How Showrooms Are Going Virtual in the Coronavirus Era

The buying period for the fall ’20 season was just starting to ramp up when the COVID-19 outbreak made its way to Italy in late February at the tail end of Milan Fashion Week and spread throughout Europe. As fashion month continued, buyers began to cancel their travel plans, leaving many brands to rethink how they would market their latest collections.

Now, as major fashion hubs like Paris and Milan are on lockdown, stores elsewhere are also shutting down, offices are working remote and travel plans are canceled. In the wake of the new coronavirus, brands around the world are coming up with ways to stay connected with their buyers in a time of crisis. Their solution: creating virtual showrooms.

While the virtual showroom is not a completely new concept, brands now must turn to heavily relying on digital means to push product in the moment of an outbreak. Showrooms across Europe and the United States are using FaceTime, WhatsApp and other forms of telecommunication to keep in touch with clients. Although brands have already started to turn towards a more digital-friendly workplace prior to the pandemic, the coronavirus crisis is just further pushing fashion into the future.

“We have been using FaceTime for a few seasons,” said Brooks Tietjen, the president of sales at Onward Luxury Group, which represents designer brands like See by Chloe and Proenza Schouler. “But this season, the number of FaceTime appointments have increased after buyers stopped traveling.”

The group, which has offices in Milan, Paris, New York and London, is now operating remotely.

In addition to virtual appointments with buyers on FaceTime and Zoom, Onward Luxury has also created detailed line sheets that include parts models for collections. “The virtual showroom works well for buyers familiar with the collections we sell,” said Tietjen. “It’s allowed us to work with buyers who are not traveling, capturing lost appointments.”

For larger multi-brand companies and showrooms, big-name recognition and reliance on longtime repeat retailer accounts are providing some cushion. Independent brands are also seeing how amping up their virtual presence is helping them stay connected with their core clientele.

Andrew Stewart, commercial director at Rupert Sanderson, said the brand quickly pivoted to digital tactics right before Paris Fashion Week to weather the coronavirus crisis. The London-based team is relying heavily on Google Hangouts and messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp to carry the brand’s fall market.

The brand also invested in detailed line sheets featuring a parts model to show off the shape and fit of their footwear for fall ’20, and they are even mailing out samples to some retailers to help them see the product in person. “We’re all super flexible to the buyers,” said Stewart. “We just have to really adapt to these times.”

Rupert Sanderson, fall '20 line sheet, virtual showroom
A Rupert Sanderson line sheet for fall ’20.
CREDIT: Courtesy of Rupert Sanderon

For now, despite an increase in digital-only interactions with buyers, the Rupert Sanderson team will continue to work in their showroom and stores until the government makes further restrictions, though some people are starting to work from home.

“We’re just trying to be really positive and experimental during this time,” Stewart said. “We were very realistic about this season,” he added.

For other brands, it comes down to timing.

“We only work on pre-fall and pre-summer at present, so we are having no issues,” said Emily Amelia Inglis, the founder of Studio Amelia. “Hopefully by June market for pre-summer, all will be well. Otherwise, we would definitely offer a virtual showroom and a lot of video content to showcase the product.”

For brands and buyers alike, time will tell if this new way of doing business will become more permanent.

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