The world is changing under our feet.
Normally, when a writer sets out to tackle a topic – even one that’s currently in the public eye – there is room to breathe between drafts. But between the moment I outlined this article and the moment I started writing it, two headlines landed in my inbox – neither of which I expected to read in my lifetime.
The first brought me to chills on a personal level. Here in the UK – where debate is raging as to the best method of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic – automakers and engineering companies are being asked to switch their manufacturing lines to produce medical ventilators. The country apparently has around 5,000 ventilators, and will need many times that amount if we see the influx of severe respiratory distress that further spread of the virus will almost certainly cause.
So let me be human before I switch to my professional gear: people are dying. They are dying in increasing numbers in my home country, where it appears to only be a matter of weeks (or days) before our health service is scraped too thin. They are dying throughout Europe, in the United States, and, of course, in Asia.
The measures being proposed to reduce the global death toll vary from the draconian to the almost laissez-faire. Some countries are in total lockdown, to a level unprecedented in a generation; restaurants, stores, sporting events, religious services and schools have all been shuttered, with no clear plan in place for when, and how, they will re-open. Others are taking a different approach, either as a delaying tactic or as an exhibition of wilful ignorance, depending on your perspective.
The one thing every country has in common: business as usual is not coming back any time soon. In fact, it may not be coming back at all. In record time, the outbreak of the new coronavirus has transformed from a tragic inconvenience – with the initial flurry of industry event cancellations – into a whole new way of life.
Which brings me to the second headline that percolated to the top of my notifications as I wrote this story: Nike has closed all its retail stores in the United States, Canada, Western Europe, Australia and New Zealand until at least the end of March.
Let that sink in. One of the world’s most recognisable brands is saying it’s no longer safe to shop in many of its biggest markets. And Apple – arguably the most recognised brand – is following suit almost everywhere but China, while shares in one of the UK’s most popular high-street retailers, Primark, have been suspended from trading this morning.
And this is just looking at the market through a downstream lens. The Interline received exclusive intelligence from an upstream source in early March (which feels a lifetime away today) which revealed that some factories had been forced to shift to a 3-day week as material supplies dwindled, as well as paying to drive staff to and from work every day, and conduct mandatory temperature-testing and screening each morning.
And this was before things got really bad.
Do you represent a brand, retailer, manufacturer, technology provider, or event organiser whose business has been dramatically – maybe irrevocably – altered by the coronavirus outbreak? Contact email@example.com if you would like to talk about it.
Now, the suggestion is that life in China – which is still the de facto manufacturing centre of the apparel industry, despite brands slowing moving parts of their sourcing operations elsewhere – is returning to some semblance of normality.
Personally, I doubt this is true. Lockdowns will have had significant psychological and economic impacts whose repercussions will only be felt further down the line. And what’s more, manufacturing may well be kicking back into gear, but to what end? Brick and mortar still accounts for 84% of all retail sales in 2020, and this is a channel that’s about to be forcibly cut off for at least a fortnight in much of the Western world. And when stores do re-open, are fashion sales (hardly an essential commodity in the way toilet paper apparently is) likely to pick back up immediately? After a week? A month? A year?
McKinsey’s risk team sees three different scenarios: a quick rebound by the end of the first quarter, which is extremely unlikely at the time of writing; a slower recovery by the close of the second quarter; and a global recession, with consumer confidence not returning until the end of September, or later. And what do retailers do with the unsold inventory that will be gathering dust in storerooms and distribution centres in the meantime?
The Interline speaks to a lot of retailers. Not all will survive that level and duration of disruption.
And if people are in no rush to get back into shops, then industry events and trade shows – already subject to a lot of criticism from an environmental point of view – are likely to be even harder-hit. In fact, the current public health crisis could be the final straw for a business model (gathering thousands of people in one place to look at things) that was on shaky enough ground even before digital became the only channel to reach people.
After the cancellation of the Geneva Motor Show, for example, automakers went on to run their scheduled reveals anyway – either through direct email campaigns or through live-streaming digital unveilings. For an industry that already primarily advertises its products with computer-generated stand-ins, this begs the question of why so much time, money, and carbon output is spent making prototypes and flying people in from all corners of the globe in the first place.
Other industries have also followed suit… where they could. Various fashion weeks – most notably Milan – took place through a combination of closed-door shows and live streams supported by technology companies. The interactive entertainment industry’s milestone E3 event has been cancelled, to be replaced by multiple “virtual” showcases. And it’s rare to find a trade show in any other industry that has not been either postponed or outright cancelled, but with that blow softened by webinars, online sessions, and other digital methods.
But spare a thought for those industries that don’t have a digital channel they can fall back on. Film studios, for instance. Despite the rise of streaming, the movie industry has fought to keep the cinema as the only “real” way to experience its products, after which a lesser version makes it to streaming services and digital media. Today, cinema chains sit empty as public gatherings are being discouraged or outright banned, and studios’ slates of new releases have been delayed until much later in the year. It’s easy to criticise with the benefit of hindsight, but I can only assume Hollywood executives are now wishing they hadn’t pushed back against simultaneous home-and-theatre distribution quite so hard.
So what happens when the lockdowns end? I wish I had the answer, although I’m doing my best to help on a personal, local level. Travel and commerce will resume someday, but when? And will the airlines that moved people, and the air carriers that moved freight, be able to survive until that uncertain date? Will LVMH keep making hand sanitiser alongside its for-profit fragrances?
The day will come when all of us are allowed back to work, but in what form? Unless we are essential infrastructure, medical, or security staff, how willing will we be to tolerate travelling to and from an office that clearly does not need us to be there every day?
And when that question is answered, what about events? When the idea of commuting to an office rather than being available digitally takes on a new aspect, the idea of flying to another country, alongside potentially tens of thousands of others is going to seem positively archaic.
So the question will be: which industries need to be the exceptions? Which products are so important, or complex, that they cannot be grasped digitally – over a video stream, or as an augmented or virtual reality experience? The answer will be: very few. And I’m not sure fashion will be among them. Fashion software certainly will not.
In anticipation of that conclusion, I believe the fashion industry no longer has any choice other than to go digital-first. For design and production creation. For prototyping, sourcing, and sampling. For sales and distribution.
Fortunately, unlike some other product-centric industries, fashion has all the right blocks to build a future where both upstream and downstream interaction needs to be predominantly digital. Even the most traditional brands are now building direct-to-consumer online channels, and e-commerce-only brands and retailers have become some of our biggest success stories. A good proportion of businesses have also at least experimented with using 3D simulation and rendering to replace physical samples, or to stand in for salesman’s samples – or to populate online catalogues. And as our readers saw last week, digital materials platforms could offer a viable alternative to traditional fairs and buying trips – although this is really only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to upstream digital transformation and connectivity, which The Interline will examine very soon.
Events, though, are a different prospect. And this is where channels like The Interline, which gathers a focused, fashion-technology audience entirely digitally, can help. We have already offered a channel for speakers and delegates of the postponed IT4Fashion event to communicate with one another, and we will continue to do our part to support all twelve fashion tech areas we cover in our 2020/21 editorial calendar.
But the industry must do its part. Today our world is locked down; someday it will not be. But the scales have already tipped towards digital as the only future, and they are not likely to tip back.
Fashion has already started its journey to digital transformation. Now it has no choice but to finish it.