“Now that we are still apart, my love for fashion burns,” wrote Alessandro Michele on May 16. While this collective need for beauty burns brighter than ever in these dark times, fashion is also reckoning with a new reality as the world grapples with lockdowns and all the resultant turbulence—halted production, cancelled orders, slashed budgets, shuttered stores, and consumer enthusiasm at an all-time low.
While the global fashion industry at large has been rallying for a long-overdue systemic change, now that the world has been effectively put on pause, our local and regional fashion industry is facing a separate set of problems within this same flawed system. These are not well-funded corporations with the resources to withstand months of economic inactivity. With the bulk of their revenue derived from home territory, a prolonged economic standstill could result in very serious repercussions.
How Covid-19 Has Affected Sales & Operations
A darling of the Singapore fashion industry, In Good Company, founded by Sven Tan, Kane Tan, Jaclyn Teo and Julene Aw, has seen its sales nosedive. “Before the circuit-breaker, 75 percent of our revenue came from our brick-and-mortar locations. All four stores in Singapore are now closed and even though there has been increased revenue and traffic at our e-store, it would be difficult for it to reach the same numbers as our physical stores. In all, we have seen a 70 percent decrease in revenue from the period of February to April,” says the brand. The apparel label’s overseas business in the region has been impacted as well. “Our international stockists in Thailand, Indonesia and Philippines are mostly based in malls, which have experienced greatly reduced traffic. We understood when they had to reduce orders; one has even cancelled.”
Other designers are fortunate enough to be able to control their own distribution. Silvia Teh, one of the earliest recipients of the Harper’s BAZAAR Asia NewGen Fashion Designer Award in 2015, gains a large majority of her sales from directly-operated channels—namely her showroom and her e-commerce platform. While she does partner with local boutiques like Nana & Bird and Naiise Marketplace, those are on a consignment basis with stock management and order fulfilment also handled by her. “Because of the nature of that arrangement, those relationships haven’t been that affected because I only promise what I can deliver.” In fact, Teh says that one of the unexpected upsides in this crisis is that those relationships have actually been strengthened. “I am talking to more multi-brand shops; we are supporting each other in this trying time.”
Unfortunate and painful as this episode is, it has allowed bright spots like these to emerge from that darkness. Teh adds, “I’ve had to suspend production of my upcoming collection. So instead, I’ve been using this time to focus on my digital platforms, utilising them to increase brand awareness instead of driving sales. I am exploring the concept of an online showroom and I’m also introducing video-call consultations.” The latter is part of Teh’s strategy to build up her custom-order business, which currently contributes 40 percent to her overall revenue. With stay-home orders in place, she conducts meetings and fittings with clients over Zoom, and facilitates fabric selection via courier service.
In Good Company has also used this opportunity to step up its digital and technological fronts. “The circuit-breaker has given us good opportunity to review and improve our online experience. We’ve had to come up with new strategies and solutions very quickly and effectively,” says the collective behind the brand. One of those solutions will include adding an AR function to all their garments post-circuit breaker to allow customers to envision the fit of it without actually trying on the clothes.
Related article: How Singapore’s Fashion Community Is Giving Back During The Pandemic
Relative to other industries of the same scale, fashion has been notoriously slow in its embrace of the digital. The pandemic, however, has accelerated the process—even for designers who previously thrived without e-commerce as a priority. For example, Lai Chan, the Singaporean designer renowned for his qipao designs, has built a business that is strongly reliant on made-to-order, which makes up 50 percent of his sales. He admitted that “e-commerce has always been left aside.” The circuit-breaker has brought about a speedy pivot. “Almost immediately, we moved online, reaching out to a loyal customer base by sharing photos and sketches. There were a lot of supportive clients who bought more than they usually would, knowing how precarious the situation was,” he says.
Is Fashion Week Still Relevant?
By focusing on consumers in the local and regional market, the aforementioned brands have been able to circumvent the fashion week circuit—with all its attendant expenses and efforts—and thus minimising their exposure to the wholesale market and its higher risk of uncertainty. Yet, for a small subset of designers in this region, participation in that system is a contributor to significant growth. For motoguo, the label by Malaysians Moto Guo and Kinder Eng, it is a crucial element of the business. The designers set up a showroom during Paris Fashion Week, followed by a runway presentation at Shanghai Fashion Week. “Eighty five percent of our business is reliant on wholesale. On average, we see a 30 percent increase in new buyers each season. Fashion week is important because that’s where buyers and the media converge and take notice of a brand, and it allows us to establish genuine relationships with them,” says Jay Ang, the label’s Business and Communications Director.
Youths in Balaclava, the Singaporean fashion collective, said: “Showing at Paris Fashion Week was a dream come true. It garnered more international attention to the brand and allowed us to meet new buyers, build relationships and tap into more resources. There is a certain spirit to physical fashion weeks that you cannot replace.”
Invaluable and irreplaceable as the fashion week experience may be, there is no denying that, in the past decade, the system has mutated into an unsustainable beast that churns out up to 10 collections a year at the biggest houses. The result is that editors and buyers sometimes find themselves criss-crossing the globe for two to three months in a year—a pattern that comes at a huge cost, not just financially but also environmentally. And then there is the staggering amount of product that gets pushed into stores in ever faster cycles, often selling at full-price for only a couple of months before being aggressively marked down (Black Friday, Singles’ Day, and the like); something that consumers have come to expect but over time, erodes designers’ profit margins and brand equity.
To be fair, these issues have been discussed well before the pandemic hit. Efforts to enact changes have come in fits and starts: One only needs to look back at “see-now-buy-now” from a few years ago. That model quickly lost steam, but in an industry so vast and layered, it wasn’t entirely surprising. With indie labels operating on bare-bones budgets on one hand, and billion-dollar brands with offices and stores around the world on the other, there was never going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. As the thinking went, the industry was too big of a behemoth to just hit pause and reset. But now, just like that, the world has come to a pause. Forced to slow down and take count, the fashion world is now realising that the way it has always been doesn’t need to be the way it should always be.
Call For Change
In an unprecedented, silver-lining move, brands of different backgrounds and sizes the world over have been joining forces to call for change. Dries Van Noten led an open letter to the industry pushing for fashion seasons to be realigned so that deliveries of clothing hit stores in the actual seasons they are meant to be bought and worn. This would mean fall/winter products being sold from August to January, and spring/summer pieces from February to July. The letter also calls for discounting to be pushed to the very end of the seasons: January for winter clothing; July for summer ware. To date, the letter has been signed by Proenza Schouler, Marine Serre, Y/Project, Grace Wales Bonner, Craig Green, Mary Katrantzou, Tory Burch and Gabriela Hearst, along with executives from influential retailers like Selfridges, Nordstrom, Lane Crawford, and Harvey Nichols.
A separate forum (but with many overlapping signatories) called Rewiring Fashion, goes even further; calling not just for the realignment of seasons, but a complete rethink of the schedule and the purpose of fashion shows. Under this proposal, men’s and women’s fashion weeks would be combined and presented during January/February and June, and turned into consumer-facing events intended to drive desire and sales shortly before the merchandise hit stores. This would also serve to eliminate the current six-month lag between show and product delivery that enables fast-fashion knockoffs.
So far, these conversations have been conducted by mostly independent and small brands, with the dominating conglomerates and fashion giants—the ones with the most clout and capital—largely remaining silent. Gucci has been one of the notable exceptions. In a series of diary entries written during Italy’s lockdown and subsequently posted onto his Instagram account, Creative Director Alessandro Michele writes: “We went too far. Our reckless actions have burned the house we live in.” To that end, Michele asserted that he “will abandon the worn-out ritual of seasonalities and shows to regain a new cadence” and to leave behind the “stale and underfed” concepts that “colonised our prior world: cruise, pre-fall, spring/summer, fall/winter.” Moving forward, the house will cut back from five shows a year to just two.
Gucci’s fellow Kering stablemate, Saint Laurent, has also announced its own departure from the traditional fashion calendar. In a statement, the brand said that it has “decided to take control of its pace and reshape its schedule” and that it “will not present its collections in any of the pre-set schedules of 2020.” Instead, Saint Laurent has chosen to “launch its collections following a plan conceived with an up-to-date perspective, driven by creativity.” With the world still in the thick of the pandemic, what those plans are remain up in the air as of press time.
Giorgio Armani, on the other hand, has formulated his short-term game plan. The designer will combine his men’s and women’s shows in September (perhaps presented behind closed doors to an empty theatre like he did in February) and has pushed his couture presentation to January. In the meantime, he is opening the Armani tailoring atelier to his customers by appointment, allowing them to order custom versions of past and present styles—much like the old-school couture salons of decades past.
While the traditional fashion week model and the wholesale market it feeds is problematic in some parts, retailers still play an important role in the fashion ecosystem. The ones who get it right offer a curated environment in which designers can thrive, a larger platform for exposure and discovery, and a reach that would otherwise be challenging for designers to establish on their own, especially in early-career stages.
SocietyA, founded by Pek Lay Peng, focuses exclusively on independent Asian designers, providing many of them an entry point and a spotlight in the Singaporean market. Beyond just providing an avenue for sales, the store also finds different ways to support the designers it works with—something that Pek feels is more important now than ever. “A few of our designers with production facilities in China have openly shared their struggles with production timelines. We discussed alternate delivery schedules with them, like doing small drops instead of a bulk delivery.”
Other SocietyA initiatives include a partnership with Textile and Fashion Federation (TaFF) Singapore on a Designer Spotlight Series, where SocietyA designers are invited to speak on their brands, values and design journeys. In these challenging times, Pek sees sharing stories as more important than merely pushing product. “One of the most important criteria when deciding to bring designers onboard is the brand’s DNA—what it stands for and what is so unique about it. Customers might not be in the mood to shop now, but they want to consume information and this can be a good time to educate them about our brands. This builds brand equity in the long run.”
Pek admits that online sales have not been able to offset the decline in physical retail, which contributed to 70 percent of sales before the circuit-breaker. To remedy the situation, she has improved the online shopping experience—changes include more seamless navigation and an online chat function—as well as expanding post-sales services. The store is also beefing up its personalised shopping experience for VIP customers, curating pieces to their tastes and delivering it to them.
Initiatives to reach out to customers wherever they are, especially when they can’t come to you, are more imperative than ever. Pek says, “This situation has made it clear that e-commerce should no longer be optional or seen as a secondary platform. It’s a necessary and equal partner to brick-and mortar.” Like so many others, Pek also feels the industry needs to rethink its approach to creativity and consumption post-pandemic. “Designers were churning out collections at such a fast pace that there weren’t many new ideas. Post-Covid-19, I feel that brands will focus even more on their unique DNA and that customers will curate more carefully, hopefully connecting more with stories so that they are buying with awareness.”
That return to slowness and an embrace of thoughtfulness are championed by almost all designers no matter how big or small, global or local. “I hope the industry will move towards a fashion calendar that makes more sense,” says Silvia Teh. Moto Guo and Kinder Eng of motoguo agree, saying “When the dust settles, the industry will have to go at a slower pace.” For Lai Chan, change is never a bad thing. He says, “Fashion in itself is always about change. Now, it needs to change again and operate with more sensitivity, integrity and honesty.”
Perhaps Alessandro Michele, the man who has been reshaping fashion since he took over at Gucci in 2015, sums it up the most poetically and powerfully. “We have to think about what we would not want to be the same as it was. Our history is littered with crises that taught us nothing. This crisis represents a fundamental test for us all. It’s a test, because there is sorrow, exertion, danger; but also because there is an evaluation and a judgment. Through sorrow we can look at our recent past with a critical eye. Now we know that too furious was our doing, too insidious was our ride.”