Le Relais recycling centre in Bordeaux treats 20 metric tons of second-hand clothes per day

Left on the rail

Hannah Betts frets about a fashion industry in pandemic deep freeze


It would be an obscenity to suggest that fashion will be among the biggest casualties of the corona crisis. However, if Extinction Rebellion had wanted to wipe out this planet-imperilling industry, it could hardly have done worse than unleash a pandemic that began by decimating textile production in the Far East, before quashing northern Italy, then shutting down Europe and America’s clothing outlets.

Now, you may not give a flying proverbial about the rag trade in terms of your own togs. Each to his or her own. However, not to care about it in economic terms would be crashingly naïve. As the British Fashion Council’s Caroline Rush reminds us: “The industry supports 890,000 jobs and contributes £32 billion to the British economy, making it almost as big as the financial sector. A significant contraction will have devastating effects on communities in the UK and around the globe.”

As ever, broadsheets are using fashion to sugar the news pill, albeit there is a necessary squeamishness about juxtaposing “it” bags with body bags

The analytics firm Global Data anticipates that clothing and footwear will bear the brunt of retail closures due to Covid-19, with one-fifth of British fashion spend to disappear in 2020, leaving sales down £11.1 billion on 2019. I cannot be the only one to read this and conclude that a fifth sounds massively optimistic.

Daniel Marks, the guru behind leading PR company The Communications Store, is one of many who argue that our eco-awareness will be exacerbated: “This is going to be a much-needed reset for the industry. The customer has been trained into newness. Less than 1 per cent of material used to produce clothing is recycled, meaning a truckful of clothes dumped into land fill every second. There’s been too much product. People are going to be narrowing their focus, looking to trusted sources.”

“So how much fashion is actually happening right now?” I ask Bethan Holt, fashion director for the Telegraph. “Dwell times on websites and social media engagement is very healthy, but uncertainty has seen sales dip,” she tells me. “Even behemoths such as Zara saw a 24 per cent drop in sales in early March, while luxury brands were hit by the lockdowns in China, although some have reported that as soon as restrictions were lifted sales shot back up. There will be a longer-term lag, as so many factories have shut and orders been cancelled. See reports of factory workers in Bangladesh being put out of work.”

As ever, broadsheets are using fashion to sugar the news pill, albeit there is a necessary squeamishness about juxtaposing “it” bags with body bags. As Times fashion director Anna Murphy notes: “If you understand the power of looking good to make you feel good, then — at a time when much in the world is conspiring to make you feel bad — you will embrace fashion’s gamechanger potential. If you think it’s a distraction from what really matters, then you will believe that more than ever. For me — and many readers who have contacted me — that distraction is welcome.”

The Guardian’s associate editor Jess Cartner-Morley observes: “It’s been interesting how much fashion content has been around. There has been a huge appetite for articles about where to buy the best tracksuit, table-top dressing for Zoom meetings, etc.

“There are two reasons for this which go beyond the appetite for practical advice. First, we use clothes to make ourselves feel confident in our environment, and that’s as true of streamlined joggers in which to feel relaxed, but not too inpatient-like, as it is of power dressing.

“And, second, fashion is a way for us to express shared experience. Posting selfies of ourselves in sweatpants is a way to feel we are all in this together.”

Grazia is having a good corona in the way that certain members of the Greatest Generation were said to have had a good war. The publication that gave us “chic-onomics” (cost per wear) during the 2008 recession is championing what one might term “fash-otonin,” a fashion-as-serotonin approach.

The government position is that we should still be shopping online. Does Grazia editor Hattie Brett agree? “This is a hard one. On the one hand there’s the argument that we shouldn’t be exposing warehouse staff and delivery drivers to risk. On the other, we need to keep the economy going for when we come out the other side.

“Before you buy something look into the company’s policies on Covid-19 and what they’re doing to protect their staff, support smaller businesses, and, crucially, ask yourself: ‘Do I really want this?’

“As our columnist Polly Vernon recently wrote: ‘When we dress ourselves, we express ourselves. We establish an intention for ourselves. We create. We remake ourselves. We amuse ourselves. We divert ourselves. We remind ourselves there is more to us, than merely “getting through” the next few days, weeks, months.’ To quote RuPaul: ‘Can I get an Amen?’”

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