LONDON — The fashion world is pressing on despite coronavirus chaos, with designers, brands and business leaders defiant in the face of plummeting sales, displaced staff, factory closures and international travel restrictions that are hampering everyone’s day-to-day work.
Hunkering down wherever they’ve chosen to base themselves, whether it’s Milan, Florence, London or Paris, fashion’s creative hearts and business brains are making the best of a uniquely challenging situation, and thinking of different ways to keep the machine purring — and the money coming in.
“It’s like QVC — but better,” said Stefano Martinetto, describing Tomorrow London’s use of video to engage with buyers.
“Think about a senior sales manager showing a collection on a 70-inch maxi-screen, with two cameras and a model — and talking for an hour with a buyer. They can be entertaining, and quite funny. At one point, we’re working full steam doing video showrooms in Milan and London, although now it’s just London,” added Martinetto, who co-owns and runs Tomorrow, a full-service business and creative platform for designer labels.
While Tomorrow — which also owns stakes in brands including A-Cold-Wall and Coperni — may have wholeheartedly embraced virtual selling and whiz-bang technology, Martinetto said there is something delightfully old school about the way he does business nowadays.
“Now, you just get on the phone and talk to the boss at the end of the wire. It’s exciting, like we’ve gone back to the 1990s or the 2000s. Chief merchandisers, brand leaders are talking business — with no filters. It’s straight, honest communication, and you are able to leverage long-term relationships,” he said.
Paul Andrew, Salvatore Ferragamo’s creative director, has also come up with new ways of working. Andrew, who’s based between the U.S. and Italy, said he chose to remain in locked-down Florence and pursue his work on the pre-spring 2021 collection, rather than return to the U.S., or his native Britain.
“I decided that my time and efforts were better spent here, with the team, and I just really needed to focus on getting things moving,” said Andrew, who’s been relying on technology to work with colleagues based outside Italy.
“The majority of my lead designers are not in Florence, they’re all over Italy and Europe and they’re grounded, so I’m meeting with them via life-sized video-conference calls, or FaceTime, phone calls or e-mails and WhatsApp.”
Andrew said that as long as there’s good WiFi, those video conference calls are extremely clear “and you can zoom in and out to see details of things.”
They’re not perfect, though. “This morning I had to review boxes for a new fragrance we’re launching. I couldn’t really see the details or the texture of the paper of the cards. So that had to be put on hold,” added Andrew.
Like Ferragamo, staff at the Italian manufacturer Gilmar, which owns Iceberg and manufactures brands including Vivetta and No. 21, is either working remotely — or gathering together in small teams. Similar to other fashion companies, the design studio is relying on technology to enable the creative flow.
The same goes for Manolo Blahnik, which is headquartered in London and has offices in New York. Last year the company bought its Italian factory, Calzaturificio Re Marcello, which is located in Vigevano, Lombardy, a region that has been hit particularly hard by the virus.
The Manolo teams have been working remotely since mid-February, while the London design studio has been working virtually with the factory. As of Monday, March 16, Manolo Blahnik will temporarily close its factory, but said customers would continue to receive full-service levels.
“We are employing all safety precautions, including minimal staffing cover to protect those who are fulfilling business-critical tasks that cannot be handled remotely. We are confident that once the situation is contained we will be on a fast-track for recovery and resume to business quickly,” the company said.
With the exception of companies such as Manolo Blahnik and Gucci, which is closing its production sites until March 20, factories and ateliers have remained open. Although many Italians are in quarantine and working from home, and non-essential stores and services are shut, the Italian government has allowed industrial output to continue, albeit with extra safety precautions for employees.
Ferragamo makes most of its samples in the southern part of Italy, which has been less affected by the virus than Milan and its facilities remain open. Andrew said he has all the pre-spring 2021 prototypes for clothes, shoes and bags. The company also has its own accessories ateliers, and those craftspeople are working, too, he added.
Liberty of London, which produces fabrics for myriad brands including Gucci, which worked the British company’s bespoke designs into its fall 2020 collections, said its fabric mill in Olona, Lombardy, is currently printing regularly, and no one has been taken ill.
Liberty said it normally keeps “several months of raw material stock to accommodate peaks in demand that will serve us well for any potential future loss in continuity.” So far the company has seen limited disruption, “but we are keeping our eyes open and taking the pulse day by day.”
The Paris-based Rick Owens, who works closely with Italian production partners, said it has been business as usual so far. “We are e-mailing back and forth as we usually do at this time of our pre-collection launch,” Owens said via e-mail. “And I have been getting samples shipped to me for approval, as usual.”
He noted that his next factory visit is scheduled for the first week of April “so we’ll have to wait to see how it’s going.”
“We are all monitoring the situation daily, keeping updated on the advice from authorities around the world, looking at Italy as an indicator of what may happen in the U.K. and other countries and taking initiatives to — firstly — protect our employees, and then the Church brand,” said Anthony Romano, chief executive officer of the British footwear company Church’s, which is owned by Prada Group.
“In Italy the authorities have not yet required factories to close, that is because they are the frontline of the economic consequences of this crisis,” added Romano, who is bracing for a challenging few months.
Romano argued that retailers haven’t had much of a spring 2020 season to date, and no one knows what the impact of COVID-19 restrictions will be on retail sales for fall 2020.
Church’s, like most other brands, has almost completed spring production and deliveries, and is in full-on production of fall 2020 orders. It is prototyping and planning pre-spring 2021, and is hoping this production process will not be interrupted.
“Right now we’ve delivered most of the spring/summer goods, with some resistance from customers to accept the balance of their undelivered orders. And if they have significant stock at the end of this season, which they probably will, they’re going to be very shy about how much they buy for spring/summer 2021,” he said, speculating that markdown periods could come even earlier this year, due to all of the excess stock that stores may end up holding.
Martinetto of Tomorrow sees things differently: He believes the virus disruption presents an opportunity for stores to sell merchandise that’s aligned more with the seasons, and set later markdown periods. He believes that would help the smaller, indie brands, which are inevitably going to have cash-flow problems due to all of the delays resulting from the virus.
“I think in exceptional times, the larger balance sheets need to take care of the smaller balance sheets,” said Martinetto. “And I’m not being naïve when I say the stores have to postpone the markdown season. It’s an incredible opportunity to fix the absolute derelict system of markdowns. If the big retailers collectively extend the lives of this season until July — like it used to be — and realign the seasons to the weather, this will allow them to accept [later] deliveries from smaller companies and brands.”
Both Romano and Martinetto said they are expecting to report a tough first half.
While Church’s is a solid brand, with manufacturing in England (which still has not been hit hard by COVID-19) and a robust retail and wholesale network, it will still have to look at making economies if the fallout from the virus persists.
Romano said that, as expected, sales in Italy, China and Hong Kong have dropped “significantly” while other markets such as France, the U.K. and Japan are much less affected, even though this is likely to be temporary.
“If sales are going to take a significant hit, you have to look at your costs, and see where you can save. You have to look at your marketing budgets, at rent reductions, at whether to replace any leavers or look to hold off on new projects, and other possible expenditure savings throughout the organization. Hopefully, this will not last long, damage will be limited and we can concentrate on growing the Church’s brand,” he said.
Martinetto said he is expecting “major disruptions” starting this week. “It’s almost inevitable. January and February were the best two months in Tomorrow’s history because improvements in the supply chain have led to earlier deliveries than normal. But that won’t help with the March and April ones.”
He said that while China is reopening for business, Europe and the U.S. are grappling with the impact of the spreading virus. Because Tomorrow is a larger company today, due to new business, it will likely end the fiscal year up 24 percent. That growth would have been 40 percent had COVID-19 not hit.
“We’ve had exceptional results in a few lines of business — Coperni and the collaboration between [Ermenegildo] Zegna and Fear of God, which we invented, created and managed, and which we are now selling — moderated the decrease,” he said.
“It wouldn’t be honest to say that we could survive this without damage, because nobody will be able to do that. It’s just impossible.”