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A look at apparel retail in 2021

The Register looks at recent movements in the industry and advice from experts on how clothing retailers can stay relevant. 

It’s a weird and wonderful time for clothing brands amid a global pandemic. For some, business is as usual. Others have pivoted their focus, and many are merely hanging on. 

The power of digital   

The online high street thrives for retailers making the most of the latest in digital marketing and technology. It’s never been more convenient to tap to shop the latest trend on Instagram and have a package arrive the next day. 

Fast fashion always has its moment in the spotlight with micro-seasonal changes, giving social-savvy consumers plenty of inspirational content to consume. If a trend resonates among younger consumers, it can go viral on TikTok, for example, #WalmartJeans and #TwoToned jeans. 

One prominent example of retail success propelled by digital is major Australasian player Hallenstines Glassons. The company attributes its ongoing growth due to investment in “digital, retail innovation and focus on fashionable product”, as stated in its 2019 annual report. Although during this financial period, its brick-and-mortar retail operations were affected by pandemic-related lockdowns in early 2020, the company reported a year-on-year increase in New Zealand sales of 1.86%, and for Australia, 8.03%. 

Chief Executive of Retail NZ, Greg Harford, says “it is absolutely true to say that digital savvy retailers and those most easily able to adapt have been those that have thrived through COVID. Online retailing is here to say and will only continue to grow, and it’s really important for retailers to have resilient supply chains that can be tweaked to meet changing circumstances, as well as being flexible enough to adapt to rapid change in the market.”

Kare Johnstone, partner at restructuring firm McGrathNichol, elaborates on the need for robust supply chains: “notably, there is an enormous supply chain disruption affecting our economy and all of us as consumers, with retailers being unable to fulfil orders in the usual time period because of the backlog of shipments in ports or on the water. This particular problem exemplifies how disruptive it is on businesses and the additional costs that come with this.”

Fashion with a purpose

Sustainable luxury label Maggie Marilyn was propelled to success after Net-A-Porter picked up its first collection in 2016. And the brand’s continued global growth led to a drastic yet purposeful change in late 2020. The brand announced it was turning its back on wholesale in a bold move, adopting a sole direct-to-consumer approach to encourage slow consumerism. The brand also amended its inventory ratios, knowing that it needed scale in a particular direction to influence its textile growers to transition to regenerative fibres. 

Confidence to act with purpose over traditional rules of making profit is echoed by other sustainability industry players, like Allbirds. Having open-sourced various technological advances and putting its competitive nature aside to work with shoe giant Adidas to innovate for the better, it’s a win for both these brands and values-driven consumers. Allbirds has also teamed up with The New Zealand Merino Company, icebreaker and Smartwool, working collectively with 167 sheep growers to create the world’s first regenerative wool platform ZQRX.

Murray Bevan, director of fashion & lifestyle communications agency Showroom 22, says there have been some great stories of resilience and change that should brighten people’s outlook. 

“Brands like Allbirds did incredibly well in 2020 despite having to close most of their stores globally for some period of time, but it was their messaging and trusted brand value that saw them gain ground on competitors. Levi’s was another brand that carried on with intense innovation and adapted to the changing times, especially with their launch of cottonseed hemp products – an entirely new product category and one that ultimately did extremely well (Levi’s also opened a new Sylvia Park store and opened up levis.co.nz).”

Inclusivity and diversity

Younger generations are pushing for better representation from brands from sizing to ethnic diversity. The ethos of the new Me. by Bendon label puts it aptly: gone are the days where a single supermodel represents a brand or a body that we should aspire to be. 

Bevan observes: “we’re seeing the decline of the big global footprint that some big brands were making around the world – the homogenised store design, single-look campaigns that lacked diversity and no localised narrative – and instead the smaller, nimble, highly-tuned brands who know their customers and their local neighbourhoods inside out and can adapt product to seasons, trends and local environments are doing well”. 

A moving landscape

As much as we are celebrating these recent successes, trending on TikTok or collaborating with shoe giants is merely a dream for some brands. 

There have been many movings and closings, including Billabong’s sale of Tigerlily, closer of Target Australia Stores, the appointing of administrators for Fashion BNKR and G-Star Raw’s bankruptcy filing in Australia. 

Not all movements are solely attributed to the global pandemic, but perhaps escalated by the unfortunate events of 2020. In 2019 Stylerunner entered voluntary administration (and subsequently acquired), and Bardot also entering voluntary administration, now reborn as online only. 

Johnstone says: “there have been a large number of retailers that have collapsed globally because of COVID-19, but some for other reasons; we are fully aware of the challenges retailers continually face in respect of e-retailing and changes to consumers’ buying behaviours.”

“At the moment a lot of businesses and individuals have been propped up by the Government’s COVID-19 support packages and New Zealand is effectively operating in its own little bubble. My concern is with the ongoing uncertainty COVID-19 is putting on the world, and global economy, and thus the inevitable impact on New Zealand at some point. I question how sustainable it is to continue to trade in our own little bubble plus how New Zealand can bounce back like we have done previously if we have another lockdown or lockdowns.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom, and Johnstone notes, “businesses should be looking at the wider opportunities COVID-19 may present to them locally and across the waters.”

Bevan gives examples of brands that have successfully pivoted during 2020: “locally, labels like Deadly Ponies, Kathryn Wilson and Kowtow have done very well, nimbly adapting to the circumstances and making swift changes, but overall doing well due to their authenticity, reliability and track record in the industry. Other labels like Maggie Marilyn took the opportunity to assess the vulnerabilities of the wholesale model and focus entirely on DTC (direct to consumer), a decision that may have ruffled the feathers of some wholesalers but ultimately should set Maggie up for years of higher margins and more control. Wynn Hamlyn was another brand that did well with an increased focus on DTC, less international travel and of course he opened his very first store in Commercial Bay – a bold move.”

With the last of the lockdowns behind us, as the COVID-19 vaccine rolls out throughout New Zealand and overseas borders begin to open, a new phase of post-pandemic retail is evolving. While it will look different from before, perhaps it will be even better: digitally-minded, adaptive, inclusive and robust. 

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