…ready, set, go. And being able to still go post-COVID-19 will be, in itself, a victory. Amongst the crescent numbers of damage resulting from the new coronavirus, and beyond any statistics of mortality and infection, are the companies from the Fashion industry, fighting to keep themselves competitive in a time of uncertainty. Starting over, or better yet, reinventing themselves, is one way to go. But overcoming isn't done alone - it's done with the help from peers, but also from the consumer. So Portuguese Fashion can continue to be a hero rather than a zero come 2020 and beyond.
Milan, last February. Milano Fashion Week is happening on and off, under the sign of a virus that's sweeping through Italy and would eventually take a seat front and center on our lives - or we'd take the front row on an unprecedented unfolding of a pandemic that's leaving its mark on every Fashion brand, nationally and internationally speaking. Milan, last February. Milano Fashion Week is happening on and off, with shows that are announced with no audience or not at all. The updates on the state of presentations prepared months in advance and that mean massive investments in fabrics, creativity, human resources, traveling and marketing, changes by the minute, always unveiling a worse news for the designers that are now coming to grips with the reality of their work being called off without any notice. Milan, last February. Milano Fashion Week is hardly happening, not even on and off, as designers disappear from the official calendar, and not only foreign, but ours as well, like Alexandra Moura, which would present her fall/winter 2020 collection in that city and found it being canceled. Over here, the situation repeats itself a couple of weeks later when, in Porto, Portugal Fashion would be constantly updating the event, trying to salvage its due date, though neither restricting the audience or having it behind closed doors with all safety mesures assured would prevent it from being called off on the second day of shows. Luís Onofre was one of the designers who didn't make it to the runway: “Having to stop so abruptly had a negative impact in all areas of the brand. Production wise, orders from clients were cancelled or suspended. Without brick and mortar opened, maintaining production would be risky, considering the unknown of when we'd be open again. Being restricted to online sales (important, but still residual if compared to total sales of previous seasons), communication was increased on digital. But even there, we have a lack of content, as now we can't go about production as usual.", the designer and President of APICCAPS tells Vogue. Luis Buchinho, though able to maintain his show presentation for winter in Modalisboa, which managed to escape the (in)voluntary quarantine, days before, feels the same way: “It actually happened on a time of transition. […] It left us with incomplete sales from one season, also a significant part of the summer 2020 merchandise was not delivered, and it meant closing down my brick and mortar shop. I think that the harsher effects of this pandemic are still coming."
But others are already being felt, as jewelry designer Juliana Bezerra confirms, by attesting to a "drop in sales, as a result of closing the street shop in Lisbon. Production was also affected, because the process became slower, since all workers and brand contributors are in confinement. Some of our suppliers closed theirs doors and others are working only at half speed, which changes drastically the way we were used to coordinating our own work", she tells us, adding that production halt on factories does, indeed, "affect our production, even if done internally, on our atelier. So far, we've managed to go around the problem through stocks and materials, but the new collection production is delayed and collaborations that were thought of and programmed were also on standby." One of the worst consequences of the pandemic, notes Luís Onofre, is its unexpected factor, the fact that "it was so abrupt and meaning daily changes no one has answers for. There's a giant surprise factor implied. There are no tried and tested formulas that can be applied immediately. There was no way to prevent or minimize impact. Closing a company, even in lay-off terms, means considerable losses because expenses are high and there's no profitability. We have a safety margin, but it doesn't last forever". Nuno Baltazar, as the dozen of Portuguese Fashion design names that Vogue interviewed and act as a voice to a hundred times more brands, is in the same boat: “Clearly, the uncertainty of [not knowing] for how long this social distancing will need to take place will be what most affects us. Without the usual festive occasions, demand for design fashion will suffer a huge downfall and for our brand that will definitely be a harsh blow with compromising consequences.", fears the founder of the brand with the same name. "If we consider an optimistic setting", analyses Alfredo Orobio, co-founder of label Awaytomars, “taking the Chinese model as an example, that after three months saw the contamination curb controlled, meaning the reopening of factories and commerce, I believe the impact can be more palpable and easier to manage. On the other hand, if we face this in a long-term setting, like a three to six month perspective, I find it complicated for brands to be able to survive with no cash flow whatsoever." That's because Portuguese design structures live off the profit made season upon season, and halted collections mean an interruption of short term profit, but with much more terrifying losses in mid to long term perspective. With no ability to subsist due to absence of sales and invoice billing, a next collection may not be a reality - or worse, the brand itself can disappear." "My problem", underlines Buchinho, "is that my brand subsists seasonly. I have no venture capital that can hold me for a year if I'm not selling. Either the brand sells seasonly or it ends, it's as simple as that. I don't know if two seasons from now, I'm still selling clothes. The prospect of that not happening is highly likely."
Even if we're able to return to a market with few cuts and bruises, we don't really know if it'll be ready to go back to the shopping habits of before, like designer Hugo Costa says: “What really worries me is the state in which our economy will end up and in what way will that affect consumerism. Buying power in Portugal is already so fragile and a crisis like this one that goes well beyond a financial crisis will result in a number of difficulties. I hope it's an opportunity to awaken customers for the products made in Portugal.” “The most worrying side of this whole situation is the inability to predict the reactivation of businesses", adds Parfois, as retail is also feeling the blow. "We can't predict any exact number, but we have no doubt that traffic in stores will be way less than it was and, as such, we'll be facing an economic recession like we've never seen before, which will affect consumption in general.” Paulo Gonçalves, Marketing & Communications Manager for APICCAPS, can already account for the estimated loss on the shoe industry: “The first impact, and the more immediate one, is a break in consumption, which we estimate to be of 22,5% this year. Meaning, we'll sell less 5.1 hundred million pairs of shoes in total, this year alone. It's truly terrible. There will be, for sure, many companies, specially the small to medium-sized ones, that won't be able to resist this period. Companies with a lot of history, a lot of potential, responsible for many jobs that, for one reason or another, won't make it. And that's a shame. But there's also a message of hope: we have, in our universe, brands that are 70, 80 years old. Brands that managed to survive a World War. They will also be able to go through this terrible phase." Worst-case-scenario visions are widely balanced by streaks of optimism and will to work it out. Whatever happens, no one's going down without a fight, believing that, amidst uncertainty, there's room to expect the best (within the worst): “Before talking about the impact concerning COVID-19, it's important to remind ourselves that the Portuguese jewelry sector was registering one of its finest moments in its history”, points out Nuno Marinho, President for AORP. “As a result of betting strongly in its modernization and internationalization, exports went up from 20 to 100 million euros. Which leads us to conclude two things: that the sector sees its trajectory of growth and aspirations frozen, but that, at least, on the bright side, it has never been so well-prepared to face a crisis as it is now. And I'm basing this optimism in the way companies have been able to capacitate themselves, diversify their businesses and markets and mainly communication channels, finding e-commerce to be a powerful ally to compensate the frailty of traditional commerce." "All indicators that we had led us to believe that 2020 would be a year of affirmation for Portuguese shoes in the markets abroad. Now it's time to rise up and reinvent ourselves", corroborates Paulo Gonçalves.
Reinventing seems to be the operative word to overcome future times. A verb which, more than meaning thinking outside the box, means thinking of ways to adapt oneself to an unforeseen scenario - thus, failing to offer validated solutions. Marinho, from AORP, says that no matter which direction the economic curb will go, "Darwin's evolution theory will be applicable: the survival not of the fittest or smartest, but of those able to adapt. It's undeniable that the world is going to change, because its social impact is huge. The consumer is not only affected financially wise, but mostly at a social and psychological level, changing - in a most significant way - its consumerism pattern, needs, expectations and relationship with brands. Therefore, more than ever, it's not about gaining ground in the face of competition, but gaining ground in the mind, in the heart - i dare say - of our consumer (rational vs emotional relationship)." And that means making the most of an unpredicted situation. "Focus shouldn't be on the problem, but on our flexibility and ability to adapt to change. And companies will be as strong as they are able to adapt and, with that, evolve", he adds. "Creativity was, without a doubt, one of the most developed skills during quarantine times. Brands had time to think, create, experiment, test and generate partnerships. […] There's always something very stimulating during these periods, which is the ability to reinvent oneself." Betting on online outlets and digital versions of stores was heightened by the conjuncture: those who had it, polished it; those who didn't, felt the need to create it quickly. "The strategy we had defined for the brand in the beginning of 2020 is suffering a few changes this month, in order to adjust to this somewhat impromptu situation. For example, we've turned to online much more and I'm working on capsule collections of fabrics for different purposes: interior design, masks, wardrobe...", reveals designer Constança Entrudo, adding that the situation also made her look her work in a different light. Luis Onofre agrees: "Dealing with a problem of this dimension is a challenge in itself and can also be an opportunity to reinvent ourselves. New ideas come up and a greater ability to adapt products and strategies. For me, the key idea is to give more access to the consumer. Be closer to his/her needs."
More than being used to communicate products, digital is being used to communicate, period. Above all, with the customer, confirms Orobio: "the important thing, for brands now, is not to capitalize on the crisis, yet value what the crisis has shown to be important. Relationships between people and communities, the sense of collective and helping one another. Brands that can connect with its client this way will be remembered when the machine starts working again." Hugo Costa corroborates: "People reinvented ways to connect, to communicate with each other. I feel that, though distant, people are closer to one another." Entrudo agrees: “[…] I've been publishing this process [of research during quarantine]. The result has been interesting, because I feel there's been a greater connection between people and the brand and, consequently, sales have been going up. It's just one more sign that Fashion needs time and a profound slow down." She's not the only one feeling it. "It's imperative to increase connection with brand customers", assures Nuno Baltazar. "That will be one of the advantages of living in a small country, of being smaller projects, it's possible to get to know our customers in a more personal way. […] In spite of the time and context differences, historically, post-war periods have always been moments of great effervescence, creativity and transformations in the history of Fashion. […] We're aware that, for a long time, if not permanently, consumer habits will change and, that, will be our way of owning up when facing this challenge", adding that "the development of Fashion design makes much more sense as a slow fashion project."
In this wider talk with different professionals from this area, the subject of rhytms and upcycling as a way of overcoming times to come was a popular and consensual matter. "I think that, more important than the impacts on the brand, which will be clear, we'll need to look at the consequences on the industry, on consumer behavior, on production models, planning, logistics, etc. We're standing before a moment when impact will be so massive that it will stimulate a revolution in the industry as a whole, a revolution already talked about for a very long time, but it was being left on the side because the model we were living with still worked. We wanted a more sustainable industry, but fast-fashion models were still working fine for the consumer. We wanted a mass production industry, but low salaries in developing countries was still suiting brands. For me, this is the biggest challenge and might be the big opportunity for our industry to be reinvented.", advocates Alfredo Orobio. "It was time to rethink some businesses", points out Paulo Gonçalves. "In the end, I believe the greater conclusion is that we'll need to be more inclusive, to promote a fairer, more balanced and free commerce. In the shoemaking sector, over 85% of shoes are produced in one single continent, Asia. One country, China, takes up 65% of the world's manufacturing of shoes. It's not sustainable." The mindset seems to be unanimous. "I think that what needs to happen is that people will have to make do with what they have indoors, meaning both suppliers and clients, and this eventually may mean not producing much or even nothing at all, in times to come.", Luis Buchinho sets the tone. "Making the most of things that were put away, I mean, because they're not exactly garbage, they're just clothes that belonged to a rhytm of collections that maybe now, at least during this phase and for a couple of seasons or more, will have to be done in a completely different way from what we were used to. I think that's going to be the greatest paradigm." Constança Entrudo shares the same idea: "I believe one of the consequences of this whole situation will be the nurture of values revolving around sustainability, and materialistic culture will be even more questioned as will the excess in consumption and irresponsible commercial and production practices. I believe this may be a great opportunity for small brands to assert themselves and for big ones to reinvent themselves." Luis Onofre is on the same page: "We need to be more pragmatic and find a consumption logic that's more essential and sustainable, even within the luxury market. To accentuate the preference for the client's emotion when discovering a collection at the time of purchase. […] In fashion, we live in a hectic madness that's exhausting and needs to be rerouted. Seasons open way too early and demand constant collection renovation and in-between launches. We need to be more precise. […] Wether we want it or not, emotion is slowly lost throughout a six-month period and, at this moment, we need to grab the consumer." Buchinho goes even further: "The world had so, so much offer, that it was underestimating Fashion completely. It became common. And Fashion isn't common. […] Fashion needs to go back to being special, because Fashion stopped being special. And it started being fast, and Fashion doesn't have to be fast. We're not fast.”
They're not ones to throw in the towel, as well. If there's a silver lining in all of this, it's the renewal, establishment or promotion of team spirit, and more: "One of the curious things I was able to witness in the past weeks was the increase on the ability of support and help in between peers. I saw businessmen, once competitors, cooperating in a close and articulated way. This exercise will now have to be perpetuated in time. The Government is trying to be part of the solution. The selection of mesures presented is, generally speaking, quite interesting, even though they won't suffice. According to IMF, this will be the worst recession since the Great Depression, in the 1930s. Consumerism-wise, considering the current situation is not at all sustainable, because it creates unbalances, I believe choices should be more consistent. Supporting local production - and by local I mean Europe - is not only desirable, it's mandatory to contribute to a world that's fairer, more sympathetic and inclusive. May this dark period be a lesson, as well, to raise awareness", wishes APICCAPS's Gonçalves. So... the Government is vital in this recovering phase? There's a generalized yes, but not accepted as a sole responsibility. Helping Portuguese Fashion get through this means of course supporting it like all areas of the economy, but it's not limited to it: it's also fundamental there's a greater consumption from the public, choosing what's made in Portugal, as well as a renewal of a sense of community and a sense of Portuguese Fashion, as a design product and market: "I believe that the State has an essential role in an emergency aid not only for companies, but also citizens. It's imperative that we're able, above all, to maintain the desire and buying power from consumers switched on, so that we can afterwards focus on actions on local and national consumption. Nobody is going to purchase anything if they have no money or if there's fear of an uncertain future. We're talking about emotional consumption articles and we need the State to act in a consistent way so that the emotional side isn't suffering blows for much longer.", states Orobio, adding that "Fashion is certainly an industry of relevance in Portugal, and it's become more and more important for the GDP - what we do need is promotion and fiscal incentives that are more sustainable and less volatile; more than a stamp, we need a […] strategic plan for the industry as a whole that can be implemented in a consistent way and not affected by changes in government parties."
Solution, though, is no resting on the government's shoulders alone: "Union and creation of a collective sense in the Portuguese Fashion world is essential to the recovery of sectors. Moreover, we're more than ever aligned on the strategy and on the message of what is Portuguese production and it's distinctive reputation internationally speaking", assures Marinho, advocating that the "path for Portuguese Fashion as an united sector had already begun and if there's a silver lining on crisis times is it's ability to speed up changes." So, in a word, we'll get through this by being united? "I believe that, from the Associations' side, there's this very clear will and intent of creating synergies in between areas, like a sort of ecosystem in which forces are joined together to generate balance. The thicker and more cohesive it is, the stronger and more immune it'll be.", concludes Nuno. If that happens, it'll ease Gonçalves, from APICCAPS, worries. He feels that "we're [fashion brands], more often than not, mismatched. Of course we all have our worries, our projects, but I truly believe we're missing, essentially, a cooperative spirit much more imprinted. The first steps were taken recently. In my opinion, not enough yet. We've been trying, throughout the years, to promote bigger connection between shoe manufacturing companies and designers, for instance. But it always falls short from expectations. The potential is huge, but for some reason of little relevance, it ends up being underachieved. I can't help but feel a bit frustrated", he sighs. Maybe this is it, the do or die moment, the time to forge that union in the fashion industry, so far, strong in friendship, but poor in helping one another: "It is, without a doubt, a good time to shift the paradigm.", believes Nuno Baltazar. "If it means imagining some sort of stamp for Portuguese Fashion, I'm not sure... but it is certainly the time for collaboration initiatives. In our studio, we're developing a project we call NUNO BALTAZAR Co.LAB*, which intends to push forward several cooperative challenges between different fashion designers which can be peers of mine, illustrators or other artists in multidisciplinary projects. These initiatives' purpose is to value author-owned projects, develop tools of joint communication and sharing. Repositioning Fashion design at the level it belongs to. It's all a matter of scale. If we can't be competitive against international brands, by starting off with a great disadvantage in investment ability-wise, it's the right moment to own up that being smaller can be a distinctive factor, and not a disadvantage one".
Would it be interesting, then, to create some sort of Portuguese Fashion stamp? "We haven't stopped being creative, individualists and egotistical", says Hugo Costa. "I include myself in this description. The perspective of fashion design, being so wrapped up in itself and so individual, means there's some creative distancing. But I would love to collaborate with other Portuguese designers, in a sort of brand DNA crossover. […] I feel it's never too late to defend, altogether, the brands/designers and promote them to the end consumer, that seems to me the best of ways." Paulo Gonçalves agrees: "I find it essential that there's an increase in communications between companies and designers. Designers are naturally creative and able to generate distinctiveness and wealth. Companies hold the capital, dimension and production ability. How wonderful it would be if it were possible for them to achieve some sort of compromise", he wishes. "By principle, I reject this idea of 'aid' to Portuguese brands", confesses Nuno Baltazar. "I think it's a poor and ill-adjusted concept. Unfortunately, we don't have an association of designers that is able to, together with the appropriate organisms, defend measures that allow the survival of the designers' companies. Because we are, mostly, owners or managing partners in micro-companies, like so many others in the country, but with specific characteristics that require adequate measures. We fight alone and isolated for the survival of our brands. We work in the limbo between the economic fabric and the cultural one. Obviously, that non-definition makes designers and their projects much more vulnerable in a moment of crisis. […] Parallel to all of this, and by no means less important, there's an enormous amount of work from each designer towards valuing their projects, be it in the quality and diferentiation of what they present, be it in the way they communicate. If that job is well done and in a network, Portuguese people will understand what a huge asset it is consuming fashion from Portuguese designers. Without being condescendent! They'll value the items for their quality, uniqueness and experience." Because union means also upping the national (and international) audience in what concerns Fashion made in Portugal. "It needs to go through a reeducation in consumption, so people value more national products, and maybe reach out to some sort of cooperation in between national brands and designers, in order to become more dynamic and interesting at the eyes of the general public. We need to understand most people in Portugal knows no more than one or two Portuguese designers/brands. It's a cultural matter.", points out Hugo Costa. "The subject of buying Portuguese articles is one tat should be part of the day to day vocabulary of Portuguese people, by now, except if there's no national items of the sort in the country", corroborates Miguel Vieira. “All my creations have the phrase Fabricado em Portugal, not made in Portugal; ‘fabricado’ - written in Portuguese.”
What's missing, then? "Just the courage to take the first steps. […] Now that we have this push, that might be the fuel for many happy projects, with individual identities, but with this sense of group", encourages Nuno Baltazar. Sense. What makes sense...? Whatever it is, an obvious one would be group sense, indeed. There's no right formula when facing uncertainty of a future filled with unforeseen obstacles, but surely, the right formulas that do exist have never advocated a division of class, let alone rejecting support. Ideally, as Buchinho, Onofre and Hugo Costa say, we'd have a big holding that could bring some sort of safety net to our brands, but, in the absence of it, may that holding's safety net be done partly by the State, supporting this sector as any other; and above all, let it be done by concentrating efforts within designers and raising a bigger awareness of consumption in what Portuguese products are concerned. We already prefer local grocery stores and even ask ourselves why are the oranges from Spain when there are such good ones from the Algarve; we already look at bar codes and symbols painted in red and green with a capital P standing out so we can do our shopping in conscious. We look for local markets and neighborhood stores to support small businesses, but we constantly forget to take notice of our closet. He may not have many room left, but there's still room in our minds to raise awareness on buying Portuguese fashion. Doesn't have to be exclusively, but it does need to be included in our mindset. And in the mindset of international audiences, that can only be reached through internal promotion: sending it abroad from within the borders (of our wardrobe). Above all, because for an economic recovery, it's important not halting consumption: doesn't mean in an uncontrolled way, but a conscious way, nationally-conscious. So that 5-6-0 will forever be ready, set, go, go go, still going strong for Portuguese fashion.
*Bar codes indicating Portuguese products start with the number trio of 560.
Text originally published May 2020, on Vogue Portugal's Happy Together issue.