4 Dramatic Effects of COVID-19 on Fashion That No One’s Talking About

Since the coronavirus pandemic starting sweeping across the United States in March, it has had wide-ranging effects on all areas of American’s lives.

There are, of course, the immediate health-related consequences on those who find themselves afflicted with COVID-19 disease, which has so far sickened more than 5 million people in the U.S. and lead to at least 173,000 deaths, per data from Johns Hopkins.

Longer term, leading mental health experts have sounded caution on the mental health crisis that is sure to hit countries around the world: Due to job loss, death, isolation and uncertainty caused be COVID-19, stress and anxiety levels have seen a significant rise, noted a May 2020 report by the United Nations.

Then, there’s the macroeconomic fallout: Unemployment has skyrocketed to record highs and companies across the U.S. are folding on a daily basis. Retail, meanwhile, has been particularly hard hit. JCPenney, Neiman Marcus and J.Crew are among the boldface retail names that have had to seek Chapter 11 protection since the coronavirus took hold in the U.S. Those bankruptcies and shifting strategies have already resulted in widespread store closures, layoffs and furloughs.

By now, many of these COVID-19 impacts are well-known. But, where fashion is concerned, there is much to be said of the pandemic-induced effects that may fly under the radar.

Here, we round up four ripple effects of COVID-19 on fashion that no one’s talking about.

The Decline of Dress Shoes

With many special occasion events such as weddings, graduations and funerals on hold to help stem the spread of the deadly virus, dress shoe sales are experiencing a sharp decline. Those issues are only compounding the fact that, even ahead of the pandemic, consumers were developing a growing preference for more casual dressing (see: athleisure) even at the office.

“[Dress shoes] have been among the hardest hit segments this spring  — sales were down about 70% in March and April combined,” said Beth Goldstein, industry analyst, fashion footwear and accessories for NPD Group, in June. “Now, without offices to go to and special occasions to attend, the demand will remain low in the coming months. Dress shoe brands, if they haven’t already, should be pivoting to focus more on more casual offerings.”

The effects are already being felt in the market, formal attire retailer Brooks Brothers filed for bankruptcy protection in July, with the overwhelming shift to casual wares precipitating its decision.

A Reversal of Rental and Resale Strength?

With traditional retail increasingly overshadowed by e-commerce and consumers growing weary of fast fashion, the resale market was expanding in rapid fashion ahead of the pandemic. In fact, bolstered by environmentally-conscious millennials (and Gen Z) as well budget-minded shoppers looking to nab quality items at more affordable prices, resale was on track to grow to nearly twice the size of traditional fashion by 2029. For further context, the market, which is worth $28 billion today had been projected to reach $64 billion in five years, according to ThredUp’s 2020 Resale Report.

However, more recently, the coronavirus outbreak is threatening to reverse those trends: For one, scores of shoppers have grown suspicious of buying secondhand due to fears of COVID-19’s ability to survive for hours to days on surfaces.

Just this month, subscription platform Rent the Runway, which rents out apparel and accessories, said it would close units in New York, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago. While Rent the Runway is considered a pioneer in the subscription market, companies from all corners of fashion — including traditional names like Macy’s and JCPenney — had jumped on the rental trend.

What’s more, experts had posited that excitement around resale and rental could help reinvigorate staleness for struggling department store chains.

But as skittish consumers remain indoors hoping to mitigate their risks of contracting coronavirus, parties and weddings continue to be canceled and remote work remains on the rise. As a result — in addition to steering clear of others’ used items —  an increasing number of shoppers could continue to favor sweatpants and leggings over the high-end brands and formal attire that are prevalent in resale and rental.

Consumer Appetite for Discounts Face Tariff Roadblocks

As the pandemic fuels price-conscious consumers appetite for deep discounts, President Donald Trump’s tariffs are simultaneously driving supply chains costs higher for brands. It’s a trend that the Footwear Distributors & Retailers of America this week described as a “perfect storm” for shoe players.

“The problem facing the shoe industry is historic,” said Matt Priest, FDRA president and CEO, in a statement on Aug. 18. “This sort of divergence has never been this dramatic and impactful as 99% of all shoes sold in America are imported.”

Typically, Priest said, supply chain and retail prices rise and fall together. However, in 2020, the FDRA is forecasting that the two variables will run uncharacteristically counter.

Cash-strapped consumers won’t have the discretionary income to spend on so-called nonessential items like footwear, and retailers will be encumbered by their need to pass off some of their rising duty costs to customers.

Over the past four years, tariffs have been a significant focus for President Trump, who has promised to resurrect U.S. manufacturing by slapping steep tariffs on foreign competitors, principally China.

Last year, the president announced multiple tariff increases on imports from China, which experts said would hit consumers’ wallets.

In a bid to boost the economy amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the Treasury Department and the Customs and Border Protection announced in mid-April that they will afford American businesses a 90-day delay in payments on a range of import tariffs. However, the partial reprieve does not cover duties on the more than $360 billion worth of Chinese goods that were taxed during the protracted financial dispute between Washington and Beijing.

The Penalty for Marketing, Advertising and PR

Since March, marketers across fashion and retail have been scrambling to ensure all their messaging is appropriate for the era of COVID-19. With millions of Americans falling ill, some advertisers even had to pull entire campaigns that were months in the making — not to mention the high costs of pre-production — because they lacked relevance and utility.

Where fashion PR is concerned, big agencies like Spring, Krupp Group and Karla Otto have all cut staff in recent months. Even worse, Edelman, considered the largest communications firm of its kind, told staffers back in March that it had no intentions of executing coronavirus-related layoffs only to have to backpedal in June and lay-off nearly 400 workers.

More recently, as salvageable red-carpet and other ritzy events moved virtual, companies in the business of image-making are shouldering quite the impact: Stylists, makeup artists, celebrities and others whose work are centered around buzzed-about events have had to absorb and share financial blow of dramatically scaled-down spectacles.

To be sure, a one-camera virtual settle up is hardly the lift of a major red-carpet event or gala — camera crews, video editors, event caterers and even wait staff are taking a loss amid a shift in PR and marketing strategies.


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