Nov 23rd, 2020, 05:49 PM

The Fate of Independent Fashion Brands During Lockdown

By Maria Atallah
Haricot Vert bag. Image credit: Haricot vert.
Haricot Vert bag. Image credit: Haricot Vert.
Eco-fashion campaigner Livia Firth warns that the coronavirus crisis is the fashion industry's wake-up call to change.

It has been said over and over again: Paris is the capital of the fashion world. From Coco Chanel and Yves Saint-Laurent to a new generation of designers, Paris has always been at the forefront of the fashion world.

This year, however, la mode had to take a backseat as the world confronted the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Severe lockdowns were imposed in many countries. In Paris, stores had to close. The city lost its glamour, its tourists and its famed Fashion Week. In deserted French streets — from Montparnasse and the Quartier Latin to Place Vandome and Avenue Montaigne — stores were shuttered. 

While the world seemed to have stopped, Paris Fashion Week migrated online, joining school classes and romantic dates going virtual. Zoom became the latest accessory. While hope soared during the summer, here we are again. Christmas is fast approaching and the pandemic continues to hold its grip on the world. The dreaded seconde vague has brought a second national lockdown in France.

As we look toward a gradual déconfinement over the Christmas period and New Year, today only supermarkets, pharmacies and other essential businesses remain open. With the pandemic came a fear of economic disaster and, as a result, people are investing less of their earnings into fast fashion.

According to WWD in an article from March, H&M group's sales are down 57 percent across the US and Europe due to stores closing down. Chanel is halting production in the very place it was born: Paris. Likewise, GAP is shutting down all of its stores in France. According to a Guardian article, GAP is considering closing all of its 129 stores in Europe. The article clearly accuses the coronavirus pandemic as the main reason for the store closures. "Gap is the latest fashion chain to consider closing stores as shoppers rein in spending on clothing during the pandemic," reported the Guardian. "The shift to working from home, cancellations of events from theatre trips to weddings, combined with health fears and economic worries, put a further dampener on an industry that has already seen sales low in recent years." 

Governmental financial aid packages do not seem to be enough to sustain the fashion industry, and as a result unemployment is on the rise and employees are being furloughed across the country. Internationally, fashion events are being postponed or canceled. The WWD reported, "the virus has now caused many design houses to cancel or postpone their international resort 2021 shows, including Armani, Dior, Gucci, Max Mara, Prada, Chanel and Versace. The restaging of Chanel's Metiers d'Art show, Ralph Lauren's fall 2020 show and Burberry's fall 2020 show are also being postponed due to the virus." 

With the pandemic wreaking havoc on big fashion names, an unlikely winner is emerging from the ashes, flourishing in exceptionally harsh times: independent brands. In a recent article, it was stated that more than 80% of the transactions in the fashion industry happened in physical stores before the pandemic. There seems to now be fierce competition between big retailers and their in-person stores compared to eco-friendly independent brands who have more of an online presence. 

No wonder that unknown, independent designers are striving to find their place in the fashion industry. Just like when Yves Saint-Laurent when he arrived in Paris young, hungry and relatively unknown, thousands of young creatives dream of establishing their brands and taking the world by storm. The dominance of social media has fostered an environment for independent brands to flourish, many have started popping up on Instagram, often with their own website and almost always starting out online. This might have helped them weather the crisis, as they did not have to shut down physical stores or layoff retail employees.

With people spending more time at home, especially on social media, the visibility of small virtual brands has increased dramatically. The OECD said, "lockdowns and social distancing measures affect retailers with physical stores more than online retailers, and may ultimately accelerate the ongoing shift from brick-and-mortar to online retailing." The French business service Nielsen reported that, "the market share of e-commerce rapidly increased to almost 10 percent of total consumer goods sales during the confinement period, compared to less than six percent in 2019." 

People are shifting away from in-person shopping, supporting the idea that e-commerce and independent brands, in particular, are thriving during the crisis. Another reason for this shift might be the unique nature of e-commerce. It has long been thought that independent brands are "revolutionary" in the fashion world, less bound by market rules and free to explore their creative spirit. In a recent Forbes article Stephane Girod said, "there is a convincing argument that independent brands are much more in tune with post COVID-19 trends than the bigger players.  Could now be the time when the 'magic' of independent brands also helps them rise above the heavyweights?".

Kelsey Armstrong. Image credit: Haricot Vert.

This rings true for Kelsey Armstrong, founder of the independent brand Haricot Vert. She describes her brand as, "an upcycled clothing and accessory brand born out of post-modern femininity, inspired by the multi-layered waves of French feminism." Armstrong started her brand in the midst of the pandemic, launching in March 2020. Despite the challenges of a global health crisis and worldwide lockdowns, Armstrong believes Haricot Vert is now more popular than ever. This might have to do with the unique popularity behind the brand which aims to upcycle clothing and accessories, adopting a surreal yet nostalgic aesthetic that seems to be just what shoppers need during these harsh times.

"I noticed that people started gravitating towards the nostalgic and unusual themes in my pieces right away, probably because of the grim reality and unbearability behind the uncertainty of the pandemic. Since March, I've been getting frequent messages on instagram saying my items are fun, a nice distraction and even soothing to see during these unique times," said Armstrong. 

According to Armstrong, her brand's success can also be attributed to a certain environmental awareness caused by the pandemic. People are moving away from fast fashion brands and huge international retailers, opting for small, upcycled brands instead. She believes the environmental concern triggered by the coronavirus pandemic might be the beginning of a new era, one in which people choose authentic, unique clothes and accessories over fast fashion brands. This might explain why small, independent brands are flourishing during the pandemic, while big names such as H&M and GAP are experiencing record losses. Armstrong says, "staying home has caused people to constantly be surrounded by their possessions and understand the meaning and feelings associated with them. It seems people are steering away from purchasing mass produced items from Amazon or other large online retailers because it doesn't feel very sincere."

Haricot Vert model. Image credit: Haricot Vert.

Also echoed by David Candaux, of the eponymous watch brand, he says, "consumers know that when there is scarcity it [the product] is genuine and not artificially created by large groups. This comes across as authentic. It's more like an artist-patron relationship."

When asked whether the pandemic influenced people to step away from fast fashion, Armstrong's answer was clear. "I believe restructuring, upcycling and customizing fashion garments and selling them is more popular than ever, especially with the Gen-Z audience due to the pandemic." 

The question is, will this still be the case after the pandemic has ended? Many seem to believe so. Fast fashion is quickly becoming obsolete. A revolution in terms of what people buy and where they buy it from seems inevitable. With so many big, corporate brands closing down, the future of independent brands looks quite bright. Perhaps this explains the numerous small brands popping up on instagram that are reaching varying levels of success. One thing is sure, people now believe it is possible to start a brand and make a name for themselves in the fashion world without being a designer at a big fashion house like Chanel. It is too early to predict the complete death of luxury brands and fast fashion, but it is clear that independent businesses are gaining ground in a once hermetic, extremely elitist circle. 

"Fast fashion is a gigantic rotten issue, like fast food, and everything at that scale. It's very difficult to relate to because people feel so removed from it. It seems like a gift we can consume so cheaply," said designer Livia Firth in the Independent

Armstrong and Firth's sentiments of sustainability and environmental concerns are being echoed throughout the fashion industry. If established fashion brands want to survive, they need to start investing in eco-friendly fabrics and business models. In an April 2020 Business of Fashion report, Imran Amed and Achim Berg said, "the coronavirus also presents fashion with a chance to reset and completely reshape the industry's value chain." Noting that consumers now prefer a model based on transparency and sustainability, they cited a "growing antipathy" towards wasteful fast fashion.

Marina Mascone. Image credit: Marina Mascone.

Another independent designer managing to keep her brand afloat during the pandemic is Marina Moscone. In an interview with WWD, she shared that even though some pending shipments are being canceled and future orders are being reduced, Moscone's eponymous brand has one crucial advantage: it operates its own in-house atelier of sewers and pattern makers. Another strategy that keeps her brand in business is offering consumers incentives to buy.

"We will continue to promote our collection and offer customers incentives such as 20 percent discounts," says Moscone, "as well as donating 10 percent of all proceeds to the Food Bank of New York." This seems to be working so far. Unlike many big brands that are firing employees en masse, Moscone has not had to reduce her team. Offering discounts and showing the human, caring side of the brand has worked so far to keep her in business. Another appeal of the brand is its hand-made approach to fashion, which differs significantly from the fast fashion model. 

Her official website notes that "Marina gravitates toward a tactile approach, twisting and draping fabrics by hand in her Chelsea atelier to create a softly seductive design using custom jacquards, fil-coupes and silk wools, all exclusively developed in Italy, rendered in precise shapes and tailoring. A subtle tension between the masculine and feminine underpins each collection." The independent designer, unlike those from big fashion houses or fast fashion companies, embodies her brand and controls every stage of production. Consumers are increasingly drawn to this human approach to fashion, testifying once again to the rise of small independent brands in the Covid-19 era. 

The success of independent brands is already inspiring a new generation of designers. Korean designer Goom Heo believes that, in a world post-crisis, there will be an increase in e-commerce shopping as well as the launch of new platforms to shop. "I'm planning to make my own platform to sell the collection, to allow myself and my company to be financially viable for the next collection," she adds. 

While it might be difficult for luxury brands to rearrange their entire business model, especially due to the urgency brought forward by the pandemic, for now, it seems, independent and sustainable brands have gained ground over big fashion names.