For global fashion industry, impact of coronavirus pandemic presents both crisis — and opportunity to recast itself

The fashion industry has taken a hard hit due to the COVID-19 crisis. From the material to the spiritual, the supply chain to the ideological basis of its existence — every aspect of the industry is being wrung out to dry because of what’s being called ‘fashion’s Darwinian shakeout’.

Manjima Bhattacharjya June 25, 2020 11:30:52 IST
For global fashion industry, impact of coronavirus pandemic presents both crisis — and opportunity to recast itself

'Curious Fashion' is a monthly column by feminist researcher, writer and activist Manjima Bhattacharjya. Read more from the series here.

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The COVID-19 global pandemic is affecting all 7.8 billion of us in similar and unique ways. We are reeling from rising COVID-19 related death rates, broken health systems, hunger and starvation, joblessness, lockdowns of varying severity, a shadow pandemic of domestic violence, and this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The fashion industry has taken a hard hit. From the material to the spiritual, the supply chain to the ideological basis of its existence — every aspect of the industry is being wrung out to dry because of what’s being called ‘fashion’s Darwinian shakeout’.

What has this meant? The last few months have seen fashion houses, retailers, influencers and fashion magazines introspect and pivot, in expected and surprising ways. Some have made small shifts, while others have been forced to make more fundamental changes. The Indian fashion industry has responded in thoughtful and interesting ways. The Fashion Design Council of India (FDCI), for example, was amongst the first to announce a COVID-19 Support Fund for small businesses and young designers in need.

Everyone, expectedly, is manufacturing masks, partly so their business gets to stay open as an ‘essential service’. But masks are a controversial ‘contribution’ to the situation, given that it isn’t really about how masks look but how they work that’s important. Moreover, the kind of mask you wear is an expression of class and establishes exactly where you are located on the social ladder. To wear a designer mask would seem quite tone deaf to the mood at the moment.

Fashion magazines also adapted in fairly expected ways: by going fully online. They’ve found interesting ways to sustain themselves — weekly covers! real models on covers! self-taken covers! the Kerala health minister on the cover! — but it is slim pickings. An underlying identity crisis lies ahead for them — is it the end of the fashion magazine, the golden goose of most media houses that brings in all the luxury advertising? Can a magazine survive in the long term merely as an Instagram account?

For global fashion industry impact of coronavirus pandemic presents both crisis  and opportunity to recast itself

As the world turns slowly and cautiously towards reopening, it’s time for those in the fashion industry to do some soul-searching. AP Photo

Malls are shut, stores are closed. Retail is reinventing itself — if it can — to a more invested move to ecommerce. This is the beginning of job losses, store closures, perhaps even bankruptcy. JCPenney filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and will be closing a third of its stores. Zara is reportedly closing 1,200 of its stores. The outerwear giant Canada Goose laid off 125 workers.

Some companies have been able to deal with the situation better than others because of their global vantage point — Burberry, for instance, saw sales in China dropping in early January and realised early on what might be the trend in other countries. Some brands are getting lucky: Bath and Body Works has increased its soap and hand sanitiser production. Lululemon sales are rising because of more demand for sweatpants, or comfortable work from home gear. And some are just hedging their bets: Chanel and Louis Vuitton to the shock of many, raised their prices! I suppose their logic was: you only live once, buy that bag.

For the most though, the outlook is grim.

Gucci has announced that they will be “going seasonless” with only two fashion shows this year, down from their regular five. The future of fashion weeks is dire, throwing design students into another kind of anxiety about how they will showcase their work. Global fashion houses have slashed marketing budgets. Luxury advertising spending has fallen — there are no fashion magazines being printed, nobody is going around looking up billboards and fashion influencers face an end to their unexpected careers.

As for fashion models, I don’t know how they are surviving given that they too are a form of wage labour, depending on fashion shows, fashion weeks and editorials for their income. Those left in the cities that is, many having abandoned their modelling dreams to return home to cloistered lives. The pandemic has exacerbated all existing problems (like non-payment by designers and agencies and financial instability) of the modelling world in the West, making newer, younger, black and coloured models more vulnerable.

Some of the situations have been absurd. Harrods in London, for example, is grappling with what to do with excess inventory after three months of being shut, “without damaging its brand equity”. An elite store like Harrods can’t announce a massive sale (and reveal just how huge the margin is) and become like a Marks & Spencer! Instead, they are launching a new outlet in Westfield London with the unsold goods to capture a new market. A good move or utterly foolish? Only time will tell.

Internal shifts in countries central to fashion’s supply chain like China and Italy (both gutted by COVID-19 in its early days) will have an impact on the global fashion industry. Italy, for example, is filled with family-run shoe factories that have been badly hit by the health and economic impact of COVID-19. The looming joblessness in the sector overall both domestically and abroad, reminds us of the intricate global web of the industry. More than two million garment workers in Bangladesh (most of them women) have already been fired; and it is estimated that a whopping four million workers in the apparel sector in Bangladesh will be affected because of COVID-19 related cancellations or non-payment for orders. Pressure from Western retailers forced 850 garment factories in Bangladesh to re-open, putting workers at risk of COVID-19 and endangering their lives.

Then there are other challenges, the deeper ones about fashion’s environmental costs, its relentless treadmill and exploitative tendencies. After all, making more and more clothes, bags, shoes every ‘season’ in massive volumes requires more and more resources that the planet can ill afford.

What you will have when we return to normal are increasingly cautious consumers who have been asking themselves: what do I really need to live well? Consumers at the other end may want to own less, buy locally, heal bruised ecologies, demand transparency and ask tough questions of big brands. What happens then? Big brands may need to learn from small value-based fashion entrepreneurs or from ‘green brands’. In the post-virus fashion economy, the new winners might be the small, local, direct-to-consumer brands, opening up a more democratic industry.

Several large fashion houses have said that the crisis is “an opportunity to regain our long-lost soul”. What values does a fashion brand want to hold and remembered for? What does the fashion industry want its legacy to be? There are calls to use less resources, to recycle, to be more sustainable, to ‘clean-up fashion’s act’. It was a surprise to hear Gucci’s creative director Alessandro Michele say of the seasons-cycle  (a holy cow, so sacred to the fashion industry), ‘Clothes should have a longer life than that which these words attribute to them.’

For all of us, this pandemic has awakened reflection and provided an opportunity to do things differently, relate more compassionately and kindly to one another and to oneself. Indeed, as the world turns slowly and cautiously towards reopening, it’s time for those in the fashion industry to do some soul-searching, to challenge themselves and commit to some rethinking about these fundamental questions.

Manjima is the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018)

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