Despite risks, independent designers see a silver lining in lockdown

By guest author George Arnett from Vogue Business

Designers don’t know when their next collections will ship or if they’ll get paid for orders. But a break from fashion’s breakneck pace is welcome.

All captions courtesy by Vogue Business

Key takeaways:

  • With materials locked up and deliveries on hold, independent designers across the world are finding themselves with a break from the hectic fashion calendar.
  • Some designers, as a result, are reanalysing their business models or concentrating on long-term creative projects.
  • These brands, especially those reliant on wholesale deals, will start feeling the pressure if the lockdown continues.

Dilan Lurr is in the Antwerp studio where he designs for Namacheko, the menswear brand he helms with his sister Lezan. Had circumstances not changed, at this point in the year, the studio would be full of a team of up to 10 people working on the brand’s collection for Paris Fashion Week Menswear in June.

Instead, it’s empty, like many designer brand studios across the world. Belgian authorities have insisted everyone work from home where possible during the Covid-19 outbreak. Countries that are home to major fashion industries — including Italy, France, the UK and the US — are in lockdown for the foreseeable future. In China, designers have started to return to work, but slowly.

“You have a full row of sewing machines, the cutting table,” says Lurr. “It’s no one here, just me.”

Unable to prototype without their equipment, the Namacheko team is currently researching for future collections and developing other ideas. Lurr says he had long been considering taking a break for a year from the industry. Since its launch in 2017, the young brand, which sells mostly via wholesale channels but has a small direct business, has put out two collections per year. The Spring/Summer 2021 collection he had been working on is now being treated as a “breather”; the number of looks have been reduced from 40 to closer to 15 or 16 because of the restrictions on production and constraints over sourcing new materials. “It’s a sort of luxury to really be able to think,” he says.

Ripped away from their teams and studios, independent designers are adapting to working from home as much as possible. With materials on lockdown and factories closed, much of their business has been put on pause. As smaller businesses without massive cash reserves, the pressure may soon start to bite for some. Luxury purchases are collapsing in the west, wholesale orders are being cancelled and there is no clear end to the lockdown. But some designers are hoping that, once they make it out of this, there will be changes to the relentless fashion calendar that are worth staying positive for.

Adjusting to the new normal

The timing of the Covid-19 outbreak has inevitably given some designers whiplash. Up-and-coming designer Kenneth Nicholson had just got through reams of promotional and sales meetings at New York Fashion Week following the showcase of his Autumn/Winter 2020 menswear collection in the first week of February. On his return to Los Angeles, he launched straight into collecting all the materials for putting the collection into production, but had to suddenly halt as the lockdown in California began. Everything is currently on hold as the brand waits to see whether production can begin.

Most emerging luxury fashion brands initially work with wholesalers to get eyes on their product and handle distribution. However wholesalers, particularly bricks-and-mortar department stores and boutiques, are highly vulnerable right now. Last week, Saks Fifth Avenue told designers that it was delaying payment on orders made for up to three months. To operate, small businesses need liquidity; emerging brands are currently full of uncertainty as to whether what they are producing will be picked up by wholesale partners or if they can count on the payments that they were expecting.

“In the last week of March, Elza Wandler, whose eponymous brand Wandler has achieved cult status for its shoes and handbags, said that she would at this stage typically be travelling to Italy to make her first samples for a collection she would show to buyers in June. She is now making samples for a September collection instead from her Amsterdam studio. Paris Men’s and couture fashion weeks have been cancelled, while the June events in New York and Milan have been postponed. ”

“I am working on a new collection which feels quite strange,” she says. “It’s always good to just have ideas and have your collection ready and then you can always see how to adapt in the future but I think at this point, nobody can tell you what the future will be.”

Lurr is hoping to move Namacheko towards more of a direct-to-consumer model and is exploring whether the brand can increase the number of seasonless products it has on sale. He adds that as a brand helmed by Swedish nationals in Belgium, there are little sources of funding and the brand has always tried to be entirely revenue-driven. Government support exists in some countries in the form of loans and cash grants. Fashion councils across the world are lobbying for fashion designers to be better covered by government schemes or, in the case of the British Fashion Council in the UK, providing a grant fund themselves.

Sarah Willersdorf, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group, says that brands with inventory on hand and a means to distribute it should indeed look at accelerating direct e-commerce. “When you’re the size of some of the small and emerging brands, you don’t need a huge bump to make a big difference,” she says.

Among the brands that feel most protected from the fallout are made-to-order firms. Richard Malone, the latest winner of the International Woolmark Prize who largely shuns wholesale, fortunately had a private viewing with clients before the lockdown began and by that point had largely closed his books for orders set to be delivered in September and October. This period is a natural downtime for the firm, though a performance event he was set to hold at the Irish Museum of Modern Art has been cancelled.

Malone’s biggest concern is for one of his suppliers, a regenerative cotton farming project in India with the lockdown there making it unclear whether the soil will get the irrigation it needs to survive. He views much of the work of brands prioritising sustainability as research to find ways to minimise the impact of the fashion industry and hopes that this pause allows the sector to rethink how luxury fashion works. “Are you doing the research so that you can accommodate the old fashion system? Or are you doing the research so that you can change the system?” he says.

Navigating obstacles

In a lockdown, there are elements of running a designer fashion brand that can’t be replicated remotely. Wandler’s team began to work from home shortly after Paris Fashion Week when many sales samples were returning from the showroom. She says the act of physically checking them was incredibly difficult without her team being present. “It’s all about is the leather correct? How is the stitching? Is the stitching the right colour? And I’m talking about 100 pairs of shoes and a hundred bags.”

South African designer Thebe Magugu has run into similar difficulties. “We work in an industry where you have to see something in person,” he says, giving the example of being unable to explain the fabric development to a client through a webcam.

Others did what they could to keep up some kind of output. Surrealist bridal and eveningwear brand Wed founders Amy Trinh and Evan Phillips raided their studio before the shutdown came into effect, both taking mannequins home with them. Trinh notes that she has bought a sewing machine to continue working from her flat.

There is a time limit to how long this can go on without causing significant problems for some of the businesses, though. “If by mid-June, things haven’t steered towards a more positive direction, that’s when I’ll really start worrying,” says Magugu. “Deadlines for deliveries will be very close.”

Hoping for change

Some designers see a silver lining: the unexpected pause in production has brought fashion’s neck-breaking pace to a halt. When he spoke to Vogue Business on 31 March, Nicholson was in his third week of self-isolation.

“The first week I didn’t know what to make of it and then week two I started to feel a little stir crazy. I longed to get out back in the street, back in the sunlight on the subway, back downtown and back to work. Now I feel like I’m settling in,” he says, citing meditation and staying closely in touch with the fashion community as coping mechanisms. Nicholson has participated in webinars for the Black Design Collective and also contributed to the CFDA/Vogue Common Thread initiative that is documenting the current struggles faced by the fashion sector in America.

Despite his business being put on hold, Nicholson is using the time to explore his creativity. He is continually drawing and sketching and building notes for his next two collections, as well as exploring other pursuits like songwriting. “I’m doing all the things that I wanted to do, but maybe didn’t have the time,” he says.

This perspective is shared by designers across the parts of the world currently on lockdown. “The sudden slowdown in the hectics of running a business gave us a rare opportunity to take a deep breath and reflect on ourselves, our personal and business goals,” write Dima Chayun and Anton Yakshyn of Ukranian brand Chakshyn via email. Magugu, who won the LVMH Prize last autumn, says, “Ever since September, everything has been in this crescendo — having to always have an output of some kind. It’s really good to be on a very low frequency.”

There is hope that this break will result in change for the industry, with some of the designers hoping that the industry comes closer to the way they operate now. Magugu, who sources fabric and produces in South Africa, calls for more brands to near-shore their supply chains while Blanca Miro and Maria de la Orden, founders of Spanish luxury blazer firm La Veste, say the current situation “reinforces our choice for local production”.

“This is a really challenging time now for companies and maintaining liquidity is key, but I really am hoping that we actually see a lot of structural shifts and creative solutions come out of this crisis,” says Willersdorf.

She points out how a few have been pushing live videos to their communities some of which is non-product oriented. Chakshyn, for example, has been curating some of their favourite movies and music on Instagram stories and hosting takeovers by other creatives. “Acceleration of digital commerce and then going beyond product and driving consumer engagement are going to be two of the biggest ways to drive advantage in the new reality,” Willersdorf says.