There is no doubt that COVID 19 has had a remarkable impact on the fashion industry in Canada and abroad. However, what's interesting is that the pandemic has actually accelerated several trends that we began tracking a number of years ago. In 2018 we started talking about how consumer priorities were shifting. Fashion had become less of a priority as health and wellness and experiences took center stage. At the time we watched as consumer spend began to shift towards active apparel. The “athleisure” trend, which had dominated for several years’ prior, seemed played out.
In 2019 we started to see the rise of some true traditional fashion categories such as denim, suits and dresses. There seemed to be hope as to what fashion was going to look like in the future. This is what our industry needed as we were literally swimming in a sea of black leggings.
While many micro trends emerged, unit sales continued to decline suggesting that consumers were buying less and shifting their spend to other categories. For 3 years the market had remained relatively flat with minimal growth. There was no denying that the fashion industry was in the mist of a transformation. Let’s just say we were all ready for a rebranding.
Fast Forward to March of 2020 and COVID 19.
In March and April we collectively hunkered down. Fashion sales during that period compressed by more than 50% and we lost -$2.6B in market value in those 2 months alone. At the tie, consumers had reprioritized their spending as there were real and undeniable concerns about the economy, the labour market, and the longstanding impact of the virus. But by May consumers began to realize that this may be our new normal. With the acceptance of social distancing, hand sanitizer, masks and Zoom, interest in fashion slowly began to emerge again. And while many have speculated that the trends we are seeing now (comfort, leisure, etc.) are just a continuation of the trends we saw in 2018 as athletic apparel took center stage, I will say it is different. Today’s consumer is focused more on comfort than on athletics or athleisure. This inherent need for comfort is a natural reaction to the discomfort we have experienced over the last 10 months. We have baked bread, ate snacks, drank a little too much and maybe indulged in a little too much TV. It’s no surprise that sweatshirts, sweatpants, sleepwear and slippers have all outperformed the market. After all, fashion is a reflection of how we feel inside.
As Summer came to an end, we collective braced for cold weather and the return of Fall and Winter. Surprisingly, September sales started to rebound and showed signs of recovery from the dramatic fall of the Spring. Women’s fashion in September and October only declined by -2% when compared to 2019, which, given the circumstances, was a huge win for the industry.
In a recent study by The NPD Group, we asked Canadians “what influenced your decision to purchase clothing or footwear during the past 3 months?” The number one response among 18-44-year olds was “the need for something new.” We also asked “what best describes how you currently purchase clothing or footwear?” The second top answer among the same age cohort was “something trendy that makes me feel good.” Since Gen Z and Millennials represent 56% of sales in the women’s market this suggests to me that we should have positive outlook on where fashion in Canada may be headed.
There is no doubt that comfort remains king. And yes, athleisure is very much still around but has now transformed into “lounge”. But what we cannot miss is the need for newness. The consumer is ready and wants to feel good again. The question will be can the market support the consumer demand? And how fast can we adapt to the new fashion market? While it may take some time for us to fully flush out the answers to these questions, the good news is that all signs point to positive growth in the fashion industry as the world slowly rebounds from this unprecedented time.