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The Fashion Ecosystem in times of COVID-19: Global Thoughts & Experiences

In my view, this COVID-19 pandemic has changed and will change what has been perceived to be the norm in most things; especially business. When this disease was declared a pandemic, the first thing I thought to myself was; how will my shopping experience change? I am one who enjoys window shopping and the thrills that come with it. It is also a stress reliever of sorts for me; retail therapy. 

My quest to investigate how the fashion industry will change globally and locally started when I almost had a panic attack at a local fashion store here in Nairobi. I imagined that based on the location of the store, the attendants were aware of the nature of the pandemic and would be some what prepared at the very least. Why would they announce a sale if they were not? When I asked the attendant about how they were handling clothes that have been tried on by previous customers, it was evident that there was no plan. I don’t blame them 100%, I imagine they were also fumbling with how to deal with the emerging situation. 

I am sure there are probably a few shopaholics like me out here. Now, I foresee that customer experience in fashion outlets will change at both local and international level. Trying on clothes is likely to be kept to a minimum. Maybe fashion attendants will be taking measurements before one tries on a dress to confirm the fit; or maybe the attendants will have to be equipped to a tee on the items in stock – especially the size and fit. Outfits that are tried on by customers, may have to be disinfected or dry cleaned! Quite an expensive venture the latter would be but it may be necessary. Who knows! Maybe we will have to continue wearing masks when we are trying on garments at stores. It is more than likely that the mask will now become a fashion accessory. 

Here in Nairobi, we have seen fashion businesses that were on the verge of closing down get a new lease of life. The need for masks has created a new product and new revenue stream. With the demand for masks, we have seen Kenyan fashion brands step to the plate with their unique designs and branding strategies for their mask designs. Despite the unprecedented times, it is quite exciting to watch the fashion scene evolve.

Boguk Mask
Masks are becoming a new fashion accessory. Brand innovation at its best as demonstrated by Kenyan brand- Boguk.

For Kenya and possibly other African countries, e-commerce shopping for garments is still to gain popularity. I attribute it to our dynamic shapes and sizes as Africans. For the most part, we feel we must try on clothes before we purchase or get custom made. This is slowly changing though. We have seen a rise in use of e-commerce platforms in order to uphold social distancing especially shopping from supermarkets and food outlets. Once Kenyan entrepreneurs embrace the importance of return policies and other important legal and customer considerations , e-shopping in the fashion space will likely improve. 

Contracts will overtime become more flexible because COVID-19 has shown us that there is only so much you can foresee in business.

On the 23rd of April 2020, I attended a webinar by the International Association of Lawyers – UIA Capsule – COVID-19, about Legal Challenges for the fashion industry. My interest has been to preview insights on how other fashion markets are coping during this time. I have since had the chance to have a glimpse into both the European Union and the Americas. A few weeks ago on the 23rd of March, I also had the opportunity to attend the webinar hosted by the Fashion Law Institute on Going Viral: Fashion & the CoronaVirus

In my assessment, the challenges are the same and the coping mechanisms will likely be very similar by fashion businesses and brands across the continents. Contracts will overtime become more flexible because COVID-19 has shown us that there is only so much you can foresee in business. The real estate business is one of the greatest casualties as we are now observing. E-commerce is becoming more popular as we practise social distancing. We now see rental/lease agreements are taking a hit as the rationale of having a physical store is slowly being eroded by online shopping. This situation may propel rental/ lease prices to go down, otherwise most buildings will be empty.  With the ongoing financial strain, I think fashion brands and fashion entrepreneurs will pay also begin to pay more attention to their Tenancy Agreements. The dangers of being oblivious to some terms of business premises/ tenancy agreements are being felt by a vast majority I imagine. 

Force Majeure

In Contract law, the Force Majeure clause helps parties plan on how the contract arrangement will proceed in the occurrence of “Acts of God” – acts that are simply out of the control of the contracting parties. Some of these acts include war, hurricanes, earthquakes , floods and strikes. This clause has since taken centre stage owing to this pandemic. Some have been lucky to have their clauses factor epidemics, while others haven’t been so lucky. As a consequence, if the contract did not have a force majeure clause, parties are likely to negotiate outside the Agreement for leniency during this period. Good news though, if the terms are unfair, you may be able to seek redress in court. 

An important observation I have since made is that an FM clause and how it’s drafted tends to reveal the character of the drafting party. Why? The pattern has been that the drafting tends to protect the drafting party more, yet, this clause should be drafted fairly and balance the rights as much as possible. 

The manufacturing system is also experiencing an interesting turn of events. We have seen Kenyan brands working more towards filling the gap for the much needed personal protective equipment (PPE). We are being forced into realizing our capacity as manufacturers. For those businesses that are importing- choice of country is now a factor of consideration. China versus Turkey versus Mauritius versus Vietnam etc. The mechanism adopted by some of these countries will affect future business decisions. 

We have seen Kenyan brands working more towards filling the gap for the much needed personal protective equipment (PPE).

As seasons change, consignments are experiencing delay. Which means that spring collections are arriving in summer. As such, for international brands, there is some much needed quick thinking on strategies to be employed to minimize losses. This would be a good time for some of these brands that have no presence in African countries to re-invent themselves and establish their presence. We have been purchasing a lot of counterfeit fashion products which has had a ripple effect in how local designers value the importance of intellectual property rights in their businesses. Perhaps it is time to change this… and possibly see more collaborations between African and international brands and designers. After all, when it is summer in Europe or in the USA, it is “winter” in Kenya or some other part of the world. 

Online Presence is everything

This season has definitely taught us that online presence is everything. We have seen fashion brands all over the world assume corporate social responsibility by manufacturing and giving away sanitizers and masks with others creating awareness on social distancing and importance of washing hands. I am sure such proactivity also gives a consumer more confidence in how some of these brands are handling their merchandise during this time. Which may also be a game changer in future packaging and handling of goods and creation of regulations thereof.

Innovation during the time of COVID-19 is also prevailing on many fronts – science, fashion, entertainment, education and the workforce. Again, the digital space is changing how we perceive these businesses. Who ever imagined that they would watch their favourite artist international or local performing live through their online platforms without paying a dime? Perhaps, fashion events may evolve in this way too. The pandemic has seen some formidable events like the MET Gala which was to take place on May 4th 2020 postponed. 

The greatest lesson of all; We must all be flexible in all we do. The ecosystem is greatly intertwined- across all continents and regions. 

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