At the beginning of this year, nobody could have predicted the wide scale upheaval the Covid-19 pandemic would wreak on the fashion industry. What once seemed like a distant virus that wouldn’t touch us has since become inseparable from the daily realities of the lives we lead.
For emerging designers in particular, the initial prognosis seemed catastrophic: wholesale orders were cancelled or drastically reduced, restrictions on travel and movement meant less opportunity for expansion and “stay at home” orders resulted in a sharp decrease in consumer spending as we found ourselves with nowhere to go, and no reason to dress up.
Indeed, as the pandemic progressed, the fashion industry felt the strain. Department stores like Neiman Marcus and Debenham’s filed for bankruptcy protection, as well as generations-old brands like Brooks Brothers and J. Crew, many of whom directly cited the Covid-19 pandemic as the particular cause. Elsewhere, numerous other brands and conglomerates announced significant operating losses, permanent store closures and staff redundancies as the shockwaves spread worldwide.
Many in the industry worried that a vast number of emerging designers would not be able to sustain themselves through the pandemic, lacking the cash reserves of their larger and more established counterparts. What they may have forgotten to take into account, however, was the tenacious spirit, coupled with the ability to implement agility at scale that emerging labels possess – rising to the challenge and developing new and innovative ways to solidify their brands and connect directly with their core consumers, often through digital channels.
In a research paper published by McKinsey & Company. in May, five critical qualities for a business to adopt in order to be successful through, and after, the pandemic: resolve, resilience, return, reimagination, and reform. They proposed that businesses able to implement change quickly, and at scale, will be best positioned to rise to the challenges of the pandemic and meet the opportunities it affords, and come out stronger than before.
Emerging designers play an important role, particularly for larger retailers and fashion wholesalers, to provide new and exciting products for their consumers. So much so, that several key retailers and industry bodies have announced support programmes and financial aid to ensure that the industry does not lose this vital new talent.
One such support programme was introduced by MATCHESFASHION with The Innovators Programme, which includes 12 emerging designers across menswear and womenswear and offers a mixture of financial aid, multi-channel marketing support and preferential payment terms for emerging designers. Commencing from September, The Innovators Programme covers a full year, and supports designers including Wales Bonner, Ludovic de Saint Sernin, Bianca Saunders, Harris Reed and Ahluwalia.
“Emerging talent has always been at the heart of our business but often these businesses exist outside of traditional production cycles and need additional help and support to grow. This programme solidifies what we have always done, recognising talent and promoting their inspiring collections,” says MATCHESFASHION’s Head of Menswear, Damien Paul.
“The MATCHESFASHION Innovators programme is so important, especially as the majority of sales are now taking place online. As a small business, we don’t have a huge marketing budget so the Innovators programme really helps the brand to connect with new audiences everywhere,” says Ahluwalia designer Priya Ahluwalia.
For Ahluwalia, a pivot to new, technology-enabled ways of doing business proved crucial this year. “I have really had to embrace digital forms of communication whether that’s for the basics like meetings or fittings to much more outward facing solutions such as how to present at a digital fashion week. This year, I have worked with VR technology and I have also created my first film. Both areas I don’t think I would have explored yet if it wasn’t for the pandemic.”
Earlier this year, Ahluwalia was selected as a finalist for the inaugural LVMH Prize, another programme which highlights emerging design talent and provides a mixture of financial support and business mentorship in order to enable young designers to succeed.
After this year’s award was cancelled due to the pandemic, the 300,000 Euro prize package was divided equally among the eight finalists to support them through the pandemic, and in recognition of their contribution to the fashion industry.
Even bigger brands are showing solidarity and support for emerging designers. In lieu of a fashion week show, Gucci announced it would launch a week-long fashion and film festival dubbed “GucciFest”. In addition to premiering its own collection via a seven-part film series, the luxury house gave the opportunity to 15 independent designers – including Ahluwalia – to present their new collections via a series of short films, amplified through Gucci’s channels as part of the official schedule.
Only time will tell how successful these initiatives will be in supporting emerging designers to survive the Covid-19 pandemic, but with the hope of effective vaccines on the horizon, there is a chance that we might return to a “new normal” sooner than expected, and when we do, emerging designers will be ready to seize the opportunity.