By Amanda Richards
It occurred to me recently that no matter how much you believe in a product — or how hard you try to sell it — there’s no getting around the truth: in the face of a global pandemic, clothing matters less.
Of course, caring about fashion, or buying clothing, or consuming the things you love isn’t wrong. In times of distress, creature comforts, passions, and old routines can make all the difference in overall happiness levels. It’s healthy to find distraction in “superficial” interests, especially when the news is so woeful and bleak.
For a brand, though, it’s a bit more complicated.
When the COVID-19 pandemic took a serious turn and social distancing was mandated, the Universal Standard team had to ask a million different questions. First and foremost: what would become of our hybrid retail-and-community 1:1 spaces? In 2019, we opened five of them, in New York City, Chicago, Houston, Portland, and Seattle. Suddenly, the fruits of our tremendous effort to create a new kind of retail experience for our customers — once a symbol of hope for the future of our company — had to shut their doors for an indefinite amount of time. As the details evolved, the executive team had to make a heartbreaking decision in the short-term to ensure the brand’s future for the long-term. They decided to act quickly and prioritize larger severance packages, rather than choosing a more reactive strategy down the line that could ultimately leave employees with less. Subsequently, most of our retail team was laid off, along with key members of our corporate team.
Needless to say, the situation was traumatic, and none of the remaining employees (myself included) took any comfort in the fact that it was happening all across our industry. It’s depressing, but there are bright spots in this symphony of shit. I’m inspired by how brands and designers are changing to accommodate this new reality. We’ve seen them announce charitable initiatives, build donation structures into their e-comm business, and even overhaul their manufacturing processes to produce high-need items, In Italy, Gucci donated over one million masks and 55,000 pairs of medical overalls to assist in relief efforts. Luxury conglomerate LVMH converted its perfume manufacturing facilities to produce hand sanitizer. Footwear company Allbirds distributed $500,000 in shoes to medical professionals. Universal Standard was also able to donate; we supplied medical workers across the country with free Foundation, distributing over $500,000 worth of inventory and instituting a buy-one-give-one option to our Foundation page to partner with our customers and amplify the effort.
It’s not just large scale charitable initiatives taking our attention, either. I can’t speak for how the day-to-day workings of other brands have shifted, but I’ve seen firsthand how deftly and resourcefully our team worked in the face of sudden change. In March, three days before we were to shoot our spring campaign — and five days before shelter-in-place took effect in New York — everything started to change. One cast member had to cancel after learning that she’d come into contact with someone who’d tested positive. As a team, we realized that there was no way we could bring 15+ people to a closed set without worrying about their safety (even though no one had officially told us to shelter in place). What was supposed to be a two-day shoot with 10 cast members and a produced campaign video turned into a question none of us were quite sure how to answer: what now?
Thankfully, the heart of the project, a children’s book called What Would Fashion Look Like If It Included All Of Us? was near completion by the time the coronavirus reached New York, allowing us to move forward — albeit in a totally new way. Instead of a traditional shoot and campaign, we turned the book into a virtual experience, asking our community to share the book on social media from the comfort of their own homes. In a certain sense, considering everything going on in the world, the resulting effort has been sweeter and reassuring than we ever thought possible.
Considering all of it — the good, the bad, and everything in between — leads me to the most direct question I think a company like ours can ask itself: as we navigate the “new normal,” how do we continue to exist as a fashion brand? How can we stay connected to all of you in a meaningful way?
We don’t have the answers yet. We’re figuring it out as we go. Just like everyone else in our industry, we’re going to make mistakes. The pressure to evolve in a crisis is a challenge we’re up for, but it’s certainly not simple. We can’t make many promises about what the future will hold because honestly, we have no idea.
The most important thing, at least from my perspective, is to be as honest about it as possible. Has the current crisis hit us hard, as a fashion brand? Yes. Do we need to sell you things to survive as a company? Also yes. Are we human beings who want to create good work, engage with our community, and mean something to people? Yes, yes, and resoundingly yes. It’s hard to be conclusive about what “really” matters right now; truthfully, it’s a delicate balance between the personal, the professional, the trivial, and the emotional. One thing we know for sure, though, is that what matters to our community matters to us — now, more than ever.
Until next time.