MILAN, Italy — Alessandro Oteri, a luxury shoe designer based in Milan, does not sit at a computer all day. Instead, he spends hours in press meetings, poring over samples in his Via Monte Napoleone atelier and sometimes even sketching with a pen and paper. He’s often travelling, either to his factory just north of the city in Parabiago or nearly three hours by car to Florence, where his business partner is based.
Right now, however, Oteri, like the rest of Milan’s 1.3 million residents, is stuck. The Italian government has closed shops, bars and restaurants, encouraging people to practise social distancing and work from home in hopes of stopping the further spread of Covid-19, which has infected more than 15,000 people in the country and killed 1,016. On Wednesday, US President Donald Trump banned European travel to the US for non-US citizens for 30 days.
“It’s like being at war, you can’t do anything,” Oteri told BoF. “I have to change everything. In Italy, we are addicted to being outside the house.”
It’s not only Italy — or Oteri. Right now, companies in many countries — including fashion houses, publishers and even some manufacturers — are requiring their employees to self-isolate, meaning they have no other choice than to find new ways to do business.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic takes hold globally, a growing number of offices, including Nike’s London offices and Farfetch’s London headquarters, Condé Nast’s New York offices and Amazon in the Netherlands, have temporarily closed. Some are deep cleaning and plan on inviting employees to return soon. Others have asked employees to work from home for the rest of March.
Fashion and other creative industries are in some ways well-suited for flexible working arrangements. But while technology has made remote contact easier, many aspects of the fashion business are still largely conducted in person. There are exceptions to every rule, but tasks like fitting clothes on a model, draping garments and photoshoots require human contact.
Many in the fashion industry — from manufacturers to creatives — work location-specific jobs, whether that’s in factories or design studios.
As a result, remote working policies and enforced social distancing can hugely impact their ability to carry out daily tasks. Nearly 50 percent of UK businesses are not set up to accommodate remote working, according to recruitment firm Robert Walters. And it’s usually senior staff who are better equipped to do so.
Companies are adapting. One Vogue China stylist, who asked not to be named, said that the magazine is turning to video conference to organise the creative production of upcoming issues.
In this historic situation... the industry is getting used to smart working.
“Key people in Beijing were going into the office — like the art director and the production director — but only the people who needed to go in,” he said. “Everyone else communicated via WeChat and via Zoom for the past month. Every other day we would schedule a Zoom meeting to discuss shoots.”
But even offices that are mostly filled with workers glued to their desks must think differently in the case that everyone must be remote.
“In this historic situation... the industry is getting used to smart working,” said Sara Maino, deputy director of Vogue Italia.
Here’s what industry leaders need to do to ensure that their business remains productive no matter how far apart your team must remain:
Keep Everyone Accountable With a Clear and Easy-to-Implement Policy
The prospect of everyone working from home makes some employers uncomfortable. Sixty percent of employers in the UK worry that their employees may abuse a remote working policy and 41 percent claim it “makes it difficult to track staff performance and productivity,” according to Robert Walters.
However, Claire McCartney, a resource and inclusion adviser at Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development — a UK-based association for HR professionals — advises against trying to monitor staff too closely.
“With remote working, it should be about having trust in your team members,” she said.
As employers or managers, it is essential to be on the same page as employees about what is expected. Establish company-wide guidelines on how to work from home alongside health advice, and use the communication as an opportunity to reiterate existing company policies surrounding working hours, punctuality and use of online messaging systems.
If possible, companies should do a one-day test run where all employees are asked to work from home. This will allow managers and employees alike to identify and iron out any challenges that arise. Among the fashion businesses trialling this approach is luxury online retailer MatchesFashion.
“There’s kind of a silver lining because lots of people are [already] working remotely anyway but more could do so,” McCartney said. “It could give them the confidence to continue to work in this way.”
Companies must be accountable to their employees as well. While it may not be feasible for businesses to survey the home office situation of all employees, employers can reiterate the importance of fundamental standards such as good posture, lighting and taking regular breaks. And accommodations must be made for working parents whose children’s schools have closed.
Establish Virtual Meeting Ground Rules
Slack and Zoom have grown rapidly in the last few years, but many companies may be using virtual meeting apps for the first time. Only 47 percent of UK employers have adopted virtual meeting applications, and even fewer (21 percent) use company-wide messaging apps, according to Robert Walters.
“It’s [about finding] a different way of doing things,” Vogue Italia’s Maino said. “Three designers are showing us collections via video... This is something people didn’t think about doing before.”
Three designers are showing us collections via video... This is something people didn’t think about doing before.
Italian fashion brand Sunnei has invited Milanese artists affected by the city’s lockdown to showcase their work through live performances on the brand’s Instagram channels.
But while the tools may be there, a universal sense of etiquette may not. In such an unprecedented work environment, nothing should be left to common sense. CIPD’s McCartney recommends being clear about which communication channels should be used for which tasks. (For instance, companies could establish that all meetings take place on Zoom, all phone calls on WhatsApp and written contact in Slack.) Staying uniform will reduce chaos.
Make Sure Everyone Has the Right Tools
At clothing brand Tanya Taylor, employees were asked to participate in a tally to clarify what equipment they had available to them at home. This way, the brand could subsidise any technical tools workers needed to do their job remotely.
“It’s really about understanding what tools [workers] use in the office and what we could replicate at home,” Taylor said. For example, the brand delivered dress forms to designers’ houses and set up online meetings to simulate real-life fittings.
Before requiring remote work, companies can have employees fill out a checklist to see what capabilities they have. For instance, someone may need an international phone plan for business calls, or may not have a strong mobile phone signal where they live.
Security is another consideration. Home or public wifi is often not as secure as office connections, said Rob Young, chief executive of UK-based IT support provider Infinity Group. Companies need to invest in multi-factor authentication to ensure employees’ connections are secure wherever they are.
Push Creatives to Use More Tech
Claudia Li, a New York-based designer, decided Thursday that her team of four would begin to work remotely. The team is trying different video meeting services, including FaceTime and Zoom.
It won't be the first time the team works remotely, she said. The team has coordinated via FaceTime to meet a print deadline while Li was away in Paris.
"I would have my iPad and draw on there and make notes, and ... share the screen with them,” Li said. "It's much slower but it works."
Software such as Clo3D, Optitex and Browzwear allow designers to experiment with digital recreations of their clothes. On the manufacturing side, digital software is used to help designers convert their prototypes to show how fabrics might move and how they can be stitched together. The design file can then be sent to the factory.
This is an important enough situation to create a behavioural change in the industry.
“This situation, awful as it is, has been a bit of a shakeup [for the industry] in the sense that it’s forcing brands to reconsider tech,” said Moin Roberts-Islam, technology development manager at Fashion Innovation Agency, a creative consultancy based out of London College of Fashion. “Tech is not nearly as widely used as it should be. This is an important enough situation to create a behavioural change in the industry.”
When It Comes to Location Work, Improvise
While photoshoots are getting cancelled left and right, some will need to go on. Flexibility is key; if a shoot is scheduled for an area with a severe Covid-19 outbreak and government-enforced social distancing, move it to a safer area, even if that means working with a remote team. This is the time to be creative about sample sourcing and overall concepts.
Looking to local talent is top of the list at New York-based brand Zero + Maria Cornejo, whose next e-commerce shoot is scheduled for late March. Although the fashion label ensures shoots are located near their offices, “agencies are making us aware of the girls that are local to New York,” said the brand’s Communication Manager Haley Lim.
“We are really focusing on those models to make sure that if the shoot does happen that [they] would be available … but it’s unchartered territory, definitely,” Lim said.
Sometimes no work is better than putting oneself at risk for a job.
Marina Guidos, a freelance makeup artist based in New York, said she has had a number of cancellations for gigs at beauty events, such as the International Beauty Show that was scheduled to convene this past week.
Guidos said she's laying low and waiting for her regular clients — which include designers shooting lookbooks and photographers hired for headshots — to reach out to her when everything goes back to normal.
"I'm also thinking about my safety," Guidos said.
In the meantime, she added, she's looking to recover some compensation from the cancelled projects. "The bigger companies will definitely compensate, but not so sure about the smaller ones,” she said.
For Li, remote working won't be easy. The group's current project is designing Li's Spring 2021 collection, an undertaking that requires many physical touchpoints: creating mood boards, touching and assessing fabric swatches and sharing illustrations — all the while communicating about each idea.
"It's just going to be so much harder," said Li. "I guess we can bring the whole mood board back [home] or bring whole crates of swatches ... but we have to be safe."
Additional reporting by Cathaleen Chen.
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