January 18, 2022

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Business Life

How Independent Brands Are Protecting Themselves Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to grow and businesses worldwide are being hit, it is the smaller, independent brands and retailers that often are suffering the most.

WWD asked designers and small stores that support them how they are protecting themselves during this unprecedented time, and how they are looking ahead to the coming months. While some have found various ways to cope, others are energized to assist where needed, creating face masks or donating to charities. One common thread is an emphasis on community — protecting employees and factory workers while finding ways to engage digitally.

Here, part one on how independent brands are charging on.

I’ve been touched very closely by COVID-19. My grandpa died last Friday because of it and my biggest priority is the health and well-being of my family at home and at work, because my team is my family, too. Nothing else matters right now, it’s not a matter of results, numbers, sales.…This is bigger than us and it’s staying home and saving lives. It is an especially difficult time for independent designers and with that we have had to put a pause on some future projects while, as I said, ensuring our team is taken care of. We plan to protect ourselves by being surrounded by love and support, hoping that with some great people by our side, the continual guidance and support of the CFDA and encouragement from the fashion industry we will see to it that we come through this stronger than ever. It’s hard to look too far in advance given the times, but I am heartened by the support of this community.

Jonathan and I started the brand in 2011 with a collection of 12 printed dresses. Nine years later, we still discuss how these dresses continue to impact our brand story and our clients’ lives. We are incredibly grateful these dresses allowed us to enter the fashion discourse, build relationships across a wide variety of disciplines and identify our loyal client base. While it is an uncertain time, we remain hopeful and true to our brand mission in creating beautiful and quality product to bring joy and happiness to our clients. In the upcoming months, we plan to further develop our upcycled collection, which we launched last year. This program has really given us the unique opportunity to give new life to discarded textiles, prints and raw goods. Our suppliers, our stores and our clients remain at the forefront of every conversation and motivate us to exercise newfound creativity.

We’ve stopped our in-office operations, and are (once again) working from home! As a very small, independent brand, we’re looking ahead at the coming months as a way to reset and reassess how we run our business. With the breakneck speed of the industry coming to an abrupt halt, we’re allowing ourselves to think more strategically about how we present our collections, what occasion clothes from CJR should look like post-COVID-19, and how to continue making work that supports our local communities, artisans and manufacturers in sincere and impactful ways.

Personally, I am safeguarding myself by being in isolation. No new people are allowed in! The quarantine measures we took early last week have proven to be the most effective thus far. Especially as I find out daily about friends who have or have had the virus. Regarding my previously expanding business, going forward we will streamline to two collections annually with multiple deliveries, while also focusing on curve and e-commerce. This is the time to plan bold, while supporting our communities today.

Like our fellow independent designers, our brand is facing serious challenges during this unprecedented time. As others are surely experiencing, many of our key accounts are canceling pending shipments, extending payment terms, and in some cases, dramatically reducing future orders. Unlike some brands, however, we operate our own in-house atelier of sewers and patternmakers, which presents advantages and disadvantages.…Fortunately, however, we have not had to reduce our team as of yet.

As we look forward, we are focusing on striking the right tone in terms of branding and messaging.…We feel that this is also a moment for bold operational ideas, and exploring the possibility of working with our atelier virtually, as a community — a digital sewing circle, of sorts.

My job as a designer and what I sell is not essential. While I firmly believe that beauty and artistry can help relieve society in this moment of turmoil, I also realize that what I do from day to day — being nonessential can be re-strategized in order to do something for others in desperate need. We have expressed our willingness and ability to manufacture essential goods such as masks and gowns, but are waiting for official guidance from the state.

In the meantime, we will continue to promote our collection and offer customers incentives such as 20 percent discounts, as well as donating 10 percent of all proceeds to the Food Bank of New York.

In this extraordinary moment, we realize the most important thing we can do is choose to take care of one another.

Chloe and Parris Gordon, cofounders, Beaufille

At this time we are taking all the necessary precautions to decrease the risk and spread of transmissions. All members of our team are working from home and social distancing. We are having daily phone meetings to stay on top of the things that we can right now. The timing is challenging as we are in production right now with all of our raw materials purchased, and the actual making of the pieces is at a standstill due to global lockdowns. Knowing this, we’re trying to focus on the things we do have control over and not stressing too much about what is out of our control. Every day you can do something to make you feel good, like movement, blasting music, a great book, inspiring images, or knocking something off your to do list that the normal pace of work never allows.

In terms of looking ahead at the coming months, we are taking things day by day, as so much is evolving and changing every day. Everyone is in this together — our suppliers, our makers, our team, our retailers, our customers and the industry. There is no doubt that there are lots of feelings of uncertainty at this time, but we believe collectively we will navigate through this and come out stronger and wiser. This industry has been long overdue for a moment to properly reflect and analyze its pace, practice and impact on the environment.

Danielle Hirsch, founder, Danielle Frankel

The strength of our client relationships will be what helps us sustain our business over the coming months. Right now, our direct-to-consumer business is pivotal. We of course want to keep our retail partners in close contact during this time,but the reality is that working directly with our customers will be the most sustainable. We are in the process of developing a web site that will launch in a month or so where brides can shop gowns that can ship to them the next day with the ability to fit and video conference with a Danielle Frankel team member. This site had been in development before the pandemic as we have international brides who can’t visit the studio in New York. We have never been able to fit with these women in person, so we had to resolve navigating digital fittings regardless. Although there are many painful things happening at this moment, we work in a world where we need to create something for when this comes to an end and people will be celebrating more than they had before. That holds a great responsibility as a designer for when that moment comes. We know these women will have gone through extreme hardships to get to that wedding date and we are creatively thinking about how to provide that escape for our brides.

Abigail Stern, designer and owner, Matek

As a mainly direct company, my most valuable asset is communicating directly with the customer, so changing gears on social was the first adjustment. We are just as bummed to not be selling gear for our fave activities as customers are that all the mountains are closed early. And we are all stuck inside. So it felt right to me to switch gears from using Instagram as a selling point to a source of entertainment. Whether that means posting vintage inspirational photos I have always loved, to funny clips from snow-related movies, etc. I think we could all use a smile and laugh right now, and not all of us have the luxury of sitting at home online shopping — we are staying aware of all the people out there and their varying situations right now. We are also going on IG live about three times a week, something we have never done before. I know it’s become kind of a joke that IG live is having its moment right now — but I got a lot of angst out on Diplo’s live DJ set a couple of nights ago, so I’m with it. I may have to restructure the selling/wholesaling of my next collection, which is set to release in fall for the next ski season based on my factory’s capabilities. But as of right now, it’s all going as it normally would.

Christina Tung, founder, SVNR

I am working from home, doing my best to adhere and adapt to the CDC and city recommendations and participating in a community Slack calling out needs and resources, while doing what I can to keep the business running.

Obviously so much of our day-to-day operations, sales and some production have come to a halt, so now I’m working with my vendors, factories, sales and p.r. partners to anticipate, listen and innovate so we can be prepared for when things pick back up.

I set up a Go Fund Me account to help raise funds for much needed PPE [personal protective equipment] and equipment for hospitals. I’ve already ordered 1,000 N95 masks and am working with my factory to produce more FDA- and CDC-approved masks.

I’m trying to stay positive and focused on what action I can take as a human and a brand to move us forward through this period.

In the meantime, I’m donating 50 percent of web sales profits to Meals on Wheels, to provide food to the elderly, our most vulnerable members of society right now, in hopes to bring awareness to ways we can come together to help each other.

Danielle Guizio

We’re in a time right now where we, as business owners, really need to shift things into high gear. Our roles in leadership and strength will prevail as we leap into almost what feels like an instinctive survival mode. I’m strategizing not just for myself, but with care and safety of my employees in mind firstly. As entrepreneurs, every single day we’re faced with unpredictable issues and dilemmas that must always be mended with an immediate solution. Clear communication between your team is key. It feels like we’ve been training for these moments, so when issues arise we are left with no other choice but to take action.

I’m not too sure when we’ll even be able to return back to our office as of right now, but until then I’ve been doing my part to inspire my team in this strictly digital time. We’re keeping productivity at a maximum with a “business as usual” mind-set for normalcy sake. With that being said, now is also the time for more humanity and a little bit less of business. What matters most and above all is the health and safety of our factory workers, employees and of course, our customers. I’ve been reaching out to my factories asking them how we can make this easier on them. We really have to all work together. We’re going to rebuild and come out stronger if we can all keep positive and work in tandem.

Ivo Lamers, ceo, Merlette

At Merlette, we are considering all scenarios of how this will impact our cash flow and are strategizing daily on mitigating the associated risks. As a young brand, we are not able to do this alone. Coming through this very much depends upon the support and collaboration with our global teams — suppliers, distribution partners and our staff.

The major midterm risk we foresee right now is the wholesale market for resort in June, from which 60 percent of our sales revenue is generated. We hope that we can travel to Paris and show as usual, but if not, we are getting prepared to sell via digital platforms.

Running a tight ship and staying close to our core values of delivering high-quality, thoughtful garments is paramount to safeguarding the company during this unprecedented time — and in the long term.

Merlette’s business model has been set up from the beginning to adapt and succeed in an already challenging market. We produce two edited collections per year in line with pre-collections only. Our proprietary fabrics are reused season after season to minimize waste and we are not held to costly fabric liabilities. We sell online via d-to-c and do not yet own retail stores. And, fortunately, we have fully shipped our resort 2020 collection and do not have to face the pitfalls of canceled spring orders.

Alexia Elkaim, founder, Miaou

This is a really challenging time for small businesses, and has been a very critical time for us to be creative on how the next few months is going to look for us. With all the uncertainty in the marketplace today, we have decided to focus on our d-to-c business and push back our wholesale collection for the next season. We will still be dropping product per usual, but directly to our online customers.

We find that what’s been really critical is communication — we have been actively answering any questions and providing our Miaou girls with positive and inspiring content — mood boards, videos, music (coming today) and movie lists. We’ve also been running a spring cleaning sale, which we have extended in order to help raise money to #FeedingAmerica. In these critical times what’s really important is supporting our community in any way we can.

Carly Mark and Ayla Argentina, cofounders, Puppets and Puppets

As confusing as this situation is, it’s also giving us a moment to sit down and really focus on what’s ahead. The Puppets and Puppets team currently consists of three people — myself, Ayla and Murielle Maalouf, our new head of production. We don’t know what the future terrain will be, but we are moving along remotely as best as we can. As a young brand, It’s a trying time to be starting production. We are working with small-scale craftsmen, people who are able to work from home, to make samples. We’re having daily meetings over FaceTime and Zoom. We’re really taking our time. Fashion has been moving in a direction toward sustainability. This pandemic is not only opening people’s eyes, but it’s forcing the world to move in a much different way than before. For now, it’s a requirement to slow down and be mindful; hopefully it sticks.

Christian Juul Nielsen, founder and creative director, Aknvas

For the past two weeks, I’ve moved my design studio to my apartment. While designing Hervé Leger, Hervé Leger Capsule and Aknvas, my time has been fully occupied! I’ve kept an open conversation with my production, sales and communications teams to make the necessary changes to the upcoming collections, adapting our plans as needed. I believe that the time for self-reflection at home will translate into the artistic practice and am hopeful to return back to normal in the weeks to come.

Kelsey Randall

My focus is on producing washable/reusable fabric face masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 within our most vulnerable communities, activating a team of volunteer home sewers and fashion students to help, and trying to get fabric donated for the masks and for reusable fabric barrier gowns the medics at Global Response Management have asked me to help make. I feel called to action and am incredibly grateful that my sewing skills can be of use in this crisis. I’ve turned over the homepage of my web site to instructions on how to make the fabric face masks. You can download and print the pattern at home, there are links to buy the supplies, step-by-step instructional video, and suggestions on where to donate the masks.

I’m not worried about my company right now, I am worried about my community. I’ve been running a very lean start-up for four-and-a-half years with extremely low overhead by industry standards and a focus on seasonless, made-to-order garments, so I build a business that can withstand periods of no sales. The first 10 days I was self-quarantined. I banged out five new dresses made from 1970s bedsheets that happened to arrive from eBay just in time. If our federal government will take action to produce or purchase the masks we need right now, maybe I will be able to go back to creating in the studio, but until that time I feel obligated to make these masks that our medical community is begging for.

Lili Chemla, ceo, Leset

The most important thing to us right now is to keep our family members and our coworkers, who are also family, safe. We are practicing social distancing, and as an already bicoastal business, we are relying even more heavily on video and telephone communication.

Aside from projecting and predicting, we have found it important to take things day by day, tackling each issue as it comes, working together to find the best solution, and keeping our head up high during these trying times.

Customer care has always been at the forefront of our business and while we don’t guarantee it, we pride ourselves on our ability to ship e-commerce same business day. However, to accommodate any potential delays in shipments, we quickly offered 20 percent off site-wide. Finding ways to continue to be there for our customers, retail partners and friends within the industry is crucial. My sister Alison, of Alison Lou, started a “small business” Slack group chat in which we all share information, frustrations, and solutions with the current times and how to approach different obstacles. Staying informed, leaning on each other and sharing information is crucial. We are all in this together.

Wei Lin, founder and ceo, PH5

We have been bracing for impact. This year [2020] will be a slow year for us, but it’s OK. A lot of our meetings and sales appointments have been canceled, and our wholesale accounts are being very conservative with their buys this season. In an effort to stay productive despite certain aspects of the business slowing down, we are going to shift our focus for 2020 to social media and really focus all of our efforts to connect with our community on a more personal level. We’re really taking the time to plan ahead with our posts and share more personal stories with our followers.

Danielle Ribner, founder, Loup

Because all our products are made in New York City, we made sure to shut down our factories, instilled work from home, closed our Hudson, N.Y., store until it’s safe to reopen and have put touch-free packing and shipping rules into effect for our online store orders.

While so many people have lost their jobs, we’re lucky to have our e-commerce up and running at this time, so we decided to donate 10 percent of sales to Meals on Wheels indefinitely. We are very aware of the importance of helping our community because they are the people who have supported us and kept us going.

We plan to do everything possible to stay involved with our community in the upcoming months so we can listen to their needs. As a small business we can evolve our practices thoughtfully and swiftly to reflect those.

Michelle Duncan, founder, Duncan

We remain extremely optimistic and vigilant on the future. In this time, the Duncan brand ethos is more relevant than ever before and we will continue to create armor for the multifaceted female. I pride myself on being a businesswoman and a designer/creative director; we are prudently redirecting investment rather than slowing investment. We also see this as an opportunity to fearlessly adapt and accelerate into the turn. Most importantly, we look forward to continuing to serve Duncan females around the world.

Maurice Mosseri, cofounder, Still Here

In the face of brick-and-mortar stores closing indefinitely, we’ve decided to take the opportunity to relax, refresh and reconnect with the Still Here community.

About 10 days before nonessential businesses were asked to shut down, we decided to ship all our spring 2020 inventory from our Los Angeles facility to our Brooklyn apartment. As you can imagine, there are now jeans on every surface of our apartment stacked four feet high. It’s been a really funny addition to our decor, but great to be able to immediately pick, pack and ship orders coming through our web site.

While we expect to see a change in our sales pattern during this strange time, Still Here was never about selling jeans as much as it is about forming a community around responsible production and thoughtful design.

That all being said, our spring 2020 season dropped on Net-a-porter in Europe this weekend. To our excitement sales have been strong and we hope to see this continue.

We are using this quarantine as a creative incubation period to explore new concepts for our upcoming seasons. We are setting new goals like accommodating our online shoppers to better navigate sizing and fits. We are also exploring scaling back our production to focus on smaller batches of our specialty styles, helping avoid inventory overages while offering our customers the exclusivity of limited availability. Things are changing fast in this industry and if the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything about our business, it’s to try and be as flexible, lean and positive as possible.

Snow Xue Gao

My family is in China. They keep telling me what they learned on how to protect yourself. Stay at home, wash your heads, and disinfect your shoes, jackets and phone after you go outside. “Protecting yourself is also protecting others,” this is what I heard most from my family.

I have let all the employees work at home since last week, and I work at my apartment now. We have a WhatsApp group chat to keep in touch. Now is also the end of the fall 2020 sales season, after our last sales campaign in Shanghai in April. Then we may need to face whether production of this season will get affected or not. The factories we worked with in New York City are all closed now. If this situation is getting worse at the end of April, we may need to consider working with some overseas factories to ensure the production can meet the delivery deadline.

Taylor Simmons, designer and owner, Coco Shop

I’m protecting myself by pulling back on immediate spending and hunkering down, using this time, instead, to be more creative in future products and how I communicate with our followers and subscribers. I’ve stopped running Instagram ads as the space seems extra crowded, but am sharing more of my day-to-day on Stories and through e-mails than I typically do.

As a warm weather, travel brand, I’m hopeful that canceled March and April sales events will be rescheduled to later summer months and that canceled travel will come back with a vengeance this summer and fall. While we know the lockdown and virus will pass, we don’t know what the appetite to buy will be like on the other side, so, as sales are everything, I’m optimistically planning one-off sales events and ways to get the brand out there for May onward, but cutting or saying no to anything that requires multimonth contracts or payments upfront.

Sheena Sood, founder, Abacaxi

Many are saying that once this pandemic passes, we will reenter into an adjusted world. In this tough moment, it feels difficult to see that utopia — one where small businesses are flourishing. It would be great to see consumers really shift spending from larger retailers to smaller, more environmentally friendly ones that support fair labor.

It’s been wonderful to see the resourcefulness, innovation and creativity from independent makers in these past two weeks already. I’m thinking about all that I can offer at this moment — sewing cotton face masks, creating educational coloring book files with my artwork that parents can download for free, leading guided meditations online, sharing vegetarian recipes, doing virtual tie-dye tutorials. It’s also been inspiring to see brands donating to marginalized communities that are impacted by the virus; a portion of Abacaxi sales are going to NYC’s The New Sanctuary Coalition.

For Abacaxi, I want to focus on the creative this week — dig into the fun part of designing spring 2021. Even though I may not have a budget to actually sample these designs, the idea is to let out all ideas and see what emerges. I’m also remaining optimistic that I’ll be able to sell my brand new Spring/Summer inventory. That’s going to determine a lot for the future of the business now. My operation is still very small. My design studio and inventory are already in my Brooklyn apartment, so I’m continuing to ship online orders from here myself during the quarantine.

Sue Jung, founder and creative director, Common Odds

As with everyone, we are doing our best — being a small and new business has its benefits and challenges during a time of such uncertainty. Our factories in New York City and Italy for knitwear are closed and we planned to produce some styles in South Korea for fall 2020, which we will likely have to move to NYC due to travel restrictions. Instead of showing pre-spring in Paris as we had planned, we will show spring 2020 in New York. We’re expecting that there might be some delays in deliveries when things reopen, but we are still shipping spring as it’s in stock. Fabric buying is also a challenge — our fabric mills in Italy are closed until further notice. We’re grateful to be nimble in our decision-making, and are producing narrower sku’s for fall so we don’t overproduce. We are staying home and doing our part to protect the community.

Nina Sarin Arias, founder, ceo, creative director, Arias

We are staying nimble and creative, focusing on what we can do now, continuing to build the brand while working from home and staying safe. I am speaking with our partners about how to support each other during this time as well as selling directly through our web site. This past Friday, Sherri McMullen and I hosted a live chat on Instagram where we introduced the spring collection and shared behind-the-scenes stories. We are committed to our clients and team and looking ahead. We have a store opening in SoHo as soon as we can open the doors. As we are made in New York, our store opening gives us all something positive to look forward to.

Marvin Revells, senior buyer, 3NY

We are following state and federal regulations/suggestions as it pertains to safeguarding and protecting ourselves and our customers from the spread of COVID-19. We are closed at the moment like all nonessential stores, but we are hopeful that we will be the rainbow after the storm. We know that we will prevail like most of our neighboring stores such as Off-White, Kate Spade and many more.

During this quarantine time we are focusing on the mental health of our customers, staff members and partnering designers we work with around the world. Instagram: Shop3ny — has allowed us to stay in touch with a lot of our customers. This is allowing us to keep our customers updated on the latest arrivals.  Although we are delayed in shipments from overseas we highlight two designers that have been with us for several years, House of Mua Mua and Greedilous.

We are just trying to continue our culture of sharing our viewpoint of unique items from around the world that we curated through our travels. Customers can experience it more now on our web site — 3NYconcept.com and Instagram. We look forward to the upcoming months in a positive, hopeful way. We believe things will not be the same as before as far as shopping, but we do know that people will be resilient. We also know that people are still going to want to experience art through clothes and we will be there to provide them with that experience.

Jen Mankins, owner, Bird

What a crazy time. Just two weeks ago we had a staff meeting and barely discussed COVID-19.

Eight days ago we made the decision to close all the stores. We’re still open online and processing orders, though we have just one person in each stock location pulling and packing and one person processing orders remotely.

The team and business have shrunk to about 10 to 20 percent of what it was just a few weeks ago, and we have made incredibly difficult choices.…There has not been a lot of top-down guidance from the government or fashion industry associations, so it’s been through constant consultation and communication with my women business leader peers. We have shared information, ideas and plans on everything from how to deal with landlords, to furloughing employees, whether or not to go on sale and how to market effectively in a time when fashion is really besides the point.

For now, we are working individually with top clients to remotely personal shop and provide access to inventory through e-commerce, and likely we will expand and be starting public promotional sales later this week. We have held off on that thus far, because it seems like a race to the bottom, but it’s really just a matter of trying to generate sales.

Many of our designers are being amazing and flexible and allowing limited-time sales like, for the first time ever, Jesse Kamm or allowing us to sell product online that we don’t normally have authorization to do, like Dries Van Noten.

Nathan Harris, men’s buyer, Pitkin County Dry Goods

In regard to your question, we are in an interesting situation by operating in a resort market. When the ski resorts were abruptly closed, we went straight into planning mode as business immediately dried up. As much as we love our local clientele, it is tourism that allows us to operate. Thankfully our buying team falls under David Fleisher’s leadership and his 50 years of being in business. We immediately pulled back both our spring and fall on-order as we know for certain business will not return to Aspen, until the summer travel season (hopefully) starts in June. As we are working with each brand to develop a strategy to mitigate losses, we realize that we are all in this situation together and it will be a collaborative effort for all of us to come out on the other side. Since things have quieted down, I have spent more time in nature and am reminded that nature hasn’t skipped a beat. Summer will arrive and it will be as beautiful as ever. If we all work together now to stop the spread of this virus, we can start to see brighter and healthier days on the horizon.

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