What’s Covid-19 doing to fashion?

Shopping for fashion was a much coveted activity BC (before Covid-19). On my visits to Zurich, along the Bahnhofstrasse, I would see people laden with shopping bags from the high-street brands, Mango, Zara, Massimo Dutti, as well as those of luxury brands like Bally, Luis Vuitton, Bulgari and Celine and Prada.

It made you wonder how much money people had for spending on clothes and shoes. Admittedly, the last global recession was a while back, 2008 to be exact, and since then, economic growth seemed unstoppable. Consumers were healthy, reasonably happy and appeared to have plenty of disposable income, perhaps more than at any time in the history of (wo)mankind.

Shopping was (almost) everyone’s favourite pastime. Fuelled by a hitherto unknown interest in self portrayal and promotion, driven by Facebook, Instagram and the like, people’s shopping trips and choices became social media events. Brands that had previously figured in high-society magazines only suddenly seemed to be more accessible to ordinary citizens. The most exclusive brands saw new niches and revenue potential. Some of them introduced new, somewhat more affordable lines – introducing the democratization of luxury living. By luring a new category of shoppers into their universe, luxury brands like Marc Jacobs or Chloe counted on building up brand loyalty from people who did not have quite the means, though they certainly had acquired the taste. People who were prepared to dig deeper into their pockets if the label had the right name.

And those who could not afford the luxury brands, found plenty to choose from in the high-street stores. Fast fashion was the word. Sure, there were a few voices warning about waste, claiming that less was more, that we needed to care about working conditions in India’s textile factories, slave-like conditions in parts of China, child labour etc. – and that we should all start to rethink our shopping habits. Notwithstanding, consumerism boomed unabated.

Before BC (before Covid) that is. Now, an international study carried out by McKinsey & Co. suggests that consumers have radically changed their habits, at least temporarily. Pessimistic forecasts for the worldwide economy, rising unemployment and a general uncertainty about the future are taking their toll. Popular shops shut down from one day to the next – with some not re-opening, high streets are empty, the idea of going into an erstwhile consumer paradise like the Globus department store having fun browsing on 6 floors seems suddenly absurd, something remote and exotic.

The “lightness of being”, the naivety of shopping has gone, and with it the casual attitude to spending. Shopping sprees are simply unthinkable. The lockdown and the masks and social distancing have forced us to think twice before buying anything. Locked away in our homes we have more time to reflect, and more time to compare prices, more time for hesitation and second thoughts. Being confined to our one four walls, has perhaps made us painfully aware that we have limited space – and that our wardrobe is already full. After all, who wants to sit – and work – in a small space cluttered with piles of clothes and shoes and no outings in sight where we might show them off?

Throughout the pandemic horror stories have come to light, not only about meat factories, but also about fashion chains. The British fast-fashion provider, Boohoo, had been much hyped in Germany and Switzerland, and now what? Revelations about how their (poorly paid) workers in Leicester were forced to work without precautionary measures in place shocked consumers and cannot be doing much for their popularity. HM in Germany put their shop assistants on 50% work time, collecting 80% of their wages from the state – but had many of them working long hours – of unpaid overtime.

I would not be surprised if such and similar stories might finally bring about a Big Change in favour of “ethical” fashion – and perhaps of long-lived luxury brands – as long as they can prove their commitment to fairness along their supply chain, and a commitment to sustainability.

People might all of a sudden be more drawn to quality, buy a couple of expensive, but long-lasting pieces, instead of filling up their wardrobes with cheap, fast-moving fashion that barely lasts for a month. Consumers will be asking questions such as “where were my jeans made” and “under what conditions”. “Tracability” is the new word (some manufacturers have started to introduce labels that you can scan – and an application that will tell you which sheep has provided the wool that your garments made of!

BC, the percentage of online (e-commerce) trade in the luxury fashion sector amounted to some 10 to 12 percent, less even for premium jewellery and watches. Luxury shoppers used to place a high value on being received at a store with style and decorum. Not for them the browsing online, reading reviews by other customers and clicking a few buttons. Style, exclusivity and being made to feel “expensive” were all part of the physical presence in a shop, the ultimate CX, so to speak.

The current figures seem to indicate an important change. Even luxury brands are now going online. Prada has doubled its online turnover since the start of the pandemic, and its rival Bottega Veneta has tripled theirs. The challenges for these companies is now to replicate their unique customer experience online, in order to continue with this growth, and give people that special feeling even if they no longer enter through those guilded doors and the red carpet in person.

Perhaps we are moving into an era of more subtlety, embracing the kind of luxury that doesn’t shout, but is recognized by its understatement and classic qualities. Perhaps IT-pieces are out, and the rhythm of new collections chasing each other will slow down to a more leisurely pace. A good thing perhaps, both for our planet and our psyche. Now that we may have to start getting used to living with the virus, could it be that we hanker for more stability, more tranquillity and less frantic working and shopping behaviour? The slow appreciation perhaps that quality is more important than quantity?

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