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COVID-19 and Fashion: How the Virus is Changing the Industry (And Our Personal Style)

It’s easy to argue that COVID-19 has impacted virtually every aspect of our daily lives. All you need to do is look around you to notice that you’re probably at home instead of the office. You might see your children trying to learn remotely or notice your neighbors wearing masks when they venture outside their doors.

All of this change is being embraced (by most, at least) in an effort to flatten the curve and keep the healthcare system from becoming overwhelmed. While scientists estimate that fatalities related to lung cancer could be reduced by 2% to 4% just by lowering radon levels in homes, the concept of staying at home is the very thing that’s been proven to reduce coronavirus deaths, as well. But although remaining inside can reduce the transmission of this disease, it’s also having an impact on our everyday routines — and even on our personal style.

Fashion may not be your top priority in the midst of a pandemic, but it’s fascinating to see how both individuals and the industry have responded to what’s going on in the world. Now that millions of Americans are either out of work or are trying to work from home, the need for professional office wear has dwindled significantly.

But interestingly, apparel sales are soaring. Adobe Analytics found that the apparel market saw a 34% increase in sales during April (thanks, at least in part, to 12% price decreases). However, the sales of pants, bras, and jackets all plummeted while consumers were in quarantine. Not surprisingly, pajama sales skyrocketed by an astounding 143% — and because many workers are still doing meetings via teleconference, sales of shirts have also seen impressive gains. In other words, you might be inclined to stuff your jeans and non-stretchy pants in some of the 2.3 billion square feet of ready-to-rent storage space available nationwide for at least another month or two — and you might be inclined to buy some cozy loungewear instead.

As a result of these seismic shifts in consumer behavior, the fashion industry has had to rapidly pivot to even have a hope of keeping up. According to Vogue editor Anna Wintour, the pandemic has been “catastrophic” for both big retailers and smaller designers.

But Wintour also added during her appearance on CNBC: “…I think it’s an opportunity for everybody to slow down, produce less, and really make the world over fall in love with the creativity and passion of fashion… And maybe have a little bit less of an emphasis on things moving so quickly and an emphasis always on what’s new.”

Of course, many designers and well-known brands have struggled. For example, J.Crew has already filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy and news outlets have also reported that stores like Lord and Taylor, Neiman Marcus, and J.C. Penney have considered doing the same. Gap, Inc. (which also owns Old Navy and Banana Republic) noted at the end of last month that the organization was quickly running out of money. And it’s likely that other retailers — particularly small, independent businesses — are having an even tougher time staying afloat.

But necessity is, indeed, the mother of invention — and no one knows that better than fashion designers. To meet consumer needs and to cover at least some costs during the pandemic, many designers have switched to designing and selling face masks. Now that the CDC has recommended that every American who is able to wear a mask do so in public spaces where social distancing cannot be observed, it makes sense that designers would start using their talent and vision to create a more stylish face covering for consumers.

Accessories like lapel pins are worn to show an affiliation with a cause or organization, but masks worn on the face are also seen as a sign of solidarity. Not only do they keep yourself and others safe, but they’re even being held up as a political statement. Large fashion houses and whimsical, Instagram-famous brands have gotten in on the action and have even managed to make a name for themselves during a time when it’s anything but business as usual.

And while price gouging is seen as gauche, masks are a huge sales category right now. In fact, Etsy sellers sold $133 million worth of face masks in the month of April alone. Rather than wear generic or even unattractive face masks, consumers are clearly looking to make a statement with these coverings — so it makes sense designers would lean in.

We don’t yet know what’s in store for the fashion industry once the pandemic is over or even how retailers will adapt as states start to reopen. But it’s clear that there are opportunities for innovation and artistry. It just may be in the form of masks instead of restrictive clothing for the foreseeable future.


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