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Lessons from an Italian fashion CEO

Matteo Sinigaglia is CEO of denim label Replay. Born in Padua, northern Italy, and now based in Treviso, he talks to Drapers about how Italy is lifting lockdown and what British retail bosses can learn from their counterparts in Europe.

We are facing a huge question mark. We really do not know what we could face over the coming weeks. The summer months in Italy are usually very busy with tourists – that’s something the country’s economy relies on, and we will suffer from the absence of that kind of business. When it comes to social distancing, we’ve taken all the precautions the government has imposed – wearing gloves and masks, sanitising the stores, offering hand sanitiser at the stores – but we’ll have to wait and see how it impacts store footfall.

Preparing for social distancing in stores has been challenging in the sense that it is new and we’ve never done it before. The big issue is that we just don’t know how long this is going to last. We want to take effective measures while remembering this could be a temporary problem. We’re training staff and making sure everyone in the business understands the potential challenges ahead.

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Replay SS20

The big debate now is how to avoid a new lockdown, because is it clear that going into another would not be affordable economically.

We have stores across pretty much the whole of Italy, and the situation with the virus varies from region to region. Places such as Lombardy still have a problem with coronavirus infection, but there are areas in southern Italy that seem to have it under control.

How and when stores will reopen will therefore vary. The government allowed the economy to restart from 18 May [retailers, restaurants, hairdressers, and cafes were allowed to reopen] but the lasting impact of lockdown on the ecosystem of our high streets has yet to be seen. What we do know is that we will follow regulations closely and work on a daily basis to improve what we’re doing when it comes to hygiene measures.

If we look at the global situation for Replay, we currently have around 30 stores that have reopened and 56 stores closed. What we’ve found from the reopened stores is that footfall is lower, but conversion is higher. People who are going to stores are going to buy: they’re not window shopping.

There are two types of consumers coming out of lockdown: those are scared to go out to crowded places so will shop online and those who can’t sit at home any longer.

I’ve realised that I like travelling a lot – I used to complain about it but now I miss it! On the business side, I’ve learned that you have to try and take a common-sense approach to very situation, no matter how unexpected it is. You can’t let the uncertainty produce panic.

You also can’t try to over-plan for every scenario in this kind of situation because there’s so much we don’t know. What I’ve tried to do on a daily basis is prepare the brand to reflect consumers’ changing attitudes and lifestyles. We’ve tried to be proactive and keep our offering relevant to them – having the right product is what will make the real difference.

The best plan a business can have today is to be fast. Replay is being as flexible as possible in our approach, gathering information quickly and sharing it with all the senior management team. We’re being flexible when it comes to the product assortment and our messaging, and trying to work as closely as possible with partner marketplaces and our factories to serve the customer as best as possible.

The virus has hit not only businesses, but the entire economies of countries, and consumers are very aware of that. They are demanding the very best product made in the best possible way. Credibility and transparency will be even more important going forward. Consumers will want to live in a better world once the pandemic is over, and that will include clothing. Being sustainable in today’s market is a must: it is almost a consumer right. 

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