Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Exclusive: Not a Crystal Ball: A Look into the Fashion Industry’s Post-Pandemic Future



In my last article for Fashion Mannuscript, “E-commerce’s Great Leap Forward” I wondered about the Post-Pandemic future of the Fashion Industry. Which, as we all know, suffered greatly during the Pandemic when everyone was sequestered, stores and offices closed.

In addition to 50 years in the industry, I teach university students who are from all over the US, as well as from China and France, among other nations. Since the Pandemic is a mission-critical subject for marketing, we discussed the effect on e-business and p-business at length, particularly their prediction of and plans for the fashion industry and their own wardrobes. They responded to my questions passionately. Their answers since last Spring when we were forced into isolation relate to “what’s next after the Pandemic has abated?” Last Spring, a very few months after the Pandemic lockdowns started, my students and I sensed that the significant (sometimes catastrophic) emotional toll that the Pandemic exacted on isolated people was unprecedentedly traumatic. Shocks produce affective compensation. Soldiers exposed to battle trauma may develop PTSD which causes extreme reactions from the emotional stress of battle to their lives afterward; likewise, average humans (who had never considered any of what might happen to them, unlike a soldier who is well informed of the risks of battle) develop extreme or severe reactions to their unprecedented deprivation.

So it is with the folks and their fashion. We know that the fashion industry suffered unprecedented losses, some as much as 80%. Why? Locked down, don’t go to office, can’t meet friends, every day the same so why do I need to wear anything but what I wore yesterday? If I do shop for clothes online, it is not for wardrobe-building but to keep my sanity.

WFH, which was the only way to continue business activities during the Pandemic, furthered this casual attitude toward clothing. When you are working alone, and there is nobody to watch you, see you, and whom you want to impress, the same old PJs, hoodie or t-shirt will do. 

Even if you had the impulse to make a purchase of any sort during the Pandemic, you did it online. The Economist reported in January on a study by Mckinsey from May 2020 which claimed online business in the US had “ten years’ growth in 3 months.” Everybody who could, did switch over to e-business, even doctors. 

Online shopping, which hovered at about 15% of retail sales in 2019 and early 2020, went from “important” to “default.” Will this kneejerk of shopping online first last long after the Pandemic has subsided? Economist reported in the same piece that 75-83% of US customers intended to continue the same behavior, joined by 72-81% in China, and the same range in other industrialized countries like Italy and Japan. 

Does that mean that, even after all clear is sounded, customers will continue their self-isolation and complete their shopping alone? Answer: No. 

The Economist report wonders what the “snap-back” effect will be. 

First let me get one thing out of the way: Customers, whether for the fashion industry or other shopping, will never go back 100% to what they did before. This disease made its mark, among many other things, on the shopping habits of humanity.

Before we predict what will happen in the Fashion Industry, we should predict human behavior Post-Pandemic and what will and won’t change; what will change, how will it change and how extensively? As this is a critical issue for marketing, I have spent a lot of time since last Spring discussing this topic with my students; my opinion formed around what I thought was going to happen, their input and what they said they personally would do. That was the most enlightening part of the discussion: We may not be able to predict what the market will do with any degree of certainty, but we can be damn sure, after a year of isolation, what we will do as customers. 

Oh, one more thing: all predictions are made on the premise that we don’t NEED clothes. There is enough in most people’s closets to be sure they are not fig-leaf naked. 

The affective driving force behind people’s fashion decisions Post-Pandemic is: everyone I have talked to, students in the US, Europe and Asia, as well as peers here, is passionately longing for interaction; with friends, family, and anyone who passes the screen test. More, being in a controlled public environment and feeling the energy of people together is rejuvenating to the spirit. One article in Economist February points to the fact that humans need touch for emotional satisfaction. So, as with PTSD, the shock of deprivation of interaction, and even touch, produces a desire and hunger that are unprecedentedly intense. Hold me…

Some of the questions I asked, specifically regarding fashion purchases:

1. Will you shop online or physical after “all clear” is given? Answer: due to the scar of the Pandemic, wandering in a store is not as attractive as it used to be, but, for the fashion business, which is high-touch, benefitting by touching, feeling, trying on and appreciating yourself in a three-way mirror, physical is preferred, and this experience will be refreshed with new vigor and satisfaction. What is better than seeing yourself in a mirror with a new outfit and someone, your family, friend, salesperson says, “You look Marvelous, Darling?”

2. Will you buy new clothes or just touch up your old wardrobe? (Remembering the economic uncertainty) Answer: It is unanimous, in my questioning, that people will buy new clothes. 

3. Will your clothes be of the same, casual nature that you got used to at home? Answer. NO. One student said that she hated her clothes which she had to wear for the last year and intended to throw them out, and with them the memories. Everyone I polled said something like the following:

a. I will dress up more, because I want to feel good and look good like never before.

b. my clothing worn to work will reflect my desire for self-respect and recognition, which is hard to come by with WFH.

c. I may build a multi-layered wardrobe—home, casual, out to dinner, work in office.

d. I will NOT look for fast, disposable, cookie-cutter fashion, but quality, individual clothes I can be proud of and wear for a longer time (practicality comes in here), even if I have to pay more.

4. How much will you spend and what will you add to your wardrobe? Answer: New clothes that make me feel good; as many as it takes. And no matter bought online, physical or omnichannel. Let me out to shop! Nobody that I questioned brought up any financial constraints. Even if they exist, which I am sure they do, they are not the driving force. They never ever said that they would only buy a few pieces to supplement what they have. Almost all envisioned a “new look.”

5. The most impressive comments-about COLOR. Everyone, men and women, pointed out without any prompting that they would seek out clothing with bright colors to reflect the light (as brights do) in their mood and the receptivity for new contact.

I have read comments from industry folks about a new “Roaring 20’s” for the Fashion Industry. That may be an exaggeration, but I do see some opportunities that have not existed in the industry for a while:

1. The Fashion Industry could be a source of personal stimulation and fulfillment as clothing becomes more central to people’s lives and self-assessment. When bell bottom jeans were the rage in the 1970’s, you felt great about yourself if you could prance around in the latest pair, and pretty ragged if you didn’t or couldn’t. This has not been the case in a very long time, even before the Pandemic.

2. The fashion industry, which has been in the Denim Era since Reagan was president, may begin to successfully create some new trends. This, of course, will drive business of those who recognize the trends and those who create the trends. And, they could revive businesses that have been dormant- such as dress shirts. Trends are the healthiest probiotic for the fashion industry. In 1947, when Dior introduced his New Look after a fashion hiatus for WWII, it led the trends for fashion well into the 1960’s. Wouldn’t it be exciting if history repeated itself? Will we all be wearing shirts, ties, hats and cinch-waist A-line dresses? 

3. The most exciting news is that, in the past, when fashion in the US was at its heyday, it was spread by local and national media (such as TV) and had limited reach due to technological limitations. Today, global platforms can spread the word and the product literally everywhere, 365, 24/7. Global reach, global trends.

I am not sure of the magnitude of the outcome. What I am 100% sure of, from my own experience and research, is that people’s desire for company, interaction and hugs is intense and passionate. Humans are social animals, who have been kept in a cage for about a year. Like birds, they will value their plumage as a component of their self-esteem. 

Once released, people all over the world are going to be ultra-attentive to what they are wearing and spend what they need to be fulfilled. Release them and see what happens.

My biggest worry is that companies in the fashion industry will miss the opportunities for whatever reason and not properly prepare what customers want. The biggest crime in the fashion industry Post-Pandemic will be: boredom.

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