It didn’t take long for the COVID-19 crisis to wreak havoc on the fashion industry. With travel bans and shutdowns, supply chains were catastrophically disrupted, factories closed and stores shuttered. For the first time since the dawn of prêt-à-porter, the typically non-stop cycle from design to store floor came to a halt.
In any crisis, agility and optimization are critical, and it was amazing to see how fast many in the fashion industry embraced technology to mitigate the pandemic’s impact on their businesses. 3D renderings rapidly took the place of fit and production samples. In-person sales review meetings shifted to virtual meeting platforms. Even entire showrooms were “moved” onto virtual platforms, a move we expect to see much more of during the upcoming fashion weeks around the world.
Making Smart Decisions: Short-Term Needs Vs. Long-Term Goals
All of these tech-enabled workarounds, many of which are likely to become the status quo while COVID-19 continues to spread, are certainly proving the value of digital transformation. There’s no question that businesses with digital processes in place from end to end before the pandemic hit are faring better than those scrambling to catch up.
It makes sense that the clear advantage conveyed by digital transformation is increasing the sense of urgency felt by retailers and brands when it comes to innovation in their own business. What’s unsettling is that, in their efforts to accelerate the digitization of their businesses, many industry leaders are de-prioritizing one of the most important assets they have on their side: employees who already possess digital skills.
In the months since the crisis began, we’ve seen headlines about mass furloughs being imposed on an already fragile industry. Organizations that have already invested heavily in digital infrastructure and training employees should be fielding these skilled personnel to scale up their digital transformation. But instead of looking at the long-term return on this investment, we see them letting these employees go, a mistake akin to shooting themselves in the foot.
Recently, I heard the general manager of a leading global retailer expressing his frustration with a vendor. He noted that, pre-COVID-19, the vendor would submit high-quality digital assets on which his team could base important decisions. Now, he said, the quality of the renderings is so poor that he finds that it’s no longer possible to trust that what he sees is what he will get. After doing some investigation, he learned that the vendor was attempting to save money and either let their skilled specialists and digital creators go or put them on leaves of absence. It’s unlikely they even realized the depth of impact this decision would have, but for the retailer, it left them questioning how he could continue working with the vendor if there was neither a physical sample nor an accurate digital representation.
Gearing Up for the Next Phase
Let’s face it. Even if there’d been no COVID-19 pandemic, the fashion industry was already facing considerable challenges and calls for radical change. As we look forward to the post-COVID future, we can be sure we will still be dealing with the same demands for sustainability and efficiency that we were back in the “good old days.” With or without the virus, businesses that don’t take steps toward digital transformation will ultimately become obsolete.
I recently spoke with the CEO of a leading brand who, at the start of the crisis, had asked his management team to submit ideas for innovative workarounds that would help the company cope with the disruption caused by the pandemic. They looked at everything from design development to selling, and ultimately, they realized that everything they were discussing in the context of the current crisis should already have been viewed as imperative.
The importance of digital transformation may be highlighted by COVID-19, but it didn’t begin there nor will it end there. These “workarounds” aren’t temporary fixes for a problem that will eventually go away. They are critical to product development and go-to-market strategy. They help businesses be agile, sustainable and competitive. They are imperative to a healthy future for the fashion industry.
Whether it’s next week, next month, six months from now or more, there will be a “next phase.” And during this tumultuous time, we need to ensure that all digitally-skilled hands are on deck to help navigate the choppy waters and get us to the future. When we get to the other side, things will probably be very different for a while. There will certainly be a new mood. Then there will be people who didn’t work for months who will have a different set of priorities than before. There will be ups and downs that we have no way of predicting. We can, however, be prepared, and that requires resisting short-term thinking. For example, cost-cutting measures should be conducted cautiously, especially when it comes to talent, because experienced digital specialists are integral to success.
Learn From the Past, Prepare for the Future
Fashion has a long history of adapting to challenging times. When the Great Depression struck in the 1920s, the opulent styles that incorporated yards upon yards of extravagant fabrics gave way to the more minimal styles that remained popular for the decades that followed. After World War II, the couturiers of Paris, including Nina Ricci, Balenciaga, Hermès, Jeanne Lanvin and Pierre Balmain, banded together to create a veritable traveling fashion week, showcasing new styles in miniature on dolls.
Change became more difficult as the pace of fashion got faster. We plan capacity years in advance. Our collections take six to nine months to go from design to store floor, and the cycle of creating those collections never stops. Even when changing an inefficient process is obvious, no one has five minutes to stop and implement that change. So we just keep going, doing things the same way we always have.
The pandemic gives us a moment to stop and reassess. And that’s where the opportunity lies. This is the best time to take what’s proven and expand it to more parts of the business. Companies that have invested in valuable digital skills should know that this is the time to fuel their HR assets to train and equip the entire ship. C-level managers and companies finally have time, and they can use that time to take giant leaps in digital capabilities to pull their businesses out of a status quo that stopped serving us well long before COVID-19.
Sharon Lim, co-founder and CEO of Browzwear, has nearly 20 years experience in the apparel industry. Before managing Browzwear, Lim co-founded and managed Pragma, a global distributor of technology solutions for the apparel industry, and was general manager of Tommy Hilfiger South America, where she was responsible for distribution, localization, wholesale and process management.