As we've all seen, the coronavirus pandemic and resulting store closures and travel bans have hit the fashion industry hard; even the world's biggest luxury conglomerates have seen sales drop in the double digits. Whether the coronavirus pandemic changes the industry irreversibly or simply accelerates changes that were already inevitable, the fact remains that many brands will have to make swift, fundamental changes to how they operate once this is all over.
So what is the right way forward for fashion brands? While no one has a crystal ball, there are some things we can learn from the past, and from experts. So, we reached out to Danilo Venturi, Director of prestigious Florentine fashion school Polimoda.
After an interdisciplinary career spanning music, e-commerce, retail concepts, luxury branding and writing, Venturi has become a branding expert and is a mentor of the school's Master in Fashion Brand Management program. Venturi often speaks on the subject, including for a Business of Fashion education series and a recent webinar, so we knew he'd be more than well-suited to answer our questions about how to manage a fashion brand after a global crisis like the one we (at least in the U.S.) are still very much enduring.
From prioritizing culture over profit, to the importance of "de-marketing," to whether or not consumers will remember how brands responded, read on for his advice.
What are the biggest issues brands will have to tackle on the other side of Covid-19, if they are able to survive?
Fashion was already ill before Covid-19: Too much production was not good for the planet, too much tension on sales was not good for human relationships and too much redundancy of style denied the essence of fashion itself; that is: change. In addition, there is the Gen Z issue. The Truth About Fashion research conducted by our students shows that slogans like sustainability, diversity and authenticity are taken for granted by current generations. Brands have to focus more on values such as belongingness, expression and freedom, therefore, the freedom of expression. Brands must get it into their heads that if they want to do something for young people, they have to let them do it. Fashion brands are expected to be more educational and to provide opportunities and content, not just products and advertisements, so the brand manager is supposed to become a sort of culture manager.
Should brands set themselves up differently now so that they'll be ok if something like this ever happens again?
Something like this will certainly happen again. I mean, since 1989 the world has changed completely in the wake of a series of macro events such as the downfall of the Berlin Wall, globalization, the internet, the financial crash, international terrorism and now the pandemic. If you notice, the causes of all events are invisible. Therefore, solutions must be invisible too. The way out is with a change of mindset: creativity and human resources first, administration and finance second. Fashion is a cultural industry and profit should be the consequence, not the driver. In fact, to be flexible in front of such events requires less bureaucracy and less planning. From this point of view, Gucci and Saint Laurent reacted in an exemplary way. To get to the core of the lesson: Create, produce, show and distribute only what and when you feel like it.
Is brick and mortar retail going to be less important from now on?
People crave going out and conducting a normal life, that's not the point. For fashion stores, it depends a lot on what they will offer and how they will offer it. If, in the short term, brands really produce what they want whenever they want, physical stores will probably benefit because customers will be offered new items more often and more unexpectedly. However, in the mid-long term, three other conditions must be observed for stores to be attended again: Garments and accessories must have a higher creative quotient; some products must only be available off-line and the purchase must be a well-curated learning experience. Then, things are certainly more complex than this — because logistics are also an essential part of the process — but these are the basic conditions that in most cases were not met, even before Covid-19. From this point of view, the current crisis is a great occasion.
What can we learn from past global crises on how to recover from this one?
After the plague comes the Renaissance. History teaches us that in times of great crisis, fashion has produced its best innovations in style, materials and occasions of use. In Italy, we have several examples: Between the two wars, Ferragamo used completely new materials in footwear; Pucci started what we then called prêt-à-porter after the Second World War and with the crisis of 1978, Armani completely reinvented menswear from the destructuring of a jacket. In times of crisis, one should not focus on marginal growth but major innovations and not on savings but investments. Those who innovate create a new market, the others follow and fashion starts again. I have to admit that it is easier said than done, but fashion has proven to know how to get out of even more disastrous moments. We just need a little courage.
How should brands alter their communications/marketing strategy after this?
De-marketing is the new marketing. In five simple points:
- Don't focus on niches and segments because we live in a post-demographic era.
- Focus on big pictures and possibly create new icons because people learned how to get rid of the hoax.
- Shape your brand as if it was a person in which the customer's personality can be reflected by similitude or compensation.
- Communicate less in quantity and more in content because simple advertising is considered spam.
- Don't push but pull; recreate the sense of desire because otherwise there is no need for fashion.
Having said that, good products always speak for themselves. A good strategy could be a convergence of values with other sectors. If I had to revitalize a fashion brand now, I would start from the 10 rules of good design by Dieter Rams.
Is there still a point to in-person fashion shows and events?
Absolutely. Fashion in the form of a flat-screen is just graphic design to be modified in its decorative parts, without a real change in silhouettes, cuts and volumes. It's not fashion. Of course, now we have our tablets to draw, 3D design software to make our creations look three-dimensional, avatar meetings and even virtual fashion shows. They are all insanely useful and progressive, but just substitutes. Fashion doesn't exist without physical interaction. Clothes and accessories are made to be worn on our bodies, they give us an identity and a role in our relationships with others. Real fashion serves to decide who does what to whom. During the lockdown, we tried to recreate the graduation show virtually. We called the most important producers in the world and the outcome was technically very good. Nonetheless, both faculty and students felt that this stuff did not represent who we are, what we do and how we want the world to be. We decided to wait for the right moment to catch up with the live fashion show.
Will consumers remember how brands behaved during the pandemic, like whether they were producing PPE, donating money, keeping employees, etc.?
Human beings are programmed to forget everything as quickly as possible otherwise they could not survive the memories of history that, for the most part, speak of atrocities. Of these good deeds, there will, therefore, be a latent memory. People will associate a small plus to the name of those brands without specifically remembering why. Marketing aside, these have been positive actions. I don't know how it is in other countries, but fashion in Italy is as important as the food we put on the table and fashion brands are part of our daily lives. We did not experience their actions as something rained down from heaven but as something that belongs to our culture. Life first, always!