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Fashion’s New Post-Pandemic Playbook Involves Ripping Up Nearly Every Old Rule

The world, fashion, everything is in need of an overhaul, and moving through and beyond 2020 without being left for dead will mean a willingness to recalibrate, reimagine and reestablish relevance.

“What we’re experiencing in the biggest reset of the century,” Roberto Ramos, CEO and founder of branding innovation studio Ideatelier, said during a presentation last week, even before the country erupted into racial protests that have thrown another wrench at retail. To survive, he said, brands will be left with little choice but to lead through smart innovation and embrace rapid shape shifting. “The types of decisions you make, how you show empathy, how you show courage, will resonate for a long time.”

The home state

As lockdowns and quarantines have forced consumers indoors, expanding the notion of nesting beyond mothers-to-be, many are finding both safety and sanctuary at home, which means brands will have to redefine the shopping experience to suit what a changed population will want. It will mean taking the idea of the “home state” as Ramos referred to it—tapping into new desires for self-care, self-sufficiencies and mashups derived from consumers making do with what they have—and using it to “reengineer” the idea of the brand experience. COVID-19 has brought with it an acceleration of the do-it-yourself generation, giving craft a boost in relevance, too.

“This idea of the perfectly molded product, perfectly presented to the consumer…is no longer a thing,” he said. Instead, it will be about “reshaping work, reshaping how we build things, reshaping what goes into product.”

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Post-pandemic product offerings with the most appeal will embrace the spontaneity of real life as well as cater to it. The more compelling products will feel human and natural. They will be packaged cleanly with colors and messaging designed to soothe. They will provide safety in one form or another, be it added functionality or a sense of well-being, which anxiety-riddled consumers will increasingly come to crave.

“Wellness has really risen to the top in terms of what consumers want,” Ramos said. “Every brand, each and every one of you, needs to be thinking to some degree, ‘how am I a wellness brand?’”

As wellness moves further into mainstream, brands whose products don’t naturally lean to the wellness side of things may want to consider whether they add PPE to their offerings, and how to shift their marketing and messaging so that spirit of wellness is still there.

“It’s this idea of becoming a listener brand,” Ramos said. Brands that are listening to—and hearing—their consumers will be able to deliver on that sense of the “new personal,” the truly human connection shoppers will want from the businesses they spend their disposable income with. Listening, for brands, may mean more surveys, more innovative options for virtual shopping or new types of virtual sessions centered around something other than product. “The humanness of our brand will be key,” as will the imperfections that come with it, he said.

A recalibration

Rethinking SKUs will be critical, too. The pandemic has prompted a rethink of what’s essential, and though consumer spending on apparel will likely pick up, early reads point to a shopper who may buy fewer items to stave off excess, and be put off by the idea of over-inventoried stores whose goods may go to landfill if they don’t get sold. The notion of low-cost, throw-away items may also lose their luster: Already, calls to abandon fast fashion, which has fueled the use-and-discard behavior of apparel shoppers in recent years, are getting louder. How big stores’ SKU counts are could determine how well they’re able to connect with consumers after COVID-19.

“We are seeing consumers kind of repel to the idea of being over merchandised,” Ramos said. Selling less in favor of securing longer lifetime value may win out in the next normal.

Now that the world has reached peak “Zoomification” of all aspects of life, with work, weddings and birthday celebrations being relegated to the video conferencing platform that has been thrust into omnipresence in light of the pandemic, Ramos said consumers will also be seeking meaningful connections with brands that have taken on a new form of leadership.

For brands, purpose mapping will be the first step in delivering on that demand.

“Why was your brand created in the first place?” Ramos said. The question may need revisiting for many that have lost their way, and if the answer falls flat in terms of what will resonate with today’s consumer, it may be time to redefine both how the brand adds value and what the functional element is that makes it unique. And adding value will extend well beyond the tangible product itself.

The thing to consider, according to Ramos: “Is your vision of the world flexible enough to shift based on the current environment? Are you echoing the trending emphasis on fact-based leadership or just adding to the noise?”

Respect: the new currency

Whatever brands base themselves on or decide to stand for, honesty and transparency will rise above all efforts.

“Respect is the new currency when it comes to the consumer,” Ramos said.

To earn it, brands will need to lead with questions rather than statements, they’ll need to be more creative and more relaxed with the products they create, they’ll need to embrace fluidity and they’ll need to engage consumers in the story of how they make things. What’s more, the enhanced consumer experience will mean brands must do a lot more than just push product.

“Can your brand give knitting lessons? Can your brand give a masterclass? Can you show how you make something sustainable?” Ramos said.

With outside becoming its own type of pariah, hosting an invisible virus that continues to spread, brands will have to create more extraordinary reasons for consumers to leave the safety of their homes. And uninspiring, B.C. (before coronavirus) stores that aren’t differentiated from what shoppers could experience online won’t do it. Nor will brands that aren’t creating moments for meaningful gathering or clearly defining—and delivering on—what they stand for.

“Brands can’t sit on the sidelines anymore,” Ramos said. “We’re living in extraordinary times, so we need to think extraordinarily across the board.”