The fashion industry has a lot of areas with room for improvement:
- ethical production
Yet, we will not get the opportunity to grow and improve our industry, welcome more people to the fashion party, reduce harm to our environment, and care well for our artisans if we sabotage our business now by following old practices and making decisions driven by fear and scarcity thinking.
The Covid-19 pandemic will affect and hurt every part of the fashion industry from designers and brands of all sizes, to monobrand and multibrand retailers, brick + mortar and e-commerce retailers, vertical retailers, independent manufacturers, suppliers, factory workers, freight carriers, sales people, bookkeepers and office admin, financiers, stylists, photographers, PR, marketing, publications, fashion-tech, and even influencers.
There is an immediate and urgent inventory problem. Currently closed stores cannot take in new merchandise that will sit and not be looked at, touched, tried on, or sold for weeks or months. Some goods are stuck in their origin country, in customs, and in now-closed factories.
In the west, rates of sale are screeching to a halt as stores close and e-commerce businesses reign-in operations while all fashion businesses move as many people as possible to work-from-home.
As a result, designer brands and retailers alike are now trapped with loads excess inventory.
Our traditional fashion calendar + inner fear voice shouts at us that we only have 6–8 more weeks to sell spring product at full price before we go on sale in mid-May!! We MUST stick to the calendar to make space for our high-summer, pre-fall and autumn-winter assortment commitments on order and already in-work.
But this is not a normal time, and we also know that many factories have or will need to close to protect their worker’s health and subsequently, fall deliveries will be delayed.
Is now our chance to act to change the way we deliver, design, market, present, sell and even wear fashion?
When analyzing our businesses, we can easily look at our stock levels and inventory on-hand as a problem, deadweight, and too-large numbers on a spreadsheet that need to be reduced. Especially in a crisis, it can be too easy to lose sight of the bounty of art and energy that those numbers represent. Let’s pause and recall the inspiration, energy, love, sweat, loss of sleep, countless hours of hard work, jet lag, time away from loved ones, physical and intangible resources, and sheer determination that represent the human cost of the numbers.
What if we looked at our inventory and this crisis as an opportunity for change, rather than a problem to be solved by applying traditional modalities?
Fashion product is not produce. A dress is not created with a sell-by date stamped on it. Every part of our industry needs to stop treating seasons this way. We all feel it in our guts + hearts. The design, show, deliver, churn, burn (markdown), and repeat feels wrong. It’s too much stuff. It doesn’t feel sustainable. It’s not. And it can stop now.
It goes without saying that it’s absurd to put winter coats + sweaters on sale in November and sandals + straw hats on sale in May. And, these are the best case scenarios; adhered to by retailers that want to limit sales and promotional activity, like the company I buy for, Forty Five Ten. Many major department stores and e-commerce sites run near-constant promotions of up to 25% during traditionally full-price selling periods in September, October, March, and April.
How can we expect our clients to respect the designs we are selling and pay full price if we don’t respect our work enough to adhere to the designer’s recommended price for more than a couple of weeks? We have trained customers to wait for sales since 2008, we are all addicted to markdowns, and it’s a habit that’s hard to break.
A direct result of the constant delivery calendar, creating and buying too much product for our stores contributes to our addiction to markdowns. The customer wants unique, beautiful, and cool product at a price aligned with the perceived value. The success of the sneaker + streetwear resale market (eg. Stadium Goods, GOAT, Stockx) have validated this concept. Product on these sites often sells above the original retail price if the supply is limited and the demand is high. Vintage is another growing category across many price-segments in the industry. The desirability of limited supply does not currently align with most luxury designer’s business models and year-over-year growth goals, keeping us trapped in churn + burn mode for over a decade.
What we are experiencing as a business, as humans, as a world right now is painful. Change is painful and necessary for growth. Trauma is a catalyst for growth, opportunity and rebuilding our world.
We can now choose to continue to force our old ways of working and apply them to the new, unchartered territory we are navigating. Or, we can throw out our guidebook that made us feel safe (but we know is wrong + not serving us) and ride the waves together to a new and brighter world. A world where we feel good about what we put out into it. The right amount of stuff, for as many people as possible to enjoy, wear, and cherish. Fashion made with love by artists who are well cared for, with minimal negative (+ hopefully positive) impact to our world environment.
Where do we go from here?
Some ideas for how we can move forward in new ways —
Now, we have the opportunity to sell spring product when the seasonality matches the merchandise. Spring product can sell at full price all summer. If stores must discount this spring to improve cashflow, perhaps sale can consist of pre-spring and previous season collections only. In addition, stores + brands may need to continue to offer promotional discounts of 20% or less on all products. After all, we will not be able to change the industry if cannot survive this moment.
Fall deliveries will be delayed and we can launch those collections closer to the fall season on the calendar in September, rather than in the heat of summer.
In November, we can put spring/summer on sale and fall can exist at full price through the winter and be put on sale in the spring.
We can sell sweaters and coats when it’s cold outside. Imagine!
Right now, we need to support one another as our businesses grapple with unprecedented challenges. To increase the chances that more of our retailers and designers survive, together we can take a leap of faith now and use this painful period to build a brighter, stronger future.