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The Art of the Crisis Pivot — and the Brands Getting it Right

Fashion brands that find their businesses upended by the pandemic are finding creative new ways to operate. Here's how they did it.
The designer Jonathan Cohen has begun selling digital drawings while his fashion business is paused | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Chavie Lieber

NEW YORK, United States — Visitors to Revolve's Instagram might have noticed a change in programming recently. While there were still plenty of influencers posing in festival-ready fashion, some were now starring in videos that can best be described as QVC for the Coachella set.

The Revolve Shopping Network, which launched on April 11, features Instagram celebrities like Aimee Song and Chloe Morello using limited-time offers and other tried-and-true sales tactics to pitch clothing and beauty products to 3.9 million followers.

Revolve has started relying on the hard sell out of necessity. In the past, the online retailer generated about 30 percent of its annual revenue during spring festivals like Coachella and its own events. More sales came via an army of influencers, who modelled mini dresses and crop tops from exotic vacation spots. The pandemic has put a stop to all that.

“The brand is really built around an aspirational and travelling lifestyle, so we had to pivot because no big events or travel is happening,” said Chief Brand Officer Raissa Gerona. “Similar to a QVC or an HSN, we’re trying to trigger customers to act faster than usual.”

Companies that have seen their business models blown up by the pandemic are making dramatic changes in real time.

Revolve is just one of many brands looking to pivot as Covid-19 sends the global economy into a tailspin and reshapes the retail landscape. Companies that have seen their business models blown up by the pandemic are making dramatic changes in real time, from the products they sell to where and how they are sold.

A successful pivot must address the threat while being on brand and cost effective. They aren’t easy to pull off — retailers like J.Crew and J.C. Penney have repeatedly made drastic changes to how they operate, with little to show for it beyond confused customers and angry creditors. But with retail unlikely to return to normal anytime soon, embracing new ways to sell clothes may be many brands’ only shot.

“Things are so up in the air that you need to move quickly and adapt,” said Nicole Gardner, chief executive of Ideally This, a business consulting firm. “If you can tap into what people want and need right now, it’s the strongest way to survive.”

Work With What You Have

Leandra Medine, the influencer and founder of the fashion lifestyle site Man Repeller, was gearing up to launch a subscription text message styling service when Covid-19 hit. Medine quickly realised her readers weren't going to pay for the product while they were self-isolating at home in their sweatsuits.

Medine temporarily scrapped the service, and instead launched ThoughtLine, where employees send three texts a day to subscribers for free: one in the morning with uplifting links, an afternoon invitation to “office hours” with an editor or expert and one in the evening with outfit challenges and other activities.

ThoughtLine has over 10,000 subscribers, and prompts can receive hundreds of responses, Medine said. She sees the service as a way to strengthen her community, though she plans to find a way to eventually make money, such as by introducing sponsored texts. Like Revolve, she doesn’t have a choice; sponsored partnerships have all-but disappeared.

“The path is to monetisation,” she said. “We’re building out research and insight opportunities for partners while we get a pulse on how to be a responsible business during these times.”

Find What Sells

Jonathan Cohen, a New York-based fashion designer, isn’t selling many printed dresses these days, which can cost up to $1,400. He’s pivoted to selling flower illustrations, sent via email for about $30 each. While nowhere near as lucrative as his fashion creations, he can sell 50 illustrations on a good day.

This is a time to be incredibly creative, but also frugal.

“We don’t know when we can produce or open again,” Cohen said. “The flower shop is slowly helping us pay bills, so it’s something.”

He’s looking to expand his digital floral experiment, potentially into stationary or mass-market reproductions of his drawings and calligraphy.

Both Medine and Cohen’s pivots required few resources to pull off. That’s key when experimenting during tumultuous times, said Stacey Widlitz, president of SW Retail Advisors.

“You shouldn’t be taking investment dollars to throw it in a different direction and see if it works,” said Widlitz. “This is a time to be incredibly creative, but also frugal.”

Become Indispensable

Publicist Elizabeth Tuke’s clients aren’t as focused on getting press mentions lately. What they really need is help making money. Tuke, who works with Neely & Chloe, Danielle Bernstein and others, recently launched an e-commerce site to sell products from her clients, and others.

She said she is using her connections to boost the visibility of her marketplace, which charges a 30 percent commission. Many of her clients have lost wholesale partners recently and need a place to sell their merchandise, she said.

“I’m in reinvention mode right now, and trying to give myself and my business a new way to position clients in this current climate,” Tuke said. “You have to be scrappy.”

Many fashion brands have started making masks, personal protective equipment, and hand sanitiser. Some donate their products, while others see a long-term market developing for this sort of gear. Fitness apparel and athleisure are also seeing growing demand.

Business owners need to think about how they can shift to play in the world we live in.

“Business owners need to think about how they can shift to play in the world we live in,” Gardner said. “Can they leverage existing resources and pivot to clothes people actually need?”

Stay on Brand

A pivot must be true to a company’s DNA. Many of Cohen’s designs featured floral patterns, and his drawings help remind people what they like about his brand, for instance. Had he introduced a quick athleisure line, it probably wouldn’t have been as well received.

“When things return to normal, you want your customer back, and they’ll remember you for your core competency,” Widlitz said. “If you chase a moment in time, pivoting back will be very difficult.”

Jeffery Aronsson, founder of luxury consulting firm the Aronsson Group, said brands must also consider if a pivot could lead to brand dilution.

“A brand is a promise and it stands for something, so you need to be thinking about how far you want to extend that identity,” he said. “Reputation is everything.”

Anything Can Pivot

A pivot doesn't need to involve new products. Some brands are using the pandemic to reduce their reliance on wholesale. The wholesale model has been challenged for years, and more brands are leaning into the direct-to-consumer approach. In April, Kering said Gucci, which already generates 85 percent of sales via direct channels, will cut back further on wholesale.

On the flip side, some fashion brands that had avoided Amazon have recently started selling on the site, which has seen a surge in customers while other retailers remain closed.

“Joining a marketplace could help with visibility and sales,” said Widlitz. “You might have to take a margin hit, but it might also be what helps you stay relevant, and alive.”

Marketing strategies can be pivoted too. Brands are finding new uses for Instagram Live, and learning how to use WeChat more effectively in China.

“We’d never thought we’d be in a situation like this, but it’s created an opportunity to try new things and learn about ourselves and our customers,” said Revolve’s Gerona.

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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