With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an…
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future.…
At the start of 2020, we weren’t expecting to face a global health crisis and recession. Fast-forward to today, Covid-19 has impacted individuals and disrupted industries on a global scale. From travel to hospitality to agriculture, thousands have lost jobs and the lockdown has forced the rest to work remotely.
It shouldn’t then come as a surprise that the fashion industry is suffering, too. Although talk about clothing could seem frivolous right now, it is an industry that puts bread on the table for millions, from designers to factory workers to creatives. According to a recent report by McKinsey, the apparel and footwear sectors are predicted to contract by up to 30 per cent in 2020 year-on-year. The collateral damage of this is already rearing its head, with companies like J.Crew and Neiman Marcus filing for bankruptcy.
While we can’t predict what fashion’s new normal will be post-lockdown, one thing that is certain is change. It’s this fog of unpredictability that is prompting small retail businesses to act. With people spending less on clothes and entertainment, emerging fashion brands are shifting strategies to keep themselves in business.
At ZERRIN, we created space to discuss these strategies with the local brand community through our IG LIVE series called #RealTalk. What emerged from these conversations was a deeper understanding of the resilience of emerging brands during times of crisis. We also learnt about the specific challenges they faced in terms of supply chain, sales and supporting their teams.
One thing in common amongst those who had their heads above water? Their willingness to adapt. Here are five key ways we’ve discovered emerging fashion brands have been adjusting to the pandemic.
As hundreds and thousands of factory workers have lost their jobs, MATTER Prints ensures the best for their artisan communities.
1. They’re forgetting about business as usual
With lockdowns in place, the fashion industry hasn’t been able to operate as normal. Covid-19 has forced shops to shutter and brands to fire and cut pay for thousands of workers. Even sustainable brands like Everlane have been affected.
This means fashion has had to turn around what it means to do ‘business as usual’. However, Devonne Niam, e-commerce manager for artisanal lifestyle brand MATTER Prints, explained how they’ve refocused to doing “business as best as [they] can”.
“We were fortunate enough to not have to cancel any orders, but we’ve had to put plans for new launches on hold,” she shares. As an impact-driven business working with artisan communities throughout India, getting through this period together with their partners was a priority. “Every decision has been made carefully to make sure we can all come through these tough times together.”
Remote working has also been forced upon many brand’s. While it’s not uncommon for startups, for those managing teams and used to office life it hasn’t been easy to adjust to.
Nejla Matam-Finn, the CEO and founder of the Fifth Collection, an online retailer of preloved and vintage luxury fashion, has found it important for her team to establish achievable goals while they adapt to working from home. They’ve been busy during the lockdown, noticing an uptick of people listing items on site (presumably after konmari-ing their wardrobes). Balancing that demand while managing a team remotely has, at times, proved tough.
“Sometimes, I still get the sense people think we’re one person with a computer working from the couch! There’s a whole team behind what we do, working day in and day out to serve our customers,” she shares.
Balancing the need to bring in revenue through product sales during a pandemic has also been an interesting experience. “With everything that’s going on, it doesn’t feel right to sell a nice handbag right now in the current atmosphere,” she says.
“But I think the silver lining of this pandemic — for consumers or business owners — is that we’re all obliged to stop and think.” Nejla points out. “It’s given us all time to pause and reflect on what really matters. I hope we’ll all come out of this more mindful about our values and our mindset towards our purchases.”
Maskela by Covetella sells premium masks sold on their website.
2. They’re restructuring their resources
As large retailers struggle to reevaluate their business plans, they’ve started to look to smaller businesses to learn how to withstand the proverbial storm. While big brands tend to produce in the thousands, independent labels have better control over their production and supply chain. This is due to the value system they operate in — small and mindful.
“We have full control of how much we make, even if it’s just 10 or 20 pieces per style,” says Chetna Bhatt, founder of artisanal jewellery and lifestyle brand Ashepa. “Producing in small batches isn’t just less wasteful, it’s also more stable for business and our artisans’ livelihoods.”
While limiting production can stabilise a business financially, another crucial way brands have adapted to this pandemic (and boosted sales) is by producing PPE. In Singapore, many local brands have started producing reusable face masks from offcuts while donating money to charitable causes.
After seeing a significant sales drop due to cancelled events, fashion rental company Covetella quickly launched a separate business, Maskela. While their masks are pricier than more basic cloth versions, their glam designs cater to those wanting to add a touch of style to their everyday. Other Asia-based ethical brands like Good Krama and Dorsu have also diversified their production to sell masks alongside their core collections.
Ultimately, this switch up to producing reusable masks for the public has demonstrated the flexibility of fashion brands to adapt to the times. Moreover, we think this emphasises how adaptable (and necessary) the skills of designers actually can be.
Gucci leaves behind the traditional fashion calendar with latest announcement.
3. They’re moving away from the traditional
In a historic move, this pandemic has seen luxury brands like Gucci announce that they’re leaving fashion weeks behind. The driving force – moving towards a more seasonless approach and to produce collections at a more sustainable rate. But as behemoths of the fashion world are just starting to consider more circular supply chains, many emerging fashion brands with sustainable values are already ahead of the game.
A number have already explored different ways of putting out collections, including looking into models like made-to-order production. In Singapore, brands like Esse and Paradigm Shift are leading the way using this method through their own websites or platforms like Kickstarter.
“When a crisis like this can topple a business, shouldn’t we be more willing to wait for good things?” says Alicia Tsi, Esse’s founder. The Singaporean designer has been implementing pre-orders into her business model for the last two years with growing success. “Pre-orders help a small business like us maintain cash flow. There are also many other merits, like reducing fabric waste and overproduction.”
“What’s more, the four to six week wait time for pre-orders usually weeds out any impulse purchases. The rationale is, when it’s something you really love, a couple of weeks hardly seems like a long time to wait, especially when you’re going to wear it for years.”
The global crisis has revealed how flawed the current fashion system is, and that the ones suffering most are garment workers at the bottom of the supply chain. With transparency still drastically lacking among mainstream brands, the people making our clothes are often invisible to everyday consumers. This is exactly why sustainability in fashion is not only a growing niche but a movement for activism. Our voices matter, and we should all campaign for the changes we want to see.
ZERRIN’s IG Live series #RealTalk where our founder, Susannah Jaffer, speaks with brands about business in times of COVID-19. Here, she speaks with Hannah Guy of Cambodian ethical fashion brand, Dorsu, Chetna Bhatt of Kenyan inspired ethical jewellery brand, Ashepa, and Audris Quek, a fashion entrepreneur and founder of Paradigm Shift.
4. They’re refocusing on engagement over sales
Social media is the most occupied online real estate right now. It has helped us all feel a little less alone despite in-person socialising being cancelled. As a result, many emerging brands have been more active on social to connect with their customers and collaborate with fellow businesses.
Through Facebook and Instagram Live streams, brand owners have been engaging with their communities in lots of different ways. They’ve organised Q&As to lifestyle sessions like live workouts or home cooking to keep engagement going. This kind of content sharing has helped humanise brands and encouraged consumers to connect with their values beyond product.
It’s fascinating that now, as businesses need revenue more than ever, some emerging brands chose to rethink their marketing strategies. Instead of promoting their own sales agenda, they’ve taken to educating consumers about mindful purchasing. For the longest time, traditional retail marketing has focused on driving sales and profit. However, a number of ethical businesses have done the opposite while still managed to keep up steady sales.
Founder of ethical fashion brand Esse, Alicia Tsi, shares how important it is to slow down fashion for all the right reasons.
5. Ultimately, they’re redefining what’s important
Whether it’s making medical equipment or moving towards made-to-order, the adaptability of ethically-minded businesses is helping them stay afloat. And thankfully, with more time on their hands, consumers are also actively researching to support brands they can believe in.
Optimistically, we believe this is fashion’s shining moment to reinvent itself for the better. This will mean making more meaningful business decisions to prioritise the planet and people. Although what will happen when the dust settles after Covid-19 is uncertain, the industry should do it’s best to make sure it doesn’t repeat past mistakes. Right now, emerging fashion brands are leading the way.
With a background in fashion and textiles, Durva is an ardent photographer and advocate of social justice. She enjoys writing about fashion, socio-political issues within sustainability and partakes in the occasional 'who wore it better' banter on Diet Prada.
Susannah believes better design can help create a brighter future. A former magazine editor, she now runs ZERRIN and works at the intersection of consumers, brands and sustainability advocacy.