Though no one knows what the world of tomorrow will look like, during these shifting, uncertain times, one thing’s for sure: the world is going to have to slow down and reinvent itself, with economic vulnerabilities brought on by a pandemic of rare proportions.
Lower sales volume, production facilities in upheaval, inventory to be liquidated, Fashion Weeks and fashion trade shows canceled…the entire industry now finds itself upended by the impact of this health crisis. “Trade shows have been moved from June to September. Collections will obviously come out late, so we will have to work twice as hard to accomplish in three months what we normally have five months to do. It is also possible that international tourism may be considerably affected this summer and that each country may only have its own national tourism to work with”, warns Daniel Flachaire, CEO and co-founder of Banana Moon, a leading brand in the swimwear market, whose seasonal business has been directly impacted by the closure of non-essential shops.
According to the Institut Français de la Mode, textile and fashion sales saw a 53% drop in March 2020, and plunged by 85.5% in April, strongly impacting department stores, mass retail and multi-brand independent retailers. The IFM has offered three possible scenarios that may describe the coming economic reopening. The most realistic of them banks on “a gradual return to consumption”, with a second half of 2020 showing a decrease of around 5% in value compared to the second half of 2019 (in other words, a total contraction of 20% for all of 2020). This type of projection “is a perilous, truly delicate exercise, because we are in unprecedented territory”, warns Gildas Minvielle, director of the IFM’s economic observatory. “But during these uncertain times, it is crucial to set some guideposts. The whole industry needs them”. According to Brain and Co, the global luxury market is set to contract by 20-35% in 2020. On the consumer side, we are already seeing reduced purchasing power on the part of the middle class in the West, as well as reticent purchasing behavior (including in China), whereas brands have lots of inventory to sell off and are approaching future collections with great caution.
With the ecological challenges we face and the implications of this virus for our daily routines, fashion will have to adapt and put the brakes on its frenzied pace. This much is clear in the minds of many fashion designers, who were already on the verge of burnout in the past, in the face of relentless design demands. While the house of Saint Laurent announced in late April that it planned to “rethink its approach to timelines and work according to its own calendar”, as Alaïa has always done, Giorgio Armani declared early last month that a prudent and intelligent slowdown in pace was the only way out of the current emergency. In an open letter published on Tuesday, May 12, 2020, Belgian designer Dries Van Noten, along with a group of designers and retailers, also called upon the industry to “realign the launch of collections with the seasons in the real world and also push back sales periods, shifting the Autumn/Winter season so that it will cover the months of August through January and Spring/Summer will cover February through July”.
Since the start of the reopening process on May 11th, the Paris Mode Insider production company has launched a video series entitled “#LeMeilleurEstDevant” (“#TheBestIsYetToCome”), a nod to the final manifesto from Jean-Paul Gaultier, where it invites iconic names and key stakeholders in fashion and luxury to share their views on the post-COVID landscape, while keeping faith in the future. “I believe that we’ll rediscover a slower pace, with time to reflect, create, craft, and wait for things, as well”, confides Jean-Marc Mansvelt, CEO of Chaumet. “We have to forget about fashion and move toward style, imagining garments that will be part of our lives and can be passed on”, declares Jean-Charles de Castelbajac. “We need to stop being victims of a system we’ve been forced into, and understand that, as consumers of fashion and many other things, we are agents of change”, warns Xavier Romatet, Managing Director of the Institut Français de la Mode.
“At Banana Moon, we’re proud to have a chain of production that was able to weather the storm: we have our own cutting room for all our styles, which are then assembled at our factory in Tunisia. This has been a major advantage, considering the widespread interdependence with China. With this business model, all our orders were fulfilled and delivered on time”, confides Daniel Flachaire.
The pressures in favor of more “virtuous” fashion have admittedly imposed greater transparency on the fashion industry. “But let’s remember that it’s price that will continue to be the decisive factor for consumers, so we must reconcile a certain ideal as expressed in surveys with the realities of a race to the lowest price, which means that major fast fashion groups such as Inditex and H&M are far from irrelevant. I don’t believe in the advent of a ‘new world’, but, rather, a world full of greater constraints, notably due to new household budgetary restrictions and to the reallocation of priorities toward health and well-being, and less futility (perhaps). One could imagine that practices such as rental and second-hand purchases, or behaviors based on sharing, may very well increasingly replace spending on new garments”, adds Lucas Delattre, Communications Director at the IFM.
In other words, this represents a reinforcement of shifts that began before the crisis, when many were already saying that it was time to produce and consume “less, but better”. But once the economic recovery is well underway, will the best of intentions from early on become die-hard habits? What will actually happen? How optimistic should we be about an industry that has trained us to expect such excess and so many contradictions?
“There is always a gap between what people say and what they actually do. And then, the current situation, with its many economic and health-care challenges, may slow down the long march toward more sustainable fashion. We are seeing, for example, a return to single-use plastics, and even a decrease in themes such as recycling. One thing is for sure: fashion must change if it wants the stay ‘fashionable’”, as Lucas Delattre, professeur at IFM, points out. “The need for fashion and lightheartedness will undoubtedly express itself, as it always does after a period of crisis, but we absolutely cannot foresee a “post-COVID landscape” that is radically different from the one we’ve known up to now, except to say that many people’s priorities will shift toward things other than fashion or luxury”.