What COVID-19 Means for the Fashion Industry
We all know COVID has changed the game for many retail categories. Some have been obvious winners and others are feeling extremely strained. For the fashion industry, some are saying the pandemic may be a day of reckoning. Today, we’re talking to iconic Canadian fashion designer, David Dixon, and his brother, interior designer, Glenn Dixon about the silver lining and how smart brands can use this as an opportunity to leap into the future.
Melinda: Hi. I’m Melinda and you’re listening to Think Retail. We all know COVID has changed the game for many retail categories. Some have been obvious winners and others are feeling extremely strained. For the fashion industry, some are saying the pandemic may be a day of reckoning. Today, we’re talking to iconic Canadian fashion designer, David Dixon, and his brother, interior designer, Glenn Dixon about the silver lining and how smart brands can use this as an opportunity to leap into the future.
Thank you both for being with me today. Can you both tell our listeners a little bit about you and your careers to start us off? Why don’t we start with David?
David: Thank you for having me and bringing me to your audience. I started my interest in fashion at a really early age, probably around 10 or so. We grew up in a house, I’m the youngest and Glenn’s the second youngest of six. So, we grew up in a large family. A lot of things, busy, busy household. Fashion wasn’t on the radar so much, but my parents were very concerned that we looked, you know, clean at least. There wasn’t a huge disposable income for clothes per se. So, we were tidy.
We went to church, did all that kind of stuff, but at the same time, my parents were very creative. So, we picked up on that bunk in terms of how we make things more resourceful or useful, more desired. So in that case, my start was at a very early age, watching The Love Boat and realizing there was this career called fashion. That there were designers like Halston and Gloria Vanderbilt, Geoffrey Beene. And then my drawing started making sense because I was always drawing and that led into doing home-ec being the only guy in class, which led to Ryerson where I graduated in ‘93, and in ‘95 I started my business.
Melinda: Great. Thank you. Glenn, how about you?
Glenn: I am an interior designer and brand strategist. I’ve been in the business for about 20, 25 years. I also collaborate with David and I help out with his branding and marketing over the last 25 years, which we are celebrating this year, and alone.
Glenn: Yeah. I started out in interior design, basically very similar to David although my mentor was my mother and we used to play around with rooms and switch things up and my father would come home and say, “Where’s the wall gone?” And it’d be mom and Glenn. So that’s where my inspiration started. But my passion initially was in design. I would say today it has evolved into more of an explorer of culture and sort of how we integrate design into it. And that perspective has altered the way I think and operate. So, my first conversations with clients has very little to do with design and everything to do with their culture.
Melinda: Thank you. It sounds like you had a really interesting childhood, really creative family obviously. David, can you tell us what insiders in the world of fashion are talking about when it comes to how COVID-19 is going to change the game?
David: Well, from my observations and discussions, because this for us came at a…we weren’t really prepared for it. The fashion industry really wasn’t prepared for it because we were considered non-essential workers. All of a sudden, people were not making clothes, they were making masks and carbons and PPE.
So, in terms of this pandemic hitting the fashion world and fashion being considered more of a frivolity or is something that is a non-essential item even though we need clothes, we have to sort of rechange the way we think. And this whole past three, four months, I think a lot of people have been redoing that, rethinking how their strategies are going to be. How are we going to make fashion part of our, well, I believe fashion is part of the culture anyway. It’s the first non-spoken language. We still want to speak with our clothes. We still want to be ourselves. We still want to be part of it.
I don’t think it’s going to die like people think, “Oh, fashion is dead,” But after 25 years I’ve seen so many altercations, you know, or intrusions into our lifestyles in terms of whether it was SARS or 9/11, all these other, in 2008, the economy breakdown. But we still survived. So, what we’re doing now is gathering information, exploring new ways of doing business, and setting sights for sort of a more interesting way of doing things because we can’t do what we’ve always done because we’re always getting really really sad. So, moving that forward.
Melinda: Glenn, if we were going to take a glass half full point of view, what do you see as the big opportunity for fashion retailers or even retail in general if you want to talk more broadly?
Glenn: Well, we all know that online shopping continues to surge in popularity, but multichannel retailers now more than ever, they need to find new and innovative ways to attract customers into the stores, particularly their flagships, because that’s the store that sort of tells the customer who they are. Bricks and mortar retailing is no longer just about stacking and selling product. I think the opportunity is to really catch shopper’s attention and learn how to teach them, perhaps even how to entertain the customer and offer services to create an experience their customers cannot find elsewhere.
Things like product demos, touchless interaction, the elimination of every pinch point, state-of-the-art digital displays, in-store services, such as, you know, beauty treatments. Personal shoppers are going be a big thing and not just in the luxury sector. Concierge services. Retailers now need to look at ways to elevate their stores into a destination for experiences, all of this, while keeping their staff and their clientele safe. It really comes down to bringing back the joy in shopping and getting to know brands. And I think that is happening right now for any successful retailer to move forward.
Melinda: Grocery stores like Amazon or Walmart, they’ve all done really well while fashion and luxury especially has been kind of deprioritized. I think at the time I wrote these questions, it was over 33 million Americans are unemployed but that number has gone up. Other people are working from home and they found their values may be shifting a little bit. For fashion brands, is there a need to pivot to a new value that will resonate with customers? Either one of you can go ahead and answer that.
Glenn: Well, I think fashion always matters, right? It matters to the economy, to society and to each of us personally. I think David pointed on this a little bit, but like faster than anything else, what we wear tells the story of who we are or who we want to be. And despite its faults, one of the things fashion can do is spread an idea around very powerfully and coherently. I think what will alter perhaps is in terms of styling. I know I’ve wanted more comfortable clothes. And I think that, I was just shopping the other day and I think that there is sort of a Christmas morning effect happening right now where it can be fun, or it is fun to shop again. So, retailers just really need to be prepared to have a safe environment for everyone and ensure that what’s online is in stock.
Melinda: If we look at how important it’s been for consumers, that brands take a value stand, not only during COVID, but as part of social justice protests, for example, what we’re seeing right now with Black Lives Matter. Do we think that the sustainability issue may become more important for fashion brands to embrace? David, what do you think about that?
David: For me and my business, it’s always based on transparency. 99.9 percent we produced all in Canada, in Toronto, with factories that have been certified, inspected. So that’s something I think the consumer will want, and even more so, that clothes we know where they came from, where the fabric is from, how it’s being manufactured. I think that’s going to be key for the new customer, especially the younger generation. They’re used to hearing the word sustainability, reuse, recycle, all of that upcycle. We see that now, especially with younger emerging designers, because they can’t afford their rent, let alone put a collection together. So, they’re trying to find useful things and repurpose them. I think the whole idea of windows wide open in terms of where the product is coming from, the story behind it, because their customer really wants to have a connection with the brand or the designer and be a part of that culture. That’s why perfume sales are what they are. They can’t afford the Armani suit, they’ll buy the Armani cologne. So, it’s kind of that re-engagement and transparency and openness and experience. Just having the experience of being part of that design world.
Glenn: The only thing that I would add to that is especially like the millennials and the Gen Z’s that are coming up on the topic of the social justice area is how people are treated, how the workers are treated. Right? Do they get, you know, is there long term, like the manufacturers of these clothes or anything for that matter. Like, are the workers getting long-term employment opportunities? Are they getting fair wages? Are men and women being paid equally? Is the environment safe? Right? Can workers speak, like free speech kind of thing? And are they protected from prejudice, discrimination, abuse, sexism, racism, sexual harassment, and so much more?
And also people need to have access to healthcare, you know, and time off and can they improve their skills and also access financial assistance so that they can get out of poverty? Things like that. I think that it’s very, very important for retailers and manufacturers of anything that the consumer is going to want to know exactly that their employees are treated the way they should be.
Melinda: Yeah. And we’ve done a lot of studies during the pandemic and that is something that we’ve heard from the respondents over and over and over again, is that the way brands treat their employees is really important to them during this time especially, so I absolutely agree with you on that.
So right now, and probably for the foreseeable future, there’s going to be a lot of browsing happening online. How can retail brands use this as an opportunity?
David: I think we do it naturally anyway. I would never, in my wildest day think that I would buy something online. I never thought I would. And guess what? I’m doing it for a number of years now. Oh, it’s easy, it comes to my door. I tend not to buy clothing so much. I buy books, all that kind of stuff, and household stuff. But I think it is kind of an opportunity to have an online presence, definitely don’t judge my website by any means, to have that awareness of the product.
Again, people are going to look at home. Who knew that way back when, where you go in and look at the catalog, you fill out your form and you get your piece. So that was like pre-internet shopping really. And so, I think the whole experience is people will still browse, but like going back to Glenn, so, when you go to bricks and mortar that they should have it available and in your size.
Glenn: I mean, I’d have to be convinced of the fit really because my weight certainly fluctuates and certainly has been fluctuating recently with COVID.
Melinda: I feel you, Glenn.
Glenn: But I still love this store experience, but I do like for the online experience, it must be really flawless and easy to navigate. And, you know, the descriptions of product must be exactly right. No pinch points. And speaking personally, I do get annoyed from retailers that remind me of an item I looked at, you know, several weeks ago and it pops up every day. So like, you need to know your limits. But yes, I do like to do the research and it is convenient, but I do love the whole experience of shopping. And like I said, the fit is really, like you’ve got to know the fit, or every detail of garments are going to have to be very specific and right, because nobody wants to return things. It’s a hassle to return.
Melinda: Yeah. It’s a tricky one. I mean, I think it speaks a bit to brand loyalty where if you’re familiar with the brand and you know what size you are, you may be more likely to purchase something there because you can rely a little bit more on it, but it is a tricky one to figure out how to communicate that online. So what is the opportunity for luxury brands, given that many people around the world they’re out of work, they may have suffered several months with a reduction in income even if they are still employed? Where do we see luxury playing?
Glenn: You know, I believe the luxury market will be okay. Look at what happened when they opened up the Hermes store after lockdown in China and they had a record day in sales. So there’s two reasons that I see. People of affluence, they tend to sustain their wealth and the working class person looks to buy a luxury item as more of an aspirational reward for hard work or desire. I think the big opportunity for luxury brands is now to showcase their empathetic side, and they’ve got to give back to causes and be very vocal about it that are important to the consumer. Right? We all need to know that the brand cares about the world we live in.
Melinda: David, what are your thoughts?
David: I think, again, it’s about reinvention. Even the luxury houses have to reinvent themselves a little bit. We’ve looked in the past by changing of designers that heads of, you know, whether it’s Dior. Shows are still going on and they’re planning cruise collections like Chanel and Dior. They’re talking about shows in the fall to showcase spring. So I think people are trying to create a new normal, but it’s hard to create new normal when that sort of set up has been established for so long and because it was effective in terms of, okay, you get a number of people in the room, everyone sees it, it’s done, it’s finished, you can go on to the next. But I think the luxury brand, when they change, for example, like Glenn was mentioning, Hermes and China was like, there was a line enough to get in because they opened the door to buy bags and scarves.
And then we look at, we were talking about Chanel, even in Yorkville, when it’s stores were starting to open, there were lineups at these luxury brands and we see people and consumers running around with bags from Harry Rosen and Chanel and all these kinds of things. So the people who have a lot of money will probably always have a lot of money, and then as I mentioned, those aspirational gifts to oneself. You’ve done a good job. You’ve worked hard. “I’m going to spend $500 on a belt.” So, I think they’re pretty well-poised because, I mean, it’s a conglomerate. These luxury brands dictate a lot of how we see things and what’s in our environment and what we consider aspirational.
Melinda: If we look at previous times in history where fashion has been disrupted, I’m thinking about the World Wars, there was a lot of innovation in terms of materials. A lot of people were sewing their own clothes. Is there an opportunity around innovation for today’s fashion brands?
Glenn: The only thing that I like, the biggest innovation that I see is technology. And you heard it here first, I soon believe that people will have the ability to design their own clothes under the sort of the tutelage of fashion houses perfectly fitted for them. So it’s bespoke, but one step further. Imagine going online and being able to program your body, pick your fabrics, pick every element of the clothes and customize it to yourself. It’s sort of like as kids, where your kid, you know, put together your Barbie outfit, but it’s more personalized to you and you could actually design, I think, self-design because people are getting savvy about what looks good on them then also what they’d like to wear. I think that’s going to be, like, it’s going to delve more into that. Like designing your own. Sorry, David, but people are going to start designing their own outfits.
Melinda: David, what do you think?
David: Everyone’s a designer. I think, from what we’ve seen in the past, whether the wars, you know, disease, things like that, innovation does come from that because people would want to be hopeful. They want change. They want something to look forward to. And I do agree technology will play a large part in that and that demi-couture and bespoke will probably elevate. But from manufacturing, it’s sort of a challenging experience for me, for someone coming in saying, I want that, with that, with that in terms of selling to a larger audience. So, there could be a shift to a more personalized designer, if you’re going to designer getting personalized treatment as opposed to going to a chain of stores and just getting, you know, buying some outfit for that day. Glenn said the whole Christmas effect. I think that’s going to be happening like it’s Christmas time, “I’m going to buy myself something good or just something to make me feel better.” But in terms of the what’s going to come out of this is I think just a new approach to what design means in terms of what is it for? How are we doing it? Why are we doing it? What is our contribution and what stories are going to be told to our audience that resonates with them?
Melinda: Over 80 percent of clothing purchases were made in the store prior to COVID. Obviously stores were closed, sales were affected. Now that stores are opening with varying degrees of regulation depending on where you are, you talked a little bit about this at the beginning, Glenn, but how can fashion retailers reimagine the customer journey? I’m talking about browsing, trying on clothes and enjoying the experience.
Glenn: Well, I’m going be honest. I went shopping last week and so I was, you know, guilty, but the stores were open and it was an interesting experience, but I went to update my summer slouchy wardrobe. But what was on the mouths of many people were pricing. So, like initially I think that people were expecting it to be like a fire sale kind of thing where everything would be like slashed by 75% and they weren’t, but the lineups at the cash albeit six feet away from each other was full. I think that the whole shopping experience now is sort of like fun, we’re getting away with something almost, you know, that kind of an attitude. But the only thing that, the big glitch or the pinch point that I find that is going to be a real challenge for people to come, get over is the actual ability to try on clothes. I think that until there’s the vaccine, it’s going to be a problem. What I do think would be a good idea is, for the interim anyway, I think that like when you go to Ikea, they have those disposable measuring tapes. I think that if you’re clothes shopping, it would be handy to have those little plastic measuring tapes so that you can double-check your sizing. But I do think that anyone that’s really anxious about COVID-19 is not going to go shopping. People that are really, you know, like that they have that anxiety, I don’t think they’re going to go shopping. I do think the people that, you know, they’re wearing the PPEs and they like the whole experience for shopping, I think they were going to still do it, and I think that it will return to fun again. I really do.
Melinda: David, do you have any thoughts on the store experience and how fashion retailers can reimagine it?
David: Well, I don’t do a lot of personal shopping myself so when I do go to a store, I tend to go to the source where I feel good in. Like, I can understand the product it’s laid out, it’s clean, it’s easy to identify. So, you know, I’ve gone to Marshall’s on occasion and enjoy the hunt, so to speak. So for that, I think once we get over that we can try things on, touch things and be able to move around the space, I think it’s really being able to for stores, especially retailers, larger ones, or even small boutiques, is really to engage their customer a little bit more, make them feel a little bit more special, safe of course, and at the same time, let them escape for a little bit. The whole idea of going into a store and looking and browsing and trying to find something new, whether it’s a lamp or whatever you’re looking for is that you want to escape a little bit and, again, search and hunt and find, or if you’re going out for something specific, be able to find it in a pleasant way that the staff are knowledgeable of where the pieces come from and just people happy and friendly and all that sort of thing. I think that’s where you won’t go into certain department stores (not naming any) where you can go in and you have to search for an attendant or a checkout. You know what I mean? I think that that will have to be changed considerably.
Glenn: I think the whole geography of the store needs to change as well, like, the spacing between. So, like a lot of stores will fill up, you know, shelves just for the sake of filling up shelves, but I think that retailers really have to take a curated approach to everything about their business, including what they stock and what they sell. Because, you know, you can go to stores and some people like the experience where there is a lot of stuff, but I think if it’s edited well so that there’s more space to walk around and social distance as well, I think that’s really important for retailers. I think that you’ve really got to sort of pick it and stick it on what you’re offering and put out the best you can be as opposed to, you know, inundating point of sale items or trying to be all things to all people. I think you really got to. I think this is the time that retailers really have to buckle down and say, “Who am I and what am I putting out there?”
Melinda: Especially if it is going to be a more time-consuming process. That means I’m going to limit the number of places I’m going to choose to go to because now my shopping experience, I can’t hit five stores in an hour. I’ve got to take one hour for one place. So, people are going to be a bit more choosy about where they go.
I really liked what you’re saying, David, about to give people an escape. And I do think that as you know, we’re going to see some fluctuation with the pandemic and in these moments where we are in Ontario right now, where things are looking a little bit better, that in those sort of positive moments, it is going to be really important for people to have their spirits lifted and this is something that fashion can certainly offer people. So, I agree with you on that.
If I could get a final note from both of you on what you think the most exciting opportunity the pandemic has created for the fashion industry is. Who wants to start with that one?
Glenn: David, go ahead.
David: I think the most interesting thing that will be happening once we get into our new normal, we’re going to see a real surge of new emerging designers. We’re going see a new brands that we’ve never heard of. Because they are quite savvy on Instagram and social media and things like that, they have their platforms there and they’re building that sort of recognition of who they are, what they believe in. It’s very curated, the emerging designers that are coming up. I think the playing field of the old guard versus the new guard, I think will even out a little bit. I think we’re going to have a lot more opportunity and a lot more introduction to new ideas because pre-COVID when I was like, it was probably around Christmas, I was just overwhelmed by the sameness of a lot of the product that’s out there. And so, buyers for the store, that’s their big is to make sure things sell per square foot. But I found after store, after store, after store, it’s the same, but different as opposed to, wow, that’s really interesting. That’s really new. I did come across a few labels within that search that I thought, you know, that stores were giving them a little bit of a try. Stores like Simons is very good for that type of environment where they’ll put high next to low. Sometimes it’s a little shocking. You look at one price and you say…
Melinda: Oh yeah. I’ve had that.
David: “Oh, that’s super cute.” And then you look at the price and see the thing next to it and you say, “Oh my.” I kind of have to look. But, I think stories like that are being very progressive, like Simons on a department store level. And I guess because it’s also a family run business and they only have five stores. So, from that scale, but down also into small emerging designers who are coming out and introducing us to things that we wouldn’t have had before through likes in social media.
Glenn: Well, and I think to that point, David, I think there’s a specialty craze. If I’m going to go and spend, because people have become more – I hate to use the word – but responsible with money because there’s millions of people unemployed. Right? So like people are more responsible. So, if they’re going to spend money, it has to have the quality, it has to have uniqueness and just that they have to feel special in it. So that’s really, to your point on that. The only thing that I would add above that would be, I think that the most exciting opportunity that will come or has come out of all of this, is that from the retailer, my perspective is that the good retailers are treating their employees with more value and also their customers. So, there’s a real love for the employees and the customers right now, and that I think is really the greatest opportunity. Treat your employees well, they will treat your consumer, your customers well, I think, that the appreciation for people I think has been, at least, as I see it, the greatest lesson out of all of this.
Melinda: Yeah. I agree with you on that. And I think that also connects with what David is saying in that some of these new up and coming brands are really placing an emphasis on that right from the get-go and so it does kind of even the playing field out a little bit. If that’s what customers are valuing, then they’re going to be looking to these brands to say, “Oh, look, they’re showing me about who’s sewing their garments and where they live and what they’re being paid and what kind of benefits they’re getting. And I can see a picture of them on Instagram.” That’s a great story to lure me into wanting to know more about that brand.
Glenn: Exactly. Exactly. Yeah.
Melinda: Well, that’s it. Thank you both so much for chatting with me today. I really appreciate all your thoughts. It’s fun to have the Dixon brothers on.
Glenn: Well, it’s fun to be on, and thank you for having us.
Melinda: Listening to David and Glenn, what really jumps out at me is a cry for something unique, refreshing, interesting, and really well thought out. It’s fair to say that some fashion brands have already been on this journey and COVID has simply accelerated the process. But as David mentioned, and Glenn reiterated numerous times, there’s a lot of the same out there, and they’re not just talking about product. If there was ever a time to really decide what your brand means and how your store experience delivers above and beyond expectations, it’s right now. Thanks again to Glenn and David. And remember, you can find Think Retail on iTunes, Spotify, and our website, sld.com. Thanks for listening.
Glenn Dixon is an interior designer, tv personality and brand strategist. He also co-developed a successful fashion company with his brother, David.
David Dixon is a fashion designer and founder of the clothing company, David Dixon. Today, David Dixon is sold across Canada, the United States, Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Switzerland, Germany, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Think Retail is a podcast where top designers, strategists, thought leaders and business people discuss what’s coming next. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.