Most big changes happen gradually. Heads go gray strand by strand. Careers are built in fits and starts. Colors and hem lengths fade in and out of fashion. But pandemics tend to change that—including COVID-19, which prompted all-encompassing and almost instantaneous changes in how we live and how we conduct business. For the apparel manufacturing industry, the overhaul was long overdue.
Pre-Pandemic: The Stagnating Status Quo
For fashion, the pandemic brought to light an industry that was in dire need of change—and a two-speed system where the winners were getting comfortable with winning and the losers were being choked for oxygen.
At the top of the food chain, giants were thriving. Consolidation and acquisition sprees created multi-headed conglomerates like LVMH, Kering, and Inditex. From fast fashion to luxury, these champions were leveraging economies of scale to create faster, slicker, shinier experiences that the little guys just couldn’t keep up with.
For those smaller brands, the status quo meant one step forward and two steps back. Promising young designers like Rodarte, Prabal Gurung, and Proenza Schouler grew fast, but their ambitions were thwarted when it was time to go from critical darlings to serious competitors industry behemoths like Chanel and Dior. How can you compete with the Grand Palais on a shoestring budget?
The prospects for innovation in the startup space weren’t much better. Every new mass-market brand seemed to have a sustainability angle and consumers grew dubious. Leaders like Everlane and Reformation stumbled through management scandals and delayed IPOs. Silicon Valley startup culture could attract first-round funding, but the jury was out over whether it could build lasting brands.
The Pandemic: System, Meet Shock
The total shutdown of spring 2020 was the tipping point. Instead of gradually evolving landscapes, fashion was faced immediately with an empty, endless horizon—and no indication of when it would stop. Once the initial shock wore off and the cheery “See you in two weeks!” signs came down from the shop windows, the real work began. The industry didn’t have a choice. And the response would come to follow a three-step process.
Step One: Think deeply
The quiet of COVID-19 gave people at all levels the space to evaluate what was important. When suddenly nobody could buy anything, the entire act of buying was called into question. What does shopping look like in a world where it’s not possible?
Step Two: Regroup
Idle hands made for big plans. Zoom lines lit up. C-suites finally had the long, hard strategy discussions that they had been putting off for years. Some teams found that they worked better at a distance, where the only thing to distract them was the occasional sink full of dishes.
Step Three: Fight for survival
Suddenly, a whole new dynamic emerged where everyone was on the same playing field. Multi-million dollar fashion shows and event spectacles were no longer possible. Instead, compelling (and viral) videos and social content became table stakes.
New Solutions for a New Normal
Fashion's top creative minds were not content with lookbooks shot in masks. As it became clear that lockdown would last, brands got creative and upped their digital marketing game, especially through video. Smaller brands like Warp + Weft engaged directly with homebound audiences by reaching out to them on social media—notably, Instagram Live sessions that were part panel discussions and part heart-to-hearts. The pandemic urged brands to connect with consumers through empathy, kindness, and much-needed distraction.
Fendi and Valentino made waves online with lavishly produced set pieces that were more than just fashion shows sans audiences. Jeremy Scott at Moschino bested the field with a puppet show fashion film that brought spectacle into the realm of the surreal.
The crisis also set off a new wave of social awareness. Some established brands missed an opportunity to get creative, but others got innovative and put their money where their mouth is. For example, Allbirds gave away their wool sneakers for free to healthcare workers and Tiffany & Co. donated $1 million to COVID-19 relief efforts as well as started an employee donation-matching program.
Finally, Covid-19 exposed the vulnerabilities in the global supply chain like nothing has before. As over-ordered merchandise stood stagnant in shuttered stores, the urgency of adopting flexible sourcing methods became clearer than ever.
New Opportunities in a New Normal
It’s clear that the fashion industry is never going back to its pre-pandemic stasis, so the brands that embrace change and create their own culture are those that will thrive.
Customers are ready to spend, but how can brands capitalize on it? First, remember the lessons of the pandemic. Customers won’t forget lockdown anytime soon and neither should retailers. Two new values rule the day: sustainability and accountability.
It’s clear that the fashion industry is never going back to its pre-pandemic stasis. The brands that embrace change and create their own culture are those that will thrive.
The pandemic exposed how deeply connected we are to the planet. Consumers want to see real action on sustainability not as a nice-to-have, but as a matter of survival. A responsible, lower-waste apparel industry is one of the best places to start.
As for accountability, lip service doesn’t cut it anymore. It’s important to show corporate commitment not just through foundations and charity programs, but in the very structure of a brand’s business. One way of doing that is by embracing innovative supply chain models that cut down on waste and have traceable, vertically integrated structures.
Looking back, it’s clear that smaller, more nimble companies were best-positioned to adapt to the ever-shifting conditions. Now, bigger organizations are learning from these setbacks and doing what they can to exploit new technology, move quickly, and get creative.