With most major metropolitan areas currently under stay-at-home orders to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the business of designing clothes has become significantly more challenging. Instead of studios bustling with teams of people, there are makeshift home offices and kids who have digital school to attend. And looking at new fabrics over Zoom isn't quite the same as being able to touch them up close.
We reached out to American designers to ask them how they've adapted to this strange new world. Ahead, in their own words, hear about their planning strategies for upcoming seasons, what is keeping them grateful as well as inspired and why FaceTime is the new face time.
Nicola Glass, Kate Spade New York
"I feel very fortunate that my family and I were able to escape the city. I've never been able to work remotely before, so my first step was finding a desk, which I needed to do quickly! I found a foldout picnic table, which is set up in our bedroom. My son is being homeschooled, so my husband and I take turns overseeing his lessons. But I also needed to find a quiet space where I could really focus and take calls.
"So much of being a designer is about working hands-on and 3-dimensionally – touching leathers, fabrics and hardware, and looking at samples. It's only been two weeks, but the biggest challenge so far has been transitioning to find new ways of working virtually with the teams. We are taking it week by week and sometimes day by day. At the beginning, we were able to plan ahead and bring things home from the design studio. But now we don't have the opportunity to go to the office, and we're finding ways to work around it. We've set up a virtual design studio to share and review concepts, color palettes and important prints of the season. On the bright side, we're finding ways that will hopefully make it easier for teams to adapt in the future.
"Now that we're all working and living under one roof all day, it's important to find ways to make family time special when I'm not working and try to create boundaries, so I don't slip into thinking constantly about work!
"Our meetings are mainly being held over Zoom. The design team is also researching ideas for new collections and sharing on Pinterest – it's a great tool to share inspiration and images when we can't be in the same room. We're typically juggling three seasons at once. At this moment, we're starting to concept for Summer 2021, designing Spring 2021, and about to start editing Holiday 2020 market samples. The Holiday 2020 season will be particularly challenging, as we don't have access to our market samples, making it difficult to edit and style. We're trying to come up with ways we can review the line, particularly for the RTW. Normally we would be looking at the clothes on a model, but this time all our amazing factories have sent photographs of each piece on a mannequin for us. From there, we're thinking of ways we can collage pictures as a solution to styling.
"Truthfully, I wasn't expecting working remotely to be as intense. The day really flies by, but I'm very proud of our teams and how productive they're being. Everyone within the company is really rallying together. They're maintaining the same amount of collaboration, communication and strong camaraderie as they would while working in the office, if not more! I'm truly impressed and inspired by them.
"I'm currently sharing a space with my husband, Phill, our son, Flynn, and our Labrador puppy, Red. During the first week, we were all working together around our dining room table and quickly learned that we needed a little more separation. So now my husband and I take a step back when we're focusing on work while the other helps homeschool Flynn. I have even more respect for teachers now."
"For the past two weeks, it was me with my laptop on the couch. Now that my son is officially in 'school' I am stationed in a bedroom. At this exact moment I am literally sitting in a bed under the covers. This will need to be re-evaluated for several reasons. Number one, my back. Number two, my brain.
"I'd say the biggest challenge I am facing working from home is the literal impending collapse of an industry. Holding a company together in this greatest time of unknown is proving to be a challenge. And I miss my people, my team is everything. We have been communicating constantly through Slack, texts, phone calls and video meetings — communicating honestly about the convos the executive team are having and the decisions we have had to make so far. My entire team, in some way or another, has been affected by this. I have been allowing myself to communicate from a place of vulnerability as opposed to faking strength at every turn. We have had to make heartbreaking decisions and I can only lead from a place of authenticity at this point.
"[We're using] mostly Photoshop for mood boards and then a lot of hand drawing — pencil to paper. To be honest though, there isn't a lot of designing newness right now. The real creative strategy is around working with the inventory we already have. I'm sharing a space with my husband and son. We're a creative family so it's nice especially to have my husband as a voice to help me navigate this new time. He's been my sounding board through this.
"Everything is literally flipped on its head. We are moving and cancelling upcoming deliveries and shifting things around day to day. So far the plan is to move High Summer Swim to Resort. It is also brutal because many of our retail partners have cancelled outstanding and upcoming POs.
"[I wasn't expecting] how much it made me confront the work we do in this industry — the industry as a whole. Running a business and raising a son, balancing the practical with existential, riding the serpent into the dark and back into the light and then back into the light..."
Maggie Hewitt, Maggie Marilyn
"I am working from our family home in the Bay Of Island in New Zealand. Being able to still swim in the ocean is freeing and I feel really grateful for that. Then the team and I have a video call every morning at 9 a.m. to stay connected and to keep some routine in our lives. I never knew how much I would crave routine!
"[We're staying in touch] via FaceTime, Zoom, Google hangouts, Slack and we just found Trello, it is amazing for moodboarding ideas! There is just always going to be a disconnect. Whilst we are so lucky to live in the era of FaceTime and Zoom, I still miss that face-to-face contact. Other challenges; I miss being able to speak with our customers face to face and open our showroom everyday but hopefully it will really enable us to think outside of the box in terms of our online shop, how can we still maintain that human experience — what are the things that people respond to digitally that replicate the engagement.
"Unfortunately we are on a full lockdown here in NZ, so all of our factories are closed until further notice so we have not been able to support in manufacturing PPE. When and if things change here, we may revisit this.
"[We're not using any] programs, just good old pencils and a sketch pad, then I share these with my design/sampling team. We have thousands of WhatsApp messages now in just the last week alone. I love face to face, It has always been like that for me, that's one of the reasons I love manufacturing in New Zealand, being able to hop in my car and go and visit our factories and speak to people in person, so this is something I really miss.
"I think one of the most challenging things about this situation is there is no finite end date. We are all hoping for the best, but as dates keep getting pushed out, it is really hard to plan. I was working on Resort but now we may need to skip resort for our wholesale partners and just focus on smaller drops for our own direct to consumer and showroom."
Wes Gordon, Carolina Herrera
"I do video calls with my design team and other colleagues throughout the day; we are in constant contact. A big part of my day is spent sketching and pinning to foam boards around the room, doing as much as possible to recreate my studio at the office."
Christopher John Rogers
"Currently I'm working from my laptop on my boyfriend's green velvet couch. I'm not able to drape or interact with the form in any way, really. We also need to start fitting our Fall 2020 pieces for production, but we can't do that without access to our samples and fitting on another person, so we're kind of at a standstill (as is much of the industry). We don't have the budget to afford an atelier or sewing staff, and our manufacturers in the garment district are closed because of the pandemic, so unfortunately we haven't been able to produce any PPE.
[We're communicating with] FaceTime calls! [Using] Photoshop for organizing visual ideas, Illustrator for vector work, graphics, or embellishment layouts, and traditional paper and pencil for actual design work. We don't sketch on the computer. Everything is usually happening at once — development, production, planning the next show etc.— but recently I've just been moodboarding, collecting reference images, and really taking the time to reassess the kind of work that I want to make moving forward, and how to do so with even more intention and focus than we have in the past. It's a scary time we're living in, but I feel really blessed to have the time to take stock of where we are as a company and what our clothes can do for folks moving forward. [I've been surprised by] the things that I've been drawn to visually since I've been cooped up for about a month!
"I'm staying with my boyfriend right now, and he works in public relations and communications. We've just been talking about the importance of joy during the pandemic and afterwards, and how clothes then play a major role in that. I've felt guilty asking people to help support my small business by shopping during this time, but it's been wonderful to hear from folks online about how the work provides them with some visual optimism.
"We're about to begin Fall production with ordering fabrics since that's really the only thing we can do at the moment for that season, and slowly beginning Spring development. We're pushing our calendar a month out, just to compensate for the recommended quarantine practices."
Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, Monse and Oscar de la Renta
L.K.: "I actually had my apartment set up as a work space already. I have to be alone to design and research. Of course I love doing fittings and working with my team, but I do need some quiet time to think. I love bouncing ideas around with my team, and it's hard to do when you're working over text. I want to see their reaction and feel their vibe, because lot of things aren't said in words.
F.G.: "Text and FaceTime works just as well... the room they have to be more creative at home helps!
L.K.: "There is lot of cooking and brewing coffee, taking care of my plants and cleaning, which was usually not done by me! I talk to both of my CEOs a lot via text, Zoom, etc. We try to do at least one WFH interview for our retail partners in the morning, and I do sketching, draping or sewing in the afternoon. Then usually share what I did with my team over text. Then cook dinner — and sometimes I walk it over to Fernando's house and drop it off at the door. In the evening, I love doing research — not just fashion, but also art, food, interiors. I have so many books I've bought over the years that I've never had a chance to open until now.
F.G.: "I've become a chef! We are going back to the essentials; not sure what delivery it will fall under, but honing our DNA for both houses and making sure we have clothes that will be relevant for the new world we are about to go out to.
L.K.: "[We're] working on pre-spring; the collection is much smaller than what we originally planned for. Everything is much slower. At work, I can delegate, and things move much faster. It's a bit of a forced break right now. Even though I'm super busy with work all day, I do still have head space to think about the future, and think about things I've always wanted to do but didn't have time to plan. I'm trying to use this time to improve myself much as I can."
"[I'm] currently working out the home I grew up in, in Los Angeles. Aside from being a full time-mom now alongside working, we are a fully hands-on company, so everything from the production cycle to the way we sell our clothing has shifted. [We're communicating] mainly over the phone, FaceTime and email. We are also mailing each other materials and garments.
"We typically work on a collection for two months; we are very team-oriented, conversational and hands-on when it comes to the design of a single gown or even the drape of a sleeve. Doing that from home is difficult but we are using videos to communicate what those things look like. My family is used to seeing me draw from home and is involved heavily in the business so they are used to seeing me work from home.
"We shifted our bridal collection for this season which was supposed to come out in the middle of this month. We do not know when we will produce our full collection but are trying to finish up a few garments to share with our brides in the coming weeks. We are also heavily considering price-points that women are going to be looking for right now given everything going on.
"I wasn't expecting to do so much design research at this time but it is helping me return to the fundamentals and my design education and I am enjoying it. The challenges of being fully invested in both home and work life are something to get used to but I do love being with my son and husband all day!"
"Luckily, I have a home in the Berkshires that I work from often. I had always dreamed of working from here more – I guess be careful what you wish for. My design process is very collaborative. I have the most incredible design team. I miss this immensely. I have all of my Resort fabric headers here with me, and I am working on colors and shapes but am very much missing the back and forth. And for my team, seeing fabric headers through Zoom just isn't the same. We also have a highly talented atelier and we are always working with them on techniques and shapes. Obviously, this is next to impossible.
"Our CFO's wife is an ER doctor on the front lines. We have asked and her team of health care providers: 'What do you need from us?' And it wasn't PPE. They need medical-grade PPE. It was clean t-shirts to wear home. And lunches. So, this is what we are doing
"We design by hand. My process has always been collaborative. It was how I was taught to work with Oscar [de la Renta]. It has now become much more solitary. We are working on Resort. We will move a bit of Fall runway into Resort, but we are still working on a very focused collection that we will show when we can. Our stores are requesting it and I am eager to create it."
"I work from my dining room table. I have the same barn wood tables in my office and my studio. I had had an extra table and some chairs so I just borrowed them. My set up feels eerily the same.
"My work has always been tactile. I like touching things and moving around a lot. I like going from one person to another and getting opinions, suggestions and a laugh. I'm fast and direct; it's a bit more challenging to recreate that through a screen. Although there are upsides for sure; it becomes more personal. The setting, the clothing, our crazy buns, and eyeglasses…. we get to communicate more on a personal level. [I'm using] Zoom and Slack. Three weeks ago, I didn't know how to use either. I still can't use a computer. My design director does, but I use my hands. I work off my iPhone. Hehe. I sketch. I draw, and I talk a lot.
"I can't work with my components as I usually do. It's more about ideas and putting those ideas and thoughts and sketches on paper, then communicating them to the team… the creative process is longer. I also think when I'm in a time of stress, creativity can be harder to access. My time is spent more on what changes need to be made to support the business, our team, and all our friends. It's a different kind of creativity.
"Creativity is a true gift. It comes when it comes, rather than when I want it. I've learned to accept that. My process also includes a routine which is similar to the way it was before WFH. I wake up early, do a meditation practice, get dressed, and then go into my meetings which start around 9:00. I eat lunch at 2:00 and finish up around 5:00. That's when I go for a two-hour walk. It's a very simple life. And I do like simple.
"I'm easing up on fall designs and moving straight into holiday. Who knows anymore. I've stopped over-planning and I'm doing things I feel drawn to; what feels right now and gifting and giving fell right. It's a time more than ever to reach out and tell people that you care. It's a time of appreciation and gratitude for what we do have. And a time for sharing with those who may not be as fortunate, or who are on the front lines of this battle fighting for lives. It's a time of compassion and service and kindness.
Alejandra Alonso Rojas
"Honestly, I'm mostly working from the floor, moving my laptop around or taking calls while playing with my son. Thankfully, I don't have a desktop at home. When I moved the office away from the house last year, I decided I never wanted to see a desk in my house. So if we can sit on a chair, we work from the kitchen counter or our dining table. But the floor is more convenient at the moment.
"I used to work from home until a year ago, so I'm very used to the routine and it is not weird for me. However, at the time, I did not have a 13 month-old, and I also have no help at home right now or with Alonso since we decided it was safer that our normal support stayed home (while still paying them). So I have another full-time job right now which is taking care of my son 24/7 plus cleaning the house, cooking, planning groceries ... oh yes! And running a company and managing my team. My husband is the best and we've always shared tasks but this is a lot! I am taking it one day at a time and enjoying all the moments with my son.
"We are waiting to see if we can get the materials to manufacture PPE, but I do not have sewers on my team, so it is the factories' call to decide if they want to have their employees working right now to produce PPE. We are having conversations about it. I check on my team via FaceTime, or with regular phone calls every day. I miss them! [I use] paper and pencil, and a board – very old school. That said, right now I have put a pause on everything (design, production, etc.). Until this passes and we can leave our homes, I want to make sure my team is safe, that is my number one priority regarding my business right now. After, I want to reassess and see what the new normal is and what decisions we need to make to readjust. The flow, the timeline... everything has changed. We are now brainstorming more than creating on ideas and how we want to do things once this is over.
"Everyone is having the most amazing and honest conversations right now across the industry. From colleagues to friends who are in different industries, we are all rethinking everything! I was working on Resort 2021 before this happened, and I have stopped. Honestly, I do not have my head ready to sketch and design right now. As the days go by, I have realized my priority right now is my family and our health, as well as my team (who are also my family). I lost my grandfather because of COVID-19 less than a week ago and I'm still very shocked about it. My grandmother is still at risk and that's all I can care about right now. This will pass and I will get back to creating. I do believe that the timeline is going to change, the industry is going to change. The last few years, fast fashion and making fashion move too quickly was creating major issues in our industry. Now we all need to come together and reassess.
"For the first week [of quarantine] my husband and I were dividing the day into every four hours, so I'd work in the morning and he'd do the afternoon. My studio is five-minute walk from our home and it's empty and disinfected so we would go there to have quiet time since my baby is at the house. The second week since I paused everything, we realized that he actually needed six-to-eight hours to work since his job is more hectic; he's in finance. I decided I would work early in the morning and when he gets home around 5:00 pm I get in at least two hours of work for myself. We've always worked as a team, and now it's been five days that I am alone with Alonso for the entire day; it's a lot to take care of the house, the baby and the cooking...and my dog Latte. But it is important to ask for help, so instead of being mad at him for not being here with us, I call him and he comes earlier if I need him. Honestly, we are trying our best and I am lucky to be home with my favorite people."
Susan Korn, Susan Alexandra
"Uncertainty is scary. We humans believe that there is a way to control this vast and un-predictable world. These past two weeks in quarantine have shaken so many of us to our core and suddenly the notion that we have control has been shaken. I have been working relentlessly without breaking for years, constantly generating new product, content, ideas and pushing myself to go out, mingle, meet, enrich myself, try new things. We're all pushing our boulders up the hill and for what? To make new things when there are already so many things in the world? I've certainly spent my fair share of hours deliberating about the state of the world, the state of my business, the state of fashion and the state of my existence.
"My dream has been to be able to relinquish my day to day business responsibilities and really sink my teeth into full-time creative work. To design I need to paint and draw which for me are solitary activities. I have intended to create a home studio space where I can create without inhibition and interruption and there hasn't been a time until now. I feel pulled and guilt ridden if I don't go to my office and working from home has been so blissful and reflective. I have to admit, I am happier and more creatively fulfilled than I have felt in a very long time.
"If this was a regular day in March, I would be working tirelessly to generate revenue (sell! sell! sell!) while designing a new collection to debut in June. I would be planning for a Paris showroom and experimenting with new fabrications and styles, looking for funding for my brand and opening a store. I would have projects in L.A. and community activations and I would still feel like I wasn't doing enough. I would be comparing myself to other brands who were seemingly doing better. The factories are closed, Paris in June seems unrealistic and I find myself at a loss for inspiration. Every other project is on pause. Instead of the mental anguish and agony that usually accompanies creative blocks, I am surrendering, because I have no control. Giant wholesale partners are sending ominous emails about cancelling orders that I have already produced for upcoming deliveries, and again, I surrender.
"As a business person we work with schedules, shipping times, meeting price points, speaking to a wide audience. As an artist, none of that matters. The next collection will be more from the heart than any I have made in a long time because I have this long, decadent artistic retreat in my own apartment! Furthermore, the idea of a hefty collection for September when most manufacturers are closed is unlikely. My day is a full creative practice dotted by zoom meetings, dog walks and e-mails to my team.
"My goal in all this is to preserve jobs and I am trying my best to manage my employees' time so that there are enough projects and dollars for the weeks to come."
"I've had a workspace at home for as long as I can remember and in the home I've been in for over a decade. It's a light, airy room with high ceiling and sash windows. We designed it to be spacious and uplifting so the color palette's dusty lemon, rich brown, mustard and soft pink. I get a good view of the street and my frangipani on my front porch from one window. My other window looks onto my beehive and the bees give me a meditative micro-pause every now and then. I face the door onto the hall so I can see who's coming and going through the front door.
"Well, there is only so much one can do. There's no hands-on product development able to happen from here but we are a few months ahead of schedule on all our design and product development so we're not getting too panicky about that just yet. No matter how good the tech is, meetings are always slightly clunky and weird online and, most of all, I miss having my team around me for those moments of joy and fun that you only get by working alongside a close team.
"For ready-to-wear, sketching and briefing to pattern-making hasn't changed. Our pattern-maker is working from home as well as he does in studio. However, nothing can get further ahead than that right now. For accessories (bags, eyewear, jewelry, scarves, etc.) we seem to be able to continue as previously as all this side of things are done with CADs and briefs being emailed to our manufacturing partners who, whilst not at full capacity, are still able to get some sample development done. If our office isn't open by the time samples are ready to ship they can always go to the home of one of the design team.
"My study is mine alone. My husband, who's our creative director, works entirely from his iPad Pro and his iPhone and he sets himself up in the sitting room when he's in work mode. For RTW, we're in final development for January/February 2021 and we're in conceptual stages for March/April/May/June 2021.
"My daughter's school closed last week and it's been fine so far as they were 100% prepared for remote learning, so she works from her desk in her room 8:30 – 3:30 and is being very disciplined and going from class-to-class as usual. However, school holidays start soon and I suspect that'll require a bit more attention from me to ensure she's not just watching anime 10 hours a day."
Somsack Sikhounmuong, Alex Mill
"Most of my work happens between 2 main spots: my drawing table, and my couch. The biggest challenge is working without my team around me. Having a second or third opinion in real time has proven to be something I miss dearly. I'm staying in touch with my team using a combination of regular email, Slack, Zoom, Google Hangouts and Facetime — no [design] programs. Just my pencil, my imagination and some paper with the scanner on my phone and Excel.
"Having anticipated a work-from-home situation, I was able to bring a lot of the tools I'd need home before the office closed. So other than the actual space being different, the process hasn't changed much. The team and I are lucky in that we have jobs we can do remotely. Right now, we are designing Spring '21 and fitting Fall '20. I'm trying to stick to the calendar as closely as possible, and thankfully we haven't had to make changes yet.
"Designing, by its very nature, isn't an insular exercise. So for me, thats been the most unexpected challenge about working from home. Since I live alone, the biggest challenges about the space have been where will I be most productive: at my desk, or sitting on my couch. :)"
Interviews have been edited for clarity.