Fashion industry post-coronavirus: What will it look like?


The post-Coronavirus world: What will the fashion industry look like?

This is the Schrödinger cat moment. All possibilities exist

By Nishat Fatima  May 18th, 2020

Let’s be clear. The fashion world after Coronavirus? Nobody knows. Forget fashion. Nobody knows anything about the world after Coronavirus either. Will we go back to the way we were? Capitalistic, consumption-oriented, destroying the planet? Possibly. Will life change, become more sustainable, more caring, more welfare-oriented? Perhaps. Will there be a second wave? Will there be food shortage? Will anybody want to buy again? Will we spend the rest of our lives in masks? Will there be all new pandemics? The dystopian novels just write themselves. Or maybe, nada. We take a short break, and a year-and-a-half later, we’re back where we left off in March 2020.

This is the Schrödinger cat moment. All possibilities exist. There are statistics, of course. They can go either way. Good news: 58 percent of India’s GDP comes from private consumption, which means internal demand drives Indian retail rather than the much lower rates of other countries. India’s wedding business, after all, has been responsible for much of the success of its designers.

Not good news. Exports are hit, with almost Rs 23,000 crore at stake because of cancelled orders and delayed payments, according to a report in the Economic Times. Young designers are struggling, artisans, with no savings, are already battling hunger, and established designers without business plans are going to be hit. Influencer partnerships are on hold, magazines are going digital, advertising is dropping and PR is pivoting to strategy and social media.

Yet, in the short term, when it comes to fashion, we can all be sure of a few things. “The first thing that will change would be the fact that 20%-30% of businesses will not survive it,” says Jaspreet Chandhok, head of Lifestyle Businesses, IMG Reliance. Ditto models, photographers, stylists. There will no fashion weeks IRL; London Fashion Week has already announced it will be digital. Working from home is here to stay, so is the rise and rise of e-commerce. Boutiques and stand-alone stores will survive. Weddings will be smaller, if only because there will be fewer people; destination weddings will have to make do with destinations in India only. Instagram Live is a thing (And one on which innumerable channels have discussed this very topic ad nauseum). Tiktok has relegated millennials to fuddy-duddies.

So what is the fashion world thinking and doing in this time. What are the future they are working towards? Couturier Tarun Tahiliani had just kicked off the 25th anniversary celebrations of his brand in February. It was probably fashion’s last fiesta before the lockdown. Now, he punctuates his ideas for the future with phrases that also play like a litany in our heads. “Nobody knows.” “Where is the clarity?” “When are we reopening?”

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Photograph: Getty Images

Nobody expects people to rush to start buying when the lockdown ends, either. Everybody agrees, Spring Summer 2020 is a write-off. In fact, designers themselves may not buy. Tahiliani and Sanjay Garg of Raw Mango cite the fact they have enough in the textile and production bank that they can continue for a year. Garg, who always questioned the term “fashion” when applied to India and has referred to it as trends followed by a few women in Mumbai and Delhi, believes that life has once again been reduced to the essentials. “If fashion does not fulfil some basic necessity it will be rejected. I would like to be part of a circle where we all support each other and not be trend-based so that even after five years (what I offer) remains modern.”

Designers like Shivan and Narresh and Nimish Shah of Bhaane believe that the world will turn to mindfulness and sustainability. “The restart will have to be sustainable,” says Nimish Shah, creative director, Bhaane. “People are going to spend mindfully on designer and ready-to-wear fashion,” says Narresh Kukreja. Fast fashion will not be able to survive mindfulness, the designer duo believe. As customers become more vigilant, everybody who makes your clothes will become an important part of the story. This will be a silver lining for craftspeople.

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Women in Charoti making masks for House of Anita Dongre

After agriculture, the textile industry employs the largest number of people in India. But most don’t have the resources to tide this over. Uzramma, director of the Malkha Marketing Trust and founder of Dastkar Andhra points out that “India is the only country in the world to have this large a population of artisans. The government has to recognise this strength and support them. No industry is going to recover from this without the help of the government – not your car industry, not the artisans.”

Dealing in a largely cashcentric economy, artisans in India have already been reeling from both demonetisation and the implementation of GST. This could be the nail on their coffin. Laila Tyabji, Chairperson & Founder Member, Dastkar Society for Crafts & Craftspeople, says, “The only hope for artisans is that their prices will be more competitive than luxury brand names and designer labels. Designers too will have to look at consumers and products differently, and not just cater for the glitterati.”

The lockdown brought us heart-wrenching stories of migrants trying to get home. But, says Rahul Mishra, the first Indian to show at Paris Haute Couture Week, most of his artisans work in their villages. “With the construction of roads, and the availability of courier services, and whatsapp, it is possible for quality work to happen without migration.” Mishra plans to employ more people, and create slower, finer work; quality over quantity.

Quality over quantity might be a transition that another arm of the fashion industry will have to work towards. Over the past decade, fashion influencers and bloggers have taken over brand spends and our Instagram timelines. Now, with nowhere to go, nothing to buy, their very existence has come into question. “There is going to be a market correction,” says Pareina Thapar, co-founder of the communication strategy firm Longform. Micro-bloggers with as few as 500 followers will rise, Thapar predicts since they are a lower investment.

Paris Fashion Week Fall/Winter 20-21

Photograph: Getty Images

“Influencers are not going away,” says Archana Jain founder and managing director of PR Pundit, “even macro ones will have a certain audience.” She predicts a growth in digital marketing and shopping, a feeling of local pride, and accessible pricing for Indian designer brands.

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Paris Fashion Week Fall/Winter 20-21

Photograph: Getty Images

Tahiliani is part of the Indian fashion vanguard and he’s been through the 2008 recession. He’s planning to survive the pandemic fallout with a diffusion line, simplicity in design, investment in technology, keeping the brand story alive on Instagram, and with a webstore that will help serve international customers who cannot travel. “There’s technology for laser measuring (for garments) and fit people long distance.”

What about communications firms and the PR industry that works with fashion? “The new financial year started in April, and some clients are saying let’s wait and see,” says Jain. Having weathered the 2008 recession, she says, the cost-management lessons are standing her firm in good stead. Both Thapar and she believe that the diversity of their communications, strategy, and clients will see them through. Thapar in fact has been surprised by new clients looking for marketing strategy. “Everybody forgets that global brands have great marketing and branding teams, and many Indian brands don’t. The next two months could be used to complete the strategy phase.”

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Other strategy that will be recrafted will be that of fashion weeks. Jaspreet Chandok hopes to get Lakme Fashion Week going in the second half of the year. “In the autumn winter season you will not see a lot of foreign buyers coming in, purchasing, and putting in orders for Indian designers. That is going to be one stress point that is going to exist for a while.” He also does not believe that India’s handwoven, handcrafted, textile led fashion story lends itself to digital fashion weeks. What he does hope is that this crisis will reorient a lot of people to managing their fashion as a business. “With greater working capital, and business thought rather than just a design thought.”

Laila Tyabji is hoping for more societal change. “I am hoping that people will re-look at their consumption, and that, not only in craft and fashion but in other things, we will go back to a less “branded” way of life – valuing the virtues of growing locally, making locally, using locally (in some degree at least).

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Photograph: Getty Images

Which way will it swing? As Nimish Shah says, “we’re either screwed or everything’s up for grabs.”