- The fashion industry is currently focused on crisis management and contingency plans, but many brands have started working on re-thinking the sector in general.
- Our analysis showed that Ralph Lauren’s CSR effort was the top trending fashion story on social media, while many media outlets hailed Gucci as the trendsetter for the post-COVID-19 fashion world.
- The industry’s response to the crisis might have earned it some much-needed reputation points, while many expect that the pandemic would have a positive effect on its sustainability push.
With shows cancelled, supply chains disrupted, and stores and manufacturing plants closed, it certainly seems that fashion would be one of the hardest-hit victims of the coronavirus pandemic.
The sector could lose €30-40 billion in sales this year as its value dropped to a five-year low, while brands in the luxury sector are expected to experience a €10 (£8.78) billion decline in sales this year. Perhaps the worst news for luxury brands was that the country which has driven 70% of the industry’s growth since 2012 and which accounts for around a third of global purchases of luxury products – China – has been most affected by the outbreak.
The crisis will also vastly accelerate some processes within the sector – for example, the decline of the British High Street (a metonym for the retail business in the UK). Concerns about its struggles, caused primarily by changing consumer behaviour, have been commonplace in recent years, but now analysts are worried that the number of shops could more than halve in the next two years.
Many High Street retailers started selling items at significantly reduced prices online in a bid to maintain some cash flow – for example, Gap and H&M opted for mid-season sales, and Uniqlo started offering discounted comfort-wear clothes like jogging bottoms and leggings for working from home.
Indeed, probably the only fashion items that achieved success during the pandemic were from the comfort-wear category: fashion boutique Browns, for instance, reported a 70% increase in sales of loungewear. The trend can be easily traced on social media, where Instagram pages dedicated to working-from-home clothes like @wfhfits and hashtags like #goingnowherebutfuckitimgettingdressed are becoming increasingly popular.
The media coverage around the fashion industry started increasing in March, when most national lockdowns took place, and peaked in April, with significant social media engagement rates:
Initially, the media conversation focused on store closures, a development especially worrying for an industry which is still almost entirely dependent on physical retail: unlike many other sectors, more than 80% of transactions in fashion still happen in physical stores. In March, clothing sales plummeted by 34%.
Journalists concentrated on the closures of large retailers like Primark, the H&M Group, Inditex and Arcadia. High-end department store John Lewis closed for the first time in its 155 year history, “during which time we have faced many difficult periods, including two world wars and the 2008 financial crisis”.
According to some media outlets, the industry is facing a real existential crisis, while others think the pandemic will accelerate the move to online shopping, which already is the highest growth segment of the industry. This would of course mean that a strong online presence would become imperative for brands’ survival during the crisis and afterwards.
Another major media focus was all the cancelled fashion events. With the pandemic escalating in the midst of the fall 2020 fashion month season, almost every major show was postponed – for example, the Fédération de la haute couture et de la Mode announced that Paris Fashion Week Menswear, set for 23 to 28 June, and Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week, set for 5 to 9 July, will not go ahead.
This made fashion executives looking for other ways of promoting their work, most commonly by streaming shows online, a method pioneered by Armani during Milan Fashion Week in February. Shanghai and Moscow fashion weeks were presented digitally in March and April.
The British Fashion Council said it would develop a digital “cultural fashion week platform” that designers could use in various ways rather than facilitating the typical format and setting of a fashion show. Meanwhile, Italian fashion designer Ermenegildo Zegna coined the word “phygital” to describe “physical space and digital technologies” as its new way of showcasing fashion.
Publications ranging from the BBC to Vogue questioned whether the pandemic would fundamentally change the fashion show model forever. The latest innovations in this respect included putting on a fashion show without models by using 3-D art, design and animation, as some emerging “virtual modelling” agencies have started to do.
Fashion’s CSR moment
Social media users, especially those on Facebook, followed closely the developments within the fashion world during the crisis. The most frequently shared articles on that topic across social platforms were published by specialised outlets:
Preview Magazine, which specialises in fashion, beauty, parties and celebrity style, and Allure, an American women’s magazine focused on beauty, were the top trending publications in the social media conversation. Other industry outlets included Elle, a global lifestyle magazine of French origin, and Women’s Wear Daily (wwd), which brings breaking news about fashion, designers, and celebrity trendsetters. The most popular daily publication was The Guardian.
The top trending story in terms of social media engagements was published by Elle and concerned Ralph Lauren:
Ralph Lauren donated $10 million to help those affected by the pandemic, in addition to producing 250,000 masks and 25,000 isolation gowns with its US manufacturing partners. The donations assisted different causes such as the Emergency Assistance Foundation and the World Health Organization’s COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The brand said that “now more than ever, in this time of need, supporting each other has become our mission”.
As we discovered using the Commetric COVID-19 Business Impact Tracker, Apparel and Fashion has been the most active CSR sector after Financial Services, at least in terms of their media resonance. It was actually a company from the Apparel and Fashion industry that enjoyed the highest degree of media resonance for its CRS policies.
Footwear maker Crocs, whose products are often used in medical facilities, made global headlines for giving free shoes to US healthcare workers. Perhaps this seemed like a more interesting story to journalists than, say, a bank donating money – hence the high degree of media traction.
In a statement, Crocs CEO Andrew Rees said that the company came up with the idea after asking healthcare workers how they could help. “Over the past week, we have spoken to healthcare workers, their facilities and even their family and friends, and they have specifically asked for our shoes in an effort to provide ease on their feet, as well as ease of mind as they need the ability to easily clean up before they go home to their families,” he said.
Other top trending stories on social media told about designers and volunteers from the fashion industry working together to produce personal protective equipment (PPE), head covers, and masks for the front line workers battling COVID-19.
For example, LVMH (Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton), which owns Louis Vuitton and Dior, obtained 40 million medical-grade face masks from a Chinese industrial supplier to distribute to French health authorities, while Prada produced a run of 80,000 overalls and 110,000 face masks at one of its factories for Italian medical personnel. Together with other cosmetics groups like L’Oreal, LVMH is using some of its perfume factories to make hand sanitizer.
Luxury conglomerate Kering, which owns Balenciaga, Gucci and Saint Laurent, also produced more than 1 million masks and gowns for healthcare personnel in the workshops of its brands. Kering also gave the French health service 3 million surgical masks which it imported from China.
Gucci sets the trends again
In fact, one of Kering‘s brands – Gucci – was the most often mentioned one, according to our analysis of 1426 articles published between 1 March- 1 June 2020 in the top-tier English-language media outlets.
Gucci pledged 2 million euros to fight the pandemic by crowdfunding campaigns like the Italian Civil Protection Department (Protezione Civile) in partnership with Intesa Sanpaolo and the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund in support of the World Health Organization.
The brand also encouraged its global community to raise funds and help health services with equipment, as well as to assist the scientists working on vaccines and treatments.
Gucci was also reported to be the first brand to commit to a permanent rethink of the fashion industry in the wake of the pandemic, saying that fashion shows should never be the same. Commentators argued that this could have a domino effect on other brands, given that Gucci under Alessandro Michele, who was appointed as creative director in January 2015, has been the most influential brand of the past five years, championing new trends like gender fluidity and inclusivity.
In fact, Gucci has been commonly perceived as a lynchpin brand in many new movements, most notably the gender-free trend, with its shows often having female models wearing clothes from the men’s collections and vice versa. The label positioned itself at the forefront of the trend by launching a campaign for gender equality called Chime for change and releasing reports on young people’s feelings on gender and fluidity.
The Italian fashion house was often mentioned as a prominent example of a label ditching the traditional format of showing gender-split collections and combining men’s and women’s shows, following the examples of Burberry, Tommy Hilfiger and Tom Ford. The change was viewed as seismic given the importance of these shows – they build buzz and generate a tsunami of free publicity, so to make such a move is indicative of the seriousness of the brand’s narrative shift.
This was frequently discussed alongside Gucci’s decision not to sign up to the insta-fashion movement of brands like Tom Ford, Vetements, Tommy Hilfiger, Moschino and, most notably, Burberry, which sell their products soon after showcasing them. Gucci, in contrast, decided to keep the experiential dimension of ‘see now, buy later’, a key part of its positioning as a luxury brand for an elite clientele.
Apart from doing away with the distinction between menswear and womenswear, Alessandro Michele‘s plans for rethinking post-COVID-19 included reducing the number of shows it holds each year from five to two and abandoning the idea of cruise shows.
Gucci was also one of the brands turning face masks from a new necessity into a form of self-expression and a style statement. American singer Billie Eilish wore a Gucci face mask to the Grammys before the coronavirus was a pandemic in the US, while American singer Miley Cyrus wore a black mask adorned with Gucci’s double-G logo, pairing it with black boots from the brand.
Some media outlets suggested that face masks became 2020’s biggest new accessories category or even a new fashion statement that is here to stay. Apart from Gucci, fashion houses which tapped into that included Fendi, Palm Angels, and Marine Serre, as well as some small brands like Voravaj Bangkok, K.S. Garner and Llulo.
The fashion industry’s response to the pandemic was covered with a generally positive sentiment. Even though the sector is expected to emerge from the crisis with significant financial losses, it might have received a significant reputational boost – something much-needed given fashion’s increasingly controversial presence in the media. Big fashion brands have faced allegations relating to environmental harm, sexism, racism, harassment, exploitation of workers and cultural appropriation.
It’s interesting to note that the brands facing the largest social media crises of late are predominantly from the fashion industry. This could be explained by the supposition that fashion items are often taken to be markers of cultural and social identity, and thus are susceptible to be perceived as controversial across social networks. For instance, fashion often draws inspiration from other cultures’ traditions, which has recently given rise to accusations of “cultural appropriation”.
A post-corona sustainability boom?
A large chunk of the media debate revolved around the idea that the COVID-19 pandemic will affect fashion’s sustainability push in a positive way – take articles like Forbes‘ “Coronavirus Will Force Fashion To A Sustainable Future”, Business of Fashion‘s “Could Coronavirus Spark a Sustainable Fashion Awakening?” and Eco-Business‘ “How a focus on sustainability will help the fashion industry emerge stronger from Covid-19”.
As with so many other industries, ‘sustainability’ is the buzziest concept in fashion, sparking a gold rush among players who recognise that the sector’s business model is ripe for disruption. The industry has been perceived as more self-conscious than others about its dire eco-credentials, with concerns over its unsustainable price tag growing. Critics have focused particularly on fast fashion, which involves increased numbers of new collections and quick turnarounds, encouraging overconsumption and the sale of clothes so cheap they are being treated disposably, contributing to water and air pollution.
The discussion around the fashion industry’s sustainability efforts so far has been dominated by a focus on sustainable materials, with brands building their business models on sustainable production and operation, making sustainability a major focus for long-term growth and communicating an eco-conscious attitude by showing transparency, emphasising local manufacturing and sustainable packaging, and collaborating with artisans.
Emerging fashion brands entering the market also tend to build their reputations via socially conscious marketing efforts, considering environmental sustainability a management agenda and using words such as “green”, “eco”, “organic”, “slow” and “ethical”. In order to gain attention and credibility, as well as to strengthen the emotional connection with their customers, brands have also started promoting specific initiatives like supporting charitable organisations and collaborating with influencers focusing on sustainability.
But a number of critics have pointed out that in some cases, fashion brands hawking a sustainability ethos are just engaged in “greenwashing” to reap the market benefits of an eco-consciousness they can’t actually prove they’re practising. Another oft-repeated criticism has been that sustainable clothing comes at a higher price, given the ethical materials and production processes required.
The last few years have seen a growing public awareness of fast fashion’s environmental impact – journalists, scientists, academics and industry representatives regularly raise concerns. There are also a growing number of charities, not-for-profit organisations and global movements such as Fashion Revolution which campaign for systemic reform of the sector. The Fashion Revolution’s call for transparency under the hashtag #WhoMadeMyClothes became a global trend on Twitter for trying to raise the standards in the back end process of manufacturing.
Textile manufacturing, for instance, is a major contributor to climate change, producing an estimated 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per year – more than international flights and maritime shipping combined. The annual carbon footprint of the industry is close to the combined carbon footprint of all 28 current members of the EU. In addition, the fashion sector is projected to use 35% more land for fibre production by 2030—an extra 115 million hectares which could otherwise be used for sustaining biodiversity or growing crops.
Now, many commentators think that the acceleration of the use of digital services within the industry will facilitate the sustainable paradigm shift which will persevere even after the crisis. For a large number of consumers, the pandemic has brought sustainability to the fore, as they have been shopping more consciously, supporting companies which convey strong mission statements.