LONDON, United Kingdom — For many Western fashion brands, the impact of the coronavirus outbreak has largely been confined to idled factories and empty stores in China.
But as more cases are reported outside Asia, the industry is preparing for the disease to hit workplaces, malls and boutiques from New York to Milan to Paris. Though millions of workers in cities across China have been under lockdown for weeks, the last few days have seen some of the first voluntary quarantine efforts in the fashion industry’s European and American hubs.
In a potential sign of what’s to come, T Magazine Editor-in-Chief Hanya Yanagihara said on Instagram that employees returning from Paris following fashion month were being told to keep away from The New York Times' offices for 14 days.
“This isn't an official quarantine; we're just being asked to work from home. But I started wondering if this might be the beginning of a more organised and official quarantine,” she wrote on Instagram.
The economic impact of the COVID-19 illness has mainly been limited to disruptions to supply chains and spending in China. Factories have struggled to return to full capacity even after government quarantine restrictions were loosened earlier this month, and luxury brands are bracing themselves to lose up to €40 billion (around $43.9 billion) in sales this year as the sector’s value drops to a five-year low.
However, many health experts say it’s only a matter of time before the virus spreads globally. COVID-19, which has infected over 82,600 and killed 2,809 as of Thursday, is highly contagious and has a long incubation period, traits that make a global pandemic more likely.
The World Health Organization has declared a “public health emergency of international concern.” An outbreak in Italy has put much of Europe on high alert; on Thursday, French President Emmanuel Macron said an “epidemic is on its way.” In the US, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a case of “unknown origin” in California, the nation’s first not linked to travel in a country affected by the outbreak.
As cities across northern Italy cancelled public events (though only Giorgio Armani uninvited show-goers to his runway presentation during Milan Fashion Week), the industry began taking action. Several events (like presentations by Byredo and Rosie Assoulin) tied to Paris Fashion Week have been called off, and the organisers of Watches & Wonders cancelled the trade fair, which was scheduled to be held in Geneva in April.
It’s not just T Magazine that’s putting workplace provisions in place. Gucci employees have been told to limit business travel where possible, while staff at the brand’s Milan HQ have been encouraged to take advantage of flexible working arrangements. Moncler has taken similar steps, including flexible working arrangements in some offices and advising against non-essential travel.
Social spread often happens in places beyond the office.
“The health and safety of our employees, customers and suppliers is our utmost priority,” a Gucci spokesperson told BoF. “The company is constantly monitoring the situation in order to quickly react and implement further measures, if needed.”
"We are monitoring the situation closely as it evolves, including assessing daily guidance from local and national authorities, and adjusting workplace [and] work from home, production and travel policies in real time," said PVH Chairman and CEO Emanuel Chirico.
It’s a positive development that brands are taking steps to protect their employees’ health, though avoiding the office won’t guarantee safety, said Eric McNulty, associate director of the National Preparedness Leadership Initiative at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“It’s one thing to say work from home, but what is that person doing? Is that person going to a local coffee shop, to the grocery store, to wherever else, because social spread often happens in places beyond the office,” he said.
But not all experts reckon that such measures are necessary just yet. “I think that’s going a little bit over the top, but any privately owned company can decide to do what it wants,” said Paul Hunter, professor in medicine at the University of East Anglia.
According to Hunter, people should follow the updated government guidelines urging citizens to self-quarantine only if returning from specific high-risk zones, taking into account whether they experience respiratory symptoms. “The crucial thing is [personal] hygiene,” he said.
It’s important that companies coordinate policy with local health officials, McNulty added.
“Where things tend to break down is if you hear one thing from your employer, something else on your local media and something else from your local public health people online,” he said. “If it’s contradictory measures then people say, 'OK I’m just going to do whatever I want to do.'”
Certainly, in today’s tech-driven world, implementing a flexible working contingency plan in the wake of a health crisis is relatively straightforward for many office jobs. Employees can more or less carry on as usual with email, web conferencing and instant-messaging tools.
Employee safety should be the top priority for companies.
But the same can’t be said for other fashion jobs. Pattern cutters and design teams, for example, need to be in the studio interacting with fabrics that will be turned into garments. Photographers can’t shoot models over a videoconference, and makeup artists and hairstylists must be on hand to prep for shoots.
According to photographer Goldie Williams, who is in Paris shooting fashion month content for Vogue Hong Kong, face masks have been handed out at events. However, few people have been wearing them, including show-goers, make-up artists and hairstylists backstage.
"Surprisingly, my team was the only one wearing masks, whether [on the Eurostar] or at the [shows and appointments]," said multi-brand store Machine-A's Senior Buyer Bryant Lee. He found this odd, "as a lot of buyers and press have been coming from Milan."
Gucci said its design offices and other more creatively technical departments have not been subject to any specific briefing as they are not based in Milan. However, the brand is “constantly monitoring the situation in order to quickly react and implement further measures, if needed,” the spokesperson said.
As the virus continues to spread, contingency plans will be tested. “Employee safety should be the top priority for companies,” said Lydia Lee, president of public relations firm Weber Shandwick’s China arm. Lee, who runs four offices across mainland China, is currently mapping out a “recovery plan” as her staff get back into their daily grind.
“Constant, regular, clear, communication is crucial. It’s already very scary having a virus be so unknown — it’s even scarier that people don’t know what the company is doing and what they need to do,” she said.