Voices

Fashion brands’ different responses to Covid-19 have revealed their true colours

Working conditions during this outbreak have been appalling in some UK warehouses
(EPA)

Underpaid workers, poor factory conditions, disposable garments, unrealistic body images and impossible beauty standards – the fashion industry is not short of issues. In fact it’s an industry in desperate need of systemic change, in the face of both the escalating climate crisis and struggling day-to-day operations.

It is also one of the industries hardest hit by coronavirus. From garment workers to business owners – not to mention a freelance workforce of photographers, make-up artists, stylists and assistants – millions of jobs are at risk. Covid-19 has already given the final push over the cliff to flailing brands: Laura Ashley went into administration last month, with Debenhams following close behind.

“Dead stock” – the term for items that remain unsold following the sales, and are infamously sometimes even burned – is piling up. Fashion buyers don’t want to risk further unsold stock by buying in new season collections, and the work of long production chains is likely to be wasted. The backlog continues to grow and as the novel coronavirus has spread across the globe it has had a knock-on effect that has impacted almost every member of the industry.

It is poignant that the first impacts of Covid-19 on fashion were felt during Milan fashion week. At a time when the streets of the Italian fashion capital would be buzzing with the peacockery of street-style influencers and photographers desperate to capture their sartorial flair, events were cancelled, masks handed out, and models sent down catwalks in empty rooms.

And yet even as brands have been forced to pull down their shutters, halt production and shoulder mammoth losses, many have stepped up in extraordinary ways. Designers, big brands and factories have rallied together in the Covid-19 relief effort in a display of solidarity that may come to define this moment in history.

Watching the fashion industry rally together while facing crises of their own should give dissenters pause for thought

In March, Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy announced it would be transforming its perfume factories into manufacturing centres for hand sanitiser, which it has since been donating to French health authorities. Prada donated intensive care units to hospitals in Milan. Burberry, which forecasted a revenue loss of 30 per cent before the UK lockdown was even implemented, is funding research into a vaccine. The luxury brand has also donated to food poverty charities and repurposed its Yorkshire trench coat factory to make non-surgical gowns and masks for patients while adapting its global supply chain to fast-track the delivery of over 100,000 surgical masks to NHS workers.

Speaking to The Independent, British Fashion Council CEO Caroline Rush said: “In times of crisis, the fashion industry is known for coming together. This has been the case with coronavirus. We are very proud and touched to see how emerging and large fashion businesses come together to help produce personal protective equipment, reinforcing the much-needed sense of community; especially in the UK, where smaller independent designers are facing a very uncertain future.”

Elsewhere, Chanel announced that it is working to produce protective face masks and blouses for use across France, while designers including Giorgio Armani, Dolce and Gabbana, Donatella Versace, Moncler and the conglomerate Kering have all donated to the relief effort.

This philanthropy hasn’t been displayed industry-wide, mind; unsurprisingly, fast fashion lags behind. Online retailer Asos was accused by the GMB union of playing Russian roulette with workers’s health by failing to implement social distancing measures at one of its UK warehouses, or to provide workers with hand sanitiser or protective masks (an accusation the organisation denies). New Look, meanwhile, has suspended payments to suppliers for existing stock, a decision one supplier told the BBC will “devastate smaller companies at a time when they need help the most”; the Bangladeshi and Garment Exporters Association estimates that more than a million Bangladeshi garment workers have gone unpaid following the cancellation of more than £2.4bn worth of orders from Primark and Matalan, among other retailers. Such inconsiderate responses only emphasise the heartless production models upon the success of which such brands rely.

Perhaps production models will be forced to change when we come through the other side of this crisis; some have certainly suggested as much already. Last week, Giorgio Armani wrote an open letter to Women’s Wear Daily, reflecting on the future of the industry. “A careful and intelligent slowdown is the only way out,” he wrote. “That will make final customers perceive its true importance and value.”

Yes, the fashion industry gets a lot of scrutiny – much of it deserved – but for an industry that has long been dismissed as frivolous, watching its members rally together while facing crises of their own should give dissenters pause for thought. For shoppers, it has become crystal clear just which brands we should seek to support. Businesses whose response to a global crisis has been to leave workers struggling are no longer worthy of our custom.