The Fashion World Was Forced To Change But Is Adapting

There have always been revolutionary changes throughout fashion history; skirts cut above the ankles, then above the knees and oh, the shock when women started wearing trousers! Or how about when men started wearing skinny jeans! Surprise is no stranger to the fashion world, but in 2020 the fashion business was hit with a shock; a worldwide humanitarian and economic crisis.  Today, we can see the fashion industry changing and adapting.

It was late 2019 when reports of the Covid-19 coronavirus hit the headlines. Happening far, far away in Asia and despite indications from WHO (World Health Organization), Europeans gave little heed to the warnings.

It wasn’t until January 31, 2020 when an outbreak affecting the Veneto and Lombardy regions spread alarm and fear throughout Italy. The government-imposed safety measures closed schools, businesses and transport.



Shopping galleries remained empty during lockdown in Italy / @aber.nethy

Lockdown & Losses

MFW (Milan Fashion Week) is traditionally held in February and regardless of the outbreak and warnings, the shows went on. Usually, after all the Fashion Week tours (Paris, Milan, London, New York), buyers return to Milan to the showrooms for negotiations and purchasing, but that didn’t happen in 2020. Milan, the capital of fashion, was in the heart of the critical risk area and all fashion retailers and showrooms were closed for business due to nationwide shelter in place and lockdowns. According to Sistema Moda, a report on the European fashion industry, the fashion industry suffered a -23.7% decrease in turnover in 2020. Border closures and travel restrictions were cited as the main causes.   

Design houses desperately needed to find new ways to keep doing business. But even the well-known brands with well-established clientele were struggling. Retail branches around the world were closed and uncertainty forced many big players to act conservatively and think out of the box. 

Keeping It Local

The American department store Nordstrom already had a pilot program experimenting with local service hubs in central locations where customers could come for online pickups and returns, alterations and personal styling. This new hybrid concept of adapting to the consumer’s preference to buy online, paid off. Sales increased 20- 25% in every neighborhood they opened a service hub.

Here in Italy, a different kind of local movement was developing. Local community groups used “old school” word of mouth, Sms and WhatsApp messaging to encourage people to order goods from local shops and artisans, an effort to save the small jewelry shops, fashion ateliers and leather craftsmen. With a nationwide lockdown in place, no one was browsing the boutiques or peeking into the store windows of the city center.  Sales were made via video chat and one-to-one message exchanges, making the shopping experience more personal.

An artisan at the Tenuta Vannulo leather workshop / @aber.nethy

Social Shopping

While the world was social distancing, social shopping increased. Most retailers already had e-commerce in place but further investment to improve the online shopping experience and connecting with the digital audience became a priority. New technology made social media posts shopable and both brands and influencers profited. It proved to be the perfect time to reach out to the Gen Z and Millennial fashion markets. A survey by Eurostat states that 79% of consumers aged 25 to 34 regularly make purchases online.

According to a report by UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) online purchases have increased by 6 to 10 percentage points across most product categories. The categories with the highest online purchasing increases were Cosmetics and Personal Care, Digital Entertainment and Fashion and Accessories. UNCTAD Secretary-General Mukhisa Kituyi said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the shift towards a more digital world. The changes we make now will have lasting effects as the world economy begins to recover.”

Adapt & Transform

The Milan Fashion Week that followed in July 2020 came with new changes. Milan was again in partial lockdown and any kind of public assembly and events were shut down. As expected, the fashion industry quickly transformed and adapted. Fashion Week went digital. Some designers like Dolce Gabbana broadcast a traditional runway show without an audience, whereas other designers turned to the visual arts to create video presentations and short films.

Another big shift in the fashion industry came from the publishing industry. Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, offering magazines and newspapers in public places was banned, and is still frowned upon. Magazines in hotel lobbies, free newspapers and flyers handed out on the street are no longer welcome. Touching a magazine that someone else had touched is considered a social faux pas boarding on health hazard. Hotels, hairdressers, and even dental offices are offering free Wi-Fi and temporary online digital subscriptions to guests.

Now, more than ever, online marketing and digital influencers have become the main communication channels used to reach an ever-growing online fashion market. Digital influencers have broken the mold of the “traditional super-model”. Although the big fashion houses can still afford top models and media production teams, medium-sized and start-up fashion companies are turning to the budget friendly, diverse and inclusive world of social media influencers. Fashion is able to reach a new audience that may have once ignored it.

Last month, Milan was still in partial lockdown and the MFW Fall/Winter collections 2021/2022 were presented in Phygital format, the new buzzword mixing ‘physical’ and ‘digital’.  Of the 68 fashion shows only two were live, Valentino and Del Core, all others were broadcast by CNMI (Camera Nazionale della Moda Italiana) as online presentations and events, a format that opened Milan Fashion Week to new and international designers.

Valentino put on a live show at Il Piccolo Teatro Strehler, Milan / CNMI

Catwalks & Cocktails Parties

Will the fashion world ever return to long catwalks and cocktail parties? The answer is to be seen.  As society changes, fashion will change with it, it always does.

Article by Celia Abernethy
Featured photo by Ali Pazani 

Ciao! I’m Celia. Originally from NY, I’m now living la dolce vita Lake Como Style and on a mission to live it to the fullest! I hope to inspire you to explore Milan & Lake Como, the culture, cuisine and creativity. Would you like to book a video call with me? I'd be happy to share my insider tips about Milan & Lake Como with you.

About Author /

Celia is the founder and managing editor at MilanoStyle.com. Originally from New York, she now spends her time between Milan and Lake Como sharing her discoveries and experiences living in Italy. Follow @CeliaAbernethy on Twitter

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