Well, we all know what happened in 2020; we went to ground and tried to live our lives at the same time. What did we have to do to survive? And what could we not do anymore?
No more restaurants and bars; sporting events; shopping at the store (we even may have had groceries delivered); events, concerts, just being with friends; in-person classes. Oh, and going to the office; WFH became as much a part of our vocabulary as WTF.
And it was (the latter).
But, in 2020 as compared to prior crises, ecommerce was developed to a point where it could take up at least some of the retail slack, if not most of it. Maybe it wasn’t as fun or romantic to make a daily Amazon run as it was before to run to the store or the mall, but it saved us. Zoom and other meeting platforms became our default method of communication for business, personal and teaching; sometime during 2020 Zoom became a verb-let’s Zoom tomorrow.
The effect was astounding. Could we say it was the “white swan in a black sea?” Ecommerce, remote learning, an online meeting were increasing anyway, but what happened took everyone’s breath away. The Economist magazine, in their “The World in 2021” issue, called it “The Tech-Celeration.” The article quotes McKinsey as saying “Recent data show that we have vaulted five years forward in consumer and business digital adoption in a matter of around eight weeks.” In the US, ten years’ growth in three months. In Italy, it reports, it was a “ten-year revolutionary leap.” Yes, ecommerce was steadily growing before, but now, badabing, it gets a new name—Default.
Further, the same article points out the changes in banking and education, citing cashless transactions and remote learning. I can report, as an instructor, that in March 2020 we had to transition to remote learning literally overnight. We got through it, but it was clumsy at best. After myriad articles and meetings (on Zoom and other platforms), we all got some idea of what it took to improve the learning when your students are little squares who may or may not choose to reveal themselves visually. Whereas there is no doubt that both students and instructors would prefer the face-to-face mode (unanimous sentiment when students are polled at the end of semester), we learned somethings that will be valuable in the future, such as: 1. Lectures are boring, I don’t care who you are-much less “sage on the stage;” 2. Students can be engaged most effectively by letting them express themselves through assignments that are knowledge plus opinion-based; 3. The time saved by not commuting can be put to good use.
The same Economist article states that executives they polled were definitely willing to allow more of their employees to WFH permanently. Particularly in the growing technology sector, it reports that 34% of executives, up from 22% the prior year, were willing to allow at least a tenth of their employees to work from home two or more days per week. We have yet to see what, other than lowered commuting and building costs, comes as a positive when that becomes reality. Does a Zoom meeting have the same impact as a face-to-face meeting? Well, let’s see… You can’t mute the speaker when you are in the same room; and you must at least pretend to be paying attention. As with remote classes, engagement is the biggest challenge. For the workplace, reduction in takeaways, reaction time, enthusiasm and morale can be business-changing.
While consumers were able to find almost all of what they needed or wanted to buy online, what they didn’t need or want was apparel and accessories. Early on in the pandemic, I tried to convince myself and others that your attitude toward work or meetings would be affected by your dress. If you dressed smartly, you would work smartly; if you dressed sloppily or casually, it would reflect in your productivity and results. As an instructor, I cannot tell students what to wear or where to sit; as a supervisor, I sure could—if I weren’t guilty of the same lackadaisical habits myself. That said, I believed and still believe my presumption was correct.
What happened to apparel in 2020? The above Statista graph demonstrates the precipitous drop even better than the numbers:
Per the graph above, clothing store sales hid their nadir in April 2020 of $2194 million, against $21,416 million in April 2019. It doesn’t get much worse than that. Headline-making bankruptcies abounded as a result of this trend and the inability to physically shop (clothing is a high-touch attribute item, and I don’t care how good online shopping is, buying a new shirt or dress online just is not as good, and MUCH easier to walk away from).
What, then, happens to the fashion industry, in particular Womenswear, which has traditionally been the volume leader (also remember women may buy clothes for men as well)? Do people just buy more t-shirts and sweatpants? More structured and function-oriented clothing like suits, dresses, sportscoats, ties etc. go the way of the dinosaurs? When today’s parents become grandparents and show their grandchildren old pictures, do they get asked, “did people really dress like that?”
As with the acceleration of ecommerce due to the Pandemic, other trends will continue to accelerate-even if the trends themselves are decelerating. One clear example relevant to the fashion industry that was well under way before the Pandemic hit was-dressing up. When you watch TV series that were shot in the 50’s or 60’s of last century, you can see everyone dressed up prim and proper-suits, shirts, ties, dresses, hats. That trend had been casualized long ago- for better or worse- and now? Will anyone ever agree to wear a shirt and tie to the office? Or anywhere? Again, I will ask you to consider how that casualization affected people’s attitude toward work, for better or worse, even before the pandemic (I can’t accept “no effect” as an answer because you know it isn’t the case)?
Wait, it gets worse for the fashion industry. Fashion business was always best when there was a trend or mood in the country which got people excited to buy more clothes; it is rare that people buy clothes because they really need them. Now, how to popularize a fashion trend? I don’t care how good your image is, clothing needs to be seen in person, touched, felt, tried on. Yes, you can do it after receiving it and return it if you don’t like it; but, by then, the thrill is gone. And, where you could try on 20 items in a few minutes, can you do that now? No. Not even if you get a cute little subscription box that some AI made up for you. Not even Alexa can do that yet—if ever.
So, what’s the hope for the fashion industry? Whatever it is, it is going to be a long road back. Clothing purchased in the future will have to distinguish itself clearly from others- fabric, color, sustainability- to be added to a wardrobe when it isn’t needed. Children who eventually attend school in person will need clothing. As will people who have to go back to the office, for at least part of the week. That said, something bought because you have to carries less weight and volume than, “I love it.” Pockets of consumers, especially Gen Z, will still shop for distinctive items that fit their requirement; but the general public will need a lot more stimulation to get even close to resuming OR restructuring their former habits.
The best hope for the fashion industry is-human nature. What provides the best chance for rebirth of the industry is the fact that, once allowed, human beings will crave personal contact and appreciate it more than before. People who have been sequestered with Zoom meetings will want to have a laugh with someone less than social distance from them. Human beings have been gathering since time immemorial and no Pandemic is going to change that. Will that result in a resurgence of the fashion industry to former volume levels? It could, after a while, but that, I am sure, will be largely populated by people buying fewer, and better apparel and accessories; as well, purchases will be affected more than ever by brand image and social criteria. Does this mean nobody will buy no-name, disposable clothing anymore? Of course not, but the proportion of total fashion purchases will change drastically- hopefully for the better.
Happy 2021! Here’s to a better world with everyone holding hands, appreciating each other, no matter who or where they are, what their nationality or anything else about them is, and all participating to be a better they.
Statista.com, “US Retail: Monthly Clothing Store Statistics, 2017-2020, https://www.statista.com/topics/965/apparel-market-in-the-us/
The Economist Magazine December 2020, “The World in 2021 Issue;” Tom Standage, “After the Tech-Celeration”