Ok, Fashion. What Happens Now in the Coronavirus Pandemic?

Faran Krentcil
Photo credit: Ingrid Frahm

From Harper's BAZAAR

Twelfth Street was empty except for Kim Shui. The 29-year-old wore calligraphy-precise black eyeliner and a tiger-print cardigan she designed and sewed herself. She carried a few boxes—a donation of supplies being delivered to local hospitals, plus the last few shipments of clothes she could make before New York City shuts down. “Now what?” she laughed… but there was nobody on the usually packed block to answer her.

Instead, the downtown fashion darling beloved by Cardi B. and Kylie Jenner did what resourceful young women have always done when times get tough: She answered the question herself. “I figured it out,” she says from her studio apartment in Manhattan, where she—like millions of other city dwellers—has been ordered to stay home for the foreseeable future. “I’m making masks. I have a sewing machine, and some leftover fabric. I don’t have any elastic,” she say with a sigh, “but I figure I can take it from some of my own clothes for now, and then sew it back on later once I can go shopping for materials again… or even just get to my studio. Obviously, I had to shut it down. My workspace, I mean,” she says firmly. “Not my label. That’s definitely still going.”

How Can Fashion Move Forward?

Style is a lot like love: even when you try, you just can’t stop it. That’s because just like Beyoncé, fashion is a triple threat: it’s a billion-dollar industry, a vital and easily accessible art form, and—because everyone gets dressed in the morning—its goods are both necessary and universal. We all have to have them.

But though style is immutable, its influence can certainly get quieter. And with the havoc and heartbreak of COVID-19, the industry is halfway between a pause and a pivot. A 360-view shows both happening now, as independent labels like Christian Siriano and Cynthia Rowley, along with massive corporations like Gap, Coty, and LVMH, are making masks, hospital gowns, and hand sanitizer. Retail shops are shutting down while e-commerce sites are overloading—and in some cases crashing—from so many virtual orders. Face masks (both the N-95 kind and the K-Beauty pore clearers) are in high demand, and sweatpants—once a Seinfeld punchline and a Hype Boi staple—have become so essential, WWD reports sales have spiked 50 percent. At the same time, factory workers and retail employees are losing their jobs, often with no safety net. Stylists, photographers, and makeup and hair artists are currently without income. Textile production has stopped, and many cotton farmers and wool growers can’t plant and harvest.

In the midst of this push-and-pull, Harper’s Bazaar spoke with dozens of fashion folk about their fears, their future, and the small steps being taken right now that ensure style—like every other art form, and love too—survives.

Remote Work

Two days after I went into “self-isolation,” Jennifer Lopez called me.

It was for an interview scheduled a long time ago, in a galaxy far away… one where you could kiss someone without wondering about the death toll. “At some point, we always bounce back,” the Oscar-robbed icon says. “And so we need to use this time to get ready to come back even better... Nobody wanted this to happen, but if it has to be this way, now we can take advantage of the time and work to get better at what we do. But do that work from home.”

“My creative process has become informal,” adds Brother Vellies founder and creative director Aurora James. “I’ve been expressing myself mainly through color, wearing it, working with it, altering it. And I’ve been busying myself with flowers. Shoes and bags have not yet made their way into the equation. But likely everything I’m doing is laying the foundation for that development.”

Across the country in California, Jeremy Scott echoes that advice as he beamed into a conversation with his BFF Miley Cyrus. As a guest on her whatever-let’s-try-this Instagram show Bright Minded, the Moschino creative director did a “recycling and repurposing” workshop with the pop icon, where he told her 105 million followers, “You can take a pair of old Adidas sweatpants, cut them up, and make it work. Your body may be in quarantine, but your mind doesn’t have to be.”

Photo credit: Kevin Mazur/MTV1415 - Getty Images

“It’s really important to give people something to dream about,” he tells me later that day. “We have a very visceral reaction to clothes, and for that reason alone, fashion still matters.” How it will change his creative process, he’s still sorting out, but he knows the key to the fashion industry bouncing back from this cycle—which could cost 25 million jobs, according to WWD—is “bringing people together with ideas, enthusiasm, and determination to make it work.”

Designer Claudia Li is making it work from her living room. “I would say that there’s not much change for the collection development creative process,” she says. “We create our prints in-house by doing experiments and technique research. Most of this can be done as long as we have the supplies with us.”

“I never thought it was possible to work separated from my team,” adds Nanushka’s Sandra Sandor, whose home office is in Budapest, Hungary. “But actually, I feel quite productive. We started developing new tools and new ways of working within the design team, we hold meetings through digital tools, like Hangouts, and go through design documents collaboratively. This challenging environment has taught us to be more organized.”

And as millions of us trade morning commutes for Zoom sessions, some industry leaders are live-streaming the message that fashion isn’t just a vital part of living, it’s the way we can live deliberately. As Box of Style founder and celebrity fashion icon Rachel Zoe says, “Getting dressed every day makes people feel human, and gives a feeling of purpose, even if we are going nowhere as our current norm. I think in an uncertain time such as this, fashion keeps us dreaming of the day when our regular lives of the past become a reality again. Everyone needs to still feel a sense of belonging and community, and the light that only fashion can bring to so many people.”

Sustainable Solutions and Labor Anxieties

Meanwhile, industry critics and thought-leaders have cautiously whispered the words “reset button” in candid conversations. “We know the industry is broken,” says EcoCult founder Alden Wicker, a sustainability expert with a background in ecology. “And we know people are trying to find a silver lining to this incredibly scary and painful period by saying, ‘Well, since we have to start over anyway, now we can do it right.’ In some cases, that’s absolutely true. I can see people embracing buying and selling even more secondhand clothes on peer-to-peer platforms like ThreadUp. And because of The RealReal, secondhand is cool now! It’s a good way to get affordable designer clothes… but unfortunately, this reduction of new clothes, if it happens because we stop manufacturing as much, or we can’t afford to buy as much, that comes at the expense of the livelihoods of people. There’s no getting around that.”

“I would be lying if I said that we are fine,” says Claudia Li, “Because there’s such uncertainty. Financially, everything has been affected, from sales to press to production. I’ve applied for some funding and grants, but all we can do right now is strategize and plan the finances out very carefully for the coming months. As for my business in particular, all of my employees and interns are minorities; a lot of them are Asian. We were already facing problems on the daily doing business, even before this happened. Now I’m extremely concerned for their safety, and mine, due to recent events.”

As people’s lives hang in the balance, brands are forced to make their own bitter sacrifices, reducing living wages along with carbon emissions. “H&M just got pilloried for saying if we have a reduction in consumption, it’s gonna be really bad for garment workers,” Wicker says. “And nobody should be putting their profits or their productivity ahead of people’s health and safety. But H&M has spoken to truth, because as long as consumption is a part of our economy, marginalized people’s health and safety—if they can afford medical care, housing, even food—is directly tied to the supply chain. And garment workers are some of the most marginalized, unprotected people on earth. We may be hitting the reset button on sustainable production or resale,” Wicker says, “but you can’t hit the reset button on human life. We need to use this time to really think about ways to protect factory workers while doing better for the planet. For those of us privileged enough to have time right now, that should be a focus.”

And some industry leaders have taken up the challenge. Urban Decay founder Wende Zomnir says she’s using this time “to inform the future and learn from these constraints. How can we make more sustainable choices [about travel and production] based on what we’re experiencing now? How can we learn to create [store displays] so we use fewer materials? So far, many of the practices that we’re adapting now because we must”—like recycling old packaging materials and making easy-to-rework store displays—“those actually seem to be more sustainable. Hopefully we create positive change” while we wait to emerge from the foxholes.

Repowering the Supply Chain

At the core of the luxury sector’s style anxiety is Italy’s fashion scene, a $107.9 billion industry and home to boundary-pushing beacons like Gucci, Prada, Versace, and Beyoncé BFF Peter Dundas, who wrote from his studio with a candid assessment of his challenges right now. “We are set to make masks with our suppliers,” he says, adding, “we are using our own fabrics together with safety-approved fibers, so you can wear something cheerful that helps keep you and others safe. I think everyone is concerned about stocks, cash flow, and what comes next,” he admits, which is why “making uplifting products in a positive environment is really at the top of my list right now.”

Photo credit: Venturelli - Getty Images

As for how he’ll work with Italian textile factories even while quarantined in London, Dundas shares a view that might portend many clothes created in the next 12 months: “Working long distance when choosing materials has meant sourcing fabrics that I know, either the quality, the color, or the supplier. I think humans seek something familiar even in everything new.”

But how Italy recovers from the COVID-19 crisis doesn’t just affect Milan-based brands, their employees, and their devoted clientele. Its influence in the global luxury fashion market spreads 10,000 miles from Lombardy to Australia, where sheep farmers create 20 percent of the world’s wool, and raise more than $2 billion for the nation’s economy. “COVID-19 is an even bigger challenge for our industry than the Australian bushfires,” says Woolmark CEO Stuart McCullough, who guides the best practices and stringent quality control of more than 60,000 wool producers. He cites a drop in demand and price as big problems for the homegrown industry, as well as terrible timing.

“It’s currently shearing season,” McCullough says, “which is essential for both animal welfare and livelihood… without wool, there are no new sales, and no new fiber available in the supply chain.” As of now, Australia hasn’t made a ruling on whether sheep farmers count as “essential” employees alongside healthcare workers and grocers. Until then, “Many wool factories are resuming normal production in China, [and they] continue to strongly support the Australian wool markets,” he notes, which is at least some good news for the sustainable fabric and its farmers. “Australian woolgrowers will survive this,” the CEO (and former ranch hand) vows. “They are a resilient bunch of businesspeople and good at managing the tough issues that are thrown at them regularly.”

Investing in Tomorrow

The economic and manufacturing realities of COVID-19 start now. But what about its aesthetic and visual impact in the years to come? “It’s going to be a creative mindf*ck,” says Michelle Duncan, the Estée Lauder executive turned fashion designer whose first collection of goth-tinged classics sold out of Matches Fashion in less than a week—and whose first-ever prefall collection was just scrapped due to the pandemic. “If you look back at the Surrealists, the Cubists, the pop artists even—those people had seen war. The creativity was an output of the chaos in the world. I’m not saying this is the same experience; we’re thankfully not in the World War 1 trenches. But you can’t deny this period is its own strange trauma, even if you’re lucky enough to be healthy. How will we manifest our creativity? What kind of exceptions will be made to every creative rule? We’re all feeling strong emotions and we’re probably not ready to create things just yet. But I believe we will be, and it will be our responsibility to create the most amazing things possible. This is who I am; this is who we are. I see no other way.”

Dundas predicts repeating, recognizable patterns and textures might become their own kind of trend—“a sensual comfort zone,” in his words—and hints that other brands will create similar vibes when it’s safe to make collections again. Jeremy Scott feels like future designs can fill the role of “something that transports us somewhere else emotionally” (like Miley’s living room!), while Rachel Zoe says simply, “fashion is about moving forward and not looking back,” though when it comes to issues of economic recovery, she echoes Tom Ford’s more practical tactics. “If the fashion industry is left out of the [Congressional] stimulus bill,” she asserts, “it will lead to closures of some of the most well-known and loved global brands in the world.”

“Will we need more support in the future? Probably,” adds Kim Shui. “But if the fashion world wants to know what I as a young female-founded brand need right now, I wouldn’t talk about interest rates or sale numbers or anything like that. I would just tell you one thing: I need you to stay healthy if possible, and to protect other people from getting sick so we can get through this together and move on as fast as possible. If you really want to help indie fashion brands like mine right now, you can do one big thing: social distancing. That’s what fashion needs from you right now—we need you to stay home.”

And if you’re able, why not finally add that fashion or beauty product you keep almost getting to your cart… but this time, for real? “Financial support through sales is the number one thing all small businesses need right now,” Aurora James says candidly. “If shopping isn’t something that feels right for you right now, then following and engaging on social media and newsletters goes a long, long way… Support some of the smaller designers that are often the magic makers in our industry—the ones that take risks and push narratives forward. I want to see us all still standing at the end of this, and I truly believe if we all do our parts,” including staying inside, helping our neighbors, asking for help if we need it, and investing in the American style we believe in, “that can and will happen.”

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