What’s going on with luxury retail? As in, why is it going on? With every public official and medical and scientific expert out there pleading with people to avoid all nonessential public encounters that require physical interaction closer than that six-foot distance, how can the lords of luxury continue to keep their doors open for business in locales where governments haven’t mandated closure?
People need some of what Walmart sells — food, groceries, pharmaceuticals. Ditto, Target, CVS and Walgreens, all now partnered with the federal government in trying to stem the coronavirus crisis. Workers at such retailers — sales associates, managers, stock people, security, delivery, all of them — are now in the same category as health-care providers: Their work is essential. They are at risk for the greater good, and God willing, their employers are doing everything possible to ensure their good health. (A monetary bonus during or at the end of the crisis would be nice, too.)
But Dior? Chanel? Ralph Lauren? Prada? Nobody needs what they sell; by definition, luxury is a world of want, not need. For what greater good are their retail employees now endangering themselves and, should one become infected, everyone she or he comes in contact with? To sell a handbag? A source with knowledge of Kering said its U.S. stores will be closed as of Tuesday, but a brand spokesperson did not respond to that question. Among department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue said late Monday that it would close its New York flagship.
So, how many sane shoppers are out perusing stores now, anyway? Italy, Spain and France are in full-on lockdown, and New York and California may be similarly constricted soon. As of Monday night in New York, eat-in restaurants, bars, movie theaters and gyms will be closed for business. In California, all bars, wineries and nightclubs are shuttered. But the luxury purveyors of Beverly Hills, Madison Avenue and other tony enclaves — open for business. There are multiple ironies here, not the least of which is that on any random pre-virus day, a stroll down Madison Avenue would have revealed mostly empty or near-empty stores. At this point, their primary function is “world of” marketing. But to whom? Who in her right mind is out shopping now?
“I need that new ugly sneaker,” or “I need my favorite spring runway look” — hyperbolic fashion speak in the best of times. In the Western world, no one with the means to do so needs to buy a fashion, accessories or beauty anything right now, not a dress, handbag or lip balm. Emily Weiss of Glossier knows that. Last week, the young woman who has catapulted herself from the Teen Vogue intern on “The Hills” to major beauty entrepreneur in remarkably short order proved her mettle as an industry leader — one with her head screwed on right. In a remarkable statement posted to her brand’s web site, she said that she would close Glossier stores for two weeks, and that their staffs would be paid. “We’ll sacrifice some near-term business goals, but we’re prepared to put public health ahead of our bottom line…” she wrote. “We are leaders in retail, in so many ways.…Why wouldn’t we lead here? This quickly became an easy, albeit painful, decision. Together with our community, we will always strive to create less harm and more good in the world.”
Long-established retailers of don’t-need-it-now goods are also striving for the good. Apple, Nike, Urban Outfitters and Everlane are among those who have closed stores while committing to paying their workers, at least through the original duration of closure, typically two weeks.
Patagonia has gone further than all of them; it closed its stores and all operations, even shutting down its web site until at least March 27 when it will offer an update. If employees can work from home, great. Those whose jobs don’t allow for that will also be paid in full. Chief executive officer Rose Marcario noted in a web site post that when faced with challenges, “I have always been inspired by how we emerge stronger and with an even deeper sense of purpose. We will persevere through this challenge, too.”
There’s one person to thank for that: Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. As the brand’s principal owner, he has long set the tone for a company that lives by its values, proving so again, at this moment of historic upheaval.
Would that others take a page from Chouinard’s book. Most of luxury’s major purveyors, are, like Patagonia, controlled by a billionaire majority owner, whether individual or family, in some cases, one of the richest people in the world. In other words, the one who calls the shots.
Some have announced important coronavirus programs. LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton is adapting perfume factories to manufacture hand sanitizer that it will give to French hospitals. Prada is donating two intensive care units to hospitals in Milan, while Giorgio Armani, Sergio Rossi, Marco Bizzarri of Gucci, Donatella Versace and Chiari Ferragni have also stepped up. They should be applauded for these highly commendable, initiatives that are outward-facing — and highly marketable.
But what of back home at the ranch? On Monday, I approached several brands with a series of specific questions about their retail employees, whose public-facing roles make them particularly vulnerable to infection. Many of these workers are also likely at the bottom of the brands’ pay scales, in some cases, earning at or near minimum wage.
The questions in a nutshell: is there a dichotomy between corporate staff working from home whenever possible while stores outside of Italy and France remain open, exposing public-facing retail workers to infection? In stores closed or that may be closed in the future, are/will retail workers be paid in full? Are/will they be asked to apply paid time off to store closure time, as has been rumored about several brands in several countries?
Only one brand gave substantive answers: Valentino. While a spokesperson would not speak definitively about additional store closures, she said, “We are managing this situation day by day, country by country. We have established a crisis executive committee (Comex) which is working with all colleagues in all regions in order to be proactive and reactive. On more than one occasion, we have anticipated government decisions.…Our h.r. departments and our Comex are working country by country [to develop] specific actions in line with local regulations but most importantly, in full alignment with our people and with unions, too.”
She stated unequivocally that, “Everyone will be paid, even if the store is not open.…Our organization is putting our employees, our community, at the epicenter of Valentino structure.” Regarding sick leave, “If a Valentino community member becomes sick, we will not request that they use vacation during the illness.”
Finally, as for nonretail jobs that can only be done on-site such as atelier and sample-room work, “Some of these departments have already locked down because we are facing less work than usual and we have proactively reorganized workflows. For sure, all salaries are/will be guaranteed. ”Direct answers — not so hard, right? And surely a relief for Valentino employees to have assurance that, should the virus force a short-term elimination of their jobs, they will be paid.
A Prada spokeswoman at least had a viable reason for her lack of specificity: “We are issuing our FY19 results this Wednesday and we will be able to give more details on the current situation from Wednesday onward.” Beyond that, she offered only that the brand is “strictly following the recommendations issued by the government of each country.”
The other luxury purveyors approached are the obvious suspects — the entities who control the landscape and are controlled by billionaires whose corporate and personal pockets run plenty deep enough to cover the payroll costs of a few weeks of store closures: LVMH, Kering, Chanel, Prada, Hermès, Ralph Lauren.
A Ralph Lauren rep responded with a checklist of what the company is doing in response to the coronavirus crisis, only two points of which had anything to do with the questions asked. She restated the news of the temporary closing of the brand’s hospitality spots in the U.S. and Europe, and noted the establishment of an employee relief fund, through which any employee can apply for a grant of up to $2,500 to help with virus-related financial hardship.
And from Kering, again said to be closing stores on Tuesday: “Kering and its Houses are adopting all the necessary measures to protect the health and safety of their employees, implementing forms of alternative and flexible work, including remote working, and strictly following the guidelines of the respective national authorities in each country in which they operate. The Group and the Houses are constantly monitoring the evolution of the situation.” Phew!
As for LVMH, Hermès and Chanel, reps acknowledged receipt of the query but didn’t get back with responses. Again, the gist is pretty straightforward: If you care about the entirety of your workforce, why aren’t you closing your stores? If you close and you care, will you pay?
Would that the answers were obvious. As Emily Weiss wrote to conclude her Glossier statement, “This is a time for us to remember our humanity.”
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