“I have a lot of time on my hands, like everyone,“ Marc Jacobs said last week.
Like millions more of the homebound (or in his case, hotel-bound), Jacobs isn’t on grown-up spring break. For most of us similarly confined, it’s more like house arrest, imposed by common sense, company mandate and, increasingly, by government directive, à la those restrictions now confining the populations of New York State and California in efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Extreme social curtailment leaves many (guardians of children perhaps not so much) with time to ponder how we got here and where we’re going, and it’s scaring the hell out of us.
Last week’s mass shuttering of stores across North America and Europe stunned, contributing to the ghost-town eeriness of all manner of locales, including notoriously people-dense New York City, its public spaces now bleak and largely uninhabited, save for early-morning walkers desperate to maintain that 6-foot human-free radius en route, and the stalwart essential workers who by showing up for work and doing their jobs — stocking and selling in grocery stores and pharmacies; preparing and delivering take-out meals — make it possible for the rest of us to carry on with basic life needs, including food consumption and sanitary pooping. (Bravo Walmart, for its $550 million cash bonus plan for hourly employees, payable on April 2.)
Everyone’s trying to make sense of it all, designers included. The series here started as a single-piece follow-up to store closings, which WWD has and continues to cover in-depth on the brand level, here, the intent to look beyond the brand level at a very specific side of the human level — designers. A brand is, to large degree, a façade. A brand can’t make decisions, implement action, decide to close up shop and pay (or not pay) people, to encourage them use PTO or not. Brands don’t do that. Brands are inanimate entities, powerful fronts for the philosophies, actions and values of the people who comprise them, starting with those in charge or with other high-profile roles.
For designers with their names on the door, whether they’ve sold or retain a significant ownership stake, last week’s dramatic store closures hold particular resonance. For most, having a single store, let alone a network, is a culmination of years of toil, dedication and sacrifice. So how are these designers feeling right now? What was it like to get the news that their brand or group decided to close, or to have had made that call themselves? Those decisions, and their ongoing fallout, involve so many considerations: the well-being of staff and the greater community; the closure impact on business at an already challenging time; the emotional toll of knowing that the doors are locked.
After some anecdotal exchanges with designers following a piece I wrote on the topic, I decided to look at the personal, emotional level for designers. Last week, I contacted a number whose names are on the door and asked how they’re feeling right now. Their circumstances range from those of Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs, the megawatt star creative directors and public faces of luxury group brands, to Phillip Lim and Tibi’s Amy Smilovic, independent owners of far smaller brands, to Daniella Kallmeyer, who is beyond anxious for the future of her deftly managed 10-year-old brand that opened its first permanent store just last October.
In sending out requests, I didn’t specify a preference for a conversation or e-mailed response, but expected more of the latter, well-considered, five-line written missives. That didn’t happen. A couple of people declined, saying either that the moment is too emotionally raw or too fluid for them to comment right now. More wanted to talk, which led to numerous conversations, with more to follow over the next couple of days.
Kors began with a characteristic expression of optimism, while acknowledging that COVID-19 “is testing that optimism.” Jacobs noted that “it feels like the stages of grief. It feels like denial, it feels like panic, it feels like all of those things.”
They are two who, for the short term at least, don’t have to worry about their employees. They have the luxury of knowing that, as part of major luxury groups, their brands will pay even those employees who can’t work from home, mostly retail employees, at least through the initially announced lengths of the retail shutdowns.
“I hope that all of my family, my Michael Kors family, realizes we’re all in this together and we’re going to sort through it and try to figure out how to get to the other side,” Kors said. And from Jacobs, it’s essential that people in control of the purse strings “understand the severity of this whole thing.”
Others expressed different concerns for their employees, including the big one — health. While all talked about doing what they can to ensure the safety of employees and clients, Vera Wang and Phillip Lim referenced a specific demographic, the highly skilled denizens of their ateliers — sewers, patternmakers, etc. who, according to Wang, “tend to be older” and therefore at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Thus, they accidentally raised a completely non-coronavirus-related issue: Are certain essential workplace skills at risk as those who perform them age? Hardly a front-and-center issue right now, but fashion is a complex industry, a labyrinth of interconnected subtexts.
More imminently, independent designers are facing hard, painful choices that will directly impact the lives of their employees. 3.1 Phillip Lim was among the first brands to close stores, doing so early last week. “Wen [Zhou, Lim’s business partner] and I sat down, and we said, people are asleep to this issue.…The stores are a petrie dish,” Lim said. They closed that night. While they’re paying their at-home retail employees for now, covering payroll isn’t their only concern. The brand’s e-commerce platforms remain up and running, and the partners very quickly added an Archival Sale of items that were readily available in-house, the goal to cover the cost of health insurance premiums. (There’s great stuff. Check it out.)
As for Smilovic, through 23 yeas in business, she had never laid off a single employee, not after 9/11, and not during the 2008-09 recession. That ended last week, when she laid off a full 30 percent of the 85-person workforce. It devastated her, and she tailored exit packages for each individual. “We had to lay off some people who have health issues. I am not terminating their health insurance; there’s no way. I mean, I will sell my house.”
Tibi and 3.1 Phillip Lim share challenges with many midsize businesses. Kallmeyer’s situation is even more acute. She had to let one of her two employees go last week, when she closed her one store for the foreseeable future. The store was in its nascent stage; she committed to a five-year lease last October, only after a pop-up she opened in June in the space met with phenomenal success.
“It felt like exactly what I needed as a creative, to be able to connect physically not only with my customers but to…all of the elements of my creative soul, and [to create] a space where I could provide community, I could provide aestheticism,” she said. “Yes, this is very scary for me.”
Such words only hint at the level of thought and emotion these designers expressed, their perspectives on business too relevant to others to be condensed into single snippets, and their musings on whether the universe is, in Lim’s words, demanding “a cosmic correction,” something many of us have probably considered. Therefore, today through Friday, this Diary will feature a series of fuller conversations with Jacobs, Lim, Kallmeyer and others. Here, it starts with Kors and Smilovic.
In the meantime, a thought for all from fashion’s most dedicated optimist, Kors: “I do have to believe that the human spirit will prevail.”
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