The Riccardo Grassi showroom on Milan's Via Piranesi.

After a quick April break, traditionally the fashion circus restarts its itinerant journey around the globe in May to present, review, sell and buy cruise collections — which were originally born to meet the glamorous lifestyles of American tourists heading to warmer destinations in the middle of the winter and then turned into the biggest revenue generator for most fashion and accessories labels.

But, clearly, this season will be very different. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic not only caused the cancellation of the resort shows scheduled by major houses, spanning from Chanel and Dior to Prada and Gucci, but, more dramatically, stopped the actual production of those collections, causing damage across the entire supply chain.

Among those impatient to understand how the situation will evolve — it seems that fashion manufacturing companies in Italy might be able to reopen this month — are showroom owners, who are rolling up their sleeves to adapt to the new landscape.

“We expect pre-spring market to be a third of what it is normally, as stores will be financially severely impacted from the pandemic. For this reason, we will only offer a tiny selection of our brands, and only those that are able to sample collections in time and are relevant to the delivery times of November and December,” said Maria Lemos, founder and director of Rainbowwave, which operates showrooms in London, Paris and New York. “We are also asking all the brands showing pre-spring to narrow down the collections to the bare minimum, and think creatively on a combination of product that is essential but also exciting and new.”

“If the manufacturing companies reopen soon, I think we will be able to start the women’s resort and men’s spring campaigns at the end of June and they will continue through August,” said Riccardo Grassi Showroom founder Riccardo Grassi.

“Now, it’s hard to make accurate forecasts, but I assume that out of 12 brands, only two or three will be able to present their resort collections in the traditional June dates,” said Jacopo Foti, founder of Fo.ri Showroom in New York. “For sure, we expect fewer clients and smaller orders. Those who won’t discount the spring collections as soon as they reopen might be able to sell them as resort.”

Resort brands will be the most affected by the crisis, accordin g to Rainbowwave founder Maria Lemos

Resort brands will be the most affected by the crisis, according to Rainbowwave founder Maria Lemos.  Courtesy of Caravana

For others, a sales campaign in June is definitely not an option.

“The next campaign will kick off in July and will continue through mid-August,” said Massimo Bonini, founder of the Massimo Bonini accessories showroom. “Since a few seasons, we set aside traditional sales campaigns’ schedules to embrace a more customized approach, trying to be closer to the needs of final consumers and developing ad hoc strategies with brands aimed at offering exclusivity.”

“We canceled June sales over two months ago. It’s pointless to put designers under the stress to create something which we wouldn’t know where it would take them,” said Maria Kastani, founder of Kastani Biz showroom and consultancy, who is waiting to see how the current situation pans out to confirm the next sales campaign.

“Our suppliers are incapable of giving straight answers. We let them know that we would rather start at the beginning of July as people will not be prepared to buy in collections while their store is still closed or while we are still in lockdown,” said Alex Delafonteyne, founder of New Look Fashion Deal, an Antwerp-based showroom serving the Benelux area. “I only have confirmations from Veronica Beard, Jérôme Dreyfuss and Semicouture for July.”

However, whenever they are back to business, showrooms will have to adopt new strategies to revise their sales approach, undoubtedly with a major focus on digital technologies.

“The most important thing now is restarting, taking all the measures to safeguard people’s health. We have been working with this mind-set since a couple of weeks and we are gearing up to develop the upcoming sales campaign digitally,” said Grassi. “We will use all the technical tools at our disposal, spanning from videos and 3-D images, to virtually meet with our clients, who are located across 70 different countries. We did the first experiments after February’s Paris Fashion Week, when we finalized 250 orders via web.”

Grassi added that in June, for the biggest clients, the showroom will set up dedicated rooms to showcase a selection of key pieces of those collections that could fit the retailers’ needs, developing a customized B2B online service.

“We are definitely embracing digital. June market will be conducted via a digital platform and we’re spending a lot of time researching these as we want to ensure we offer our unique Rainbowwave experience and expertise,” said Lemos. “Depending on how long the lockdown lasts in New York City and the U.K., one-to-one appointments may also take place in our London and New York showrooms.”

Amina Muaddi x featuring Pernille Teisbaek

According to Massimo Bonini, developing exclusive capsules for select retailers will be key for luxury accessories brands.  Courtesy of Mytheresa

“On our side we had already developed an online platform related to our showroom for buyers to finalize their selections and orders on this virtual tool, that has been developed by our sales and IT team to allow for smart processing of selections and data,” explained Giovanina Attie, cofounder of Paris-based showroom Maison Pyramide. “It also allows us to have complete visibility at the end of each season for each brand’s bestsellers, most selected styles and lowest performing products.”

However, executives like Foti question buyers’ flexibility to adapt to different digital tools.

“As a showroom, I’m pushing clients to adopt an already established tool, rather than different ones, created by the IT teams of each company,” he said. “I don’t think that clients will want to learn to use different tools to place an order. I forecast a huge growth of Joor and Nuorder.”

But is digital the ultimate solution for the future of fashion and accessories sales? And does every showroom have the resources to adapt so quickly to the new needs of the industry?

“We will certainly use digital tools, we already have a sort of B2B e-commerce for the showroom, but I don’t think these are real solutions,” said Bonini. “When you deal with the type of luxury products we sell, it remains super important to keep a constant, personal relationship with clients.”

“We have over 400 clients and for me it’s impossible to serve all of them digitally. I would need 10 computers and ten models,” said Morena Zabeni, founder of Milan’s Winwood Fashion showroom. “I think it’s too time-consuming to do the sales via video… I’m not sure buyers are happy to spend an hour with the salesperson in front of the screen. I really doubt it.”

Even if uncertainty is the industry buzzword right now, it’s clear for all the showrooms that their sales will be down this upcoming season. For example, Perséphone Kessanidis, cofounder of Agence M&K in Paris, expects no sales for resort 2021 and at least a 60 percent drop for the summer 2021 season.

“We will definitely collect fewer orders this summer, especially from the United States, where department stores were going through a declining phase already before the coronavirus crisis,” noted Grassi. “I think that the business model of the North American department stores, with a constant flux of new products with a very short shelf life, is very outdated. Way before this crisis, they were already asking for discounts and deferred payments, which means that the virus hit a system which was already sick.”

Extend the shelf life of products is essential for Jacopo Foti, founder of New York-based showroom Fo.ri

Extending the shelf life of products is essential for Jacopo Foti, founder of New York-based showroom Fo.ri.  Courtesy Photo

“No one really knows how the consumer will react post-lockdown. But financially, we are all certain that there will be a massive impact on budgets available,” agreed Lemos. “This is the time for every brand to reflect on its importance in the marketplace, what is its point of difference and real value.”

According to Lemos, Rainbowwave is rethinking its whole offering, as well as the timing of showing each category. “Right now, resort is definitely the category that will be hit the hardest, and we are pushing all our resort brands to only show once for next spring-summer,” she said. “Active and wellness brands are very relevant now, as is casualwear, homewear and beauty. Fine jewelry has maintained its place in the market, as it never goes on sale. Designer brands are also impacted heavily, but might resurge when the lockdown is lifted.”

“In this difficult moment, we feel the responsibility of supporting the brands and designers we represent by pushing them to face markets in a more realistic and practical way. The fact is that what you sell in the different markets and also online is very different, a customized strategy is key,” said Grassi. “From what we hear from our clients, brands will have to focus on very realistic collections for quotidian use and less focused on occasions since I expect that until the second half of 2021 social life will be very limited.”

Foti suggested brands develop smaller and more seasonless collections, while Bonini stressed creativity.

“I think that to face the new scenario, designers and brands should put their energy in the development of very focused and precise collections with a very strong point of view. I think in the past few years, creativity has been highly underestimated,” he said. “In a way, the virus with all its dramatic implications highlighted all the unhealthy logic guiding this industry, forcing all of us to revise the rules, the approach to collections and the schedule of sales campaigns.”

“I think the whole system will change soon, finding a new, more rational balance. I think it will be important to return to present two collections a year, with the women’s spring lineups presented in July rather than in September,” said Grassi.

“I think this crisis will force everybody to question the current system, which has become unsustainable. There are definitely too many collections, designers lost focus and creativity, buyers tend to buy only what is appealing for the gray market… we definitely need a change,” Zabeni agreed. “First of all, I think it’s crucial to return to produce only two collections a year, maybe with a small cruise capsule for those brands that have stores in resort destinations, such as Saint Barth or Palm Beach. Nowadays, there are so many collections that my showroom makes sales 10 months a year, which is honestly insane.”

Those paying the higher price will be small, independent labels, according to Winwood Fashion founder Morena Zabeni

Those paying the higher price will be small, independent labels, according to Winwood Fashion founder Morena Zabeni.  Courtesy of Raquel Diniz

In this perspective, Zabeni said she hopes that big brands will decide to not present the resort collections. “My wish is that they all decide to wait until September to launch beautiful lineups with engaging presentations, which will bring the attention back to products, fabrics, craftsmanship,” she said.

Moving from six collections a year to one and a half is Bonini’s more extreme proposal.

“Designers have no time to think and create, they are just trapped in a system which needs to be fed with a constant flux of new products. Now they have to do six collections a year, I think the ideal would be one collection and a half and then just exclusive and special small drops,” he said. “When the world of finance entered fashion companies, the whole system was doped. Managers starting to ask for more collections delivered earlier and earlier in order to cash invoices early and close the fiscal year with bigger numbers. This is definitely not sustainable anymore.”

At the same time, returning to a longer shelf life for collections is the most urgent aspect for Foti.

“We currently accept that our products are sold with a 40 percent discount after being in the stores for only 10 to 12 weeks. It’s time to buy less but better. Why should we keep running to have coats in the stores in June? Coats that will be sold at the sales in November,” he said. “I work with all the department stores and Nordstrom is the only one working with a real ‘see now wear now’  concept. For example, with Italian brand Seventy, we deliver them coats in October and linen pieces in May, which is something impossible with the others.”

However, while everybody believes in the greater resiliency of big luxury labels, major concerns are raised around the survival of small, independent brands.

“Those which will be most drastically hit are small brands that probably won’t be able to find manufacturing companies available to produce small quantities,” said Zabeni. “To save their own business, the majority of the production companies will give priority to medium- and big-sized brands able to guarantee larger orders. And it’s a pity, because in many cases, small, independent labels are more creative than bigger brands.”

“We do believe the coming seasons will be very challenging, especially for emerging and young established brands in reaching the interest of the remaining retail players. Not being able to meet the buyers in person and have their product stand out through quality and presentation will make it much more challenging for them to compete and secure budgets,” said Attie. “That’s why we strongly believe in the power of the direct to consumer retail approach and we have already been seeing for a few seasons now that designers are being selective and focused with their choice of wholesale partners, allowing for more selective points of sales and for stronger and strategic brand-driven campaigns to support wholesale performance.”

In addition, Zabeni pointed out that the difficulties small, independent labels face will also endanger the smallest distributors. “I also think that many wholesale and distribution agencies will close, especially because our category is the last to be paid by brands, which when there is a lack of liquidity give priority to manufacturing companies and other types of suppliers they consider more essential,” she said.

“Communication through the crisis of the next six months and maybe longer, will be the key factor. I believe designers will need showrooms more than ever before, but wholesale partners will need to behave with moral conduct, honoring orders, discussing payment terms and protecting everyone’s cash flow,” said Lemos, also highlighting the importance to align sales dates globally. “Retailers going into [discounted sales] earlier and earlier each season is destroying our industry. To align these dates globally across online and brick-and-mortar stores would really help keep everyone in business.”

“I would just hope for a bit more flexibility among the different parts,” Foti lamented. “I think that those clients asking for 50 percent discounts on invoices are wrong and at the same time also those brands which currently don’t accept cancellations of fall 2020 collections are also wrong. We can overcome this only if we work together, and we can take this as an opportunity to get better.”

Delafonteyne has organized an Avaaz petition backing a request by European Parliament members Hilde Vautmans and Guy Verhofstadt to the European Commissioner of Internal Affairs Thierry Breton. In their letter, they ask for a postponement of seasonal sales throughout the European Union member states up to Aug. 1 for spring-summer 2020 and Feb. 1 for fall-winter 2020-2021.

“We asked to add that this should also be applied to online businesses and that a non-discount period between the reopening after the lockdown of stores should be installed up to the seasonal sales. That addition was taken into consideration by the European Parliament members,” he said.

Delafonteyne and Luc Dheedene of Fashion Club 70, an independent fashion agent which also serves Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, joined with Mode Unie, a Belgian organization of fashion retailers, to organize a similar petition for Belgium, which has been signed by 2,700 retailers.

Delafonteyne lamented that while the Belgian government has agreed to postpone seasonal sales until Aug. 1, it has only banned discounts for the month of July, meaning that physical retailers may follow the lead of online sellers and offer early discounts as soon as the lockdown ends.

“The decision of the government didn’t take into consideration the hard reality and influence of online players on physical stores: the measure is inexplicable and the result of a Belgian compromise,” he said.

In the Netherlands, which accounts for most of his business, the situation is very different, with some 70 percent of retailers remaining open. However, Delafonteyne estimated that retail sales there were down 45 percent compared with the same period last year due to the impact of COVID-19.

“The Netherlands also have a different legislation than Belgium and France: there are no non-discount periods and you can do sales and discounts all year round,” he noted. “One or two retailers in the Netherlands are offering important discounts already.”

With no government aid for retail staff on technical unemployment, he expects Dutch retailers to start offering discounts of 50 percent from June and 70 percent thereafter.

Delafonteyne said that with only 15 percent of retailers having e-commerce, many of them have started doing business via Instagram or Facebook. “Several Belgian stores told me that they managed, up to now, to sell 50 percent during lockdown of what they sell normally that same period. We have been active in providing photo materials of the different brands we have,” he said.

The categories most impacted are silk dresses and tops, evening wear, suits, jackets, skirts and shoes. Conversely, leisurewear, smaller items such as T-shirts, cotton dresses and tops, lightweight jumpers and sneakers are performing well.

For the fall-winter 2020-2021 season, Delafonteyne called for a full non-discount season, with sales beginning on Feb. 1.

“We need a longer ‘living time’ of each garment, more respect for the garment and accept that it comes at a price: more local production (what counts for our food counts for our clothing as well), investment pieces rather than throwaway fashion,” he said.

“But above all, this period is needed for retailers to recover from this terrible crisis. Most of them will have accumulated losses with spring-summer 2020. Therefore online needs to follow the same rules as physical retail,” he argued. “If this doesn’t happen in the coming six months, I foresee the closure of 50 percent, if not more, of our physical retailers in Belgium.”

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