As the world plunges into crisis and uncertainty, the fashion industry steps up, whipping up masks, sanitisers, hazmat suits and donations in the millions. Jeffrey Yan ruminates on what we’re doing now and what comes after.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

Face masks have gone from being signifiers of a dystopian fantasy to a very real modern-day necessity.

Clockwise from top: Looks from Marine Serre spring/ summer 2020. Billie Eilish at the 2020 Grammy Awards. Looks from Louis Vuitton spring/summer 2008 in collaboration with artist Richard Prince.

In the best of times, fashion can be a source of delight, inspiration, invention and fantasy. These are not the best of times. As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, the trappings of modern fashion— epic shows in glamorous locales, new must-haves every season, product drops at frantic speeds and frequencies—are suddenly looking painfully out of touch. From retail networks to supply chains, the industry as we know it has been disrupted.

But one of the powers of fashion is also its ability to reflect the times, and in these times of grave uncertainty, the industry has shown surprising resilience and adaptation—putting thoughts of profitability aside to throw its considerable muscle and resources behind relief, research and emergency efforts.

When the virus first started seeping out of China in January, the major fashion weeks still carried on. It wasn’t quite business as usual—face masks and hand sanitisers were spotted everywhere, from front rows to backstage—but the threat hadn’t yet exploded to its current scale. When Giorgio Armani cancelled his Milan Fashion Week show in lieu of a virtual live stream, more than a few viewed it as an abundance of caution. 

In the weeks since, Italy has turned into an epicentre of the pandemic; hospitals were overwhelmed. Fashion brands sprang into action. The Armani Group donated €1.25 million to Italian hospitals. The Prada Group donated six intensive care and resuscitation units to three Milanese hospitals. Donatella and Allegra Versace each pledged €100,000 to Milan’s San Raffaele hospital. Moncler gave €10 million to support the construction of a new hospital with 400 intensive care units. Kering committed €2 million to Italy and Tod’s, €5 million. Bvlgari and Dolce&Gabbana poured money into research e orts focused on finding a cure.

As the virus tore through the rest of Europe, fashion’s biggest names stepped up to the plate. LVMH turned its perfume factories over to the production of hand sanitisers—a valuable resource that the conglomerate distributed for free to health authorities. Prada followed suit, converting its factories to manufacture medical gowns and masks, as did the Zegna Group.

In London, Burberry similarly retooled its Yorkshire factory to make masks and gowns while funding vaccine research and making donations to charity organisations that tackle food poverty. The YOOX Net-a-Porter group donated its entire Premiere Delivery Service fleet to Age UK outposts, which make essential deliveries to the elderly and the vulnerable.

As the virus hit the US, American brands swiftly jumped into the fray. Behemoths such as Ralph Lauren and PVH committed millions of dollars to support employees, healthcare workers and smaller American fashion businesses impacted by the pandemic.

As admirable, heroic even, as these actions are, they are fundamentally temporary measures to patch up the holes that the coronavirus has ripped in our socioeconomic fabric. What comes after? Admittedly, of all the things to worry and be afraid about now, an industry dealing in imagery and imagination is not the easiest for which to feel sympathy. 

It is extremely hard to think of the long term when the day-to-day can change so drastically. But perhaps there is no better time for reckoning and reconfiguration.

Though fashion in its current form may be one of the most damaging industries to the planet, it is also one of the largest drivers of the world economy and the source of livelihood for millions. According to a joint report published recently by Business of Fashion and McKinsey & Company, the global fashion industry—which grew to US$2.5 trillion in worth before the pandemic—is expected to see revenues shrink by 30 percent in 2020. The personal luxury goods sector—which encompasses luxury fashion, accessories, watches, jewellery and high-end beauty—will be even harder hit, with estimates of revenue contractions of 35 to 39 percent.

Already, LVMH had anticipated first-quarter sales to dip by 20 percent, while Kering projected a drop of 13 to 14 percent. Burberry, with its higher exposure to brick-and-mortar retail in China, predicted sales to fall by almost 30 percent. Publicly traded companies, especially those in the US, have seen their share prices tumble as the US stock market plunges into freefall. As of the first week of April, the shares of Capri Holdings had lost 58 percent of their value; Tapestry’s declined by 45 percent and Ralph Lauren’s by 37 percent.

The 2020 cruise shows are all cancelled or postponed, as are the men’s and haute couture fashion weeks. The fate of the September shows remains up in the air. Think of all the finished designs that will never make it to the shop floor, the small businesses unable to cover rent and having to fold, the merchandise—a result of collective time, money and effort—languishing on shelves for months to come, the retail and manufacturing workers put out of their jobs, the limbo existence of the freelance workers and creatives that are the beating heart of our industry. 

It is extremely hard to think of the long term when the day-to-day can change so drastically. But perhaps in its own twisted way, there is no better time for reckoning and reconfiguration; no better accelerant to talk about issues that are thorny and difficult, but nonetheless vital to discuss. Do we need to travel so much? Do we need to consume so voraciously? Do we need to churn out new product at such relentless, dizzying speed?

In what seemed like a lifetime ago, Miuccia Prada and Raf Simons sat down for a joint interview with System magazine. Even back then in 2016, the two visionaries were already having qualms about fashion’s trajectory. “I think there’s something slightly wrong about this idea of big brands,” Prada said. Simons followed up: “There is no more freedom in the structure of a House; it has evolved into this kind of massive octopus where the structure itself has become too dominant and too defining.”

Four years later, the two would team up in an unprecedented move to co-helm Prada—a sign of the industry beginning to recalibrate even before the pandemic hit. And when all this is over, we will still need beauty; we will need to dream again. But perhaps this time around, those dreams can be intertwined with more mindfulness and meaning. Perhaps they can take place in a world where creativity trumps commerce, where soulful engagement and storytelling take precedence over likes and millions of followers.

Jean Touitou, the founder of A.P.C, thinks this will be the silver lining of this crisis. In a conversation with Tim Blanks for Business of Fashion, Touitou said he could see “how this will inspire a different kind of creativity”. No matter how dark it gets, there will always be light at the end of the tunnel—even though the end of this dark tunnel is indiscernible for now.

If the past has taught us anything, it’s that fashion emerges from crises with more clarity, purpose and creativity. Post-World War I fashion liberated women from corsets and hoop skirts. The end of World War II birthed a new kind of beauty (and the New Look). The Great Recession of 2008 stripped away frivolity for Philo-driven practicality and empowerment. What will post-Covid-19 bring? “Less is more” will be a good start. But one thing’s for sure: As Touitou said, “Desire cannot disappear.” And that’s the power of fashion.