COVID-19 Impact on the Fashion Industry: Slow Down

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Many of my contacts in the artisanal fashion world have been badly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, They’ve had to shut down or suspend their businesses entirely. They’re not making anything and they are not providing any work for their artisans.

Much of my focus at the moment is on studying textile production in India, where the national lockdown policy has been particularly severe. Some parts of the country – but not all –  are just beginning to ease restrictions, but the pandemic has dealt serious blows– in some cases  mortal ones – to many producers. I  hope my friends and contacts find ways to survive.

I also follow the broader story in some of the specialty publications

JING Daily covers as its bailiwick the business of luxury in China – and until now, their approach seems to be if the editors click their heels, the fashion business can continue pursuing the same trends as before. Well, I don’t think so. But I continue to read their panglossian coverage for its cockeyed optimism.

More thought-provoking is the approach of the Business of Fashion, which combines pieces on the continuing consolidation and collapse of the retail sector, sustainability, and the ephemera of fashion, among other topics.

It seems far too soon to be mapping out the future of an industry when the pandemic continues to rage white hot in the US and to some extent the UK, and is barely contained in major leading European markets: Italy, Spain, France. It’s also not clear that the Asian countries that have had the greatest success in controlling the pandemic can themselves sustain a global fashion industry – I’m thinking, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and  Vietnam, certainly, although, to be sure,if we also include China and Japan, they could certainly try to give it a go, and will inevitably attempt to do so.

Yet as we so far lack a vaccine, or treatment,for COVID-19, everything is completely speculative, especially as the future of the workplace is highly uncertain. We know people will continue to work, but much more of their labor will be done in the privacy of their own homes. In the absence of logging time at a special dedicated workplace, – as opposed to a corner of one’s house or flat – will workers have as much need for “work clothes”? Or will sweat pants, t-shirts and flannel shirts suffice? And what does that mean for the future of the fashion industry?

Future of Fashion

Last week, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and British Fashion Council (BFC) took a preliminary stab at broaching the future of fashion topic, which I stumbled upon via an article in Treehugger, It’s time for a fashion industry reset:

It is a well-known fact that fashion is notoriously harmful to the environment. It’s said to be the second most polluting industry in the world after the oil and gas sector, emitting enormous amounts of carbon for all the shipping of textiles and finished products, the water-intensive production of cotton, and the toxic finishing processes for countless fabrics that get flushed into waterways with little to no treatment. Then there’s the rampant waste caused by fast fashion’s cheap, quasi-disposal styles. So it’s clear that something needs to change, but what and how exactly?

The new recommendations call for a new way of doing business that’s a fairly radical departure from the norm, but at the same time logical and reasonable to implement. All of the suggestions revolve around the concept of slowing down, as the current “fast, unforgiving pace” makes life hectic and stressful for designers, brands, and retailers.

(I have covered fashion’s environmentally destructive habits extensively; see here. here, here, here, here, and here for some background and context.)

Specific recommendations for the future of fashion are spelled out in this press release, The Fashion Industry’s Reset: An Important Message from the BFC & CFDA. What the BFC and CFDA  agree on is that the world has changed, and profoundly so, and fashion too must change:

  • We are united in our steadfast belief that the fashion system must change, and it must happen at every level. We are listening to many conversations taking place. These changes have been overdue for a while, and the fallout from coronavirus has forced us all to prioritise the process of rethinking how our industry should function.
  • We encourage our brands, designers and retailers, who are used to fashion’s fast, unforgiving pace, to slow down. For a long time, there have been too many deliveries and too much merchandise generated. With existing inventory stacking up, designers and retailers must also look at the collections cycle and be very strategic about their products and how and when they intend to sell them.
  • There is a clear disconnect from when things arrive in-store to when the customer actually needs them. The delivery cadence should shift closer to the season for which it is intended.
  • Together, we strongly recommend designers focus on no more than two main collections a year. We firmly believe this can provide our talents with the time they need to reconnect to the creativity and craft that makes our field so unique in the first place. A slower pace also offers an opportunity to reduce the stress levels of designers and their teams, which in turn will have a positive effect on the overall wellbeing of the industry.

The buzzword:

  • Sustainability is an important conversation in every industry. Through the creation of less product, with higher levels of creativity and quality, products will be valued and their shelf life will increase. The focus on creativity and quality of products, reduction in travel and focus on sustainability (something we encourage of the entire industry) will increase the consumer’s respect and ultimately their greater enjoyment in the products that we create.

Sustainability remains the word on everyone’s lips. But what does that mean? We all know the fashion industry – in particular, the fast fashion segment – has a huge waste problem. Gucci is one of the first off the block to take action consistent with these recommendation and has just announced its intention, according to Business of Fashion, to pursue a seasonless schedule, Gucci Just Left the Fashion Calendar Behind. Who Will Follow? This is a small, albeit necessary step toward moving to a sustainable future. Jettisoning the notion that fashion houses must follow a seasonal schedule will almost certainly cut down on fashion waste – so the sooner other companies follow Gucci’s lead, the better. Alas, the article makes clear that Gucci will continue to show product twice a year – this perhaps allowing for continued considerable waste.

So, as to the future of fashion – sustainable or otherwise – in a world where we will undoubtedly ultimately learn to cope with COVID-19, there is just so much we do not know.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    I don’t think it will be long before we see a tsunami of retail crashes, the big question though is what the landscape will look like after this. Fast fashion is still selling of course, but it seems to be the specialist online shops – but I don’t know if there is any data to say if they are selling more than they did before. Anecdotally, I’ve hard of people doing ‘boredom buying’, but I doubt this has replaced recreational shopping for the market. I’ve also heard people say they’ve bought more casual comfortable clothes for working at home all day, but again, thats not likely to compensate.

    During the last crash here in Ireland back in 2008, there were huge retail discounts for at least 18 months after the economy went down because of the lag time in ordering. Quite simply, all the shops had way too much stock ordered and had little choice but to sell it at very cheap prices. I suspect this will be a huge drag on traditional retailers, not least because many consumers will hold off buying, hoping for great deals later in the year.

    Another major complication is rents – there will be a battle of wills between retail operators and the commercial floorspace industry – the former will be waiting to see if they can negotiate big rent cuts before deciding just how many units to shut, and the latter will be trying to balance up keeping rents high with the possibility of finding themselves with a huge acreage of un rentable floorspace.

    The other big question of course is whether customers themselves will change. Going by reports I’ve read from China, post lockdown people have gone back to recreational shopping (i.e spending free time wandering malls), without necessarily spending money (possibly because they are waiting for better prices). But its also possible that people are genuinely rethinking their buying patterns. The fashion industry has spent many years and a fortune in marketing to persuade us that we need a new wardrobe every few months. They will have a fight on their hands to ensure people don’t lose that habit.

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      This post speculates about sustainability and the special world of fashion but for much of the fashion industry I suspect survival is the main concern. High fashion was not always so accessible to so many, and in the future it may be less accessible to any but the very wealthy. For the rest of us fashion may become much more a matter of our own inventions. I believe cost and durability will become more important for our clothing, fashionable or not, and I suppose that may contribute to sustainability. Perhaps fashion and style will become much more a matter of personal expression like in the 1960s.

      The world is changed. Its new shape remains ominous and occult. Retail — large and small — small business, small ventures teeter toward a crash. I believe buying customs will definitely change and are changing. I have no idea of the new shape of commerce after Corona beyond additional empty storefronts on main street. I fear that ownership of much of our Industry, and Commerce will be consolidated into fewer hands and much that once was will be lost. [Yes, the allusions are deliberate.]

  2. Chauncey Gardiner

    Perhaps the environmentally destructive practices of this industry and its damaging social effects have to some extent been reversed by this virus. If so, this seems to me to be a good thing. Maybe it will lead to new business models that are more aligned with environmental and social needs.

    As a guy who knows very little about this creative corner of the world, I am not overly concerned about the survival of fashion per se. After all, “‘True West’ Is the Fashion Fix You Need After Months of Lockdown”, “Billie Eilish wore a Gucci face covering to the Grammys,” and “The Devil Wears Prada” (including fashionable masks currently being made in Italy).

    But a recent segment on TV News discussed the plight of apparel manufacturers in Bangladesh who are facing sharply declining orders due to reduced demand. Easy to forget about the related economic effects on millions of others employed in the interconnected global supply chains and at apparel retailers. And to my mind that’s not such a good thing. Time to imagine our world anew.

  3. rd

    I think this pandemic needs to be look at in the short-term (say 6 months), medium term (say 2 years), and then further out long-term.

    In the short-term we have confusion, panic, lockdowns etc. Many people’s lives have been totally upended. Who is going to buy fashion when you are working from home and aren’t even going to the grocery store?

    In the medium-term (2 years), life will start to get a rhythm but large gatherings are out. So no big parties, no gala events, often not even going into the office. Probably not a lot of fashion sold during this period. I suspect it will take 2 years for one or all of these things to happen: get an effective vaccine; broad enough infection to have “herd immunity”; doctors figure out how to treat this disease in most people with severe symptoms; and/or the virus mutates into a less severe and lethal form, like the common cold or mild flu.

    In the longer term, it is important to remember that the Roaring 20s emerged from WW I and the 1918-19 Flu. The 1960s came out of polio epidemics and the 1957 flu. So I think that sometime in 2 to 5 years from now, things will be relatively normal, although it will probably still be necessary for people over 70 or with pre-existing conditions to be very cautious, similar to the flu etc. I think fashion will have returned to “normal” by 2025, along with restaurants, concerts, bars, sporting events etc. But how many existing entities will survive 2+ years? 2022-2025 will probably be excellent time for new start-ups that can move in and fill voids.

  4. The Rev Kev

    I do wonder about how this may be the effect of so many people being under lockdown the past few months. How many people decided to clear out their closets and were shocked/surprised as to what they had. Then they started to add up on how much they had spent on all that stuff? And after thinking it out, decided to create a wardrobe of more serviceable clothes instead of going down to the shops to buy whatever was on offer in the latest range?

    This I believe will prove to be an insidious thing about lockdown. It gave people time to get off the treadmill and to actually think. Whenever I am in town in the malls, I am always surprised at the number of clothing stores, most of which are for young people going by the offered sizes. Their margins must be really thin after paying rent. But what really sours me about these clothes are their flimsy quality as in being for only one season.

    Use to have a neighbour who came out from England decades ago from one of the mill towns. She had came out with a lot of material and decades later it was till of solid quality. Can’t say the same of stuff being pumped out nowadays in order to get people to buy more as last seasons cloths, tear, fade or wear thin. Even the colours are different. For simple t-shirts, the range of colours is in what I call poor people’s colours as it is usually the same range of colours. Time for a reboot of the fashion industry.

  5. ambrit

    I may be an atavist here, but I remember my Mom making some of her own clothing back in the 1960’s, much less further back. We, Phyl and I, being not very “good” consumers taught our children to sew and machine sew. Our son uses those skills now to make the outfits for the celebrity dolls he makes and sells. (He does much better at it than I ever did in construction.) One of our daughters makes drapes and curtains on commission on occasion for extra cash. I patch a lot, and have some work outfits worthy of a scarecrow. All this to say that such skills can make a comeback, if only from necessity. So many people in America and the developed world will be out of work for long periods of time now as to have the “lower classes” revert to pre-WW-1 situations. The excess money that once allowed almost anyone to afford to purchase new “store bought” clothing will dry up.
    As an anecdotal observation, when I worked at the ‘Chicken Palace’ salvage goods store, more than a half of the retail floor space was taken up by “last years fashions.” As explicated elsewhere, the initial “mark downs” on this merchandise was not much if anything when compared to the original retail prices. The real mark down racks were always crowded with people, generally women, but a few men, who learned when the waves of final markdowns were happening and would crowd the store on those days.
    Even with this progressive marking down of the prices in play, literally pallets of clothing would be repackaged by the back room workers and sold on to the tertiary salvage market.
    Finally, I wonder about the re-emergence of the proper distinction between clothiers and Haute Couture houses. I’m suspecting that the heavily promoted dream that anyone can be a fashion idol is dying before our eyes.

  6. David

    Retail crashes are already happening in France. Today, Camaieu, a major presence in French high streets with 600 shops, announced it was going into liquidation, joining several other clothing and footwear chains. Under French law it’s possible that they may return in some form, but not many people are counting on it.
    The brands that have gone under or are in danger tend towards the cheap end of the market, often aiming at younger customers prepared to buy things on impulse. In most cases the clothes are cheaply made in sweatshop countries, and reflect international short-term trends rather than changes in fashion as such.
    Like most people I know, I buy mainly good quality clothing reduced at sale time, and I suspect that, in fashion-conscious countries at least, much of the cheap end of the market will simply vanish as people invest more in quality.

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