As governments work to curb an increasingly widespread pandemic, the fashion industry grapples with the effects – but also offers some respite
As the lights dimmed, signaling the start of another Paris fashion week show, an editor discreetly sneezed. The crowd seated near her jumped, with some guests looking nothing less than aghast. Blame it on the temperamental weather and equally scandalous time tables – or, blame it on Covid-19.
The fashion crowd had just returned from Milan, not far from the region where Covid-19, better known as the coronavirus, had started to spread, making Italy the second country struck with the pandemic after China. As Milan – and in the following days the whole country – rapidly shut down, putting one of Europe’s largest nations under quarantine, the fashion industry was quick to take action. Armani and Moncler, among others, decided the show would go on, albeit audience-free.
Back in Paris, the general attitude and well-entrenched behavioral patterns changed profoundly. “The climate switched within minutes; the usual bise was replaced by a distant wave; meetings, projects, and shows were rapidly canceled and a state of panic grew,” recalls Lara Abdessalem, an agent and producer at talent agency Newcomers. At the entrance of Dries Van Noten, antibacterial gel and masks were handed out, the latter increasingly displayed on the front row. Editors from major publications in China were home-bound; maisons like Louis Vuitton and Chanel prohibited their US-based staff from flying to the shows. APC, Agnès B, as well as Chinese houses Masha Ma, Maison Mai, and Shiatzy Chen canceled their presentations, and the annual LVMH Prize meet and greet was called off. On a larger scale, these measures proved to be all but futile. On the first day of fashion week, the number of reported cases in the country was 14; barely a week later, it had risen to more than 500. In March, the number of confirmed cases stood at almost 60,000, with more than 5,000 dead.
Chanel has since postponed its Métiers d’Arts show, due to take place in Beijing, as did Burberry for an upcoming Shanghai runway, Armani in Dubai, and Versace for a secret, US-held cruise presentation. Hermès, Gucci, Ralph Lauren, Max Mara, and Prada all canceled upcoming shows and events in Paris and London, San Francisco, New York, Saint Petersburg, and Tokyo, respectively. The Met Gala has also been postponed indefinitely. As the pandemic rose to more than 340 000 cases around the globe, all forms of travel to and from most areas of the world has come to be seen as a potential threat.
Can media and fashion help install a more positive climate? Efforts are underway: China-based e-commerce company Alibaba injected US $144 million into the country’s health system; Moncler donated €10 million to support the Fiera Hospital project in Lombardy; LVMH has donated $2.3 million to the Red Cross Society of China for medical supplies, while also using its perfume and cosmetic factories to produce hydroalcoholic gels to be delivered free of charge to French health authorities; Kering $1 million to the Red Cross Society of Hubei; and more funds from the fashion industry are on the way from the likes of L’Oréal ($720 000) and Swarovski ($430 000), among others. In all, the total of donations estimated sent to China has risen to nearly $2.9 billion. Now, as China seems to effectively have stifled the virus on a national level, attention must shift to focus on international markets – Europe in particular. Armani has offered €1.25 million to Italian hospitals, as did Gucci’s chief executive Marco Bizzarri, making a personal contribution of €100 000.
Donations aside, the coronavirus is also having an impact on fashion design. According to Sophie Conti, founder of New York-based Conti Communications, this is likely to be rapidly picked up by fashion houses and their – coincidentally – current apocalyptic trend. “Polo necks covering the nose and mouth and the use of Latex as seen on the FW20 runways will likely be expedited to the market quickly,” she says. “Brands able to emerge with a product both safe and with aesthetic appeal will win traction.” Meanwhile, on social media, fashion players are imploring followers to buy local, particularly encouraging the support of their own country’s designers and sharing news of different finds, whether fashion or art. “On a positive note, went to see this mind-blowing glassblowing show by this very talented female artist, Hanna Hansdotter,” wrote Italian fashion editor Giovanna Battaglia.
Some are taking a philosophical stance and see the outbreak as offering “a blank page for a new beginning,” as trend forecaster Li Edelkoort said, which will allow for an overall reconsideration of current capitalist values towards a wholly different mindset – and even air quality. Recent pictures of the air above China showed significantly lowered pollution levels.
Many are rethinking our relationship to time in a world incessantly speeding up. The current social and medical obligation to slow down could be the silver lining to the virus. If history offers any recourse, as more people are quarantined, their desire for escapism will undoubtedly escalate – and few things offer a sense of escapism like fashion.
Originally published in the April 2020 issue of Vogue Arabia