How COVID-19 can positively shape the NZ fashion industry

Coronavirus and how it can shape the NZ Fashion economy

We’re currently seeing lots of global change but how is it impacting fashion? Image by Adobe Stock.

There’s no denying that the global COVID-19 epidemic has, and will continue, to shake-up local and international industries. As the fashion industry is made of a rich tapestry of production, retailing and marketing in equal parts, each aspect will be on the receiving end of a shake-up of its own. We know that locally, we’re in for gradual and immediate changes. Less clear, however, is exactly what those changes could be.

In light of Fashion Revolution Week and the space to think Level 4 lockdown has personally privileged me with, this moment in time presents an occasion to unpack how COVID-19 could impact and shape the next chapter of New Zealand’s fashion.

As strange as it may be to say in this confusing time for the industry, New Zealand is in an extraordinary, enviable position. We get to shape our new normal – and no one is better geared to do it for ourselves than kiwis.

A reconsidered supply chain
In a reflection on how COVID-19 will impact the global fashion landscape, Achim Berg of fashion and luxury group McKinsley and Company expressed that it “gives us an opportunity to redesign the industry’s value chain and to focus on the values by which we measure our actions.” Our industry has long been loud and proud about supporting local labels. More specifically, we’ve all expressed a desire to champion locally-produced fashion, despite the fact that (for many complex and understandable reasons) the majority of manufacturing of local labels has headed offshore in order to meet demand quantities, or work towards viable price points that will keep their label afloat, for example. However this moment in time could present the opportunity to start (what could very well be an upward battle) to amp up local production.

Overseas production hubs like Vietnam, China, Bangladesh are facing their own challenges – be it local restrictions diminishing their production output abilities and/or seeing changes in their inflow of work demands. Some factories are running at capacity, meaning brands with smaller production runs might be put on the back-burner and not be able to access the same production capabilities they once did. Let’s also not forget, that in some cases, the pressure that the change that COVID-19 has inflicted on those operating can amplify the unfavourable, and frankly unethical, side of some clothing production outlets.

However, for some brands this might be the push in production to reconsider part or all of their production. It could also spur the emergence of other production solutions that cater to a change in production needs, or perhaps a change in the quantities labels need to get produced (I’ll loop back to this thought later). It could even lead to some labels returning a fraction (or best case scenario, all) of their production to New Zealand. Considering that Rachel Mills’ newly acquired local production house, The Pattern Table is growing, this trend proves momentum is going in the right direction. And the redirection of more production would only contribute to the local industry’s offering as a whole.

As for the consumers? Of course, this movement can’t exist in a bubble – pardon the pun. Consumers and their behaviour also play a huge part in crafting a fashion landscape that’s akin to values of sustainability, consideration and locality. Considering how our shopping is now fewer and far between, we’ve all collectively begun a more considered purchasing process. It’s the very shopping habits we’ve been championing – albeit it’s more for groceries than fashion at this point. As Business of Fashion’s founder, Imran Ahmed, posits, this slowing down of consumerism as we know it will translate to consumers “looking for so-called “investment” pieces – minimalist, last-forever items, that feel more responsible given the state of the world.”

This sounds like stepping stone into the more considered style process of buying and production we’ve been longing to see: where smaller runs of considered garments are produced, to then be thoughtfully bought at a slower pace and used for years on end. We’ve seen many examples of this on home turf, with Ovna Ovich, Rachel Mills, Loclaire and Ingrid Starnes among some brands leading the way. Not only does this satisfy the strong undercurrent of fashion-lovers who already support and have championed this transformation, it also presents an opportunity to shape the purchasing habits of other shoppers.

This shift isn’t new. We’ve in fact already seen it take place in New Zealand: in the magazine industry. When digitisation threatened print media’s place on our shelves, successful publications scrapped the idea that magazines are a throwaway item. They matched slightly higher retail prices with exceptionally high content quality. Some printed less frequently. Magazines became collectors items. Pieces that would provide long-lasting inspiration. Became beautiful works of art in their own rights. To many people’s surprise, new magazines following this principle, like homegrown Together Journal, even emerged during a time where many had thought the internet had totally killed print.

It’s utopian to think this can be transformed overnight, but it goes to show that it’s possible and we’re geared up to progress in this direction. Of course, the reduction in consumerism has only been in the currently experienced 4-week lockdown window. However, now’s the time to put forward products in a way that nurtures this provoked change in habits. Meeting in the middle is the perfect opportunity to advance, and rebalance the consumer demand and brands’ ways of meeting supplies as we strive towards the future of fashion we all want to see.

Of course, in saying this, I – and I’m sure the greater fashion industry and its appreciators – completely understand that there are endless considerations in production abilities for each and every fashion label. To throw a blanket statement over labels and say they could all adopt changes in production methods, approaches, and scales would be undermining their unique resourcing and existing abilities. However, it’s something we can all be mindful of at this time where adaptability is paramount to smoothly sailing what could be a rocky time ahead.

If there’s anything that the last month has proven to me, it’s that our local brands have an extraordinary ability to respond to whatever the world has thrown at them. During lockdown, we’ve seen brands come up with creative offerings and extensions of themselves, with some using this to really push for what they want to see in the industry. Kathryn Wilson is matching every pair bought during lockdown with a shoe donation to the Women’s Refuge NZ. Trelise Cooper is committing to #inseason movement, focusing on strictly seasonal runs, less mid-season sales and overall a leaner, streamlined supply. Caitlin Crisp and RUBY have both released garment patterns of their covetable garments for people to get creative with a slice of their brand at home. And let’s not forget the myriad of brands who have genuinely adapted their offerings to create essential items.

It’s with this level of adaptability, creativity, consciousness and care that New Zealand’s fashion industry has an advantage. Our industry is young, and it’s uninhabited by the ‘traditions’ that have weighted heritage-stooped overseas industries, for example. If we channel this into supply chain and responsiveness to consumerism at present, we can closer bridge reality and values of our industry.

We get to write and play by our own rules. We get to weave it into the fabric of our industry, and that’s a pretty privileged position to be in.

A change in address
Of course it’s not just fashion production and consumption that can be shifted, the way communication and PR goes about can very well be part of this movement. Long before COVID, many fashion journalists questioned the now cookie-cutter norm that we see across many fashion weeks. This has involved everything from the sustainability aspects of how fashion weeks are run, to the uniformity of having the same groups fly to the same shows season upon season.

We’ve seen fashion weeks and summits around the world cancel and postpone. Offshore, Paris Men’s and Couture have been canned, and Milan’s Men’s Week is being merged with the September Women’s collections. Our very own New Zealand Fashion week making the decision to postpone 2020’s event until further notice.

Some, however, are taking the COVID-19-inflicted lifestyle changes in their stride, and remodelling fashion weeks to suit. Helsinki Fashion Week has announced their July event will be completely virtual by turning the experience into an interactive, game-like process, building upon their existing legacy as the first fashion week to previously be 100% sustainable. London Fashion Week is also taking this approach, merging both mens and womenswear in what’s now a gender-neutral platform across a dwindled two days.

We’ve seen examples of such fantastic innovation here before, with Salasai debuting New Zealand’s first artificial intelligence model at New Zealand Fashion Week 2019, for their Autumn/Winter 2020 release.

This adaption of digital for fashion events might be temporary, or included as a novelty, however it proves that it’s an option. With skillful mastery, it could provide a wider digital canvas for brands to express themselves on. On the consumer front, with less physical restrictions, it could restore a democracy into the audiences that attend such events – not to mention question the travel environmental costs associated with global shows.

And will we stop overusing the word ‘essential’ already?
Perhaps on a more trivial note, I also hope that this moment makes us reconsider how the industry uses the word “essential”. Frankly, I hope we stop calling everything new that brands want to push an “essential”. I’m sure if we all search this word in our email history, we’d bring up a wave of fashion eDM edits of items labeled as “essentials” as a stand-in for an actual on-theme name to label a curation of pieces. Winter essentials. Summer essentials. Beach essentials. Festival essentials – it’s like there’s an endless number of occasions attempting to use the guise of what’s clearly not a basics, staples, or actual essentials to justify purchase of said items. Now that COVID-19 has restored the meaning of an ‘essential’, calling pieces that clearly aren’t such would be a total undercut to this definition.

We’re at a time of crossroads with COVID-19. A time where we can pivot and pause. While there’s plenty of uncertainty and confusion, there’s also the opportunity for us to provide solutions to such. If there’s anything our industry has proven, it’s that it’s as tenacious and adaptable as it is creative. Given what we’ve seen from brands just 4 weeks into the lockdown, I have strong faith that, despite the challenges, Kiwi brands can write and play by their own rulebook from this moment.

Evolution is at the heart of the fashion industry. Pair that with our ‘get-shit-done’ mentality, I think we could be in for a winner. This is the time we push for what we want to see in the world.

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