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COVID-19 Forces New Solutions, Old Conversations for Apparel

Apparel companies were perhaps barely getting a handle on the marketplace’s more recent shifts. Then came COVID-19.

Now, as the state turns its attention to an eventual gradual reopening of businesses, Orange County’s apparel companies are emerging from more than a month of working from home, store and mall closures and disrupted supply chains, begging the question of what comes next.

For some, the pandemic was an opportunity to produce a new kind of garment—masks and gowns at their production facilities. That’s been the case for Brea-based AST Sportswear Inc., St. John Knits of Irvine and Tustin-based Raj Swim.

St. John’s re-tooling of its factory means it can produce as many as 85,000 masks or 11,000 gowns each week.

For Raj, it turns out making face coverings isn’t just something for the short term.

“Through this exercise, we discovered another viable channel of business for us and have decided to continue manufacturing PPE right here in California, along with our core business of swimwear. Maillots (one-piece swimsuits) and masks,” said Raj Chief Operating Officer Bira Bhathal.

New Models

For others, the pandemic only brought to the forefront old conversations and accelerated the need for solutions around omnichannel and making changes to the traditional fashion calendar.

“We are focused on changing our business model and planning for a different future,” said Richer Poorer Chief Executive and co-founder Iva Pawling. “We firmly believe we will not be going back to what existed before and have to build a new, better omnichannel model.”

The San Juan Capistrano-based contemporary basics brand is working on training workers across departments. Positions that traditionally operated separate from e-commerce are now adding some element of digital to make the team more nimble for times when the business shifts.

The wholesale model will inevitably see changes, too.

“We are reimagining the entire wholesale process—lookbooks, trade shows, ordering and replenishment,” Pawling said. “How do we sell our new collections to wholesalers digitally without losing the in-person experience of touching and feeling product? COVID has expedited our pivot to being a [direct-to-consumer] brand as wholesalers are struggling.”

Multi-brand portfolio owner Z Supply LLC President Mandy Fry noted her company’s direct-to-consumer business has seen an uptick, given online shopping or curbside pickup are largely the only options available currently. Fry said DTC is expected to continue growing in the coming months.

Still, the executive pointed out the balance in growing direct, while still supporting wholesale partners. The company created a site, called B2Z, specifically for retailers to shop currently available and future collections.

Just before the pandemic, the company launched a virtual showroom that proved invaluable over the past several weeks.

“When we were developing B2Z and the virtual showroom, we had no idea how important it was going to be in 2020,” Fry said. “It’s a game changer and has been a key tool in helping us and our retailers continue to do business.”

Seasonal Deliveries

The longer-term impact for the overall industry, Fry suggested, may be a solution to what’s been an ailing model and labored conversation for some time now: deliveries and the calendar on which the industry operates.

“I think this pandemic might be the very thing that finally aligns fashion with seasonal deliveries,” Fry said. “All of us in the fashion industry have been guilty of producing too much, with expansive lines that are delivering to shops and e-comm too early. Spring has been launched during the coldest months, and the industry is launching jackets in the middle of summer. Fashion has become so fast and furious over the last decade, and it’s time we slow things down, become more sustainable and stop over-producing.”

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