From Fashion Week To Retail: How Will The Coronavirus Shape Fashion’s Future?

 

Just going by the drastically reduced amount of news in one’s email inbox, it’s evident that the coronavirus has thrown a spanner in the works of the fashion animal. The endless collections, capsules, collaborative mini collections, single-product drops, events and parties have come to a screeching halt. Certainly not by choice, given lockdown measures of varying degrees the world over and a disrupted economy. Not to mention, a whole other set of more pressing priorities other than owning a new bag: health — physical, mental and emotional. 

According to The Business of Fashion which has been driving industry-wide discourse with regards to the pandemic’s impact on the fashion eco-system, 2020 could possibly see a 27 to 30 per cent decrease in revenue, with the first quarter already reporting a sizeable hit. While such economic repercussions aren’t fashion’s own doing, it draws attention to other fundamental problems that reared their heads before the virus went viral, and now seem all the more urgent.

There is the increasingly hectic fashion week circuit that no longer counts just London, Milan, Paris and New York as the only “relevant” cities with business value — which takes a toll on individuals who jet across continents at an alarming rate just to do their job. The traditional brick-and-mortar retail landscape has been chipped away by its online counterpart in recent years, with Barney’s New York having filed for bankruptcy and shuttered its stores late last year, and now the unfortunate poster child for the reality that even giants aren’t invincible.

 
Related article: Amidst Cancelled Fashion Weeks, Shanghai’s Virtual Runways Are A Glimpse Into The Future
 
Once the holy grail for avid shoppers, Barney’s New York is now destined to become a shop-in-shop at Sak’s Fifth Avenue, but will be forever immortalised in Sex and the City. Image: Everett Collection
 

With the global health and economic catastrophe putting the brakes on the pace luxury fashion orbits at today, creating time and space for the industry to reassess its modus operandi, it’s possible that fashion can now tweak its systems for the better — shaping a brave new world post-pandemic. Three industry insiders weigh in.

 

Bohan Qiu, founder of Shanghai-based PR and content agency BOH Project

 

ON FASHION WEEK

Shanghai was the first to execute a fully digital fashion week earlier this March. Having been a part of it, what are some of your observations with regards to the viewer’s experience, the buying process, as well as challenges faced?

The livestream model that was done through the Tmall x Shanghai Fashion Week and Labelhood partnership was quite unique to the Chinese market, and it was a good opportunity for brands to learn how to engage directly with consumers and implement methods to convert sales. As most of the brands haven’t done presentations online prior to this, the key struggle was how to present the full picture of the collection in an artistic and creative way, that is authentic and true to the brand’s image — while at the same time being able to convert sales and acquire new customers. Brands and designers turned to many different efforts, such as inviting influencers for a panel discussion, creating a mini-theatre, or having the designer answer questions from the online audience. 

At BOH Project, we also worked with labels Xu Zhi, Andrea Jiapei Li and Roderic Wong to create a virtual fashion show, which used CG technology created by IC-U (a Beijing-based digital art agency) — put together by XCOMMONS, an innovative fashion presentation platform. Users enter a virtual space hosted on a website through a link, and are brought into a virtually enhanced show venue with each designer’s “runway show”. With the help of technology, the designers’ artistic expressions are able to be conveyed digitally without a physical runway.        

   

As for showrooms and the buying aspect, part of the business has returned to normal. But there are also one-to-one video chat sessions to present items and talk buyers through the collections, who have had to also adapt to this new way of buying when travel is restricted. 

In your opinion, what were some immediate benefits of taking fashion week online?

Fashion has been operating in an old-school manner compared to many other industries. While spending millions of dollars on a huge runway show to impress its audience is impactful, it also poses many questions to do with sustainability. From the excessive amount of travel required, the carbon footprint incurred, the materials used for production, and the money spent — it consumes a crazy amount of resources and puts a burden on the planet. Nowadays, brands do big shows or events to create images and content that circulate online, so I think now is our chance to start rethinking how we approach fashion week. In combining technology, computer graphics, livestreams and virtual reality, Shanghai Fashion Week can pioneer this creativity, and also become more environmental friendly. 

 
 

Do you think going digital can — or should — be the way forward for fashion weeks around the world? Why or why not?

I think it will still take some time as brands will need to find new ways to not only create powerful images and content to showcase collections, but also have a new channel to democratise the fashion experience more. The Tmall livestream may not be the solution for other cities yet as it is a platform that is limited to China, but there are other innovative ways such as utilising Instagram Live, or creating 3D show experiences hosted on websites that combine VR and AR technology — the latter is a solution for other fashion weeks to consider. 

 

“Fashion has been operating in an old-school manner compared to many other industries. While spending millions of dollars on a huge runway show to impress its audience is impactful, it also poses many questions to do with sustainability.” — Bohan Qiu

 

Tiffany Hsu, fashion buying director at e-tailer Mytheresa

 

ON THE RETAIL LANDSCAPE

Do you think the online channel for retail will become even more salient than it already is?

For sure, especially during this difficult time. The upcoming generations are digitally-savvy, and they are very much accustomed to the speed and convenience of online shopping.

 

ON FASHION WEEK

We’ve seen Paris cancel the men’s shows and Milan postpone theirs. Meanwhile, Shanghai Fashion Week went ahead in a purely digital endeavour. What can the industry learn from this episode, and perhaps adopt moving forward?

I think the fashion industry has a relentless travel schedule which can be quite challenging. The current situation might make people realise that there are many things that can be done digitally, or streamlined a little more. Brands are also working together and sharing information more than ever — this should bring a better structure to the business.

   

What do you hope fashion’s purpose can be in the future?

I hope that the fashion industry isn’t just using the current issue as a topic of design inspiration, but that it actually takes part in taking on the current challenges that we are facing.

 

“Brands are working together and sharing information more than ever — this should bring a better structure to the business.” — Tiffany Hsu

 

Rong Jake Chen, co-founder of fashion label Jonathan Liang and lead consultant at Forward Collective

 

ON THE INDUSTRY’S RAPID-FIRE PACE

It’s been said even before the pandemic that fashion has been moving at too fast a pace, given the number of collections and drops, and as a result, aggressive discounts during sale. Now that the fashion eco-system has slowed down due to the virus, what do you think could be good to keep post-crisis?

An easy or expected answer to this would be an industry-wide reflection on sustainability. However, we need to understand that as an eco-system that ingrains a complex and long-spanning supply chain which supports many people within it, change only will trickle down from the end-consumer.

However, I believe what this challenging period raised for us — and all industries — is the importance of working differently. This is across creating digital infrastructures internally that allow teams to collaborate more effectively but also, rapidly evolving how we touch with our stakeholders externally. This is particularly interesting as fashion is ingrained largely in physical experiences, and so I would enjoy seeing what the long term effects of this are.

 

“We need to understand that as an eco-system that ingrains a complex and long-spanning supply chain which supports many people within it, change only will trickle down from the end-consumer.” — Rong Jake Chen

 

ON FASHION’S ADAPTABILITY AND PURPOSE

We’ve seen brands pull their weight in unexpected ways during this pandemic, such as LVMH’s move to produce hand sanitisers and Prada, with its medical gowns and masks. What do you think this says about fashion’s purpose and voice today?

I’m glad to see these conglomerates take part in tending to the needs of their community. Fashion is a massive industry that employs millions, and I think people fail to see that this industry is a mainstay within the global economy — its purpose and presence keeps people healthy through employment. Fashion will always play a role in fulfilling our emotional and visceral needs, and I see that being more important than ever once the pandemic is over — we reconnect with our desires. Being human, that is a big part of life, and fashion is a form of sharing and connecting so I hope this reflection is ingrained after this pandemic.

 
Image: Gucci
 

ON THE RETAIL LANDSCAPE

Fashion’s brick-and-mortars have had strong competition from e-commerce in the recent years, with even giants like Barney’s shuttering. How do you think retail — both offline and online — might further evolve after this pandemic?

Digitally, retailers are able to use this time to move more rapidly in regards to technology adoption and hopefully, we can see this post-pandemic. New technology and start-ups aiming to create more immersive digital retail experiences have been around for a while now, and I think we could finally see them in action; a new status quo perhaps, as retailers try to diversify risks for the future.

However, the offline experience is going to mean a lot more to us after all this, as we embrace the importance of physical experiences more with a renewed sense of appreciation. Having said that, I don’t believe that enough retailers adapt an experiential perspective when creating physical retail spaces, and perhaps we won’t see that for a while as the sector shrinks during this period.

 
This experience and atmosphere of a brick-and-mortar space — like Gentle Monster stores that seamlessly combine art installations and eyewear — become all the more important for offline retail. Image: Gentle Monster
 

Do you think the online channel for retail will become even more important than it is now, down the road?

Definitely. Direct to customer relationships are evolving, as consumers want to bypass the intermediary and understand the essence of the brands. They can learn and understand this with every increasing platform created, like Xiaohongshu in China, or even the rise of TikTok to create a multifaceted overview of the brand universe.

I see the digital realm as a two-way street. One, to enhance the brand experience, and two, as a function connecting supply chain. Once future infrastructure is in place to meet our increasing consumer expectations with delivery, returns and customer service, the importance of online will be non-negotiable. However, physical retail will still act as a pillar to brand perception, and it won’t go away within the fashion industry anytime soon due to its touch-feel focus.

 

A version of this story was first published in ELLE Singapore’s May 2020 issue.