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How Covid Fast-Tracked New Priorities In the Denim Sector

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Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution nailed a timeless truth about what it takes to stay in it for the long haul. “It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive,” the British biologist is paraphrased as saying, “but those who can best manage change.”

And if nothing else, 2020 left the denim sector reeling and scrambling to secure footing on shifting sands, foisting change on brands and retailers struggling to make sense of what in many ways looks like a brand-new world. Roadmaps that once peered years into the future suddenly became the blueprint for the here and now.

Virtual victory

For many players in denim, 2020 turned virtual into reality.

In June, Diesel responded to the health emergency by launching the Hyperoom, which CEO Massimo Piombini described as the “ultimate virtual buying experience.”

“One must look for silver linings whenever and wherever possible,” he said of the digital space, which is modeled after the Italian denim label’s Milan showroom and offers mood videos highlighting Spring/Summer ’21 collections. “2020 has sparked an urgency to accelerate what we can offer and accomplish in the digital space.”

Though Tommy Hilfiger isn’t new to digital showrooms, the pandemic prompted the PVH-owned label to reimagine the experience in a world where countries instituted travel bans aimed at containing the contagion. “In light of the new normal, we quickly pivoted our physical Digital Showroom appointments into our remote Virtual Showroom Experience for customers unable to travel,” said Anne-Christine Polet, senior vice president of digital ventures for PVH Corp., crediting the company’s recent innovation investments for its ability to quickly adapt.

The events of 2020 left the denim sector scrambling to secure footing on shifting sands, foisting change on brands and retailers.
Tommy Hilfiger’s physical digital showroom Courtesy

Tommy Hilfiger enhanced its business-to-business web store “where customers can now make new purchases as well as re-order, creating a broader buying ecosystem that meets a wide variety of our customers’ needs,” Polet said, noting plans to commercialize the digital showroom experience through PVH’s in-house technology startup Hatch and “bring other brands into this way of working.”

Spanish fast-fashion brand Mango similarly migrated online, showcasing its Fall/Winter ’20 collections in a virtual experience for the first time, with separate “rooms” for men’s, women’s, kid’s and plus-size label Violeta. With buyers unable to book in-person appointments, Mango recreated the showroom experience with high-resolution imagery of new styles outfitted on mannequins and merchandised on racks and tables, just as they’d appear in a real-life setting. Visitors to the digital space can seamlessly zoom in and out of each curation and explore “hot spots”—areas that offer greater detail about Mango’s story for the season.

Migrating the showroom from bricks to clicks means capturing the essence of what users value most. “At the heart of our Digital Showroom is the ability to provide customers with a guided experience that is fully tailored to their needs,” Polet said, describing the sales journey as “visually intuitive and user friendly, so buying is quick and easy regardless of the size or variety of the order.”

Moving forward, she added, Tommy Hilfiger’s most pressing priority “will be to further elevate the brand experience while simultaneously adapting it to the increasingly remote nature of our selling and buying processes.” Embracing the showroom’s virtualization can advance sustainability goals, too, cutting back the brand’s dependence on samples for wholesale orders. “3D design has also reduced the need for physical samples and photographing them, in turn reducing shipping impact,” Polet noted. “By hosting Digital Showroom appointments virtually, we are also cutting down on travel, and the associated carbon footprint for everyone involved in the process.”

Though digital showrooms might seem like a short-term Covid solution, they could be poised to take hold in denim and in fashion. Technology, Polet said, helps to foster a “more efficient and faster value chain, while at the same time reducing much of the waste that we previously thought unavoidable—and in today’s sociopolitical climate, this is more important than ever.”

Doubling down on digital

Whether it’s selling new collections to buyers or catering to quarantined, Covid-wary consumers, digital is denim’s way forward, especially as retailers grapple with physical-store challenges.

Though Levi Strauss & Co. maintains a robust digital presence, the San Francisco-based denim giant has also expanded the ways it connects with quarantining consumers. A new virtual concierge service that launched during the pandemic offers at-home consumers the opportunity to “have one-on-one interactions” with Levi’s stores, according to CEO Chip Bergh, who noted that the new feature drove “strong conversion rates.” The company has “pulled forward” critical omnichannel investments like buy online, pickup in store, he added, leveraging digital innovation to maximize its brick-and-mortar assets.

The rise of digital is a common refrain across the sector. Tom Heacock, chief financial officer for The Buckle, outlined how the coronavirus crisis “has really accelerated the demand” for digitally led commerce, whether consumers choose to purchase online and pickup products in one of the denim-centric retailer’s nearby stores or have orders shipped to their doorsteps.

Meanwhile, Guess Inc. CEO Carlos Alberini lamented a Salesforce software implementation for having “a negative impact on traffic” and hampering the denim brand’s digital growth in Europe and North America, which reached 9 percent for the second quarter of fiscal 2021—a far cry from the double- and triple-digital numbers other apparel companies reported. The company plans to reverse course with its “conservative” digital marketing budget for the remainder of the calendar year, he told financial analysts, to attract consumers while store traffic remains challenged.

Fixing fashion’s calendar

Though change has come quickly on some fronts, others might take a while to take over, if at all.

Roughly two months after lockdowns shut U.S. retail, a consortium of fashion stakeholders from Amiri and Frame to Fear of God and Y/Project unleashed an open letter on rewiringfashion.org, calling for the industry to rethink “outmoded” fashion shows that aren’t “optimised for this new instant, digital world where fashion imagery travels at lightning speed.”

Wouldn’t it be great, the executives, indie designers and retailers wrote, if the industry consolidated shows into a twice-a-year January/February and June catwalk cadence and released product when it stimulated demand?

The public plea garnered attention, but its long-term impact remains to be seen. London, New York, Milan and Paris all hosted women’s shows during their usual spot on the September calendar, previewing warm-weather spring fashion at a time when consumers were starting to swap out shorts and sundresses for sweaters and scarves to pair with seasonally appropriate denim. Presentations may have been smaller, some staged with social distancing in mind, and many livestreaming to a larger audience, but the pressure to show the new and next—instead of the now—remains.

That, the consortium argues, must change if fashion wants to “preserve the beauty, creativity, and craft of our industry, while building solid, sustainable businesses that can survive the current storm—and beyond.”