LONDON — In the midst of a pandemic, the pen, keyboard and camera are proving mighty tools for fashion brands as a way of keeping customers close, and engaged, and highlighting the challenges every level of the industry is facing.
With expensive purchases and new season trends quickly losing their appeal as people work from home and make trips only to supermarkets or parks, many brands are finding ways to forge ahead by leveraging online communication in creative — and sensitive — ways.
Rosh Mahtani, founder of the jewelry label Alighieri and recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II award for British design, is an entrepreneur who believes in the power of the pen.
In an online letter to friends of the brand, she said her team had been thinking of ways to unite the Alighieri community, “and we’d love to collate a collection of handwritten letters from people who inspire us.”
She plans to share the collection of letters, poems or song lyrics with her online community in an effort to generate positivity during this difficult time.
While there is little commercial motivation or monetary return for these efforts — Mahtani has also pledged to donate 20 percent of online sales to the U.K.’s Trussell Trust charitable organization — they go a long way in strengthening a label’s bonds with the consumer, and underlining the values of the brand.
Fellow jewelry designer Gaelle Khouri, who is based in Beirut, admitted that demand has been “dead” for at least two to three weeks, but that shouldn’t stop creatives from connecting with their audiences.
“We should be telling stories that connect to what is happening today. You can’t just post a product shot with a price — it’s completely disconnected to reality. This is making people re-evaluate a lot of things,” she said.
Other companies have been sharing Spotify playlists and at-home outfits, cooking live on Instagram TV or having motivational conversations on their podcasts to keep the dialogue going.
“We noticed several of our followers were posting about their best working-from-home outfits. The message was the same across all of them: Even though you’re isolated, it’s important to put effort into your appearance and show up for yourself,” said Rose Hall, head of marketing at the Scandi label Baum und Pferdgarten, which has been reposting its followers’ stay-at-home outfits and sharing its playlists as “another way to lift the mood” of its social community.
Fellow Danish influencers and Rotate designers Jeanette Madsen and Thora Valdimars have also been doing Instagram Q&A’s, encouraging their audiences to dress up at home and share pictures of themselves in their colorful, puff-sleeved Rotate pieces.
“Everyone is looking to social media these days for a sense of community and to still be inspired by beautiful fashion. We are seeing now more than ever that influencers and brands are tagging each other and interacting through social media, encouraging each other to make the most of the situation and keep everyone’s spirit high with content that is motivational and inspirational,” said Madsen and Valdimars.
Anine Bing, who has sizeable followings both on her own account and that of her namesake label, has also been using Instagram Stories more during this time, having live Q&A’s and adjusting her content based on followers’ feedback.
“We are actively speaking to our audience on Instagram about what kind of content they want to see; we want to ensure our channels are keeping our customers motivated and inspired during this unprecedented time,” said Bing, who took the decision to close her stores across Europe since last week.
For Rixo, another digitally native brand that grew a following of 255,000 without any marketing or ad spend, Instagram is also the go-to platform. The designers have been working directly with their followers to create content they want to see.
“In the last few days, we have been concentrating on highlighting inspiring stories and acts of kindness on our Instagram Stories. We have asked our customers to DM and e-mail it into us, and to nominate people. We’ll also be looking to provide examples of women from different walks of life and how they are dealing with the current climate,” said the label’s cofounder Henrietta Rix.
Manu Atelier is a buzzy, Istanbul-based label whose business kicked off on social media. Its “Manu’s People” community has been growing ever since. The company is keeping the conversation going and slightly shifting the focus from product to lifestyle content.
“We’ve always been sharing lifestyle content that reflects Manu’s People, from music to arts and interiors. Right now we’ve started to do it more and we have ideas to cheer people up with things we’ve never done before that are not related to the product, but rather to the soul of the brand and its supporters,” said sisters Merve and Beste Manastir, who are also interacting more with customers via DM and providing quicker customer support on their web site.
“Everyone in the industry works hard on new projects and it’s important to keep them going, but without screaming,” they added of more product-focused initiatives.
For photographer and Deveaux artistic director Tommy Ton, online content and engagement is twofold and it can also serve as a source of strength and inspiration for the designers themselves. It’s also the best way to compensate for the lack of physical contact.
“Now that customers are no longer able to see or feel your collection, the importance of high-quality, interesting imagery is more important than ever,” said Ton.
Deveaux has been focused on highlighting the products and stores that can ship its product safely to customers and on adopting an honest approach about the challenges its manufacturers are facing.
“Our retail partners are taking massive hits in the same way we are, and anything we can do to support them is our primary strategy. I also think it’s a good time for brands to be transparent about their own struggles through e-mail and social media, and to expose how vulnerable the industry can be. We have factory workers in the Garment District taking significant risks to continue going to work, because COVID-19 or not, they need to make their living. At one of our factories, our entire tailoring program for spring 2020 was done by one sewer in her forties. In seemingly dire times like this, it might seem like fashion is a luxury and not a necessity, because the American public is so unaware of the entire ecosystem that exists around design, manufacturing, and retail,” added Ton.
Designers also collectively highlighted the importance of being extra mindful when it comes to social posting, given the harsh realities faced by the less fortunate during this time.
“We always strive to communicate with our audience in ways that engage and inspire, but now it’s important that we are considerate and sensitive to the current situation,” said Sandra Sandor, founder and creative director at Nanushka, which has closed its stores but expects to see growth in its online platform in the coming months.
“This is not a time to celebrate commercial success. This is the time to reflect, rethink our business model and turn our attention inside, to come out stronger when this will be over.”
“We are much more aware of not posting too many shopping driven stories right now. People are very engaged on social media and online but have taken a step back from shopping,” said Annamaria Brivio, founder of the Italian footwear label Paris Texas. “It’s slightly too early to be trying to drive online sales heavily as the priority right now is to stay healthy. People are browsing rather than shopping and we feel it’s best to focus on inspiration.”
Retailers, too, are looking beyond product-focused content to stay connected with their audiences. Porter, Net-a-porter’s editorial platform, went ahead with the launch of its new podcast last week, dubbed “Pieces of Me” and featuring women like Thandie Newton, Halima Aden and Sinéad Burke talking about defining life moments through the clothing they were wearing at the time.
Browns, which has also closed its physical London boutiques, is moving ahead with launches, including the second chapter of its “Conscious Series,” which features a capsule designed by Hillary Taymour of Collina Strada and a documentary where she takes viewers around her studio and explains her mission of creating upcycled collections.
“We feel we have a responsibility to support and stand beside our designers, creatives and contributors who make our platform our community. This is at the heart of the Browns ethos and has been for 50 years: From paying next generation talent up-front to celebrating them across our channels, we want to continue to spotlight them as well as offer our audience connectivity, inspiration and entertainment. Isolation is not always easy and we are happy if we can engage and lift people’s spirit by storytelling beyond the product,” said Ida Petersson, Browns’ men’s and women’s buying director, adding that the accompanying documentaries offer a peek into the Browns’ team’s love affair with a brand beyond the product.
Independent boutiques are likely the most vulnerable retailers at a time like this: Koibird, the London store known for its destination-themed concepts that change every season, saw footfall decrease from 40 to 50 people a day to fewer than 10 people a day last week, before it shut its doors.
Having just debuted a new concept spotlighting Lagos Fashion Week, the retailer is now promoting its new blog, which has been taken over by Nataal, a media platform spotlighting African talent.
It is also putting its energy behind commerce, adopting a hands-on approach when servicing the clients that still want to buy.
“We have the whole team geared to help remotely. The store team is on WhatsApp, so our stylists can liaise with clients, send items to their homes or personally style looks for each client, either via video or message chat,” said Belma Gaudio, founder and creative director of Koibird.
Bing echoed her thoughts: “Our store associates have direct relationships with our consumers and they will continue to engage with them during the closures, offering to fulfill all store orders through our e-commerce inventory,” she said, adding that customers who were on wait lists for certain products could pay via phone and have their purchases delivered at home.
WhatsApp has been emerging as a powerful communications and transactional tool in retail, primarily for personal shoppers serving high net-worth individuals. But now its use is extending to a broader audience and it goes hand in hand with storytelling, encouraging customers to make online inquiries in the first place.
Threads, the personal shopping platform that has built its entire business by inspiring customers through social media content and fulfilling requests through WhatsApp, has been seeing its community become more engaged via both WhatsApp and Instagram Direct Messages.
“Clients have been chatting to us about how they’re feeling, what their needs are now that they’re spending more time at home and sharing their working-from-home looks with us, too,” said Sophie Hill, the company’s founder and chief executive officer, adding that there has been a shift toward the need for less polished and more raw, behind-the-scenes content, as well as interiors, lounge and active wear by the likes of Loro Piana, Dior Maison and Anissa Kermische, who’s known for her ceramic vases shaped as female body parts.
For the jewelry brand Annoushka, direct messaging is the best way to maintain a connection with its customers.
“On our web site, WeChat and WhatsApp, there’s been a massive spike since December coming from Bicester Village customers, and since things spiked in the last few weeks again, we’re letting people know they can still shop with us in a way that’s personal and not faceless,” said Alicia Holden, head of public relations and partnerships at the label, which has also been working toward prepping photo assets of new collections and bestsellers to share with clients, in the lead-up to their stores’ closures.
The jeweler is also hoping to take its services offline by rolling out home visits for personal appointments (within quarantine guidelines), something they initially did with their VIP clients.
“We’re still ironing out the mechanics,” said Holden, when asked about the concerns to staff and customer safety. “We will take steps with face masks, gloves, sterilization and give customers the choice of inviting team members into their home, but the principal is we’re going to the lengths of taking Annoushka to them at home.”
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