Moving fashion forward: Pandemic forced fashion industry to adjust manufacturing, sales

Published: June 16, 2020
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The COVID-19 pandemic upended the fashion industry and temporarily closed retailers and manufacturers worldwide. Consumers had to turn to online retail, but even then, quantities were sometimes limited and deliveries were delayed. Pamela Ulrich, Under Armour Professor and head of the Department of Consumer and Design Sciences in Auburn’s College of Human Sciences, explains the impact and where the industry goes from here.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the fashion industry?

The consumer is in the driver’s seat when it comes to all aspects of the fashion industry. Because of lockdowns and quarantines, in-person shopping slowed dramatically or stopped, with time frames varying by locale. Apparel, footwear and accessories availability for in-store shopping was limited. Businesses with already existing online shopping options were better placed to capture sales. With limited openings, some fashion retailers offered curbside pickup for the first time—just like restaurants. Diminished sales contributed to apparel prices falling, which came through closures and price reductions to move products. Good buys were definitely available for consumers, but rising unemployment reduced the option to buy.

Most consumers know that many fashion products, particularly most apparel, are made in other countries or continents. The supply chain was interrupted by factory closures elsewhere, and that is continuing for some countries. For example, at higher price points, Italy’s lockdown, preventing production, lasted a long time but has ended. At lower price points, the disease is spreading rapidly in Bangladesh. Not surprisingly, fashion products contributed to drops in import statistics.

You would think that when consumer purchasing picks up, gaps in product availability could be made up through American manufacturing. That is not a quick and easy solution because the decline in the production of fashion goods in the U.S. diminished infrastructure, but demand for American manufacturing is expected to increase. In the meanwhile, some manufacturers scattered through the U.S. have switched to making PPE to meet pandemic needs.

I understand that Auburn alumna Christy Carlisle Smith is working with manufacturers who transitioned to making personal protective equipment, or PPE. Talk about that.

With a group called Fashion for the Frontlines, Christy Carlisle Smith, a 2003 apparel design alumna, has been working to domestically source—find U.S. manufacturing capacity—for Level 1, 2 and 3 hospital gowns. For a decade after graduating from Auburn, Christy rose in the ranks of designer Kay Unger’s New York firm. Although semi-retired, after COVID-19 struck, Kay and another fashion industry professional started Fashion for the Frontlines to foster the apparel industry network’s production of hospital gowns and masks. Kay reached out to Christy, now back in Alabama, to help find fashion fabric companies to provide fabrics for PPE-suitable goods and apparel manufacturers to make gowns. The need remains high. For New York State alone, it is expected that 20 million gowns will be needed by Sept. 1, and the organization’s goals stretch well beyond New York. For instance, Christy has worked with a Los Angeles-based manufacturer to produce gowns and keep his company going. The need for large numbers of gowns and masks is not going to disappear anytime soon.

Stores are slowly reopening, but how should/will the industry adapt in a post-COVID-19 world?

Despite the difficult economic environment with some companies declaring bankruptcy and retailers closing stores, there are still start-ups. Christy is working with a new active wear company to design, source and manage production, all in the U.S. Casual attire, including specialized active wear, has been a growing product category for years as Americans dress more casually at work and other activities. With more people working from home now and perhaps in the future, that trend is likely to continue.

When the economy is slow, even active shoppers may adjust their purchases to be safer investments for a longer period, e.g., more basic or neutral colors and classic styles. As long as they are concerned about keeping themselves safe, they may continue to shop more online, in small stores with limited numbers of people or in big box stores where they can buy different kinds of items while shopping at fewer stores. A recent survey indicated that respondents felt less safe in malls than in other settings.

How will these changes influence how Auburn will prepare its students to face this newly revised industry?

Our students understand that what the consumer wants to buy and wear, and where and how they want to shop drives success in the fashion industry. The trick can be anticipating it. Graduates are prepared with a holistic understanding of the range of businesses that make up the industry, and they have skills that are adaptable to working in different environments. If domestic manufacturing increases, there may be less travel to factories in other countries and more entrepreneurial opportunities.

Media Contact

To arrange an interview with our expert, please contact Amy Weaver, at aew0025@auburn.edu.