No one saw this coming. We were all getting excited about upcoming spring-summer collections— what to wear on our summer vacations, beach days, and nights out with girlfriends. 

But with the pandemic, clothing sales in the US dropped by 52% in March as mass closures swept over stores. Revenue fell, and brands suddenly slashed their marketing budgets. Non-sold inventory eventually became last season; the subsequent deep discounts reflected a desperation amongst fashion brands to keep sales moving and pay storefront rent. 

A variety of responses followed. Countless fashion houses, including Tiffany & Co., LVMH, Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, Moncler, Valentino, and Giorgio Armani donated to hospitals in Italy and worldwide health care organizations. LVMH, the French conglomerate most notably behind Louis Vuitton and Dior, converted its perfume factories to make hand sanitizer. Other designers started sewing medical face masks for local hospitals, with many brands now selling non medical face masks directly to consumers. Fashion seemed to step up together to face the challenge of the pandemic. 

However, the pandemic has also exacerbated existing vulnerabilities within the fashion industry, promoting the retail apocalypse and exposing many stores’ troubling financial exigencies. JC Penney, Neiman Marcus, Brooks Brothers, J Crew, and True Religion are amongst big names that have filed for Chapter 11. Many others, including Victoria’s Secret, La Senza, Aldo, and The Gap are closing stores. Judith and Charles has issued a unique plea to their customers, urging them to buy blazers to keep their doors open. On the other hand, Chanel announced one of the highest annual price increases of their classic bags, citing increased shipping and material procurement costs. 

Behind the scenes, fashion houses cancelled their next season orders from suppliers in Asia as sales dropped. Western brands have cancelled over $2.8 billion worth of orders in Bangladesh alone, leaving thousands of Bangladeshi factories unable to pay over a million Bangladeshi workers. An enormous number of backlogged orders, already partially completed, are likely to go unsold. 

But fashion continues to move forward, albeit a little differently. Saint Laurent was the first house to call off their Spring ‘21 show, daring to stray from the traditional fashion release calendar. According to their statement, “Saint Laurent will take ownership of its calendar and launch its collections following a plan conceived with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity.” One by one, many more fashion houses followed, announcing the cancellation or postponement of their shows. Fashion weeks have been cancelled and postponed as well. And, of course, Anna Wintour announced the indefinite postponement of the Met Gala. 

So where will the fashion industry go post-pandemic? Support for independent designers has risen as the pandemic has shed light on the need to support small businesses. An increased focus on values, equity, and sustainability has also been emphasized, partially influenced by the Black Lives Matter movement. The mentality of “less is more” when it comes to clutter in the closet may stifle the fast fashion boom in recent years. Concerns over customer engagement, usually perfected in brick-and-mortar store locations, have led to a salience of new marketing strategies and virtual campaigns.

“I think it is really giving the industry a pause, and I think everybody is rethinking what fashion stands for, what it means, what it should be,” says Anna Wintour, over an interview with CNBC. “Fashion should last, it should be emotional, it should have memories, it should be meaningful, and think that we need to reevaluate – all of us that work in this industry – how we can best present that.”

For some local fashion retailers you can support: https://www.ellecanada.com/fashion/shopping/toronto-retailers-you-can-shop-online

By Kathy Liu