Business not as usual – Fashion industry hit by COVID-19 pandemic

Models catwalk on the runway during the Fiji Fashion Week Resort Cruise 2018 show at the FMF Gymnasium in Suva. Picture: JONACANI LALAKOBAU

IT has not been “business as usual” for the fashion industry since the announcement of the coronavirus in Wuhan in early 2020 and fashion designers all over the world including Fiji have been hit hard.

Wuhan City is a major manufacturing and technical hub with global reach. News of the spread of COVID-19 initiated restrictions and closure of workplaces, cities and countries.

Early reports on the impacts of COVID-19 quickly flagged that restrictions on movement would affect supply chain originating from China, in the form of finished garments, but also the individual components that may be used for manufacturing in other locations.

Assessments of the impacts grew to take into account broader social and economic impacts on the ability to manufacture, supply and purchase.

The collapse of fashion as we know it was imminent – with shops closed, factories closed, people losing their jobs and the world of global fashion supply and demand halted.

‘Rona’ had come to visit and it looks like that visit is going to take a very long time to recover from. COVID-19 has disrupted everyone’s lives.

It was almost like overnight, the world that we knew was overtaken with one that required social distancing, lock-downs, limited everyone’s travel and experiences, and made us start to question and wonder about what would become our new normal.

The impacts have been felt widely and globally for individuals and businesses alike, irrespective of scale.

Large fashion houses like Burberry and Armani aren’t able to realise market sales and have pivoted to producing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for the health industry.

Why not? It has kept people in work and kept their factories open. It is couture PPE – worthy of a permanent installation in fashion museums as a memorial to COVID-19.

Small businesses have no protection from the ravages of an industry reeling from the impacts, but they do have the ability to quickly and deftly re-align their model to navigate this new normal. And that is what we have seen in Fiji.

Our local industry is doing it tough, but to the credit of the designers and manufacturers there are many who are riding out this storm.

As an industry and as a community we need to support this sector and their efforts to stay afloat.

We have seen many designers such as Rosie Emberson, Michael Mausio and Moira Sovalu take on the production of masks and creating reusable products – out of sustainability but also in awareness of the pressures on household incomes.

We have designers agitating for change to support the creative industries, without which we would not have the songs and movies and books and art that inspires us and helped pass the time when we were under lockdown.

The industry is more than the designers though – it is an ecosystem that weaves together creatives, entrepreneurs, businesses and consumers. It is an industry that provides jobs and livelihoods for thousands in Fiji alone.

One of the organisations affected by COVID-19 is Fiji Fashion Week.

When the news of Rona first reached Fiji, they knew straight away that there would be impacts for industry, including the annual Fiji Fashion Week show in May.

It was at the top of their minds as the May show is their raison d’etre – their reason for being.

As the only Fashion Week, their responsibilities are enormous as designers depend upon the event to showcase their collections, take orders and keep their SMEs growing.

Everyone loves getting dressed up and stepping out to see the designer collections, to meet the models, be photographed on the red carpet and enjoy what is one of the best and longest-running events on the Suva calendar.

From the first thought of ‘no show in May’ they wondered how and what we could do to fill the void.

It quickly became apparent that there was more at stake from not holding the runway shows, than the missed opportunity to socialise.

FJFW is a big brand in Fiji and the Pacific. The event itself reaches over 1500 people as a live audience and streamed into homes through Fiji TV, employs over 60 models, supports over 50 designers, provides opportunities to a myriad of small businesses such as builders, hair and makeup teams, catering, accommodation and photographers, along with the flow on to taxis, boutiques and beauticians.

There are obligations to corporate sponsors who are committed to association with the event and the anticipated large scale marketing they receive, the designers are going without a catwalk, the small businesses supporting the event and the models are missing exposure and income.

The team at FJFW share with us some of the ways in which they have responded to this unprecedented event, how they are supporting designers and what it means for the future of Fiji Fashion Week.

“Our first decision was to postpone FJFW from May to November to try to create some space between COVID-19 and our runway shows.

“We knew that the show couldn’t be held due to the various restrictions on travel etc” says Ellen Whippy Knight, managing director of Fiji Fashion Week.

“The scale of Rona has struck us hard and we knew we needed to step up. Ordinarily we have preparations well underway for our annual runway event, but this year we have had to think differently about how we can still achieve our objective of helping designers.

“Our team shifted focus from working with designers on their collections and promoting the event to coming up with a plan that would keep the profile on designers and our brand name in the media and online in the same ways that they would be in preparing for a show..

“In April, we launched the FJFW20 Online Program – a three month digital experience featuring competitions, style challenges, fashion-related news, inspiration and most importantly an avenue to keep designers engaged and promoted through in-depth weekly profiles which really look at the impacts of COVID for these individual designers.”

FJFW marketing co-ordinator Moi Vatuwaqa comments that “as we started to plan and develop the online program, we were witnessing around the globe that all the major fashion weeks were grappling with the very same issues we were – how do we as a brand reliant upon a live event, stay present in the face of no physical show? We knew we had to go online. The online world is a treasure trove of experience, education and exposure through social media, the availability of resources and the interconnectedness that it facilitates. So when we put all of this together, we saw that a digital platform was our opportunity.”

Since COVID-19, there have been significant changes in the way the fashion industry operates as a business. Every designer or label is operating differently, from pausing their businesses through to pivoting production.

Fashion weeks are also responding by cancelling or postponing their events while they reflect on the best ways to move forward when the time is right, shifting to a complete digital runway experience (adhering to social distancing restrictions).

Others are consolidating the number of fashion week ‘seasons or categories’ into a single unisex event showcasing men’s and women’s garments together and moving away from fashion week’s traditional cycle of showing collections and taking orders, to being able to take orders and buy garments directly from the runway.

“Fiji Fashion Week is already a leader in this space as most collections shown are mixed men’s and women’s and designers are already selling straight from the runway” says Chris Vanua, designer relations co-ordinator.

“We are so mindful that designers are dependent upon as a marketing activity in sync with their production cycles. Our absence for them would definitely be felt.

“Instead we are taking this opportunity to help designers reach out to new audiences through weekly designer profiles on our FJFW social media platforms and arranging access to our media partners for interviews and stories.

“At least this way, we will be keeping the information channels open so that people can hear firsthand about how the designers are coping with the impacts of COVID.

“And hopefully generate interest so that when we move on from this initial phase and people are ready to look and shop, they will understand more about the local designers and seek them out.”

Fashion is usually considered a frivolous endeavour, something that is fleeting, consumerist and driven by want rather than need.

While many may argue that this is true, it undermines the very significant role that the fashion industry plays in supporting communities, especially in Fiji.

Everyone knows someone who works in the garment manufacturing industry, has a cousin who is a designer or model, has an aunt or uncle who runs a screen printing business or fabric import business.

All of these businesses have been affected and all must take steps to recover and rebuild.

There is a global plea for the fashion industry to grow in a new and different way in a post-COVID world – to be more sustainable with a manageable environmental footprint and to change the culture of disposability and slavish production inherent in fast fashion which seeks to keep supply high and costs low, without considering the social impacts of the conditions of its workers.

A large part of the Fiji Fashion Week Online Program is taken with ensuring that these messages are shared with designers in Fiji so that when COVID-19 is a memory, there will be a place for Fijian designers to continue to show their talents and creativity to a world that is seeking small scale production, niche products and products that are ultimately made with love.

  •  Ellen Whippy-Knight is the managing director of Fiji Fashion Week Ltd. The views expressed are her’s and not necessarily of this newspaper. For more information on Fiji Fashion Week visit www.fijifashionweek.com.fj 

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