It’s no surprise that the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting the fashion industry. With people working from home and adhering to physical distancing, they’re changing the way they dress.

“I think fashion is a barometer of what humans are experiencing,” says Gary Markle, an associate professor of fashion and textile at NSCAD University in Halifax.

A major change Markle expects will stay post-pandemic is people wearing non-medical masks.

“In North America, there’s been a real resistance to that very specific thing because it’s sort of seen as a form of being outlaw,” he says. “I think that’s also part of why it’s been so hard for us to accept it when it’s … a religious need to wear covering of the face.”

Lisa Drader-Murphy, a fashion designer based in Halifax, shifted her operations to produce face masks in late March.

At first, customers ordering the masks didn’t care what they looked like, but not anymore. They are now asking for an assortment of designs and colours to go with clothes they already own. Some are requesting masks that match shirts that Drader-Murphy sells on her website.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” she says. “I’ve had some people say, ‘What about formal events? We want to have something that’s a little more glamorous.’”

COVID-19 has been encouraging Drader-Murphy to think outside the box.

Closing her physical stores in late March meant losing the customer service experience her brand is built around.

“We like to create beautiful dressing room environments,” she says. “One of our stores even has a wine bar in it so you can come in and order a glass of wine and have that full experience with your friends and your partner.”

Now Drader-Murphy and her team are trying to get creative in packaging the masks. Within the packages, the team is including incentives for people to shop online for other items.

“We’re gaining a new clientele and we’ve had people who hadn’t shopped with us before who are going again online and saying, ‘I was told to order a mask from you, but I see a top I like too.’”

Compared to before COVID-19, Drader-Murphy is seeing more people ordering online.

Kelsey MacDonald, a fashion designer based in Halifax, says COVID-19 helped her realize the importance of having an online store for her brand.

“I’m working more towards that now because that is where the industry is going to go – online and less of word-of-mouth and small pop-up shops,” MacDonald said.

As more brands rush to go online because of COVID-19, MacDonald says the fashion industry will see a lot of innovation.

“Things like online fashion shows, virtual try-ons and 3D fittings will mimic the kind of customer service that (customers) get when they’re in the store.”

MacDonald predicts another change to consumer behavior post COVID-19: a move away from casual clothes.

“I think we’re going to see a pull-away from leisure and comfort dressing,” she says. “People are going to be appreciative of the ability to go out and socialize. So, I think that’s going to draw people to enjoy fashion more and maybe contemplate their personal style away from trends.”

Fast fashion is also on the way to losing popularity as people become more conscious of how they spend their money, she says.

“I think people are going to focus more on sustainable staples … and invest in things that make them feel confident and empowered.”

Fast fashion is the mass production of clothes that copy trends from high-end brands and sell for a much cheaper price. While fast fashion makes shopping for clothes more affordable, it produces large amounts of waste and harms the environment. It’s also a fuel for overconsumption.

Markle says it can be argued that the phenomenon sprung up in the aftermath of the Second World War.

After years of austerity and fabric rationing, a French designer created an extravagant collection that was unthinkable at the time. Christin Dior’s collection was characterized by rounded shoulders, a cinched-in waist and a full skirt. It was dubbed the “New Look.”

“It was a calculated idea of shocking people back into ‘hey, we need to consume again,’ so here’s all this volume and here’s all this extravagance,” says Markle.

“I would argue that was actually one of the jumping-off points to fast fashion, because so many people knocked off the New Look.”

Christian Dior’s New Look and the fast fashion phenomenon that followed helped jumpstart the French economy. But Markle says the fashion industry’s response to COVID-19 should not be based on encouraging consumerism.

“We have to be really careful about what we use to bring back the economy again,” he says. “We have to realize that this planet is not here for us to use.”

“The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a warning of what it could be if there was another crisis, it doesn’t even have to be a pandemic, that disrupts the supply chains. So, what would that look like? What do we have available locally?”

In 2016, the domestic apparel market value in Canada amounted to approximately US$25 billion, according to Statista, a German statistics portal.

These numbers were expected to grow. But with COVID-19, things could change.

“Several businesses have shut down either temporarily or permanently,” MacDonald says. “There’s a lot of overstock inventories. Stores and businesses that sell this overstock are not open right now.”

In a survey done by Deloitte, 29 per cent of participants said they spent less on apparel and footwear between mid-February and mid-March. The survey included 1,000 Canadians from across the country.

Although people may be spending less on clothes, a quick scroll through social media or a look at people’s virtual dinner parties shows they still enjoy fashion.

MacDonald says the key to surviving these difficult times is for brands to understand their customers’ needs and re-evaluate their business model to meet those needs, instead of pushing a broad range of products that few would buy.

Brands should also consider sourcing materials locally.

“The COVID-19 pandemic gave us a warning of what it could be if there was another crisis, it doesn’t even have to be a pandemic, that disrupts the supply chains,” Markle says. “So, what would that look like? What do we have available locally?”


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