The dawn of the new decade was heralded in with fanfare in January, but soon enough, 2020 became a year of cataclysmic change across all sectors with the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. The economic impact of COVID-19 has been severe across almost every industry, but has been exceptionally taxing on the fashion sector, which has seen some biggest fashion news stories ever.
The coronavirus pandemic, which erupted in the U.S. in March, completely changed every day life as stay-at-home orders forced citizens under quarantine. In the fashion industry, the virus caused virtually all brands and retailers to temporarily shutter their doors, which led to the loss of sales, job cuts and many bankruptcy filings.
Another cultural shift was felt in the industry when there was the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement and nationwide protests in late May following the police killings of unarmed Black people, including George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks and many others, across the country. The movement forced many major companies to reexamine their operations and leadership structure as consumers demanded accountability and action from the brands they shopped from.
COVID-19 Rocks the Fashion Industry
Government-mandated stay-at-home orders forced citizens under quarantine, with many being furloughed or laid off from their jobs. An unprecedented 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment by March 27, according to the Labor Department.
The industry responded to the pandemic with all major brands and retailers temporarily shuttering their doors to comply with the quarantine, which severely impacted many companies.
Some companies have seen significant declines in sales this year. For example, athletic brand Under Armour recorded a loss of roughly $773 million in the first half of 2020, Capri Holdings Ltd., the parent company of Michael Kors, Versace and Jimmy Choo, reported a loss of $551 million in the fourth quarter of the 2020 fiscal year, and Kohl’s Corp. saw net losses of $541 million in the three-month period ending May 2.
Other companies have been forced to reduce their store count because of the virus’ impact, including Nordstrom, which is closing 16 of its full-line department stores this year, H&M, which is closing 170 stores across the U.S. and Europe, and Neiman Marcus, which is closing four locations as well at 17 out of 22 Last Call outlet stores.
Many high-profile celebrities and public figures have also contracted COVID-19 over the last few months. Early in the pandemic, celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Rita Wilson and Idris Elba revealed they tested positive for the virus. Something Navy influencer and founder Arielle Charnas, also tested positive, which got her embroiled in controversy over her handling of her diagnosis on social media.
Retail Bankruptcies Skyrocket
Many companies were unable to combat the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic and ultimately filed for bankruptcy.
The lengthy list of fashion retail bankruptcies this year includes Neiman Marcus Group, J.C. Penney, J. Crew Group, Lucky Brand, Brooks Brothers, Lord & Taylor parent company Le Tote, Ascena Retail Group, Bldwn, Centric Brands, Chico’s FAS Canada, G-Star, J.Hilburn, John Varvatos, RTW Retailwinds Inc., Tailored Brands and True Religion.
Neiman Marcus, for one, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on May 7 after struggling to manage its $4 billion in long-term debt and the challenges presented by the virus. The 113-year-old retailer is planning on closing four locations as part of its bankruptcy, including its recently opened 188,000-square-foot location at Hudson Yards, as well as locations in Bellevue, Wash., and Palm Beach and Fort Lauderdale, Fla. It is also closing the majority of its Last Call Outlet stores.
J.C. Penney, which filed for bankruptcy on May 15, is in the process of liquidating many of its stores. It is liquidating 136 locations across the country, as well as permanently closing 152 stores. The retailer is also cutting 1,000 employees. At the beginning of 2020, the retailer had 850 locations.
Black Lives Matter Movement Causes Cultural Shift
The Black Lives Matter movement saw a resurgence in late May when widespread protests consumed the U.S. over the police killings of unarmed Black people across the country, including Floyd, Taylor, Brooks and many others.
While many brands initially pledged their support for the movement through social media initiatives, consumers wanted more. Many demanded action and accountability from the companies they shop from, and called out some major brands for the lack of diversity in their leadership teams.
This call for accountability was amplified by Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter, who started the #PullUpOrShutUp campaign on June 3, which asks companies that shared statements of solidarity or donated to the Black Lives Matter movement to reveal the percentage of Black employees in their workforce and leadership teams. Major companies across fashion and beauty took part in the campaign, releasing their diversity stats as well as pledging to continue to diversify their teams.
The same day, Brother Vellies founder Aurora James started another initiative to support the movement within the fashion industry. James launched the 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on major retailers to commit 15 percent of their shelf space to majority Black-owned businesses. Several companies have since committed to the 15 Percent Pledge, including Sephora, Macy’s, Rent the Runway, Violet Grey and Chillhouse, among others.
Teen Vogue editor in chief Lindsay Peoples Wagner and fashion consultant Sandrine Charles revealed on June 25 the establishment of the Black in Fashion Council, which is fighting against systemic racism in the fashion and beauty industries. The council is working to hold brands accountable to their pledges to improve diversity and inclusion within their companies, as well as establishing an equality index score to provide benchmarking around corporate policies that aid in the advancement of Black employees.
Several other companies launched their own initiatives to support the Black Lives Matter movement. Glossier, for one, launched a $500,000 grant program for Black-owned beauty businesses and pledged an additional $500,000 to organizations fighting racial injustice.
The Council of Fashion Designers of America revealed several new measures it’s taking on June 4, including creating an in-house employment program tasked with placing Black talent in all sectors of the industry, creating an internship and mentorship program to place Black students at established companies and implementing a diversity and inclusion training program for its members.
The Black Lives Matter movement also had an impact on media, where several high-profile editors stepped down from their positions due to problematic behavior.
Amid the nationwide protests in early June, several former employees of Refinery29 spoke out on social media on the microaggressions and instances of racism they faced by senior leadership.
Former senior fashion writer Ashley C. Ford, for one, wrote about how the media company was a “toxic company culture where white women’s egos ruled the near nonexistent editorial process.”
After a number of similar stories appeared across social media the next few days, Refinery29 cofounder and global editor in chief Christene Barberich announced on June 8 she would be stepping down. In a memo to staff, it was explained that Barberich had already planned on leaving the company shortly after it was acquired by Vice the previous year, but made the decision to step down immediately because of the recent social media posts.
“I’d like to start by saying that I’ve read and taken in the raw and personal accounts of Black women and women of color regarding their experiences inside our company at Refinery29,” Barberich wrote on Instagram. “And, what’s clear from these experiences is that R29 has to change. We have to do better, and that starts with making room. And so I will be stepping aside in my role at R29 to help diversify our leadership in editorial and ensure this brand and the people it touches can spark a new defining chapter.”
A month later, Refinery29’s global president and chief content officer, Amy Emmerich, resigned from her role. The resignation comes as Vice Media Group has launched an external investigation into the workplace culture at Refinery29.
Controversy also hit Condé Nast’s Bon Appétit, where editor in chief Adam Rapoport resigned after a photograph of him in brown face emerged amid allegations of a racist work environment.
Bon Appétit staffer Sohla El-Waylly spoke out about the photo on Instagram prior to Rapoport’s resignation, stating: “This is just a symptom of the systemic racism that runs rampant within the Condé Nast as a whole.” El-Waylly also alleged that only white editors were paid for their appearances on the brand’s popular YouTube channel.
It was announced on Aug. 6 that three journalists of color — including El-Waylly, Priya Krishna and Rick Martinez — at Bon Appétit would be leaving the magazine’s Test Kitchen videos, as is Molly Baz.
Over at Hearst Magazines, president Troy Young was removed from the company on July 23 after multiple allegations were made against him of inappropriate comments and behavior toward female colleagues.
At Essence Magazine, chief executive officer Richelieu Dennis stepped down on July 1 after the company launched an investigation into allegations of a toxic work culture for Black women. Richelieu was also accused of sexual harassment by former employees.
The New York Times’ editorial page editor James Bennet also resigned on June 7 after the newspaper published a controversial op-ed written by Sen. Tom Cotton, which called for the deployment of the military to combat the nationwide Black Lives Matter protests.
Elsewhere in the industry, Leandra Medine Cohen stepped back from her role at Man Repeller (which later shuttered completely in October), Matt Duckor left his role as vice president and head of programming for lifestyle and style at Condé Nast and Peter Meehan left his role as food editor at the Los Angeles Times.
A historic change happened at Harper’s Bazaar on June 9 when the magazine named Samira Nasr as its new editor in chief, making her the first Black editor in chief in the magazine’s 153-year history. Nasr succeeded Glenda Bailey, who announced her resignation in January after a 19-year tenure.
Design House Changes
While the year’s news was consumed by the pandemic, there were several major changes at designer houses.
In February, Prada revealed that Raf Simons would work alongside Miuccia Prada as the design house’s new co-creative director “with equal responsibilities for creative input and decision making.” The design duo showed their first joint collection in September for the spring 2021 season.
Simons had previously worked as the creative director at Calvin Klein, a position he left in December 2018.
After a three-year tenure, Givenchy artistic director Clare Waight Keller revealed on April 10 she was leaving the design house. Keller helped increase the brand’s international presence, thanks in large part to the custom dress she designed for Meghan Markle’s royal wedding in 2018.
Two months later, Givenchy announced Matthew Williams as its new creative director. The American designer is behind the 1017 Alyx 9SM label.
Dior’s men’s artistic director, Kim Jones, joined Fendi on Sept. 9 as its artistic director of haute couture, ready-to-wear and fur collections for women. The appointment marks Jones’ first official foray into women’s wear. Jones is working alongside Silvia Venturini Fendi, who has served as Fendi’s main designer following the death of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019.
Chloé announced on Dec. 3 that its creative director, Natacha Ramsay-Levi, would be leaving the design house after a nearly four-year tenure. Chloé is continuing its tradition of tapping female designers to lead the brand by appointing designer Gabriela Hearst as its new creative director. Hearst is expected to unveil her first collection for Chloé next March for the fall/winter 2021 season. She will continue as the creative director of her namesake fashion brand, which is based in New York.
Fashion Week Reimagined in the COVID-19 Era
Because social-distancing guidelines amid the coronavirus pandemic have prohibited large gatherings, many fashion week events have subsequently been canceled this year.
Simon Porte Jacquemus put on an in-person — and socially distant — runway show for his spring 2021 collection. The designer staged his show in a wheat field just outside Paris, where his 100 guests were spaced out in the crowd sitting on individual chairs.
For New York Fashion Week, the CFDA said on June 30 the schedule will be shrinking to just three days, taking place from Sept. 14 to 16. The organization later revealed on July 24 Runway360, a digital platform that supports AR, VR, live video streams, consumer shopping features and social media integration.
Earlier in July, IMG, which owns and operates NYFW: The Shows, sent out a fashion week deck to designers to see if they were interested in presenting collections during fashion week.
“Over the past few months, we’ve heard from so many of you about the challenges you face, your uncertainty about what’s ahead and the plans you’re making to weather the storm while keeping your team and customers safe,” the deck read. “The stories vary widely, but there’s been one common thread: This is a time that will require all of our collective creativity and commitment to help the industry we love not just survive, but thrive.”
Several designers announced they would not host live shows during the spring 2021 fashion week, including Michael Kors, Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Tory Burch.
Kors, for one, chose to present his spring 2021 collection on Oct. 15 in a “multilayered experience” that was broadcasted on the brand’s social media platforms.
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