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Does the Fashion Industry Need to Travel as Much as It Does?

The escalating coronavirus pandemic has further exposed fashion's reliance on fuel, as mandatory travel bans require executives and creatives alike to rethink everything from staging far-flung events to hosting in-person meetings.
Source: Getty
By
  • Tamison O'Connor

LONDON, United Kingdom — In 2020, fashion is a thoroughly global business, with travel an integral part of the industry's day-to-day operations: executives fly across continents for business meetings and visit factories halfway around the world. Editors and buyers across the Atlantic to attend runway shows, and brands send airplanes full of influencers to exotic locations for photoshoots and events.

The Covid-19 virus changed all of that in a matter of days. Businesses are putting a halt to international travel in order to protect employees, and governments have implemented travel bans. Now, as the industry figures out how to conduct business without face-to-face contact, it's accelerating a debate that was gaining steam even before the outbreak: Given recent advances in remote working technologies, and growing scrutiny about carbon emissions, does the fashion industry really need to travel as much as it does?

“What the current environment is teaching all of us is that a lot can be done over video, especially with technology today, and that actually, travelling for one-off meetings or short meetings needs to be rethought,” said Sarah Willersdorf, global head of luxury at Boston Consulting Group.

What the current environment is teaching all of us is that a lot can be done over video...travelling for one-off meetings needs to be rethought.

Armani Group started reducing non-essential travel over a month ago, and is relying on video conference calls to connect international teams, a spokesperson said.

“Obviously the immediate effect of the travel ban is a saving in travel expenses, but the repercussions of the outbreak will certainly be heavy and it’s too early to say how affected the whole industry will be,” the spokesperson said.

Replacing an in-person meeting with a videoconference is one thing; ending the practice of staging far-flung fashion shows is another matter. The number of international fashion shows brands have in exotic locations — with editors, buyers and influencers flown in just for the occasion — have increased dramatically in recent years. Chanel, for example, has staged shows in Havana, Venice and Singapore; Louis Vuitton in Seoul and Kyoto; and Dior in Marrakech, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Oxfordshire.

Production agency Bureau Betak estimates the average emissions of a large-scale fashion week show is equivalent to about 700 tonnes of carbon dioxide, about 500 tonnes of which come from guest air travel.

But these events are also important marketing moments for brands, which have to fight harder than ever to grab consumer attention on a fast-moving Instagram feed. For now, they've been put on hold. Hermès, Armani, Gucci, Max Mara and others have cancelled off-piste cruise shows. However, as soon as the pandemic subsides, brands have every incentive to pick up where they left off.

As a buyer, I need to see actual fabric, hear the actual sound of the cloth and meet the actual people involved in the brands.

The increase in lavish experiential events, too, showed no signs of slowing down before the coronavirus outbreak. H&M, for example, hosted an immersive theatre-like experience for press and influencers in Sedona, Arizona last year, while Net-a-Porter hosts global influencers at sought-after luxury holiday destinations during its annual “Jet-a-Porter” marketing push.

For the immediate future, brands will have to rethink marketing strategies and get creative about how new collections will be presented.

Shanghai Fashion Week, which was postponed in February, will now live stream shows on Alibaba's Tmall at the end of March. Tokyo Fashion Week, which was cancelled at the start of the month, is trialling similar initiatives, while Armani live-streamed its Autumn/Winter 2020 show, which was presented to an empty auditorium, during Milan Fashion Week last month.

Live-streaming fashion shows is not a new concept. Public relations firm KCD pioneered the concept back in 2013 with the launch of its Digital Fashion Shows streaming platform. While it didn't take off back then, short-term necessity may fuel longer-term adoption.

Going forward, brands might also try to stage attention-grabbing events closer to home. Jacquemus' viral Provence show, which took place last June, is proof that localised events that don't require extensive travel can still pack a punch. Less than a quarter of attendees were influencers or journalists that had travelled specifically for the show. Many that had travelled had come down from Paris — no international travel required. The show boosted Jacquemus' social media mentions by 1,343 percent in the third quarter of 2019, according to global fashion search platform Lyst.

Fashion’s market period is harder to shift online, as buyers from stores around the world want to meet with brands to see new collections and select which items to buy for the coming season.

“As a buyer, I need to see actual fabric, hear the actual sound of the cloth and meet the actual people involved in the brands,” said Shin Masuda, buyer at Japanese multi-brand chain United Arrows & Sons.

Crises, including epidemics, can spur on the adoption of both new business models, but also accelerate the adoption of new technologies.

Start-ups like Joor and Ordre are attempting to digitise the wholesale experience with digital buying platforms and virtual showrooms. Both companies have seen a boost since the spread of the coronavirus. US-based digital buying platform Joor, founded in 2010, said its average value of a wholesale order during Paris Fashion Week was four times higher than it was a year ago. Virtual showroom platform Ordre, founded in 2012, said interactions were up 375 percent this season, with hot brands like Gucci and Bottega Veneta accelerating showroom launches on the platform to cater to buyers who weren't able to attend the shows.

“Crises, including epidemics, can spur on the adoption of both new business models, but also accelerate the adoption of new technologies,” said BCG’s Willersdorf, pointing to the 2003 SARS outbreak, which some credit with accelerating the adoption of e-commerce among Chinese consumers.

Nevertheless, many segments of the industry are already itching to return to a normal travel schedule.

Sabrina Finlay is chief executive of Otabo, a footwear and apparel manufacturing company headquartered in Minneapolis with a development facility in Guangzhou, China and factory partners all over the world. The global team used digital technology, such as conference calling and high-quality photography, to support its travel schedule previously, but since the coronavirus pandemic they have had to rely more on these tools.

“[Not being able to travel] is definitely unfortunate, but if we can’t be in the same place, it’s not a reason for us to slow things down, we just need to change how we’re communicating and working together,” she said.

In a post-coronavirus world, however, it will be back to business as usual.

“As soon as we can travel and have our teams in the same place, we will do that,” she said.

We’re tracking the latest on the coronavirus outbreak and its impact on the global fashion business. Visit our live blog for everything you need to know.

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