Fashion Forward After Covid-19 May Take a Dressier Turn – Barron’s

Actor Al-Teron Williams and model Claudia Salinas during New York Fashion Week in oh-so-long-ago February 2020. “I think people are going to miss getting dressed and going out to do things,” says Savannah Yarborough, founder of the on-the-rise Nashville-based brand Savas.

Photo by Donell Woodson/Getty Images

Running a business while sheltering in place is not exactly new for designer Billy Reid, who’s helming his eponymous label during the Covid-19 crisis from his home in Florence, Ala.

“When I first started, I worked from an office in my bedroom, while my wife was pregnant with our first child,” recalls Reid, whose tailored suits and solid weekend wear for men and women are sold at Nordstrom, Bloomingdale’s, and his 13 shops across the U.S.—now all closed. (He’s surviving on e-commerce sales.) “I’m kind of used to working from home. It’s back to the beginning but…much different,” he adds, chuckling.

Reid has known hardship. His first fast-rising label (William Reid) tanked in the jittery retail market following the 9/11 terror attacks in 2001. He regrouped, launched the Billy Reid label, and with much fanfare, opened a shop in New York in 2008—the day the market crashed.

Survival is instinct, but never before has he had to ask the kind of questions designers across the globe are asking now: What will consumers want to wear after being stuck in their homes for months? What will they spend money on with an economy in tatters? Will anyone even care about fashion in the near future—or at all?

“Fashion will reemerge, of course, but a lot of fashion companies probably won’t,” says Valerie Steele, a fashion historian and director of the museum at Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology. Who survives and who doesn’t, she says, will depend a lot on how brands anticipate a new fashion landscape, the likes of which no designer, retailer or shopper has ever seen before.

Back to Business- Not -As-Usual

When the Covid-19 crisis abates, we will be faced with an initial dilemma: After months of living in sweatpants and pajamas, will we double-down on casual wear? Or will we shake off our worries (and coronavirus-encoded wardrobe) in favor of something dressier?

“I think people are going to miss getting dressed and going out to do things,” says Savannah Yarborough, founder of the on-the-rise Nashville-based brand Savas, makers of bespoke, made-to-measure leather shirts and jackets for men and women. Yarborough, who studied fashion at London’s prestigious Central Saint Martins school, launched her label in 2015 and has slowly gained street cred in both Nashville and New York, outfitting celebrities (Jack White), athletes (Fox NFL Sunday’sTerry Bradshaw, NFL’s Tennessee Titan Taylor Lewan), plus a mix of musicians and Wall Streeters.

Across the globe, designer Vivienne Tam, a fashion week veteran in both New York and China, is also rooting for dressier days ahead. Tam, who lives and runs her eponymous womenswear brand in New York, was visiting her native Hong Kong in January awaiting fabric deliveries when the government there imposed work-from-home orders and restricted travel. (She stayed, to be close to family.)

“People are telling me we’ll all be tired of staying home, wearing the same clothes,” Tam says.

True enough. Fashion trendsetters, Steele says, are “notoriously neophiliacs”—addicted to novelty—so one can easily envision random Kardashians and other Instagrammers being eager to flaunt new, glammed-up gear. For some, that may satisfy.

Keeping It Casual, Playing It Safe

Yet moments of social upheaval often amplify style trends already in motion. Steele cites the simple, flowing gowns of the anti-aristocratic days following the French Revolution, or the corset-chucking, hemline-hiking craze after World War I (each initiated by influencers years earlier). Given this, she imagines athleisure and casualization (strong trends pre-Covid and reinforced during Covid) will only grow moving forward.

Granted, fashion is volatile. An era like this one, predicated by such feelings of powerlessness, could jumpstart a yearning for power suits and ties.

Look for leather jackets to make a strong comeback post-Covid-19.

SAVAS

Some “may want to project power and, historically, that’s meant something hard—things that act like armor, a second skin,” Steele says. Think padded shoulders for women, leather jackets for men.

That’d suit Yarborough, for sure.

“The aura of a leather jacket makes you feel different,” she says. “After I had my first leather jacket, I had this insane feeling that I’d never had before from a piece of clothing.”

Whether casual or dressy, cozy or Marlon Brando-tough, clothing choices overall will be conventional, industry insiders agree. Many small indie brands, which tend to push the envelope, will likely not survive the economic dark days to come. Bigger brands and retailers will want to play it safe with conservative basics. No one will have the cash flow or confidence to take a risk, like they did, say, in the 1960s and ’70s with pantsuits for women, or in recent seasons with upstart Thom Browne’s shrunken suits for men.

About Face

None of the latent post-pandemic trends are terribly dramatic—with one possible exception: the face mask.

Once a curious healthcare accessory limited almost exclusively to East Asian countries (where air pollution and health scares, from SARS to bird flu, fuel anxiety), masks are finally getting a test-run here in the U.S. And while it’s too soon to know for sure, it seems they might be here to stay.

Tam has never been a fan, despite having grown up in Hong Kong, where they’re sometimes as fashionable as they are functional.

Now she’s getting used to the practice, and collaborating on a face mask made of anti-bacterial fabric that’s washable up to 60 times, to be distributed to hospitals and healthcare workers. She’s not alone. The U.S. cult label Threeasfour sells masks to consumers on their website made from repurposed, Arabic keffiyeh scarves (US$44.44 a pop). Citizens of Humanity offered a five-pack in black, tan and denim (US$25), which quickly sold out. And Israeli-born designer Lia Kes donates one of her silk charmeuse masks to medical workers for every mask sold on her website (US$17 each).

“It’s a way to accessorize your outfit,” says Tam. “But an accessory that’s really about our health. It’s going to be part of our life.”

Reid agrees, seeing it as another example of the creativity that adversity often inspires. “It’s a brand new brave world, but this forces us to be creative,” he says. “I think creativity will still reign in our industry. We’ll adapt and make the most of it.”

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