A model poses in Aotea Square ahead of the Collections: Sophie Joy, Rhemy, Olli, FuMoso show during New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 in Auckland. (Photo: Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

State of Undress: The perilous post-lockdown future of New Zealand fashion

While the pandemic will have a deadly effect on the local industry, New Zealand fashion was already in a fragile state before the coronavirus hit, writes former FQ editor Zoe Walker Ahwa.

Most days at 1pm, like everyone else trying to find some semblance of structure in their life right now, I watch the government press conference.

I worry. I cry. I laugh and secretly relate to the awkward reporter who forgot his question.

Sometimes, I try to lighten my mood by placing the New Zealand fashion brands that our prime minister is wearing behind the lectern that day (Juliette Hogan tweed pencil skirt, Kate Sylvester floral shirt, Sam Label ceramic earrings, etc. etc.). Then, I try to conjure some kind of halo sales effect for these local businesses.

Yes, thank you, I get it: what Jacinda wears is not as important as what she says or does; a male prime minister would never; it’s frivolous and trivialising during a global pandemic; and so on.

But I’m an ex-fashion editor and a champion of the local fashion industry that I’ve worked in for 15 years. And I know that while Jacinda never talks about or acknowledges clothes, she clearly enjoys them. She’s clearly made a deliberate decision to wear New Zealand-made fashion, and is aware of the power of dress.

Her symbolic support of New Zealand designers is also meaningful and important. And right now, the industry needs all the help it can get.

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A year and a half ago, when I stepped into the role as editor of Fashion Quarterly, the market seemed to be looking up – with a feeling of optimism, potential, community. More local designers were succeeding on the international stage than ever before, and a new, young generation seemed to be actually talking to and supporting each other.

The conversations around sustainability were becoming louder and mainstream – and more importantly, there seemed to be some actual action behind the talk. The likes of Allbirds, Kowtow and Maggie Marilyn were vocal proponents of a more conscious consumerism, with globally successful businesses in their own right.

And a wave of new luxury was coming, just in time for the America’s Cup “presented by Prada” in early 2021, with whispers of Burberry, Valentino, Moncler, Bulgari and more set to open boutiques in Auckland this year.

That optimism was reflected in our own FQ numbers as we entered our 40th year of documenting the local industry, nurturing young designers and giving creatives a high-profile platform to showcase their work. The magazine was making budget for each issue for the first time in about two years, our readership was up 12%, and the final issue was the best-selling since 2017. (It’s still on sale in supermarkets, please go buy it).

Kate Sylvester’s show at New Zealand Fashion Week 2017 in Auckland,

Things were great. But somehow, I still had this nagging feeling of concern about parts of my beloved local industry.

Maybe it was the number of mid-season sample sales and the level of overproduction I was seeing season after season, even from young designers. Or the whispers – but very few outright confessions – of retail being extremely tough going. There was a lot of content and imagery, but was anyone actually selling many clothes?

Possibly, it was the slow but sure embrace of inclusivity tempered with this overwhelming sense of a growing type of class system within our industry; a small group of successful designers, media and influencers with connections and the backgrounds to study fashion and launch a business – privileges that generally exclude those from minority communities.

I was definitely frustrated at the increasing editorial coverage demands of some brands on local media. This I blame on other titles offering advertisers unsustainable levels of “added value” editorial coverage, degrading any sense of integrity for an already “commercially sympathetic” industry.

Today, things couldn’t be more different – Fashion Quarterly doesn’t exist for a start; it was closed by Bauer Media NZ in early April alongside the publisher’s entire local business – but amid the impact of Covid-19 on an already fragile industry, these worries are even more pronounced.

Many of the designers I talked to over the four weeks of level four lockdown were blunt about its impact, with physical stores closed, local online stores unable to ship product – despite overseas online purchases still being able to come in – and manufacturing here and overseas shut down.

A small lifeline was given when the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment allowed “winter essentials” to be shipped, although that came with its own set of challenges for designers to decide what exactly constitutes an essential item.

Under level three, brands can ship their full offering once more, and from the number of “WE’RE SHIPPING!” Instagram posts as soon as the new rules were declared, the sighs of relief couldn’t have been louder.

Most businesses have spent these weeks negotiating rent decreases or holidays as their boutiques sit closed, figuring out how to pay and retain as many employees as they can, and pivoting their marketing strategies to e-commerce – basically, working on how to save their businesses.

Since mid-March the words of a designer have been weighing heavy on my mind, telling me how bleak retail really was that week, before we were even in level two: “You may as well as have set fire to the store and walked away.”

Models pose backstage ahead of the Collections: Adhala Lenzo, ARITAUA, Afrispec Global, Schmood by Lola show during New Zealand Fashion Week 2019 in Auckland. (Photo: Michael Ng/Getty Images)

Even before Covid-19, the industry was in a state of change. The impact of online shopping, the arrival of global and fast fashion brands to the local market, and increased consumer pressure on transparency have been challenges facing our designers for years. New Zealanders’ discretionary income was also increasingly being spent on hospitality, travel, fitness and beauty.

“Is the industry hanging by a thread?” asked The Spinoff after Ziera went into administration. “Is there enough love left for our local clothing industry to thrive?” we asked at FQ in early 2019, after fashion darling Miss Crabb closed her doors.

Despite my rose-tinted glasses when I began as editor at FQ, the questions around the viability of the industry, particularly local manufacturing, retail and wholesale, were loud and clear.

If fashion businesses were weak going into this crisis, it’s unlikely they will survive the next three to six months as the longer-term impacts hit, the wage subsidy ends in June, and consumers have little to zero discretionary income.

It’s not looking particularly rosy elsewhere either. Global luxury sales will decline between 23-25% in the first quarter of 2020, according to a report from Bain & Company. China accounted for 90% of global luxury market growth last year, and Chinese consumers represent 35% of the global personal luxury good markets; although the market appears to be recovering as its lockdown is eased.

But they’re buying locally rather than travelling to purchase luxury goods, and this, alongside the dramatic fall in other tourist numbers, will have ramifications for local retail. There’s a reason the new Commercial Bay retail and hospitality precinct is situated right by Auckland’s cruise terminal, and there’s a reason Louis Vuitton has had a boutique in Queenstown for years. Tourism feeds a lot of our higher end retail, and the local market isn’t big or wealthy enough to fill the gap that’s left.

An artist’s impression of the retail precinct at Commercial Bay in Auckland, opening date TBD

So let’s be frank: stores and brands are going to close, and our industry will get smaller. That may sound frightening, but it’s clear that there needed to be change.

Designer Ingrid Starnes wrote on Instagram, “change is a chance to grow”. But in the short term, businesses will be in survival mode. Expect early sales for winter collections, drastic markdowns and flash “warehouse” or “sample” sales to reluctantly be the new normal for a while, as brands look to shift stock and make any revenue they can.

Our shopping habits will be forever changed too, with people even more comfortable with purchasing fashion online. Some brands I’ve spoken to are already in the midst of re-strategising their focus onto digital sales and marketing, likely reducing the number of physical stores. (Although it has to be said, e-commerce is more successful for some brands than others and will hardly make up the short-fall from physical boutiques being closed for five weeks.)

The rental and resale markets will continue to boom as customers look to offload their own clothes for extra cash, shop a bargain or temporarily invest in something to wear out when social distancing rules are relaxed. Locally there is the already hugely popular rental and resale business Designer Wardrobe, while Kate Sylvester launched her own Reloved resale platform online last year. Designer sample or archive sales will feed into this demand too, and when retail can open its doors once again, we’ll likely see the return of the pop-up stores that were so popular following the 2008/9 recession.

That brings us to the buzzword of our times: sustainability. Before this, I saw real change happening, or at least starting to happen. Will this crisis mean this goes on the back burner? The industry is divided. Some think it will become even more important for consumers who have leaned into the ‘be kind’ ethos that this pandemic has fostered, while others say the focus will be simply staying afloat.

Globally, this crisis has not been good for manufacturing, a key aspect of sustainability, with reports of US and European retailers cancelling or postponing orders with Bangladeshi garment factories – impacting those workers further down the supply chain who are already vulnerable and often paid next to nothing.

In China too, factories have closed, resulting in significant delivery delays for some local brands – mass and designer – who manufacture there. For those still making here in New Zealand, the concern is the impact on local makers and manufacturers: if current collections are kept in store for longer, the demand for their skills will be delayed too. And they need to be paid, to stay open.

There are broader implications, too. The fashion industry isn’t just made up of designers and makers: there are models, photographers, studios, stylists, makeup artists, hair stylists, writers, show producers. Most things were already being produced on a shoestring; as everyone cuts costs even more, will there be anyone left to pay and sustain the creative freelance universe that surrounds the industry?

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Despite all of that – and it’s a lot – I’m still hopeful for my industry. While it may feel self-indulgent to think or care about fashion right now, I also know many people who have been using the ritual of getting dressed to feel normal. There’s a reason people are responding to Hilary Barry’s #FormalFridays – its joyful inclusiveness reminds of the thrill of fashion, even in dark times.

“For the fashion business,” wrote Robin Givhan for the Washington Post, “the coronavirus crisis is a test of whether society believes that self-expression is worth preserving.”

For our local fashion industry, it’s about continuing to serve its purpose of being exciting, challenging and innovative. And there are brands, big and small, responding and adapting already and who will help guide people to shop again without guilt.

It’s Penny Sage’s upcycling, patching silk organza offcuts to make a new textile to be turned into garments post lockdown.

It’s Ingrid Starnes’ equity expression of interest, asking her community if they’d be interested in investing as shareholders.

It’s Ruby offering virtual sewing classes and patterns so its customers can make their favourite pieces at home.

It’s brands as diverse as Rachel Mills, Loclaire and Annah Stretton turning their manufacturing skills or workers to making masks.

It’s Mina introducing an initiative that savvily encourages people to shop while also offering them the option to donate to support the local manufacturer they work with.

But mostly it’s seeing some genuine collaboration.That’s how the industry will recover from this. Designers sharing challenges and ideas, and looking to the future to make sure New Zealand fashion continues to survive and thrive.

Mindful Fashion NZ, a group launched last year to work towards a more sustainable industry, has been meeting weekly throughout the lockdown to discuss strategy, advocacy to the government and industry support. “As a board we decided that, for now, sustainability means survival,” says co-founder Emily Miller-Sharma, also the GM of Ruby. “The next step for us to work out is how we can put sustainability at the forefront of the industry’s rebuild.”

For an industry that has and will continue to change dramatically, it is time to fast-track and action the ideas that had already been planned, discussed and strategised. In other words – innovate, now.



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