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Fashion Needs ‘Creative Resilience’ to Come Out on the Other Side of COVID-19

Like other leading voices across the sustainable fashion spectrum, Karla Mora hopes fashion doesn’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

To be sure, apparel companies ensnared in COVID-19’s likely view their desperate circumstances as less of an “opportunity” and more a high-stakes prize fight where losers risk extinction. Short-term store closures, product cancellations, calendar and cadence chaos, and murky views on post-pandemic consumer demand mean myriad Western clothiers are up a creek without much of a paddle. But this unexpected suspension in business as usual, said the Alante Capital co-founder and managing partner, could be exactly what the industry needs to forge a future fit for purpose.

Though fashion has long flirted with efforts to green up its image and operations, many companies couldn’t stomach the prospect of interrupting their business to overhaul obsolescing models, said Mora, whose venture fund connects apparel firms with promising sustainable startups. Plenty of brands have been in “learning mode” with sustainability, attending conferences and all the right events, but they haven’t taking actionable steps to shift their operations in a meaningful way, she said.

Now that “everything is paused” while the coronavirus outbreak ravages the mechanisms of supply and demand, brands, she added, should seize this moment to “relaunch in a smarter and better way.” Savvy brands will pivot, Mora added, but not all will read and react to the zeitgeist—and it won’t come as much of a surprise if many scrap their sustainability strategies for the sake of salvaging sales.

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The outbreak is far from over, but so far early signs indicate that Alante’s brand partners are sticking to their commitments. Pilots are ongoing, Mora said, and because many fashion brands have also invested in Alante’s fund, they’re incentivized on two fronts. Some of Alante’s portfolio startups continue to attract inbound interest from new potential investors—a testament to the timeless appeal of “smart innovation” and the long-term promise seen in material science, she added. Companies choosing to team up with Alante’s sustainable startups, like Tyton BioSciences and Mango Materials, view them as “revenue drivers” instead of feel-good add-ons, Mora said, which could make all the difference in why some firms continue to make their pilots a priority.

If anything will take hold in fashion once the sector awakens from its COVID nightmare, it’s material innovation, Mora said. Apparel needs earth-friendly new fabrics and components that lessen their reliance on natural resources. But new fabrications must make bottom-line sense, too. “If it’s too expensive of a material to integrate into a supply chain, it’s too risky,” she added. “We don’t invest in things that can’t be cost competitive in a reasonable time frame.”

Beyond smart materials, though, Mora sees post-virus brands flocking to digital tools that can give their businesses an operational edge and minimize waste in the process. Clothing makers are already contending with a crisis of inventory. There will be little appetite for throwing a million designs against the wall and seeing what sticks, so to speak, once staff return to offices and associates don masks to man newly opened stores.

Brands have already aired their concerns around developing more styles than necessary, Mora noted, and are hoping to focus on products that can guarantee 100 percent sell-through. A “digital backbone” can aid with right sizing production and ensure brands aren’t cutting and sewing more than they can move. Customer analytics platforms offers upsides, too.

Fashion brands searching for coronavirus inspiration need only look to the restaurant sector, which has spawned “so much creative resilience” in the wake of wholesale shutdowns and mass furloughs, said Mora, who once worked in hospitality. The economic turmoil has birthed an “innovative creative atmosphere” among restaurants now opening general stores, creating meal plans that support donations to local hospitals and doing anything that can help keep workers employed.

Apparel might be able to learn a thing or two from the similarly suffering sector. “It’s really interesting to watch how industries are trying to be scrappy, trying to survive, and forced to be creative,” Mora said.