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Fashion In the time of Corona

Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

My experience with Coronavirus has been interesting. I attended Milan Fashion week at the end of February – possibly the last of its kind – just as the virus was beginning to take hold of the country. On the day of my departure, I witnessed a whole country go into lockdown, and several shows were cancelled. I wouldn’t fully grasp the gravity of the situation until weeks later, when I would witness our entire industry come to a screeching halt. The lockdown has affected the local and international fashion industry in a big way, and it’s also had an impact on the work I do as a fashion director. By the time this article goes to print, the landscape will have shifted in ways I can’t comprehend. But I remain hopeful.

The day before the lockdown, I was shooting a fashion editorial in partnership with Dolce & Gabbana, who’d had a collection flown down especially for us to work on. We had a window of seven hours to do the shoot before the collection was shipped overseas.

The fashion industry’s ability to aid society amid a global crisis is well- documented

It didn’t go according to plan. Three photographers, four locations and a handful of hair and makeup artists pulled out at the last minute, but we had no choice but to go ahead. Luckily, I’d spent four years of my youth working as the assistant of a prominent South African photographer, so I took the project into my own hands. I packed a van, called friends who model professionally and shot the story on my own, guerrilla-style, on the side of a busy road in an unnamed location. I suspect my ‘adapt or be doomed’ mentality will become a necessity for most other people working in the fashion industry in the wake of Corona. The question is, will there still be an industry to work in?

The fashion industry’s ability to adapt, change with the times and aid society amid a global crisis is well-documented. During World War II, many of the world’s biggest brands made uniforms, shoes, buttons, coats and bags for the military (on both sides of the war efforts). Many of these styles, as well as textiles, developed to help the military, informed commercial fashion, beyond the 21st century. Fashion’s making a similar effort now, only the industry’s shifted its focus toward the manufacture and supply of sanitisers, medical masks and overalls. Global brands such as Prada, Gucci, the entire LMVH group and H&M have made headlines for their efforts. Prada made 80 000 medical overalls and 110 000 masks for healthcare personnel, LMVH helped produce sanitisers at their cosmetics and fragrance factories, and Gucci formed the #GUCCICOMMUNITY, which has pledged to donate €1 million to two separate crowdsourcing initiatives respectively.

Brands in South Africa have neither the capital or the capacity to match that, but that’s not to say local companies haven’t offered to support the medical sector. Probably the most significant contributions have come from smaller businesses. Three brands that captured our attention were Woodstock Laundry (a bespoke sleepwear brand based in Cape Town), Good Clothing (a local, sustainable fashion brand focussed on initiatives that empower local communities) and Ballo (an eyewear brand). All three produced medical masks, despite the long-term improbability of being able to sustain a business under these conditions. Whether the government will provide provisions for entrepreneurs who’re offering to do this has yet to be seen. Nevertheless, it’s a heart-warming initiative that makes us think about the future of the local fashion industry and what we can do to support the little guy.

The future’s uncertain, but the South African fashion industry’s a survivor. It demonstrated resilience in the face of the Chinese imports crisis that destabilised the industry at the turn of the century and managed to eke out an existence during the decline and eventual demise of our local fabric mills, which in turn prevented many of them from being able to export. It’s been a long battle and things aren’t going to get easier, but designers aren’t giving up – so let’s not give up on them.

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