The Trend We Couldn't Have Predicted - The Effects of the Coronavirus on the Fashion Industry

Illustration by Susannah Felstead

It’s March 2020 and the influx of news surrounding the Coronavirus (COVID-19) is consuming everyone’s lives. It is almost surreal how quickly the virus has spread and taken hold of the world, attacking your lungs and airways and producing symptoms such as a high fever and a continuous cough. Governments across the globe are struggling to contain the spread of the virus as it is highly contagious, resulting in citizens being advised to practise social distancing and some countries even going into an enforced lockdown. As the death toll rises to over 6,000, the UK has declared a national emergency. So as consumers avoid leaving the house unless absolutely necessary - and the most prominent fashion event, the MET Gala, is officially postponed - what does this mean for the future of the fashion industry? 

The effects of COVID-19 can be felt by high street retailers worldwide. In a time where Britain was already experiencing the decline of high street shopping, some fashion retailers made the decision to shut up shop when the pandemic began to spiral out of control. Urban Outfitters were one of the first to announce they would be closing all of their stores until further notice, as the health and welfare of their staff and customers are their top priority. These decisions to cease trading can’t have been taken lightly as it amounted to huge financial loss before the enforced closures. Zara reported a 24% drop in sales during the first 2 weeks of March. Furthermore, the fast fashion retailer has also closed 4,000 stores and predicts a loss of £265 million in the coming months. Now all non-essential shops have been forced  to close due to the growing severity seen in the UK, many have lost their jobs and all large retailers are taking a substantial hit. Luxury brands are suffering too. Burberry reported a plunge in sales of between 40% and 50% and were forced to close stores after footfall fell by 80%. In addition, reports predict the Coronavirus effect on the luxury goods market will be more severe than the effects of the Sars outbreak in 2002. 

During this turbulent time the virtual world of online shopping seems to be the only silver lining for the fashion world. However, online sales appear to have taken a hit too, and the virus is having an impact on supply chains and delivery times. Almost a third of ASOS’ factories are located in China and the online fashion giant fears shortages as the country has been badly effected by the virus. Next also expressed early fears regarding their supply chain in China, although they now realise lack of consumer demand is the main threat to business both on the high street and online. Their Chief Executive stated “Online sales are likely to fare better than retail but will also suffer significant losses - people do not buy a new outfit to sit at home” - and he’s right. 

Although they will suffer loss, large retailers are likely to survive the pandemic. For small independent businesses who are far less profitable, the losses they will suffer may force them to shut. They simply do not have the capital behind them to support themselves in times like these or to develop new sales strategies like many fast fashion brands are now doing. The lack of consumer demand is still the main worry for independent boutiques, as young designers urge consumers to shop local and support the brands they love if they want them to survive. Another worry for smaller retailers is last minute cancellations from department stores who may stock their product. This leaves them in an even stickier situation as the costs of creating those orders will no longer be covered. In this situation the cut throat ethics of big businesses also become apparent as amending orders is far more detrimental to their smaller suppliers than them. 

It is obvious that COVID-19 is having a major effect on the global economy and it is apparent the fashion industry will not be getting off lightly. Smaller companies and retail workers will unfortunately suffer the most. Thankfully the UK government has stepped in and has pledged to pay 80% of wages of workers who cannot work due to the Coronavirus crisis. Anna Wintour - Fashion Icon and Editor of Vogue - announced she would be using this year's Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) and the Vogue Fashion Fund to help emerging designers pay their bills as their livelihoods are at risk during this time. The British Fashion Council (BFC) has also created the BFC Foundation Covid Crisis Fund pledging to provide £1,000,000 of emergency funds with the aim of helping designers and their businesses. Although efforts are in place, it is important that we as consumers realise the important role we can play in keeping independent businesses afloat and I urge everyone to consume consciously and think of the individuals whose passion is their business, instead of supporting mass production and multimillion dollar companies. 

On a more positive note, the fashion industry has tried it’s best to lend a hand where it can in the fight against COVID-19. From fashion students to luxury fashion houses, the support has been extraordinary. High street retailer Zara are sourcing materials so they can begin to manufacture surgical masks and hospital gowns on their production line. Remo Ruffini of Moncler, donated a huge 10 million euros to aid in the construction of an emergency hospital in Milan and LVMH have begun producing hand sanitiser for French hospitals - for free! In a time of global emergency, it is heartening to see that some of those with the resources to do so are focusing on the larger issues at hand. 

These uncharted waters predict financial loss for the global fashion industry and this may be too much for some brands to survive. Furthermore, retail workers and young creatives wait anxiously to see if they will still be employed when this is over. During these uncertain times we can only keep reminding ourselves that this too shall pass and that the fashion community will come together in support of each other. 

Written by Emma Sneddon