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How Will the Pandemic Change
the Fashion Business?

FIT’s experts weigh in on the state of the industry and predict its future

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted lives and imperiled the global economy—and the fashion industry has been hit hard. With many people working (and socializing) from home and many others unemployed, few consumers are shopping for clothes. And with supply lines held up by factory closures, the industry faces an existential challenge. Even before the pandemic, major retailers were in trouble; since then, JCPenney, Neiman Marcus, J. Crew, and others have declared bankruptcy. According to The New York Times, clothing sales fell 79 percent in April.

We asked a range of experts, both FIT faculty and alumni, to discuss how the industry must adapt in order to survive. They also offered advice for recent graduates facing an uncertain future.

1. How has the global pandemic changed your job or business?

Yelena Mogelefsky, International Trade and Marketing ’99, vice president of production and sourcing at Komar, an apparel manufacturer

We were a very hands-on industry. You touched fabrics, you looked at them under a light box. I went to fittings every day. Now we do fittings on Zoom. We make bras and underwear, so we rely more on the fit models to tell us what doesn’t fit well. 

In the stores that were open—Costco and Walmart—the clear winners these past few months were loungewear and underwear. Otherwise, people are more cautious now. They’re spending more on their home, sprucing up their backyards. 


Vincent Quan, associate professor of Fashion Business Management

When fashion shows were canceled, it caused the industry to rethink and scrutinize what we need and don’t need. It made us think, “Do we really need all that investment in a fashion show?” Already Gucci has announced that they are going to replace their five shows with just two annually, and other brands are reducing their fashion shows, too. These are not temporary changes: Now that brands are changing their calendars and doing some shows virtually, it’s going to be the new normal, even when the vaccine comes around.

Also, consumer buying is shifting. Historically, consumers have bought three tops for every bottom. In a recession, consumers focus their limited spending more on tops, because that’s how you make an impression, and that ratio would go up to 4 or 4.5 to 1. Now because of videoconferencing, people are only visible from the torso up, and the top-to-bottom ratio is more like 5 or 6 to 1.


Sarah Carson, FIT Design Entrepreneurs alumna, founder and CEO of Leota, a women’s wear brand 

The pandemic has shown how our businesses are run on handshake deals. This spring, it didn’t matter what the fine print said on the sales orders; brands and factories had no choice but to accept massive cancellations from stores. Where are we if orders mean nothing? Massive cancellations have sent a ripple effect across the entire industry, where the fabric, raw materials, partially sewn garments, are waiting, unfinished, the workers sent home. And of course, this is mostly impacting less developed countries. There is a tsunami of inventory that will have to be sold through before we can get to a normalized inventory load—which will be far less than before. And discounting to consumers needs to stop. 

2. What new challenges does the industry need to overcome in order to right itself?

Sean Cormier ’92, chair of Textile Development and Marketing 

The industry as a whole makes too many garments.  We should produce less clothing and figure out how to make garments that last, so that a lot of it does not wind up in landfills. 


Yelena Mogelefsky, International Trade and Marketing ’99, vice president of production and sourcing at Komar

We have to find different ways to attract people to buy. For example, shifting to direct-to-consumer. With drop-shipping, if someone orders through Nordstrom, we would ship directly from our warehouse, and Nordstrom takes some of that profit. Walmart Marketplace is like Amazon Marketplace; retailers are trying to sell their products on platforms like these. There’s been a 77 percent rise in online sales.


Richard Jaffe, adjunct instructor of Global Fashion Management, adviser for next-gen and legacy retail 

Retailing needs to overcome a bad habit: stores. Many retailers have too many stores to be viable. The stores cannibalize each other, and the retailer’s dot-com business cannibalizes the stores. The proliferation of stores to satisfy the market’s demand for growth has now undermined many retailers’ ability to return to a viable operating model. The U.S. has 24 square feet of retail space per capita. Countries in Western Europe have 2 to 5 square feet per capita. Nobody is going naked in Western Europe; why do we need so much more?


Vincent Quan, associate professor of Fashion Business Management

1. There’s a tremendous digital opportunity for online retailers. But physical “offline” stores nurture the impulse to buy more, versus targeted buying online. When you’re meandering in a store, there’s no telling what you’ll buy. The challenge for omnichannel retailers is how to draw that consumer back to your brick and mortar store.

2. How do you compensate for reduced capacity in stores? Think about extending your hours. Open at 7 am and close at 10 pm. Manufacturers could have two or three shifts in a factory instead of one. 


Shelley E. Kohan, associate professor of Fashion Business Management and retail consultant

Brands have missed the entire spring season. All the receipts that come in for spring revolve around the Easter selling period, and that didn’t happen. In addition, they have to contend with merchandise that was ordered six months ago and is sitting in the pipeline. It’s a financial model that will collapse without revenue coming in.

But I definitely don’t think it’s hopeless. Those with a diversified business model have a better chance of bouncing back more quickly. That means doing business in multiple channels, whether it’s wholesale, retail, licensing, or direct-to-consumer.


Lawrence Delson, adjunct assistant professor of International Trade and Marketing, principal of Delson International, an import/export firm

While all my customers have survived (so far), their manufacturing activities slowed considerably in April and May. Accordingly, purchasing has slowed and managing inventory is proving quite difficult. In China, where I import most of my merchandise from, suppliers [i.e., manufacturers] were shut down beyond the traditional Chinese New Year holiday, and this impacted delivery. The flip side, however, is that orders placed with suppliers now have slowed down (for the reasons mentioned above), so they are offering a bit more flexibility in pricing.

3. How will the industry look different in the future?

Shawn Grain Carter, associate professor of Fashion Business Management 

The fashion industry already underwent structural shifts before the pandemic, as consumer lifestyles shifted to the rise of freelancing, teleconferencing, casual office attire, digital fashion consumption, and peer-influencer branding. Post-COVID-19, I predict very personalized shopping by appointment as social distancing for many becomes a mainstay for the foreseeable future. Gen Z and millennials rarely shop by a fashion season; they shop for experiences—and this will be amplified.


Melissa Moylan, Fashion Merchandising Management ’04, vice president, Creative for Womenswear at Fashion Snoops, a trend forecaster 

1. Many consumers who have been at home for months have cleaned out their closets, and we have indicators that this will bring a new wave of conscious consumerism. The CFDA and the British Fashion Council have recommended that designers create no more than two collections per year, “less but better,” and designer resale platforms are experiencing higher sales during COVID-19 than ever before. So there is evidence that consumers will shift from disposable fast fashion to more quality wardrobe staples that encourage building upon, from season to season. The industry can and should strive to create better products that stand the test of time.

2. We know that product as protection is a key driver that many brands already address with masks, and that category, as well as protective textiles, will continue to grow. Many of us are living in loungewear, and the notion of bed-to-street will continue to be important. Knitwear and sweaters give a sense of comfort, and we will see those classifications continue to grow. On the other hand, we also anticipate a return to emotional maximalism: the joy of an exciting color, sensuous material or print for the way it makes you feel. As we recover from the pandemic, the notion of dressing up will return, especially around the holidays, as we will place an even higher value on times that bring us together.


Sonja Chapman, associate professor of International Trade and Marketing, director of international traffic and customs compliance at Golden Touch Imports

Clearly, the paradigm of who can work from home has changed radically. The need for a centralized office space will be reevaluated and most likely reduced significantly. 


Shelley E. Kohan, associate professor of Fashion Business Management and retail consultant

As stores open back up, they are being set up to conform with government mandates and CDC protocols for safety. Modifications include plexiglass barriers at checkouts, hand sanitizer stations, more open fitting room layouts, and more spacing between merchandise displays. Many retailers are looking at curbside pickup, which also requires physical adjustments. Signage and web content will inform, remind, and educate shoppers about safety protocols. Hold music and in-store audio will be changed to information about safe shopping standards. Employees will wear face coverings and will have additional cleaning regimens.


Robert Vassalotti, professor of Fashion Business Management 

There’ll be funny red footprints everywhere by the registers and ugly plastic screens that look like you’re at a bank. We’re going to have trainings for how we can be safer and more hygienic towards our customers. It’s going to be a mega-sanitary focus.

Thousands of stores closed since 2018. Something’s going to have to fill all that empty real estate. There are so many opportunities for pop-ups and guideshops [showrooms linked to online retailers] and experiments for online companies. A few years from now, people are going to want a mall experience again. Part of the reason people shop is because they’re bored—there’s a reward factor. People want things fast, and online can’t always do that. Shopping in stores does that; you walk out with your purchase, and it’s a feel-good moment. And people want to be seen. That’s why they go to the mall.


Lawrence Delson, adjunct assistant professor of International Trade and Marketing, principal of Delson International

As a result of the pandemic, combined with the Section 301 tariffs [levied on China by President Trump to discourage trade], many importers will seek to spread their supply chain across many countries.


Peter Chan ’92, chair of Production Management, managing partner of Sunrise Studio, a Garment District factory

My factory closed on March 23. As of June 6, we’re at 25 percent capacity. I think maybe in five years only a few factories will be left in the Garment District. A lot of young, emerging designers don’t have the volume to produce overseas, but it’s too expensive to manufacture here. In a year, it all depends. If we have a vaccine, things might be different.


Richard Jaffe, adjunct instructor of Global Fashion Management, adviser for next-gen and legacy retail

The next year will be a transition period as bankruptcy protection will slow the rate of change. “Zombie retailers” (legacy brands with no profits, diminishing cash flow, poor foot traffic, and no relevance with their targeted consumers) will linger for years.

In five years, many changes will be in place: fewer stores, more fashion choices with many small players and several giants dominating the distribution and sale of apparel.


Ann Cantrell, assistant professor of Fashion Business Management, owner of Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store in Brooklyn 

Many businesses won’t make it. Several friends have already surrendered their retail spaces. Some products my customers want are not even available right now. Plus rents need to come down, especially in an area like New York City with really high rent and the tightest coronavirus restrictions, an impossible combo. But I believe a lot of good will come from this in the long term. Businesses that were on the brink aren’t going to make it, but others who hustled and pivoted will be stronger.

4. What advice can you give others in your field, especially recent graduates, to make a difference and get ahead as the world begins to open back up?

Robert Vassalotti, professor of Fashion Business Management 

Recent graduates are probably most stunned by this and have to be most flexible and adaptable and patient. Unless you’re gung-ho about going to work, I would certainly consider going on to graduate school, if it’s affordable and you can pay the rent.

There’s a lot of growth in online retail and support technologies. Are you going to apply to department stores, which are dying? Go after tech-based companies, maybe those getting into 3D and artificial intelligence. Or fashion forecasting companies: people want to know what’s going to be next.


Peter Chan ’92, chair of Production Management, managing partner of Sunrise Studio

Try to get an internship, even if it’s volunteer.


Sonja Chapman, associate professor of International Trade and Marketing, director of international traffic and customs compliance at Golden Touch Imports

First, don’t worry: your generation was made for a world that relies on technological connectivity. You have got this! Second, make sure that you are continuing to build your skills and online visibility. Use LinkedIn Learning, and post or blog on LinkedIn. Build your own online presence. Be open-minded in interviews; you may not start where you wanted to. In tough times, any start is a good start.


Richard Jaffe, adjunct instructor of Global Fashion Management, adviser for next-gen and legacy retail

Understand the key tools now essential to retailers, including the collection and use of data, both customer and merchandise related. Study what has worked and what has failed and why. The past holds answers for the future. Don’t forget the fundamentals of retail: compelling the consumer to want to visit your site and your store and buy the amazing product you offer.


Ann Cantrell, assistant professor of Fashion Business Management, owner of Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store in Brooklyn 

Keep talking and connecting with people. Social distancing should really be called “physical distancing,” because you can really use this time to get social with colleagues, potential employers, professors, etc., who might not be as busy as usual and can help you think about your future.


Sarah Carson, FIT Design Entrepreneurs alumna, founder and CEO of Leota

Be willing to do anything—within your moral and ethical code, of course—to make yourself useful and irreplaceable. Be hungry to help out. It doesn’t matter what is going on this world; if you are a top performer, you will have a top job.


Animation: Rachael Park, Communication Design ’12