on with closed-doors for a month, and only 47 percent of small businesses expect to be able to withstand a shutdown of four or more months.
As we pay attention to the ways in which the industry has already been affected, it’s hard not to wonder what’s to come, and how the future of fashion has shifted. Will beloved brands be able to bounce back after being shut down for months? Will customers’ yearning for in-store shopping experiences outweigh their fears of over-spending or congregating in still-uncertain times? Will months of online shopping lead to the realization that brick-and-mortar stores are simply no longer necessary?
“I think, and hope, people will view this as a chance for humanity to reset its values.”
“I think, and hope, people will view this as a chance for humanity to reset its values,” says brand owner Olivia von Halle, who adds that in many ways, “this experience has highlighted what is wrong with society and consumption.” Von Halle believes that this will change how consumers shop forever: “If we enter into a recession, that will have a direct impact on how much and how often people spend, but beyond that, I think consumers will increasingly ask why they’re spending, too,” she predicts. “I think it is likely people will buy less, but buy ‘better’—taking more time to consider purchases and investing more readily in things that they know they will love and treasure forever,” she says.
She’s right about one thing for sure: The quarantine has certainly forced us all to slow down and look around. And with that, we’re learning what’s essential for us to achieve comfort, to feel happiness and to survive. When all this is over, I think that those realizations will stick with us as we shop for every aspect of our lives—be it a new outfit or otherwise.
News about the Coronavirus is unfolding in real-time, and while we make every effort to ensure our content is accurate, some of the information in this story may have changed. For the most up-to-date news on the pandemic, please go to the CDC or WHO websites. For the latest from STYLECASTER, visit our Coronavirus hub page.