The fashion industry has been both an unsuspected victim and hero in the spread of the coronavirus across the globe. The coronavirus originated in Wuhan China in December of 2019 and then quickly spread to Italy by February of 2020. By March 7th, the entire country was placed on lockdown with trips outside being only permitted for necessary shopping or work purposes. The shows of Milan fashion week were in the precarious center, having been scheduled for February 18 – 24th. Many designers decided to proceed with their shows, not wanting potentially unnecessary precautions to ruin months of dedicated work. Giorgio Armani aired on the side of caution, electing to carry out the show inside of an empty theater to be recorded and posted online after. The Luis Vuitton group, LVMH, instructed its employees in Hong Kong and China to stay home from both Milan and the upcoming Paris fashion week shows. The closing awards ceremony scheduled for Sunday evening was canceled by the National Chamber of Italian Fashion along with the Monday market for emerging designers. The Lombardy region which Milan inhabitates, was placed into lockdown around the show’s closed doors as the numbers of cases rose hourly.
As the coronavirus spread to Paris in late February, fashion houses preparing for scheduled shows faced the same difficult choice. On the first day of shows (Feb. 24) there were only 14 cases in France and by the March 3rd conclusion, there were over 200. The United States Louis Vuitton and Chanel communications teams were instructed to stay home. Various other guests also opted to stay home; 20-30 percent of media guests canceled on attending the week’s penultimate Lacoste show. The fashion directors for Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, as well as The New York Times reporting staff, left Paris before the week’s conclusion as swirling rumors spread increased panic alongside rising numbers. Meanwhile, Anna Wintour stayed in the quickly emptying city alongside other Condé Nast editors to discuss future steps. Most shows continued as planned despite decreased attendance but future shows have been postponed indefinitely including Dior’s May 9th cruise show in Puglia, Gucci’s May 18th cruise show in San Francisco, and Ralph Lauren’s April New York runway show. Every fashion brand has had events and orders affected worldwide as the reality shifts daily, the spread of disease propelling forth a new version of normal.
The purchase orders that are normally made following the debut of collections at fashion week have suffered as human interaction has been increasingly discouraged in favor of safety. This compounds the manufacturing problem initiated at the onset of the coronavirus since Chinese manufacturing companies went into stand-still as lockdown procedures were implemented. This left brands struggling to fulfill orders and meet demands. Now that many Chinese employees have returned to work, however, they find their orders canceled as their buyers now face the same economic constraints of lockdowns in their own countries. Customs closures and delayed payments prevent delivery of goods as this complete reversal shows companies who begged China for goods only a few weeks ago now turning down their orders due to decreased cash flow. The large scale economic effects of this disruption of supply chain and subsequent decline in external demand are poised to change Chinese manufacturing permanently.
The fashion industry is a front-runner to suffer the consequences of this economic upheaval due to China’s strong participation in the purchase of luxury goods. Since January, luxury boutique storefronts have been closed in mainland China, closing the world’s largest luxury marketplace (according to “South China Morning Post”). Last year, Chinese buyers made up 40% of luxury good sales worldwide according to Jefferies Group investment bank. In addition to this already existing dominance over the market, they are also the fastest-growing luxury shopper demographic, creating increases in sales year over year. Fears of racism and disease have now kept these shoppers home, creating rippling effects throughout the larger luxury fashion industry.
Many luxury fashion houses have already pivoted their resources to better serve consumers in this time of pandemic. LVMH group, L’Oréal and Estée Lauder have commandeered their manufacturing plants to make hand sanitizer. Meanwhile, Prada, Christian Siriano, and Chanel have charged their factories with producing face masks and hospital gowns. In an unexpected twist, nurses on the front lines may find themselves wearing custom-made designer gowns. Their altruistic efforts will be undoubtedly remembered at the end of this tumultuous time. The luxury fashion industry is just one of many facets irrevocably affected by the coronavirus, and designers are being forced to pivot and expand. Old ways no longer work and this disease has revealed long-hidden cracks in a structure previously presumed to be concrete. These losses in revenues will force brands to contemplate the future of fashion and how to develop a sustainable structure in which all demographics feel represented and protected.