Updated: Sep 28, 2020
Over the past two months, we have been witnessing increasing attention on supporting small businesses, if not maintaining their survival, during the current lockdown.
Be it using the newly added 'support small business' sticker on Instagram to give a shoutout to their favorite brands, or be it engaging in the countless live streams (and karaokes) between small business owners and fellow enthusiasts on the same platform, members of the classic menswear community have proven to be very supportive towards one another during these turbulent times.
Hence, similar to some arguments that have been previously made, I'm inclined to believe that our beloved brands will turn out alright ― not only because their pre-existing groundwork on social and environmental sustainability has made them more resilient, but more importantly, we care about what the community is about and manifest. All of this would still hold true even as we exit the situation eventually.
This brings us to the purpose of this article. There are three points I want to address today. Firstly, how has the industry been coping with this 'new' reality. Secondly, why is it pivotal that the industry has been sustainable. And finally, why does it matter so much that we value these things.
Let's start with the first point. For those of you who are not in the know, the tailoring, textile, and the rest of classic menswear industry have been weathering just like you would expect them to be, considering they are far from offering 'essential' services, as most would agree.
Trunk shows have been postponed or canceled, workshops and mills have been shut down (though recently started to reopen in parts of the world, especially in Italy), staffs have been furloughed, and sales have all gone down, only to be subsidized by the limited amount of online transactions or (Zoom) conference calls that could take place over the screen. (More on the statistics, here.)
Nonetheless, it is not all sad and gloomy, considering the industry has been adapting quite swiftly to the current circumstances.
Brands like The Anthology, Turnbull & Asser, and Thom Sweeney, for example, have been hosting some form of charity campaigns that donate all their profits (from a certain product or period) to key health-related organizations or funds. Some Italian tailors, such as Saint Gregory Naples, have also been on the frontline advocating donations to be made for a hospital that was on the verge of collapsing.
Elsewhere, some tailor houses, large or small, have converted into home-based operations where their cutters, tailors, and others would continue the making of garments for existing clients where possible. Tailors such as Prologue, on the other hand, have started offering more MTO garments, like their signature ghurka shorts.
In the same vein, Edward Sexton and Luca Avitabile, for example, are perhaps the few brands that first launched video consultation processes that allow their clients to select cloth over the call so that commissions could still be made.
It is not the most ideal option I have to admit. The client would not be able to touch and see the cloth in person unless swatches are being sent as well. Worse, if the client is looking for the 'luxury' experience that has historically been associated with bespoke, that is similarly unlikely to happen.
That being said, we have to make do of what we can. Plus and on a separate note, it also shines a light on what is possible for the industry if we were to transition into a lower-carbon scenario that requires less frequent traveling.
Perhaps the most impressive and inspiring, however, are firms in different forms and sizes all converting into producing health-related products.
Dobrik & Lawton, Huntsman, Cad & The Dandy, and Drake's, for example, are some of the firms that are now helping NHS by working alongside charity organizations like Scrub Hub to provide scrubs for essential health workers.
Meanwhile, brands such as Spacca-Neapolis and Informale have now started selling cloth masks to the public, with the latter using leftover fabrics that were used in some of their previous productions. In a way, what is truly admirable about the latter is that they are helping to combat Covid-19 while being eco-friendly by reducing wastage.
All in all, it is certainly uplifting to see the industry to be faring just fine even during such troublesome times; which brings us to the question of why the principles that they are running on ― being socially and environmentally sustainable ― is important in the first place.
To examine this, we must first turn our attention to the fast fashion industry.
From the early days of the lockdown, we started seeing how various fast fashion companies, despite being more transparent in recent years, have been responding to the situation in quite a questionable, let alone ethical, manner.
I am sure at this point you may have heard of how several brands have failed to honor their previous agreements with suppliers, leading to countless Bangladeshi, Cambodian, and Indian workers and their families being put in a vulnerable position.
What's worth highlighting, however, is that even when commitments are upheld by these retailers, it does not guarantee payments would be made ― suppliers are not usually paid until the garments are delivered. Hence, one way or another, this still perpetuates the cycle that suppliers are easily intimated by retailers when things go south.
Needless to say, with the stark power imbalance between the retailers and the suppliers, as well as the absurdity in the sheer volume of mass-produced goods that would turn into textile waste, there is quite a big gap between where we are now and the socially and environmentally sustainable reality we strive to reach.
All things considered, however, this virus outbreak certainly exposed the weak spot of the fast fashion retail model, one that is surely one not resilient and one that cannot last forever.
Rightfully, this is not the case in the classic menswear realm. While I can't speak for every single brand out there, it is easy to pinpoint multiple reasons on just why they could be more adaptive and performing more sustainably.
First and foremost, many of the brands that we shop from tend to offer only a small and careful selection of garments and accessories at a time, if not run on a made-to-order basis. OK, the logic behind this is straightforward ― with less pre-existing stock, the retailer is less prone to accumulate large quantities of unsold goods that would turn into textile-waste at the end of the season. Realistically, this also leaves fewer problems for brand owners to stress about.
Secondly, quite a few of the smaller independent brands, especially those that operate online, just don't do seasons. In fact, they offer the same goods all year round. That means worst-case scenario, they could always sell their product at a later time. Natalino and J.Girdwood, among many, are some names that ring the bell when it comes to offering a concise and timeless ready-to-wear collection.
Finally and this is quite the opposite of the case of fast fashion, classic menswear brands tend to have a much better and sustained relationship with their suppliers. This is pivotal. Way beyond just being socially responsible, brand owners, cloth merchants, and artisans/ manufacturers in the industry tend to have a close bond with each other. And fundamentally, they don't just abandon each other when sales go down.
Even in the most practical terms, you want to keep each other's business running because you cannot solely survive on your own. From an economist's perspective, this is a positive-sum game and not a zero-sum game.
All of this leads to my final point. The classic menswear industry, the trade, will turn out just fine. The truth is, these small independent brands that we shop from ― they are not just somewhere we buy our clothes and then move on.
We pop by their shop just to relax and have a chat without feeling the pressure that we need to buy or commission anything. We catch-up and ask how they and their families are doing because we connect on a personal level. And most importantly, we don't want to see their business go under because of what they represent matters to us.
More than just the great designs and craftsmanship that our beloved brands and artisans are offering, what they embody is a simple human interaction that is so fundamental to who we are, yet appears to be all lost in the society we are living in. It is the old way of living that they manifest, one that is more humanistic and one that treats each other more respectfully, that seduces all of us to become a part of the menswear community in the first place.
This is precisely the reason why we should support small businesses, not just in times of the lockdown, but also when we transition into the new normal.
One final word ― it always intrigues me how small businesses have always been the backbone inspiration for larger retailers, especially with their designs. Perhaps, and just perhaps, this time these bigger brands could learn a lesson from small businesses to become more sustainable too.
1) Fashion Revolution "The impact of COVID-19 on the people who make our clothes"
2) Oliver Dirksen "Small is Beautiful - The Power of Small Business"
3) British Retail Consortium "Resilience and Recovery of the Retail Industry"
Photography: as credited, otherwise own