People emerge from the subway wearing protective face masks at Columbus Circle in New York, New York, USA, 04 March 2020. The city recently announced new cases of the coronavirus, including a patient who is a healthcare worker who had recently travelled to Iran.Coronavirus in New York, USA - 04 Mar 2020

As consumer demand for fashion apparel moves from a “mode of necessity and comfort to one of recreation,” according to a new report by The NPD Group, the textile industry is weighing the role of anti-viral technologies to address the safety concerns of shoppers.

Regarding apparel spending, NPD’s report noted that U.S. apparel dollar sales in the last week of April were 35 percent lower than the same week in 2019 — and that is half what it was at the lowest point during the pandemic. “Shifts in apparel purchase behavior have occurred across both categories and wearer segments since the start of the pandemic, pointing to important changes in consumer buying phases,” the firm said.

Maria Rugolo, apparel industry analyst at The NPD Group, explained that consumers are beginning to expand their apparel needs from the bare necessities. “Apparel was a low priority early in the COVID-19 crisis when consumers were focused on things like groceries and other in-home necessities, but we’re seeing evidence that apparel is once again entering the spending consideration set.”

And with summer months approaching, seasonal apparel categories, shorts and swimwear recently captured nearly one-fifth of total apparel spending, which is more spending share for this category than the same time last year, authors of the report noted. “Warmer weather is spanning much of the country, allowing consumers to extend their mostly homebound routines to the outdoors, and expanding their apparel needs beyond comfort and above-the-keyboard dressing,” Rugolo said.

“Needs and behaviors will continue to shift with each phase of the country’s reopening and crisis recovery, but it is encouraging to see the consumer demonstrating an interest in adding to their wardrobe. Tapping into this interest with a focus on needs and an underlying yearning for normalcy will be central to capturing apparel sales along the uncertain road that lies ahead,” Rugolo said.

Shoppers wear face masks and sanitize their hands on the sidewalk at Herald Square in New York.

Shoppers wear face masks and sanitize their hands on the sidewalk at Herald Square in New York.  John Minchillo/AP/Shutterstock

So, will shoppers seek anti-viral apparel or accessories as they begin adding to their wardrobes? According to Allison Pfingst, a fashion historian, archivist and advisor of the Fashion Studies department at Fordham University, the anti-viral market for consumers is in its nascent stages, and much of its success depends on efficacy.

Pfingst told WWD, “One of the big questions buzzing through the fashion industry is how the pandemic will change the face of fashion. Styles and consumption habits seem to be getting top billing, but the most novel changes may actually be in textile technology.”

She continued, “The majority of us likely have ‘How long can COVID-19 survive on surfaces?’ in our recent search history. But most of these quandaries are directed at figuring out when we can safely touch the cardboard box housing our latest online purchase or the fresh fruit and vegetables we’re buying to try to cancel out all the emergency canned food we’ve been consuming.”

And now that consumers are beginning to shop for apparel again, a key question arises: How long do viruses live on fabric? “The reality is, the average diameter of a coronavirus particle is 125 nanometers (nm),” Pfingst explained. “The diameter of a sewing needle ranges from about 1.17 to 0.35 millimeters (mm). For [anyone] unfamiliar with the finer points of the metric system, 0.001mm equals 1000 nm. So, while all those embroidered and sequined masks may look cute, every prick of the needle allows more room for the virus to get into your breathing space.”

But masks aside, it’s hard not to notice the many “pandemic collections” that have cropped up in recent months and emerging technologies that claim to rid material surfaces of viruses and bacteria. Pfingst warns that legitimately anti-viral products take time to perfect, and consumers should think twice before purchasing anything that “promises protective miracles” — unless science can back it up.

“While [anti-viral textiles] may be really great for protective care for health-care workers, everyday clothing can actually be quite tricky to apply treatments to. Clothing has to be safe enough to be in prolonged direct contact with skin, breathable, washable and heat-resistant. There may also be questions raised about the environmental impacts of these anti-viral coatings as they become more common,” Pfingst told WWD.

What we might see more of is anti-viral accessories for prolonged protection, such as masks, gloves, bags, hats, scarves, shoes and jewelry, as well as anti-viral cloths, wipes, or sprays — really any item that comes into regular contact with the hands and face, Pfingst said. “Without thinking about it, we so often place items such as this on the ground or counters or tables, and countless other questionable surfaces — and then place them on our laps, beds, couches, etc.”

Citizens of Humanity

A cotton mask made by Citizens of Humanity. Photo courtesy of Citizens of Humanity. 

And while the desire for protection is warranted, it seems that fear and uncertainty have also ushered in greater awareness. Kathleen Talbot, Reformation‘s chief sustainability officer and vice president of operations, told WWD that “COVID-19 has fundamentally increased customers’ awareness of the global impact of fashion. There have been more conversations about the culture of waste it fosters, which stands in contrast to the simplified lifestyles most of us are leading right now. We’ve already seen consumers demand better, more ethical operations, especially as it pertains to the way workers are treated, and that will only increase over time. As an industry, we need to continue to evolve with that in mind.”

And Citizens of Humanity’s ceo, Amy Williams, said aspects of sustainability such as quality and origin may also be growing trends. “Overall, I think people are now looking to consume less and opting for products that are more versatile, well-made and long-lasting. Products that they can enjoy at home, wear out in the future, and have the ability to be worn in a multitude ways such as denim and casual clothing. I also believe U.S.-based consumers are looking closer at who they purchase from and supporting locally made brands who are rooted in integrity and quality across all facets of the business from production methods, to content, to customer service.”

That new sense of higher awareness, coupled with sustainability, may eventually dictate much of what consumers want to buy, according to Renee Henze, global marketing and commercial development director at DuPont Industrial Biomaterials. “The pandemic has forced us all to take a pause and reassess. It’s also given our planet an opportunity to heal itself as we shelter in place. We are proud to be part of a brand with a smaller environmental footprint,” Henze told WWD.

“People are looking for clothes that last longer and are created to look good and feel good wear after wear. As brands and designers navigate the future of fashion, it’s a great time to consider innovation in material selection for more enduring styles. Quality, sustainable fabrics create garments that will perform better over time. We know the industry is looking for ways to meet consumers where they are and envision a future for fashion that reduces impact on the environment. We’re here to offer solutions to the brands and designers that are activating this type of change.”

Transparency is a big part of that, Henze said, adding that the firm recently launched its Common Thread Fabric Certification Program, which ensures that fabrics mills with its certificate in hand have a unique molecular footprint of its partially plant-based Sorona polymer. Its new program speaks to what consumers want now, and “is built on a clear chain of custody. By providing this link between mills, designers, and brands, we are supporting the industry in the current climate and helping it prepare for the future.”

A shaky economy and consumers’ collective uncertainty also means that shoppers are scrutinizing their spending now more than ever before, Henze said, agreeing that quality will emerge as a priority for consumers. “The current climate has forced a lot of people to reconsider their spending habits. As a result, we’re seeing the buying community reassess the frequency, and quality, of their purchases.”

“When [consumers are] ready to make a purchase, they’re choosing brands that align with their values. To keep the end consumers engaged and devoted to a brand, transparency and trust is essential. We’re helping brands build that bridge.”

DuPont Sorona Faux Fur

Sustainable materials such as DuPont Sorona’s faux fur, a buttery soft bio-based material, may take priority for discriminating consumers post-COVID-19. Photo courtesy of DuPont Industrial Biomaterials.  Matthias Robl

But overall consumption during the pandemic is a separate issue that also merits discussion.

Tricia Carey, director of global business development for denim at Lenzing Fibers, told WWD, “The pandemic pause has forced consumers to reassess their consumption levels, as well as the definition of value. With stores closed for months, offices working remotely, and cultural events cancelled there is little desire to make new purchases.”

“With the consumer reassessing value in products, the element of storytelling becomes even more critical. The decision to buy will include knowing where products are made and how they impact the environment. While consumers grapple with global uncertainties, the aspects of security and comfort are key for textiles,” Carey explained.

And while high-performing and sustainable fabrics such as Lenzing’s Tencel could be “essential in future textile developments,” Carey cautions that anti-bacterial and anti-viral textiles “should be under scrutiny of marketing claims with increased government regulations and testing.”

Both Carey and Henze emphasized the need for change and the importance of circularity for the evolution of textiles. Moving forward, “Brands and manufacturers will need to eliminate the antiquated ‘supply chain’ linear modal and move toward a supply network. A network where all companies are significant contributors towards a circular model. We are braced not only for change — but also for progress.”

For more Business news from WWD, see:

Outdoor Brands Talk Coronavirus Impacts

Brick-and-Mortar, Digital Retailers Adjust Strategies in Wake of Coronavirus

Field Notes: How Fabric Is Helping Save the Planet