Dressing down: Pandemic hits to the clothing industry shaping up to be a fashion disaster

From the sweatpants style of the new work-from-home army to an oversupply of last season's looks, the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a fashion disaster for one of the largest industries in the world.

'Fashion is an industry that is hugely dependent on discretionary spending'

Shoppers walk past stores in the West Edmonton Mall on May 14, the first day of the mall's reopening during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

From the sweatpants style of the new work-from-home army to an oversupply of last season's looks, the COVID-19 pandemic is shaping up to be a fashion disaster for one of the largest industries in the world.

The first ripples of trouble are already being seen. Army & Navy is closing its department store chain after more than a century in business, Reitmans Canada has warned it could fail without financial help, and international chains like J. Crew, Neiman Marcus and Aldo have all filed for bankruptcy protection.

But retail is only the tip of an industry that extends to fashion designers, apparel manufacturers, textile producers and even agricultural operations, says Lori Moran, a recently retired University of Alberta professor who was assistant chair of the human ecology department.

"The industry really is facing dire consequences, not just for retailers but for all the people who produced those products that fashion retailers sell," Moran told CBC Radio's Edmonton AM this week.

"There are millions of workers not having their jobs, factories that won't be open. There are major losses occurring for one of the world's biggest industries. And fashion retail is really just part of that."

Retailers feel it first

But retail is the first domino in the industry chain; it sends others toppling.

The April coronavirus update of The State of Fashion 2020, an analysis by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, warned that about 80 per cent of publicly listed fashion companies in Europe and North America would be in financial distress if stores remained closed for two months.

The industry was generating $2.5 trillion in global annual revenues before the pandemic hit, McKinsey & Company noted, but had already seen declines and was braced for a tough 2020.

"A lot of Canadian retailers were already in trouble before COVID hit," Moran said, citing stiff competition and decreased traffic in some large department stores. "The COVID crisis has just really kind of made things worse for some of these companies."

With most Canadian pandemic-related closures beginning in mid-March, the industry is now reaching that two-month mark.

Heading the pack of retailers in financial jeopardy are ones that didn't — or still don't — have the ability to conduct sales through e-commerce, Moran said.

"If companies didn't have an online business established already to try and offset some of that lost business, they are in trouble. So you might see some companies scrambling to get that in place," she said. 

Indeed, there has been a surge in business for Ottawa-based Shopify, which creates e-commerce platforms for businesses. Last week, Shopify surpassed the Royal Bank of Canada as the most valuable company in the country.

Too much supply, not enough demand

The crux of the fashion problem comes down to the classic economic principle of supply and demand.

"We are seeing people changing their habits a little bit in terms of demand," Moran said. "We've been working at home longer. There's been obviously a trend to more comfortable clothing — so switching up workwear for sweatpants, maybe even pyjamas in some cases."

Moran suggested that companies selling "athleisure" wear, such as Vancouver-based Lululemon, are likely still doing well.

In March, Lululemon cited the uncertainty of COVID-19 in its refusal to offer a financial outlook for 2020.

Army & Navy has announced its five Western Canada locations would be closing permanently, including the longtime Whyte Avenue fixture. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

On the supply side, many retailers find themselves with a glut of stock, ordered months in advance, that they are now having trouble selling and, in some cases, storing.

"When times are tight, a lot of off-price retailers, you know, places like Winners, for example ... would take a lot of that stock that retailers weren't able to sell," Moran said.

"But there is so much of it now, and there is so much discounting going on everywhere … I don't think they can absorb everything that's out there. It's going to be a big problem." 

Finances also crimping our style

This week, Alberta started the first phase of its reopening strategy, allowing retailers and shopping malls to open doors with an abundance of caution and careful rules to enforce physical distancing and prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

West Edmonton Mall, for example, will be limiting crowds to about 30 to 50 per cent of normal occupancy.

The mall's general manager, Danielle Woo, told Edmonton AM that she expects to see shoppers returning by the weekend. "Everybody needs a little bit of retail therapy after the past few weeks," she said.

But Moran noted that not everyone is in a financial position to afford a shopping trip, no matter how deep the discount.

"Fashion is an industry that is hugely dependent on discretionary spending," she said.

"Even if there are some good bargains out there, when consumers are cash-strapped and they're not working, fashion shopping kind of goes to the bottom of the list."