After discussing the fashion industry’s response to the coronavirus liftoff, including their own personal protective equipment efforts, the founders of Fashion Girls for Humanity addressed how the business is changing in a virtual talk.
Presented by the School of General Studies at Columbia University, the panel was moderated by Cecilia Dean. FGFH’s Kikka Hanazawa, Julie Gilhart, Miki Higasa and Tomoko Ogura offered insights about supply chain transparency, sustainability and effective cost-cutting, among other issues weighing on the industry. They also talked about the ever-increasing influence of e-commerce on sales and brands adopting platforms to sell direct-to-consumer and to drive traffic to their own site. More than 100 people Zoomed or called in.
As for how the fashion industry will change due to COVID-19, Higasa said the crisis has brought many people from different parts of the sector together. “Everyone is really examining the fashion system that we have now and how grueling the schedule is for designers, buyers and manufacturers. Hopefully, we’ll have a chance to reexamine and look at things to see what can work in this new normal,” she said.
With 35 million Americans unemployed, the prospect of rekindling domestic manufacturing was discussed, as well as how technology can improve efficiencies and sustainable practices without displacing workers.
Asked about her daily conversations with designers, Gilhart spoke of how the shutdown has affected the supply chain and created fabric shortages. “Stores are closed, they can’t deliver, they don’t get paid, budgets are cut, employees are furloughed…after they get over that initial stage of panic, they go into more of a creative space of thinking, ‘What’s our next step and how are we going to do this?’” she said. “It’s really a coming together to try to figure out how to move forward, how to save your business and how to create a new kind of fashion future.”
Fashion weeks, the way that clothing is being sold and the absence of any big events for at least the next six months are among the changes underfoot, Gilhart said. “So much of what fed the fashion industry has stopped,” she said. “We have to focus on it [the glass] being half-full. We’re a community and like Cecilia said, a trillion-dollar business. We’re going to go through some rocky waters over the next six months, but I feel 100 percent sure that we can reinvent ourselves. It has fast-forwarded technology. What might have taken us 10 years to get to — all of a sudden we are here. We’re forced to change.”
Expecting an upswing in sustainable practices, Gilhart advised the audience to support their local businesses and to try to really know who they are buying from. “Buy from people rather than brands. Know what is behind your purchases. It really counts now,” she said.
Hanazawa addressed how supply chain transparency can help minimize risk, especially in terms of shortages in relation to PPE.
Whether some of the fall trade shows will have on-location events in New York will probably depend on any spikes in COVID-19 cases this summer. With travel upended, buyers will need to learn to buy a collection that they see in Paris here rather than fly to Paris, Gilhart said. While the fashion industry used to be full of extravagances, “There are no more extravagances. We’re having to pull back, but we’re just having to be more creative,” she said.
A designer or brand could use existing fabric they have or buy surplus fabrics from others to avoid the expense of making their own fabrics. “It’s everything from the supply chain to employees to how they see their stores. Everything is kind of scaled down,” said Gilhart, adding that the business is going to look very different, but fresher.
The Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff asked if the panelists see opportunities to establish safe and fair working conditions in light of the current crisis. Gilhart said there is no other way. “I always tell young designers that they need to do things the right way because everything is going to be very transparent in the future. We have the technology to do that,” she said.