How the Pandemic has Changed NYFW and the Fashion Industry

We actually made it through this season’s NYFW!

It’s hard to believe that six months have passed since NYC’s  lockdown to control the spread of the coronavirus. As the economy has slowly started to reopen, imposed social distancing measures, reduced store capacity, and decreased customer spending on non-essential items, are creating long term impacts to the retail business.

Once lockdowns and store closings took effect, most retailers were forced to cut their buys and cancel orders, creating a chain of problems in their wake. From everyone involved at the  design and development stage, manufacturing level to shipping and warehousing,  the entire supply chain was disrupted, put on furlough, and forced to hold already purchased materials and finished goods at their own cost. Unless you are in the industry, it’s hard to understand what the implications of this are because once you come to a full stop for four or more months of business, you can’t just re-start business as usual. The seasons have changed and no one is looking for those summer goods that were already made and on their way to U.S. ports to distribute to warehouses. The ramp up time to get back to speed presents an incredibly tough challenge. For the retail companies that I deal with, that managed to stay in business, we strategized how to quickly shift into fall goods. Whether we fast tracked approvals and fittings or decided to save time by shipping via air which was even more expensive because of limited flights during this time, we had to get creative.

Prior to the pandemic,  established fashion companies were already struggling and on the brink of bankruptcy due to the changing landscape of customers’ purchasing habits. Brick and mortar stores were already challenged by the escalating growth of e-commerce platforms. The pandemic just turned out to be the tipping point for many of these retail chains.  The list of those filing for bankruptcy, among them J. Crew, Neiman Marcus, Lord & Taylor, Stage Stores, JC Penney, Brooks Brothers, Muji, Ascena, Tailored Brands, Stein Mart, and Century 21, continues to climb. While bankruptcy doesn’t necessarily mean that a company will go out of business (it may only be a financial restructuring), it does foreshadow trouble ahead especially in today’s new normal.

Attending last September 2019’s Fashion Designers of Latin America shows

That said, I along with other colleagues in the fashion industry were very excited to hear the news on August 25th that NYFW would take place with a condensed schedule and with a limited number of or no spectators. Some brands still chose to go the route of a full fashion show. If the venue was outdoors it was possible to have guests  socially distanced and wearing masks. If indoors, there would be little to no actual audience in attendance.

Having been in the apparel industry for over 25 years, I know the time, effort, and money it takes to operate a full fashion show. From the venue, models, hair, make-up, photography, videography, marketing and promotion, it comes with a high price tag. For large established brands, it’s a cost that can be overcome by the sheer volume of business they do. For young and upcoming brands looking for exposure and hoping to lure buyers, it can be an expensive endeavor and they  may not recoup their costs quickly enough.

Tocaya Fall 2019 Fashion Show Finale

As designers, brands and retailers watched the spring and summer months go by, we all quietly wondered if and how NYFW would roll out. Many brands had already decided to forego NYFW and others had begun to make alternate plans for how to present their new collections.

Live streaming shows in recent years has been a method for brands to show their collections to the general public who might never be able to get into some of the most elite shows. This fall streaming companies jumped at the chance to be the exclusive provider for serving up live streamed events to the public while charging a fee.

Other brands chose to create digital catalogs of their newest products, forgoing any real fashion show.

One of the most interesting ways I saw of presenting a collection was with new digital technology which created a body-mapped image of the outfit on an “invisible” body and showing it in a 3D environment walking down a virtual runway. The final product was beautiful if ghostly.

I do believe that the pandemic has forced the fashion industry to open our eyes. We all have to make choices about how to move forward and adapt to our new normal. This is a wake-up call to identify the problems in this industry and fix them. The fashion industry creates a truly vicious cycle, producing large amounts of goods that we cannot forecast will be sold. These goods all have a shelf life as well because fashion shifts and changes at the drop of a pin. It becomes an unsustainable business for retailers continuously marking down and clearing out product for the next season.  When product doesn’t sell at the level that buyers forecast in their plans, the retailer asks the manufacturers to bear the burden of paying for the lack of projected profits. It leaves the designers and manufacturers holding the bag and unable to dig themselves out of a financial hole.

Prior to the pandemic, the biggest issue being focused on was specifically the sustainability of materials used in manufacturing fashion. It is a cause for concern. For some brands, the messaging is very real and they have tried to take action by having a smaller footprint throughout the production life cycle, from development to packing and distribution. For others, it seems like it’s the latest trend to hop on the bandwagon with. The truth is that everything that leads up to the final production of goods is quite wasteful and not environmentally sustainable — from the the harmful chemicals used in dyes, to the high levels of water needed for dyeing, the amount of samples generated to get to a final product, the high inventory levels created that cannot be sold. We have much to do to become a smarter, more sustainable  industry for all parties involved in the process. There needs to be a better partnership within the chain of business.

What I do see is many new conversations happening about all of these topics. For many years the apparel industry seemed like a dinosaur trapped in its archaic industrial age mentality. Now, however, so much new technology exists that has been brought to the forefront by the COVID-19 pandemic. We are all trying to find ways to conduct our fashion business digitally and virtually. We can’t ignore that we have to change our ways in order to be successful. Even in an industry that requires so much hands-on work — touching fabrics, seeing colors and textures, handling garments on actual fit models to make adjustments — we are being forced to adapt.   And, sometimes, that’s the only way to get things done.

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Tina Trevino
Tina Trevino
Tina Trevino, Partner & Director of Community Relations for Latin Biz Today is President & CEO of Tocaya Design under which she does design consulting for major apparel companies as well as designs, manufactures and markets her women’s lifestyle brand, Tocaya. With 25 years of industry experience most recently as Design Director of KBL Group Intl. Ltd., she has managed large creative design teams. Trevino provides insight on upcoming fashion trends for each season collaborating with designers, merchants and product development teams to help develop brand appropriate apparel. She specializes in sweaters, knits and wovens. Having previously worked with private label brands for stores like Kohl’s, NY & Co, White House|Black Market, and Ann Taylor to name a few as well as brands like Lee jeans, Wendy Williams, Brooke Shields Timeless, Torn by Ronny Kobo, and Whitney Port, she has the ability to build brands from the design and merchandising process all the way through fitting, production, and marketing.

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