Virtual Catwalks And Digital Fashion: How COVID-19 Is Changing The Fashion Industry – Forbes

The Fabricant - Sadie Clayton Jacket

Sadie Clayton Jacket

FIA X The Fabricant

As the reality of life under lockdown in many countries around the world sets in, the future looks uncertain. Despite the absence of a clear end-date for the novel coronavirus pandemic, the latest indications are that social distancing will last until a vaccine is available, which is predicted to take 12-18 months.

At this time of reflection, we can pause and consider the systems within which we work, and see them breaking down around us. The fashion industry’s predictive, seasonal systems have long been labelled out-of-date, broken and wasteful, with the consequences piling up in landfills around the world. But what impact will the COVID-19 crisis have on reshaping the fashion industry? When we get back on our feet, how will the fashion industry have changed? 

In part one of this fashion industry insights piece, I asked fashion experts with their finger on the pulse of consumer sentiment, branding and retail what they believe the effects of COVID-19 will be.

Matthew Drinkwater, Head of the Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA) at the London College of Fashion, says that his team’s workload has escalated sharply during the crisis. The agency develops immersive consumer experiences that bring technology giants including Microsoft MSFT and LucasFilm together with leading fashion brands. Why the surge in demand, I asked? The FIA are experts at delivering digital fashion solutions that defy physical limitations and even reality, and Drinkwater explained that there is a dramatic shift towards digital solutions at this time of mass quarantine. 

COVID-19 is forcing brands to engage and experiment with immersive technologies. We’ve been inundated with requests on how to create virtual clothing, virtual catwalks and virtual showrooms.

Matthew Drinkwater, Head of Fashion Innovation Agency (FIA)

He went on to say: “This is an opportunity to redefine business models and build a more sustainable, progressive future” for the fashion industry. As a team of fashion and technology pioneers whose remit is to create fashion and technology ‘firsts,’ Drinkwater said they are working on projects that will “redefine the industry.” Furthermore, he claims that going back to business as usual is not an option, “so the requirement to integrate all forms of digitisation from supply chain and creation, to showcasing and retailing is forcing every brand to embrace the technologies that empower this.”

Talk during this crisis, which is preventing physical contact between designers and manufacturers, has inevitably turned to digital and virtual fashion. Deeply embedded in this fast-emerging sector is Kerry Murphy, Founder of The Fabricant, a fashion house that only produces digital clothing. In Murphy’s view, the current situation has proven how fragile the industry (and our financial system) is. Having worked with a number brands as well as pioneering denim manufacturer Soorty Enterprises (with whom The Fabricant created a Cradle to Cradle-certified digital denim collection), he revealed that “brands are already looking for radical ways of redefining their culture and operations to a more digital mindset.” 

In their latest work for outdoor lifestyle brand Napapijri, The Fabricant created digital clothing samples in place of physical ones, eliminating textile waste and creating stunning online content in the process. 

How will consumers respond to fashion post-COVID-19, I asked? Murphy explained that consumers react to what brands and retailers put out there to be consumed, and behavioural change will depend on new experiences, like digital fashion, being adopted by brands. Digital fashion is slowly gaining traction, if not being ‘worn’ on digital platforms like Instagram by the mainstream – yet. The Fabricant’s new LEELA platform, now in beta, is the first big step towards this. Murphy admits, however, that it was put out there regardless of its level of readiness, so that they could begin engaging with early adopters and enthusiasts.

The recent digital fashion campaign by Selfridges demonstrates exactly what Murphy explained about brands (and retailers) radically rethinking what they do. The campaign “explores the future of fashion and retail through the medium of digital art” by 3D digital fashion designer Cat Taylor, who transformed the new season’s collections into otherworldly digital renders, which linked to the Selfridges eCommerce site.   

The lockdown of retail stores worldwide has not only slashed consumer spending but prompted new questions over purchasing behaviour for non-essential items in a time of crisis. What does this mean for fashion brands? 

Director of Brand Engagement at retail intelligence agency Stylus, Katie Baron-Cox, suggests that “Generosity of service will become a key new metric for brands.” The reason? Consumers will prefer “access, connections, insights and rarity, in place of discounts on lots of ‘stuff’, although discounts will still have a place as “we are likely to be moving into a vast global recession.” What really constitutes value to the consumer was already shifting in line with sustainability-based concerns, she explained, “but COVID-19 will exacerbate this shift.”

In all honesty, I don’t think fashion brands, so far, are emerging from the coronavirus as shining stars in terms of agility, messaging or smart recalibrations of existing modes of selling. In part, this may be because the fashion industry modus operandi as regards advertising has become far too reliant on selling via influencer comms.

Katie Baron-Cox, Director of Brand Engagement, Stylus

What will consumers expect from brands as we emerge from this crisis, I asked? “I think people will expect more creativity, flair and imagination from their escapism.” Her analysis reveals that this has been brewing for a while, but she believes it will be expedited by “large swathes of the fashion audience having more time to consider their choices in more detail, to hone their own creativity and which brands are therefore worthy of allying with.”

Regarding brands preparing themselves for the changing consumer sentiment, Baron-Cox said demonstrating eco-ethical credentials, socially positive actions and networks of support (which have become far more visible during this pandemic) will need to be far more emphatic. “Purpose will increasingly conflate with performance,” she said.

One such brand with inbuilt purpose and ethical-credentials is BOTTLETOP. Founded in 2002, the accessories brand which upcycles aluminium ring-pulls to create high-end contemporary bags, owns its supply chain, with 30 artisans working in their factory in Salvador, Brazil. The closure of their flagship retail store on London’s Regent Street store is having a “significant impact” on the business, according to Director Cameron Saul. However, customers are continuing to purchase through their BOTTLETOP and Togetherband online stores, he said. 

Regarding consumer sentiment during this crisis, Saul said: “People understand and appreciate the mission behind our brand and appreciate the sustainable and social aspects – we have to think about the most vulnerable people at this time. A crisis like this brings us closer. The (Bottletop) brand message is consistent with our work.” If Baron-Cox is right, this is the kind of purpose-driven mission that will resonate most strongly with consumers both during and post, COVID-19.

On the subject of the retail shutdowns, what does this mean for fashion collections in the near to mid-term? Catherine Broome, Executive Search, Luxury and Fashion at Odgers Berndtson, said the spring/summer season has been “written off” and the autumn/winter “significantly pared down”. She predicts smaller collections featuring more SKUs of trans seasonal pierces, and in general, a more considered approach to the size of clothing ranges. This makes sense, reducing the number of styles sampled and focusing on clothing that doesn’t have the inbuilt obsolescence of highly seasonal garments. “It is the achievement of sustainability goals by a completely unforeseen market force, and the biggest driver of all—commerciality.” she said

Following on from this, how should brands prepare themselves for the consumer shift when business ‘reopens’? Retail Industry Futurist Doug Stevens recently wrote that “Branding reflects the sum total of every organisational action, set against the backdrop of culture, all of which reveals the true character of a company. Branding cannot be bought or sold. Branding is transformational” By way of example, he cited the Adidas gaffe on March 16 when the Chief Executive Kasper Rorsted emailed his retail staff, telling them they had to stay open for business “to ensure that we can pay our monthly bills and salaries,” calling closing down stores the “easy” option. Within 24 hours this decision was reversed, followed by a public statement claiming that the brand cares about the “health of the global community above all else.”

Branding is ultimately not what you say, but who you choose to be. Choose wisely.

Doug Stevens, Retail Industry Futurist

Nike NKE , in contrast, had already closed their stores before the Adidas blunder and followed with a public plea to its brand community to follow the social distancing guidelines— consistent with their swift and decisive store closures. Stevens says companies are branding themselves with every decision they make and every action they take, and consumers are watching and deciding on which brands align with their social, political and spiritual world views. The brands recently revealed as not honouring contracts to pay for garment orders from factories, and thereby risking the livelihoods of factory workers, would do well to heed this warning.

This is part 1 in a series on how the fashion industry is transforming. Follow my profile on Forbes to receive future articles.

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