• Hrishika Maniar

Coronavirus: A trend too big for fashion retail?

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

Chillin’ at home and I haven’t stepped out of my pyjamas in a day or two (or three, or four). Coronavirus has changed our lives completely, and it’s going to change the way we shop, too.

Since we’re all stuck at home and shops are closed, online shopping has become our holy grail. Online sales in general in the UK were up by 22% in April compared to the same time last year, and in the context of online fashion retail, we’ve also seen a change. In April the number of online orders increased by 30% compared to the month before.

Due to this, e-commerce has become a lifeline for fashion retailers - something that wasn’t so critical when stores were open. If you don’t bring your inventory to life online in a way that’s appealing, eye-catching, and detailed, you’re gonna have a bad time. Customers can’t physically feel the fabric, see the zips and seams, or try the piece on. This changes fashion retail massively, because retailers can’t rely on just appealing to the senses to manifest into a sale.

Me irl.

Online retailers have tried to solve this problem. Retailers such as ASOS already boast tools like their ‘Fit Assistant’, which allows you to input your height and weight to get a better idea of which size would be best suited to you. Store-focused business John Lewis has now incorporated a ‘virtual expertise’ service, where experts will advise you on subjects including styling over video call. Artificial intelligence (AI) has already begun to infiltrate the way fashion is sold to us, with big retailers such as H&M and Tommy Hilfiger using it to suggest styles to its customers, and now would be a good time to implement this on a larger and more intimate scale.

After the end of lockdown, and when life returns to normal after Covid-19, e-commerce will still hold ground. 25% of Britons are shopping online more than they used to and 60% have said that they will stick to their new shopping habits after the lockdown is lifted. Almost half of global consumers have said that they will not go back to shops for ‘some time’ or a ‘long time’ after they’re allowed to again, so in-store, retailers will have to come up with new ways to ease the worries of contagion left behind by the virus. Some aspects of safety measures that have been used during lockdown could be carried on in the future, such as allowing a limited number of people in stores at all times, removing and sanitising stock after it has been tried on (kinda gross not to be doing this in the first place tbh), and safe distancing.

Even though more purchases are being made online, they aren’t being driven by sales of clothing and fashion, which suggests a bigger problem - online fashion retail just isn’t doing well. The 22% increase in online sales mentioned above has been spearheaded by beauty, electricals, and garden. Online clothing sales have decreased 20% since last year, and coronavirus has only exploited the cracks that were already there.

People in lockdown don’t need to buy clothes which they would otherwise wear socially or to work, but Retail Analyst Richard Lim has suggested that the lockdown has forced us to consider a lifestyle of ‘reduced materialism’. He says ‘the pause for reflection that consumers are making at the moment could lead to a reassessment of what’s important’.

In 2018, 33% of consumers bought clothing once a month, which was down from 37% in 2016. The number of people opting to buy clothing every two to three months instead has increased from 64% to 67%. Young people have also been spending less on fashion, with the most noticeable drop in millennial-clothing-buying figures beginning in 2016.

More and more people are becoming environmentally conscious, and with the fashion industry producing 10% of all carbon emissions, it’s hardly a surprise. People are also not finding clothing as appealing because style and fashion isn’t changing drastically enough, and that just doesn’t do much for a customer that is looking for newer, shinier things. Urban Outfitters Founder and CEO Richard Hayne said the last major trend which shifted fashion was over 10 years ago with skinny jeans, which we are still wearing. Retailers need to encourage a shift in fashion if they want to monetise on the next big thing.

The fashion industry needs to come up with some jean-ius ways to survive.

With clothing seeming less fashionable (sorry not sorry), it seems like the layout of the fashion calendar also doesn’t work. The aim of 83% of clothes-shopping pursuits are repeat purchases - people looking to replace an item they already have. So are four collections per year really necessary? Whilst ‘seasons’ allow designers to blend creativity with commerciality, they aren’t reflective of how people shop. As Janet Street-Porter says, we live in ‘the real world, where people put on layers and just don’t see the need for a new coat every October.’ Coronavirus meant that sales for spring/summer collections are 70% lower than what they were last year so retailers will sell almost-new stock for discounted prices, which could mess with two crucial aspects - brand image and business equity.

Style has changed dramatically since lockdown, and retailers have had to cater. We just don’t really dress up for anything anymore. Birthday parties are now a can of beer and a few quizzes on Zoom, so those 6 inch heels just aren’t really necessary. But what will our sartorial choices look like after coronavirus?

Karl Lagerfeld once said ‘sweatpants are a sign of defeat. You lost control of your life so you bought some sweatpants’. Unfortunately for him, sweatpants might just become the new normal. Comfort is now, with Lyst reporting an 18% rise in searches for ‘leggings’, and ASOS seeing a 55% rise in its sales. Will this trend continue? Will we replace zippy tailored trousers with stretchy pants, crispy white shirts with breathable tees, and blazers with roomy pullovers?

Fashion historian Raissa Bretaña has suggested that the style pendulum will swing further after lockdown, and we will be focusing more than ever on ‘dressing up’. With hashtags like #QuarantineChic racking up over 11,000 posts, it seems like dressing up will be something that many people will look forward to. Also an experiment found that people did better in intelligence tests when they were wearing smart clothes compared to casual clothes. Dress for success, I guess.

Nevertheless, retail needs to be able to balance and anticipate all these possibilities. Trends are made as we go along, and we can’t exactly pinpoint post-lockdown style. More than ever now, retailers need to respond quickly to changes in global fashion paradigms. Supply chains in luxury fashion, for example, are heavily concentrated in few locations due to the craftsmanship required to produce each item. Currently, more than 40% of luxury goods production happens in Italy, and all Italian factories have shut down. Some high-street fashion retailers are seeing stock piling up in warehouses, which they are unable to shift back to suppliers or to shoppers. Retailers need to come up with alternatives, like vertically integrated supply chains (which does have its challenges) or increasing the number of suppliers but in a variety of locations. They also need to make sure they don’t jeopardise quality, ethics and cost, which are massively important to the current clothing shopper.

Ultimately, fashion retail needs a revolution if it wants to prosper in a post-pandemic world. Whether it is with logistics, accessibility, interest, or just pure necessity, the pandemic is depriving the industry of essential factors it relies on. To be fashionable isn’t just to be wearing nice designs, great fits, and flattering colours - it’s about buying ethically from places that focus on sustainability too. People’s attitudes towards clothes are now irreversibly changed. On top of that, the pandemic has made consumers rethink their sartorial choices, and to re-evaluate what’s important to them. Comfort and convenience is trumping style and elegance, even if we don’t know how long this will be the case. Coronavirus may just be the paradigm shift that fashion retail needs, not just to survive, but to thrive. If not, it’ll definitely prove to be one of the bigger bumps on the road ahead.

Cover painting is The Lady of the Shalott by William Holman Hunt.