The future of fashion: How the crisis will impact the retail industry and what we wear

What is the future of fashion and how will the ‘high street’ look when this is all over? Corina Gaffey asks those in the know
The future of fashion:  How the crisis will impact the retail industry and what we wear
The Covid-19 crisis has accelerating shifts that were already happening in the fashion industry. Photo: Tim Boyle/Getty

What is the future of fashion and how will the ‘high street’ look when this is all over? Corina Gaffey asks those in the know


In the days, weeks, and months since Covid-19 emerged, the fashion industry was dramatically hit, and the devastation continues. Not only is it grappling with store closures, canceled orders, bankruptcies, job losses, and furloughs, but consumer confidence has fallen, and in return, we are shopping less and less.

Initial fashion spending reports were positive. At the beginning of lockdown, the industry was buoyed with a dramatic false start as shoppers around the world adapted to life in self-isolation, remote working and staying-at-home socialising.

The conversion was reflected in a flurry of sales with consumers swiftly switching out their usual wardrobe essentials for multi-functional pieces. Klarna, the global payment and shopping provider, released data that tracked consumer purchasing habits under lockdown.

They revealed how a share of spending on clothing and shoes rose rapidly in the first few weeks of March as consumers got their fashion fix ahead of lockdown. Since then, the overall spend on fashion decreased as sales were no longer driven by social occasions, holidays, or officewear.

In contrast, purchases in the leisure and sport category rose week on week. "Consumers chose to buy comfort items to work from home in, as well as workout wear to keep them fit and exercising in their living rooms," said Luke Griffiths, General Manager of Klarna UK.

With more of a focus on video meetings and WhatsApp Calls, the phrase business on top, comfort on the bottom, was coined. According to the retail data website Edited, it resulted in tops outselling bottoms, as consumers snapped up Zoom-ready necklines and silhouettes.

Yet, while sale focuses might have been mainly on the top half, there were specific lower-half categories that rose in sales. Casual clothing, including elasticated waistbands and activewear, were fully embraced in consumers' working-from-home outfits.

Edited findings showed there was a clear shift away from formal styles with leggings and tracksuit bottoms, making up a higher proportion of sell-outs in the trouser category. Forced to remain housebound, consumers gravitated towards comfort, and unsurprisingly, sales in loungewear surged.

Influencer platform Liketoknow.it also confirmed the style category development, affirming that searches for loungewear was up 2000 percent from March last year.

While it's still early to forecast what the global outlook of the fashion industry will look and how it will impact our wardrobe choices on the other side of the Covid-19 pandemic, predictions vary from, slowing down of the seasonal model, cautious consuming or even revenge buying.

But in an elaborate script that is rewritten daily, there is one thing that remains constant: the fashion industry directive is to reflect, reinvent and rewire.

There were those involved in fashion, of course, who's first response was to react.

Providing practical help in a global crisis, designers, studios, and factories, including Burberry, Prada, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel across the world, repurposed their production lines to produce gowns, scrubs, and hand sanitizer.

On home turf, many Irish designers began crafting and creating their versions of what has become the item of the moment: the face mask. Natalie B.Coleman, Eamon McGill, Stable of Ireland are all creating face coverings that are functional and fashionable.

A face covering design from Irish designer, Natalie B. Coleman
A face covering design from Irish designer, Natalie B. Coleman

And while sales may be booming and reaching sell-out status for fashion face coverings, it's a different story for retailers with store closures claiming fashion victims across the high-street.

An industry which has evolved into a consuming, churning machine that continually looks for what's next, what's in, what's out, moving faster, faster and faster, until everything ground to a halt.

As a result, the crisis is forcing many cracks of the fashion retail industry to come to the fore. "How people interact with brands and shop for fashion is changing fast. The Covid-19 crisis is accelerating shifts that were already happening in our industry and catalysing further changes," says Chris Morton, CEO of global search engine Lyst.

This shift has manifested in the ruination of retailers across the globe. Department stores Debenhams, JC Penneys, Neiman Marcus and, stores Warehouse, Oasis, Cath Kidston, and J.Crew were all facing turmoil before the crisis forced them to close up shop permanently.

According to the trade tracking website Edited, sales have fallen faster than anticipated.

At the British high-street chain, Next, the business experienced a 41% decline for the first quarter. Inditex, the Spanish retailer that boasts Zara, Massimo Dutti, and Berksha, reported sales in-store and online plunged 24% in March. While H&M sales declined by 57 percent between March and May. H&M also predicts the second quarter to be loss-making as transactions will be significantly lower.

Peter Lunn, founder and head of the Ersi's Behavioural Research Unit believes the retail market the market is likely to depress for as long as social activity and social events are depressed: "People don't buy clothes to own clothes, they buy clothes to be seen wearing them, including for special occasions. Opening the shops is only a small part of the story."

With lockdown measures starting to ease for retail on Monday, will we return to physical stores and what do retailers need to do to inspire confidence in consumers?

Naturally, online shopping grew through lockdown, as people could shop safely from the comfort of their own homes, and according to a report conducted by Banking & Payment Federation Ireland (BPFI), some 31 percent are more likely to continue to shop online of clothing once restrictions have lifted.

But shopping online does have downsides, guesstimating sizes, and with the increase in large volumes of sales, results in slower delivery time. Fashion Retail consultant Eddie Shanahan says it's also expensive for retailers in this changing landscape: "You can't try on online. High returns are a costly factor of online fashion selling and one that brands can ill afford in the new circumstances."

Many experts are under the impression that consumers won't go back to the way they shopped pre-lockdown, which centered around fast fashion and binge shopping.

But, as photos of socially undistanced queues emerge from across Europe from outside branches of reopened Zara stores, suggests some consumers are quickly bouncing back to old shopping habits, and quick to return to stores.

Shanahan says: "Despite the impact of economic paralysation and alleged mindfulness brought on by weeks of lockdown, for some it may be hard to find a more immediate cure than retail therapy." With Shanahan adding, "Immediately there is likely to be some 'revenge buying' as people emerge from isolation.

This is likely to be fuelled by heavy discounting as many shops had received much of their SS20 deliveries just before they had to shut up shop."

Fashion Editor Sarah Schijen says: "We only have to look back a decade to the financial crisis of 2008/2009 to where we were just before the pandemic to see that even after a monetary hit, people still want to consume.

"Yes there will be anxiety about returning to shopping in stores and people will be conscious of the financial implications of the pandemic, but I think what it will mean is that the demographic of the consumer might change related to the segment, but they won't disappear entirely."

Yet, this anxiousness will make entering stores daunting for most. With the idea of donning your gloves and masks to get your fashion fix, it changes the once, leisurely, social activity to a more tense experience.

Lunn agrees, saying: "Our data suggest that the majority of the population are not raring to get back out there – most are scared and will return only carefully. Retail outlets will need to make them feel safe. This is a particular problem for this sector, because many people enjoy clothes shopping and partly do it for the experience as well as the products.

"If the experience becomes in any way less pleasant, it will fundamentally change the attraction."

Schijen believes when shops reopen that there'll need to be fewer customers in a shop at a time: "I imagine door handles, till points and changing areas will need to be visibly marked as sanitised. I don't think as many people will try on items before buying, but that will still need to be part of the customer experience."

Some businesses have seen the opportunity to formulate solutions that will help retailers promote security and clarity, in turn allowing consumers to enjoy the shopping experience once again.

One such start-up, born out of the crisis is The Line Lite, an app that allows people to visit their favourite stores safely, without the need to queue. John O'Neill from The Line Lite says: "The app will allow customers to select multiple shops they want to visit and book in a time that suits them, avoiding lengthy physical, and possibly chaotic queues. There is no frustration. Just a calm, positive, safe experience for customers."

Creating a calmer experience and enforcing health and safety measures are, of course, paramount across all retail sectors to encourage customers to return to stores, but customer service is equally as important. Schijen says: "From a high-end perspective, I think the 'experience' of shopping in person with a stronger salesperson/client relationship will be key."

When it comes to sales trends that are emerging from lockdown, just like in the 2008 recession, purchases are moving away from the excess maximalism and logomania trends and giving way to more of a classic, clean-lined aesthetic.

According to the global search platform Lyst, in this period of uncertainty, some shoppers are gravitating towards classic investment pieces. For example, Chanel's classic double flap bag saw a 75% increase in searches over the first quarter of 2020.

"There will be an opportunity for designers to develop more trans-seasonal collections and ones that add value to existing wardrobes, as consumers become more curatorial and conscious of sustainability and the real meaning of value," says Shanahan.

It could be argued that lockdown is forcing people to rethink their consumption, and instead make more informed, educated purchases, resulting in an investment of seasonless, timeless pieces that will be wardrobe essentials for years to come.

As well as classic and sustainable brands, independent and charitable labels should farewell post-Covid, as Lunn says, "There is a good chance that some consumers will show an increased interest in environmental issues following this pandemic, and brands that tap into that are likely to get the benefit."

Schiejen says: "Data Analysts BCG recently released data that shows consumers in USA, UK, Germany, Italy, China are all more likely to buy from purpose-driven brands post lockdown, wanting to engage with brands that positively stood out during the crisis."

Such brands that are creating feel-good fashion giving back either by mobilising resources or crafting specific products whose sales will go to benefit charities include across all price points from Tom Ford to Rixo, French Connection to M&S.

The crisis has been a challenge for the industry, but by pivoting and recharging, it's also a chance to rebuild slowly, so what can we do as consumer to force some positive change in the way the fashion industry functions? Schijen says: "By voting with your cash. What would be helpful is if people consumed less but better and be more conscious of directing their purchases towards brands that are behaving ethically and supporting their workforce, supply chains, and factories."

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