Fashion & Community During COVID

Words by Amanda Harth

Illustrations by Rebecca Baruc

Adapting to different circumstances is a part of an entrepreneur’s job description. We build, we work our asses off to grow our businesses, and to stay relevant while staying true to our brand’s identity. Fashion is one of life’s essentials and it has been one of the most important languages we use to connect with one another. The enforced quarantine implemented by the local government is another level of adaptation and it’s impacting small fashion businesses differently. At this point, we’re all aware of the Stay Home ordinance put in place at the beginning of March by the governor and mayor. Majority of public spaces around the city that were not considered essential businesses were ordered to be closed mid-March which included restaurants (take out orders only), clothing stores, museums, schools, parks, the lakefront, etc.

We spoke with designers based in Chicago to see how it’s impacted their businesses.

“We haven’t had any sales since the Shelter-In-Place started.” stated Jamie Hayes owner of the sustainable fashion brand Production Mode. Majority if not all of Jamie's manufacturing is done around Chicago.

“We’ve been able to pivot to doing something that’s useful and initially we were trying to get guidance and support from the government or nonprofits.” Like many independent creatives Hayes is a hustler; in addition to her clothing brand, she’s a DJ, and an instructor at The School of the Art Institute.

“It’s really hard to teach a studio practice online. It’s possible, but my heart goes out to my colleagues in academia who’ve had to completely transform everything online. It’s way more work and I don’t think it’s satisfying to most students.”

Many brands have started creating face masks as a to assist with the shortage of protection gear for medical staff, frontline workers, and homeless people and still generate income from their company . “As soon as everything was announced we switched to making masks immediately. This mass initiative from the beginning was a collaboration between different designers around the city. We’ve been able to amplify our work individually and still work as a team. “

The importance of community was made clear from the beginning. Even with social distancing collaborations have continued with the help of technology and donations from clients. Jamie is working with Anna Brown/, Emily Winter of The Weaving Mill/, her staff, and volunteers to produce the mask.

“We recently received a donation of medical grade fabric and we’ll be able to make something that front line workers can feel really good about wearing. Even though we don’t physically see each other or not unless without it being 6 feet away with a mask on and it’s a quick drop off you feel that comroderry. ”

With the aggressive shift of how everyday interactions happen and how products are received it seems the urge to help local brands and artisans by purchasing products have become a way to directly support the creative community. The founder behind the brand Stronger, Wiser, Everyday Nelissa Carrillo has seen an uptick in sales for her clothing label.

“I’m a freelancer. Wardrobe styling has completely come to a halt, but what’s crazy is I’ve been getting more engagement and consistent orders for my brand. Before it was pretty sporadic and now I’m actually staying busy with orders. I mean I’m happy I get to commit to the brand, I still don’t know how to process it.”

On a global scale there have been predictions similar to Carrillo’s regarding the importance of supporting smaller brands. Like many industries the pandemic has forced the fashion industry to take a step back and hit the reset button. Carrillo believes things will begin to get back to basics and designers will not take the typical route of designing a collection during fashion season.

“So many emerging brands have used that as their business module from the beginning and I think more people will respond to that now.”

Throughout the Shelter-In-Place resources for small businesses have been shared through multiple outlets and as of April 16th the $350 billion bill created to fund smaller businesses has been completely exhausted. There have been thousands of organizations that have created opportunities for small brands to receive funding at this time. Everyday I receive an email about a new grant or loan to help small businesses at this time and what a lot of people don’t realize is legally in The United States a small business is considered a company with 500 or less employees. So what about companies with 5 employees?

“You can’t help but notice the airlines and other sectors received a bailout whereas small businesses are expected to apply for a loan. Some of those loans will be forgiven if they're used for a certain thing, but a bail out is free money.”, Jamie continues, “On top of that for solo entrepreneurs or self employed people apparently you can apply for the PPP (Payment Protection Program), but they shared that information so late and I can’t imagine there will actually be funding available. Same with the EIDL (Economic Industry Disaster Loan), there’s so much confusion around these programs. There’s no real support that I can see for people that are the most vulnerable.“

Nelissa shared, “There’s definitely a lot of community involvement in helping small businesses and the information is out there, I think it depends on what you personally need. I’ve been seeing emails from private lenders and other government programs. One private lender is Kiva, you support whoever you want in the community and they can even give small business loans up to $50,000 or $100,000.”

Jaime also shared “I applied for the CFDA grant and another one is called Red Backpack created by the founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely.”

Shelter-In-place has been expanded until the middle of May in New York and it looks like more states will follow suit. At the peak of uncertanity many creatives are doing their best thing to stay positive and are working towards planning post-COVID. This week Conde Nast organized virtual panel discussions, Vogue Global Conversations, which featured members of the fashion community including designer Stella McCartney. They asked her about life going back to normal once quarantine ceases and the designer stated in terms of fashion. “We could turn back to the norm, but I hope not,”.

Both Hayes and Carrillo feel things will change drastically with how fashion is presented and consumed going forward. Designers are being forced to think about their brand impact even more and as days go by it’s more important to take into consideration how your brand connects with your target audience on an emotional level. The pandemic has completely changed how people will purchase their fashion going forward and it’s been predicted many fashion labels will become a bit more lean with production and product output.

Carrillo states, “I keep having this feeling it’s going to be by appointment only or small capacities for events. I think people are going to be more involved with their communities and that’s what stood out the most was how much support I received and given it back. It might be the change we needed.”

The toughest realization from this pandemic are the brands and businesses that won’t make it out of COVID-19. This recession is said to be worse than The Great Depression and the recovery time for the economy is said to take years at this point. All things considered, personally I’m still hopeful as a creative and entrepreneur. There is a genuine concern for one another in our creative community and sharing love and support with one another has been a positive distraction for many of us.

Hayes believes the importance of community is what will change post- COVID. “This pandemic doesn’t change what we’ve been doing, it just clarifies the importance of not wasting resources that are precious. We need to take care of our people and our community.”

Times like these force artists, designers, and creatives to push back against adversity and create. Jamie Hayes’ prediction for what fashion brands look like in the near future summed up the current ideas of the fashion community.

“I think a lot of things are being brought into strict relief and it’s super clear. How does your brand matter? What does it actually do? How does it bring value? If you can’t answer that question I think you’re going to struggle after this, but if you can you’re going to fly.”