Drapers assesses coronavirus’s potential impact on the upcoming trade show and buying season.
Mass gatherings and large-scale events have been scrapped as governments across the globe fight to control the spread of infection. Travel bans, closed borders and social curbs are casting serious doubt over whether the fashion industry will be able to make its pilgrimage to the various trade shows, fashion weeks and appointments that comprise the upcoming spring 21 buying season. The UK is currently under strict restrictions to only leave the house for essential reasons such as grocery shopping or one piece of daily exercise. Hopping on a plane to a European buying appointment is currently a very distant dream.
Airlines are grounding scores of flights. Much of the high street has already banned buyers from travelling, both across the UK and internationally. Disruption is expected to rage for months.
Manufacturing trade show Make It British, scheduled on 17-18 March, has also been postponed until further notice amid contamination fears.
Several key dates on the fashion calendar are set to be held in countries in lockdown. Italy, home to menswear fair Pitti Uomo and kidswear show Pitti Bimbo, has been among the hardest hit by coronavirus. Both events are scheduled to be held in Florence this June, but the nation is under emergency quarantine measures that have banned all public gatherings and heavily restricted travel.
“We are fully aware that this fair season will not be like all the others. It will be an exceptional season, combating the fear and the emergency. We’re laying down the foundations for a relaunch that is as rapid as possible.”
The physical fair will be complemented by a new digital platform that offers content and remote interaction in a bid to “boost efficiency of relationships between companies and buyers”.
Other shows are also dialling up their digital presence as an alternative to face-to-face contact.
“As physical events and meetings can’t happen, we’re extending our digital presence and contact through webcasts,” explains Gilles Lasbordes, general manager of Paris textile fair Première Vision.
The organiser has cancelled some events, including Made in France Première Vision and Première Vision New York Designs show, both due to take place in April. Denim Première Vision, set to be held in Milan in early June, is currently still going ahead, as is July’s Blossom Première Vision in Paris and Première Vision Paris in September.
“Our online marketplace, which launched in 2018, allows our exhibitors to highlight their creations, and help brands to find the right companies and products to build their collections without any physical meetings in this difficult context,” Lasbordes continues.
“Considering the situation, the marketplace now allows exhibitors to present an unlimited number of products on their digital space for free.”
Drapers contacted other key trade shows, including Scoop, Ciff, Revolver, Moda and Micam, to ask if they plan to run as normal but received no response.
But even if shows do go ahead, brands are uncertain about exhibiting in the wake of widespread industry disruption.
“Getting samples in time [for Pitti Uomo] was always going to be tight and is now looking impossible,” the sales director of one clothing distributor, which showed at the January edition, tells Drapers. “My feeling right now is that we won’t be there. We’re so behind with samples from manufacturers that it’s untrue – even though we don’t produce in China, our trims come from there.
There are Italian customers who are yet to see that collection, which is a nightmare for us
Sales director clothing distributor
“Our order books aren’t closed for autumn 20 and there are Italian customers who are yet to see that collection, which is a nightmare for us. We need to place our orders with our factories to secure September delivery so I’m having to speculate and stick my finger in the air about orders for the season.
“Thankfully everything we need for spring 20 is already on the water. My concern now is when will some of our big European clients get to see the collection – retail is completely closed down in some countries and businesses have got bigger things on their minds than placing orders.”
Visiting more UK trade shows could be an alternative to attending European fairs, he continues: “With the money we save from not going to shows like Pitti Uomo – which isn’t insignificant – we may look at attending some UK shows, although I’m yet to be convinced they are worth the investment. We’re concerned footfall will still be poor, particularly from international visitors. I just can’t see many people jumping on a plane.”
Buyers are taking a wait-and-see approach. Some shows, such as UK womenswear fair Scoop and Danish fairs Ciff and Revolver, are not due to take place until July and August, by which time the peak rate of infection is predicted to have passed.
“None of us know what will change from one week to the next, so it is a case of seeing what happens,” says Deryane Tadd, owner of St Albans premium womenswear independent The Dressing Room.
“You have to be mindful and take all the steps you can. We just don’t know what the situation will be in a few months’ time.”
Brands’ biggest priority is what to do if they have to close stores
It is impossible to say exactly how long it will be before business goes back to normal. What is clear is that retailers and brands alike are already battling unprecedented economic uncertainty that is having a dramatic impact on trade.
Simply surviving the coming weeks and months is now the top priority for brand and retailers across the industry. All clothing stores were forced to close in March under stricter social distancing measures outlined by prime minister Boris Johnson. Concerns about the close proximity of staff working in warehouses has also put a question mark over whether online retail will be able to continue. Next made the dramatic decision to halt online operations following unease from warehouse and distribution staff. Moss Bros has also temporarily ceased online trading.
A menswear source adds that buyers unable to travel may choose to play it safe when it comes to product for the next couple of seasons – a risky strategy in a saturated market where consumers demand constant excitement and newness: “A lot of big high street chains are cancelling trips and buyers are nervous – the feel, the handle and the weight of products all make a big impact on buying decisions.
“They might buy more from continuation lines, rather than buying the new trend product, which is a big worry for retailers because they could miss out on the season’s top sellers.”
Retreat from shows
Michael Shalders is the co-owner and director of fashion agency Love Brands, which works with brands including Guess, Nu Denmark and Joop.
“We’ve pulled back from trade shows,” he tells Drapers. “The number of orders we were writing was diminishing but the costs weren’t. Even so, I’d be amazed if there wasn’t disruption to the buying season. There will be the physical disruption of buyers potentially not wanting to come to London to visit showrooms, which is a bit of a challenge.
“The other disruption will be to trade – our customers are retailers and retail will suffer. Having said that, retailers will still need stock to sell. Smart buyers might be cautious and choosy about brands, but they will need product come spring next year.”
There will be the physical disruption of buyers potentially not wanting to come to London to visit showrooms
He adds that the agency will take measures to help protect buyers over the season, including enhanced cleaning and sanitisation: “We’ll offer to pick people up in taxis from the station to our showroom and then back or to their next appointment. Failing that, we’ll offer to visit buyers, although it isn’t ideal because you can’t take the whole collection.
“We’re also currently talking to brand partners about filming digital catwalks, as well as using photography. If we can’t see people in a showroom or elsewhere, then we’ll do as good a job as we can digitally.”
Fellow agent Lucy Walsh, who founded sales agency Brand Ambassadors and represents brands including Mos Mosh, Air & Grace and Stardust, also urges the industry to make feel use of technology: “We normally only exhibit at [London womenswear show] Scoop, which isn’t until July.
“What has already changed for us is that brands would usually be showing their mid-season collection to their agents around now, which for us means flying to places like France and Denmark. Brands are holding these presentations in alternative ways, such as by video call. This has saved me time and money – it could be the way forward, particularly as we’re all trying to reduce our carbon footprint. Face-to-face meetings are still important for relationship building and camaraderie, but as mid-season collections tend to be smaller, these presentations can be done digitally.”
However, founder and owner of another premium accessories brand warns that buyers being able to physically see, and touch products is still the ideal: “There’s no doubt that the disruption will impact the new season. We manufacture in Europe and we’d typically need initial samples around early July to send to customers.
“We may need to do more of this for the season ahead, if trade shows and show rooms are cancelled – sending samples to buyers for them to review. That would work with our current stockists, and some indies might be willing to take a small order based on a lookbook and knowing the brand.
“However, most buyers would want to see and feel the product, especially as we are at the premium end of the market. We want our buyers to see our product and have the same confidence in it that we do.”
Opportunity from threat
Fast moving, alarming and difficult to predict, the consequences of the coronavirus outbreak are likely to cause headaches for brands and retailers alike in the months ahead. Whether or not travel bans will be lifted in time for key events in the industry’s calendar has still yet to be seen. For many businesses, simply surviving the next few months will be the biggest and most immediate concern.
Once the dust has settled, the industry could take this as an opportunity to assess working practices – particularly in the light of the environmental crisis. Yes, face-to-face contact is vital for some buying sessions, and for relationship building, but could more be done using technology – video calls, webcasts, digital catwalks? Necessity is often the mother of invention.