While all industries have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, the fashion industry is expected to be hit particularly severely. With most of physical stores still closed for an indeterminate period of time, many labels are displaying signs of financial distress while facing logistic difficulties due to inventory excess. The crisis has uncovered supply chain vulnerabilities: as the closures impact operations of mills, fabric manufacturers, and production sites, retailers will likely face significant delivery delays. It also spotlights fashion’s unsustainable business model, one based on a calendar that fails to capture all the value the market generates, forcing designers to deliver product too early and discount it before peak demand.
Challenging times for the global fashion industry long predated the Covid-19 outbreak. This unprecedented period, however, is a unique opportunity for fashion businesses to reassess their strategies. Here are four lessons emerging from the crisis that will help brands not only deal with current turbulence but, more importantly, learn to become agile and future-proof themselves for coming challenges.
1. Reevaluate wholesale relationships
The majority of fashion labels rely on established retailers to build distribution networks and expose their product to a large group of consumers. The current crisis, however, puts enormous pressure on the fashion wholesale system, which has already struggled since the financial crisis of 2008. Temporary store closures have caused an enormous drop in consumer spending on apparel, which has resulted in significant inventory build-ups. Some retailers have already cancelled pre-Fall orders and introduced heavy markdowns to clear their stocks, damaging profits in the process. Inevitably, a portion of this financial burden will be passed on to fashion labels.
As a result of the crisis, the negotiation power that was traditionally in the hands of retailers has become more balanced. Many department stores and boutiques have already started conversations with their brands regarding extended payment terms. Labels that heavily depend on wholesale and are unhappy with their current contracts are finally in a position to renegotiate their wholesale relationships. This is the right moment to discuss new delivery dates in line with the seasonal calendar (as opposed to the sometimes- arbitrary fashion calendar) and discount policies that often hurt not only the bottom line but also brand equity. It is an opportunity for all stakeholders to work out a solution that will better fit the market reality and benefit the industry as well as customers.
2. Establish a digital-first mindset
Now, more than ever, it is crucial to run a fashion label like a digital native. The temporary shut-down cause by the coronavirus outbreak has forced the fashion industry to conduct all business virtually. Shoppers suddenly need to adapt to buying from home. Creative teams collaborate via Zoom. Extensive travel restrictions directly impact physical wholesale showrooms and create difficulties for media and influencers to attend Fashion Weeks, increasing demand for virtual showcasing platforms. Establishing a digital-first mindset across the organization has become an industry imperative and a way to gain the make-or-break competitive edge.
The crisis has forced many wholesale buyers, who previously would not commit to an order remotely, to become comfortable with online orders, as long as the brand provided them with 3D pictures/videos of the collection samples. Exploring new formats, like digital showrooms or virtual reality fashion shows, has allowed brands to maintain sales in Asia during the FW20 Fashion Weeks and cultivate customer relationships amid the outbreak. Going digital is also a viable alternative to expensive market travels, while digital prototyping is a simple way for a brand to save on production of hundreds of physical samples each season. It not only saves money but also eliminates textile waste and reduces overall carbon footprint. Presenting work via livestreaming offers more room for creative expression as well as a platform to directly engage with consumers and reach a much broader audience.
3. Focus on timelessness
The length and impact of the pandemic on the global economy is still unknown. But this is almost certain: a deep economic crisis will follow. It’s commonly known that customer behavior changes significantly when facing a recession. Lessons from the 2008 crisis show us that during economic uncertainty, fashion customers tend to choose timeless, so-called “investment pieces” over garments that follow short-term trends.1 People might feel guilty about flashy spending and therefore make subtler choices. They turn from ostentatious displays of logos and loud colors and patterns to a more minimal look, which feels responsible given the crisis.
It is crucial to adjust product design and merchandising strategy to the current situation, while staying true to the brand identity. But timeless does not mean basic: creativity and attention to detail should always be in focus. The key is to create a tightly-curated collection with a limited number of seasonal garments. It is also important to build the range of strong carryovers and updated bestsellers from previous seasons. A secret ingredient is a marketing narrative convincing customers that a classic blazer or a leather purse is not just a garment or an accessory, but a lifelong investment that will never go out of style.
4. Keep your community engaged
Since buying a new dress or a new pair of shoes is low on the list for most consumers these days, brands with sales-focused communications need to adjust their tone to suit this new reality and avoid seeming insensitive. How brands appear to their customers during this pandemic could impact perception in seasons to come. It is important to approach communications with a combination of reality and sensitivity, always making sure that the message remains authentic.
Brands that are currently winning the hearts of customers do not focus on awareness and sales but instead look for creative ways to connect and build a community based on identity and values. Phillip Lim has been cooking up a storm on Instagram, Lululemon streams at-home workouts, and Levi’s demonstrates how to customize clothes at home. Community-building activities are a safe way to interact with consumers and retain visibility. It is important to stay creative and upbeat and make good use of different social media channels. Brands that focus on communication and engagement, instead of selling, will win not only during and directly after this crisis, but far into the future.
It’s true that our current crisis is unprecedented in many ways. But this is not the first challenge to hit the fashion industry, and it won’t be the last. When implemented correctly, and with an agile mindset, these four lessons will help us weather the storm and prepare for a brighter future.
 Matlack, For the Downturn, Gucci Downplays the Logos, Bloomberg, October 15, 2009.