A large Amazon fashion photo studio in Brooklyn, where models pose in clothing sold on the company’s site, sat shuttered for more than two months as the coronavirus spread in New York.
Then, on May 18, Amazon reopened the studio and later began taking photos with models. It told employees on conference calls that the studio, in the Williamsburg neighborhood, could open under state rules that allowed warehouses and fulfillment operations to operate as essential businesses.
“We are a key part of the supply chain,” a senior manager said, according to one of several recordings of the calls obtained by The New York Times.
There was just one problem: It appears that Amazon was playing fast and loose with the rules.
A few days after The Times asked the state about the open studio, Amazon closed it. A manager told employees that someone in state government had given the company a heads-up that it may need to comply with an unspecified new policy. The studio remains closed.
Photo studios, even those related to e-commerce, were not considered essential and should not be open for business in New York City, said Jack Sterne, a spokesman for the state.
Local governments can fine businesses up to $10,000 for violating the state’s executive order.
An Amazon spokeswoman, Rachael Lighty, said that health and safety were “our top concern.” She said the company continued “to work closely with local health authorities and the city and state of New York to ensure that all of our businesses are operating under state regulations and health guidelines.”
But when pressed, she did not provide more details on whom specifically Amazon had consulted about whether it could open.
Reopening the studio shows how Amazon has pressed ahead during the pandemic, looking to right its operations quickly after the virus initially caught it on its heels. The push to take advantage of its warehousing operations, when physical retailers were closed, was particularly evident in areas where it has long struggled, like high-end fashion.
Sales across the clothing industry fell when the pandemic arrived in the United States, but the open studio gave Amazon access to new products and let it demonstrate its abilities as the demand for fashion returned.
Other fashion photo studios in New York, including that of Moda Operandi, the luxury e-tailer, remained closed last month; its photographers took images of products in their homes. Fashion magazines like Vogue and Elle resorted to Zoom shoots and selfies. A “remote” runway show held to raise money for the amfAR Fund to Fight Covid-19, a research initiative, featured models filming themselves while strutting down their home hallways.
In its calls with employees, the senior manager, Tara Jacobson, rationalized the reopening by arguing that it was helping the fashion industry at a time of need.
The Brooklyn studio largely takes photos for Amazon’s private-label brands and the other clothes that Amazon sells directly to shoppers, said a person involved with the operation, who would speak only anonymously out of fear of retribution by the company. Custom photos help give Amazon credibility with a sector that has long viewed it with suspicion.
Before Covid-19, the studio had about 20 rooms, called bays, partitioned with black curtains. Each had its own setup for lighting, makeup, backdrops and other things necessary to take photos of different models wearing different clothes.
Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times
Before Amazon opened the studio in 2013, it shot its fashion images in a warehouse in Kentucky. The new studio, in a former glass factory near the Wythe Hotel, a magnet for Williamsburg’s cool creatives, was part of Amazon’s efforts to woo the fashion industry. The previous year, Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s chief executive, stood next to Anna Wintour, the fashion editor, as one of the co-hosts of the Met Gala. In 2015, the company became the marquee sponsor of New York Fashion Week: Men’s. (It is no longer involved with the event.)
Still, Amazon continued to struggle to build momentum in fashion. The global luxury conglomerate LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton has repeatedly said it does not see Amazon as the right partner for its brands, an attitude widely shared by peers, which see Amazon’s “everything store” ethos as the antithesis of the exclusivity they represent.
The health crisis gave Amazon an opening. Last month, Amazon introduced an online storefront with Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America. Known as Common Threads, the initiative has been framed as an economic lifeline for small, independent designers without the resources or infrastructure to get their own collections to market during the coronavirus shutdown. For 20 brands, Amazon is providing much-needed fulfillment services, digital storefronts and other services, all of it fee free.
In return, Amazon gets a cut of sales, as well as the allegiance of the designer fashion world.
Amazon is clearly hoping that by demonstrating it can sell expensive designer products such as the $2,244 ruched-bodice silk spaghetti-strap dress in a Watteau-esque floral print by Brock Collection or the $1,595 top-handle lizard skin handbag by Hunting Season, both offered on the Common Threads store, it can change the minds of reluctant brands.
“The first two weeks we were seeing multiple sales a day,” said Jonathan Cohen, one of the designers in the Common Threads store. While sales have slowed, “it’s been helpful,” he said. “We were left with so much inventory from Covid, and in general from stores that were not paying from before.”
After the studio closed in March, Amazon ended contracts with the freelancers and long-term contractors who worked there, Ms. Jacobson told employees in the calls. As inventory mounted, Amazon scrambled to get images safely produced at other studios, without models.
Ms. Jacobson explained to employees that a team of executives, safety experts and lawyers were involved in the decision to reopen the Brooklyn studio, and that the company had made many adjustments to enable social distancing, including deciding to have models do their own hair and makeup. She said the studio had also gotten special internal approval to give employees Uber rides, an option not available to the thousands of workers at Amazon’s Staten Island warehouse who cram into city buses.
Employees kept asking on the calls how their work taking fashion photography was allowed, given that they heard officials on the news say New Yorkers should stay home for all but the most essential work, to limit community transmission of the virus.
“I know this question keeps coming up,” Ms. Jacobson told her team before the reopening. “I am not going to ask you all to agree that we are an essential business.”
She said that employees had a right to disagree and that she understood their concerns, but “from a business perspective, the answer has been made: We are essential.”
For essential work, “historically we have defined it as products that humans need to avoid Covid,” Ms. Jacobson said. “What we are saying is, this is just as important. It is essential to the world economy.”
In a statement provided by Amazon, Ms. Jacobson said, “I am proud of our team for the creative ways in which they implemented process changes for our studios and employees.” She added, “While our studio in Brooklyn is currently closed, I am hopeful and excited to share our learnings with our industry as we all work to reopen.”
Ms. Jacobson told her team on one of the calls that it was “heartbreaking” how many fashion brands had been shuttered. Amazon, she said, was in a unique situation because its warehouse operations were considered essential. Many brands had asked Amazon for help, she said. “They need us now more than ever.”
Company executives, including Christine Beauchamp, who runs Amazon Fashion, supported the extensive safety measures in place, Ms. Jacobson told her team. They were “chomping at the bit,” she said, to get photos on models back up and running.