Fashion Insiders Discuss: How Will Covid-19 Affect The New Zealand Fashion Industry?

By Rosie Herdman
Georgia Hembrow, co-founder of local natural fibre label Wixii. Photo / Supplied

Every year since the Rana Plaza factory disaster in 2013, Fashion Revolution Week has prompted the global fashion industry to evaluate how its sustainable and ethical practices are progressing.

For many (especially on our shores) this is a year-round focus, but for a week in April all brands and consumers are encouraged to think more deeply about where their clothes are coming from.

A local branch of the global movement was appointment at the end of 2019 ahead of this year's Fashion Revolution Week, which took place from April 20 -26.

Fashion Revolution New Zealand is fronted by a new team of national activists, including Kowtow's Gosia Piatek, who support the vision to create a fairer fashion system for all.

While the Covid-19 pandemic hasn’t exactly changed what was already an important conversation around sustainable and ethical fashion, it has brought it into an even more immediate focus.

This includes a necessary appraisal of the local fashion industry, and how New Zealand-born brands, manufactured both here and overseas, can survive in what is now an even tougher landscape.

We asked local designers, retailers and fashion insiders with a sustainable ethos to give us their thoughts in answer to three questions:

1: How do you think the Covid-19 situation has affected, or will affect sustainable and ethical fashion?

2: What do you think needs to be at the forefront of the conversation around local fashion?

3: What does the term 'fashion revolution' mean to you?

Dianne Ludwig – Owner, Welcome Back Slow Fashion

Natalie tapped her friend Louise to model the Mina Yoli top and Selefi dress. Photo / Supplied
Natalie tapped her friend Louise to model the Mina Yoli top and Selefi dress. Photo / Supplied

1: "These businesses tend to be smaller niche players so there are two ways it can go. Their size can make them more nimble and able to get through the downturn, they don't need to sell lots of volume to survive, but we do need more locals shopping with them. If we don't support them a lot won't survive. I'd like to think that with the shock of Covid 19 more people might consider how fragile our local businesses and jobs are. Hopefully, people can support local businesses that are doing the right thing."

2: "We can't compete against cheaper global labels so we need to change track. New Zealand fashion could set itself apart if it fully embraced what slow fashion is all about. Buying less and valuing each piece more. And although initially it may be a struggle to have any fashion business to say they want to sell less, it's the direction we should be moving in. We don't need the current volume of clothes produced, we need our fashion businesses producing less and engaging customers in different ways. Scotties for years have sold recycle alongside their new ranges. Kate Sylvester has done something similar online. Offering mending and repair or classes to teach these skills, remake or custom make, styling services, rental, they are all new or old ways of working that we can revisit. I rescue clothes by mending them, share a lot of mending tips, history of our industry and vintage labels on my Insta feed, and followers value this. Buying more and more stuff is less and less fulfilling, creating a deeper connection to each piece is key."

3: "To me, fashion revolution means rejecting all that fast fashion stands for. Like any revolution change will come from people joining forces, rather than from those at the top. Consumers can vote with their wallets, demanding greater industry transparency and regulation, and by buying less and better, and small firms, and small fashion industries like New Zealand also have a chance to break away and become leaders in the move to more sustainable and ethical fashion."

Kate Megaw – Designer, Penny Sage

Georgia Hembrow of Wixii. Words by her mother and Wixii co-owner Shelley Hembrow. Photo / Supplied
Georgia Hembrow of Wixii. Words by her mother and Wixii co-owner Shelley Hembrow. Photo / Supplied

1: "I think sustainable and ethical fashion is being presented with an invaluable opportunity to slow down, evaluate what's actually working for the planet and evolve into something much more intentional and considered  free of greenwashing and misinformation. We have a chance to do away with fast paced traditional fashion seasons, so that small, independent brands like ours can make smaller collections, less frequently.

Many consumers understandably will no longer be in a financial position to commit to the high price tag that often accompanies sustainable or ethically made products. A positive take away from this is that while consumers will be buying less, hopefully people will more regularly question what goes into making products, and invest in quality products accordingly. As this crisis inevitably takes its toll on the fast fashion market, sustainable and ethical fashion will hopefully have a chance to evolve into something that is accessible to a wider market and become the norm for many more consumers."

2: "This crisis has proven how important it is to be able to rely on our ability to manufacture here in New Zealand. Some questions that we would love to see at the forefront of local fashion conversations are: How do we keep the fashion industry thriving here? How do we take care of the people that manufacture clothing in New Zealand? What are the long term contingency plans to support the fashion industry here?"

3: "It means that we know everyone who makes our garments. We talk to them daily, we know their names and often we also know their families. We know where they work, the hours they work, how much they are paid. This is something we do everyday and it doesn't take a pandemic or fashion revolution week to ask ourselves these questions. We are constantly challenging what we do and asking ourselves; how can we do better."

Lavinia Ilolahia & Talia Soloa  Designers, Layplan

Tuhirangi Blair, founder and designer of Lucky Dip Clothing. Photo / Supplied
Tuhirangi Blair, founder and designer of Lucky Dip Clothing. Photo / Supplied

1: "The pandemic has been a double edged sword. On one side, extremely unfortunate but fourtunately on the other side it has accelerated the direction of fashion toward ethical and sustainable practices. We're seeing change in both leading industry giants as well as consumers. Fashion houses will need to change the way they operate. Seasonless designs, intentional producing (as opposed to mass) and reusing seasonal stock will need to be implemented in order for businesses to stay afloat post Covid-19.

There were plans in the fashion industry to see these practices come to the forefront of fashions agenda. The pandemic has fast-tracked what would have happened further down the road. This means now we have an opportunity to implement, discuss and explore sustainable and ethical fashion.

For most, this lockdown has encouraged us to slow down and re-evaluate what’s really important  humanity. Ethical fashion functions with humanity in mind.

We believe this is where the focus needs to be and will in turn inform consumer buying habits."

2: "We think education needs to be at the forefront of the conversation around local fashion.

We’ve found that price plays a huge role in whether someone chooses to support local fashion. People tend to hesitate supporting local businesses because the price gaps are quite large in comparison to let's say, fast fashion outlets. It’s only when we educate people around the work that goes into making a garment and the people who make the garments that then, there is a change in heart and they become more inclined to support.

With fast fashion taking over it’s become the norm to expect cheap clothes without thought of what happens behind the scenes or the person who makes the garment. This is why transparency is important to Layplan. In our aim to be transparent in our making process, it builds the customer’s trust in knowing what they’ve invested into.

It’s a privilege to be able to make in New Zealand but it is also not the most practical way of growing a business from ground up  we choose this route as it aligns with our core values of being conscious, transparent and local. So in saying that, it can be disheartening when the price of a garment becomes a barrier to supporting local."

3: "Change is coming  soon."

Helen Young-Loveridge  Owner, Waves Vintage

Viva's Dan Ahwa pictured with designer Liz Mitchell, wearing a custom shirt they worked on together made of African cotton and coconut buttons. Photo / Supplied
Viva's Dan Ahwa pictured with designer Liz Mitchell, wearing a custom shirt they worked on together made of African cotton and coconut buttons. Photo / Supplied

1: "I think Covid-19 has highlighted the need, urgency and viability for sweeping industry change. When else has a full 'reset' felt like a genuine possibility? The worldwide abrupt slowing of production and consumption has highlighted the ecological impact it has been having on the earth, amplified our concerns for the vulnerability of many offshore workers making our clothing and textiles, and reminded us of the tonnes of avoidable waste generated by the fashion industry in the name of constant growth.

Awareness is key, and makes it far harder to turn a blind eye to the responsibilities we have as business owners and as consumers to demand change and actively choose a sustainable future. Locally, I think our community is really switched on in this department already, thanks to brands making it a guiding tenet of their practice. I think we'll be seeing even more support for these brands and stores making sustainability and ethical manufacturing a non-negotiable part of their business model.  Customers will have an even greater idea of the power of their dollar. And the inevitable recession coming will mean that everyone will have to think wisely about where they are spending their money. Surely we will want to support brands and businesses making positive change.

The change in the fashion calendar all over the world, and how it pertains locally will be interesting to watch unfold. It needs so much more discussion. The idea of past-season items somehow becoming 'expired' has always been a bit bananas to me, and the pressure to keep up with all the seasons and sale times internationally, it's been long overdue for a reboot."

2: "We should always be looking at how to make the fashion industry more circular. Reusing and repairing need to be at the forefront of the conversation. Offering repairs and alterations as part of the Waves service is something we do on a small scale, but I'd love to have that be a larger part of what we do. Patagonia's "worn-wear" initiative is super inspiring. It's difficult but possible to take responsibility for the entire life cycle of your products.

Production-wise, working with more sustainable, compostable textiles (hemp!), and expanding local production. I love what Rachel Mills is doing with The Pattern Table.  It's very cool to see a new generation really taking the reigns in that department.

And of course, throwing support behind local business!  Arts and culture are more important than ever. Fantasy and escapism too. We've seen what we can achieve as a team on three small islands, it's evident that unity will get us places."

3: "Fashion has always been part of revolution. It's part of everyone's lives. Everyone wakes up and puts on clothes, which they purchased or own for a multitude of reasons. It can be everyday conformity, protest, progress, and joy.  It's one of the most wasteful and polluting industries in the world. Which makes it one of the most important industries to put on a track towards a better future. It's an exciting time to be contributing."

Dan Ahwa  Creative and fashion director, Viva

From left: Lavinia wears the puffa raglan top & Talia wears the Lucia dress, made to order from Layplan. Photos / Supplied
From left: Lavinia wears the puffa raglan top & Talia wears the Lucia dress, made to order from Layplan. Photos / Supplied

1: "The pandemic has affected fashion in general as businesses figure out how to work differently, so the day-to-day will change. Seeing how our global lockdown has made some positive impact on the environment, gives us the chance to really think about what fashion is putting out there into the world and maybe slow down unnecessary production and ensure we stick to our goals and what we can continue to do to reduce carbon emissions. In terms of ethical fashion, the effect Covid-19 has had on workers is significant, and will take time to rebuild. I hope brands that outsource its manufacturing really commit to looking after its workers and ensure they commit to orders and pay people fairly."

2: "I'm proud of New Zealanders and brands because for many of us, we've been at the forefront globally for changing the way people think about and consume fashion. It's great to see a more localised team in NZ dedicated to connecting those global conversations with our local market. What I would like to see now is more menswear brands in particular stepping up to the conversations around sustainable fashion. Sustainability should not fall on the shoulders of womenswear designers and right now, it feels like they're the ones who are really charging forward."

3: "Fashion Revolution to me means cause for active change. There's no point being passive in this conversation and turning a blind eye to bad practices whether it's related to workers' rights or the environment."

Natalie Procter  Designer, Mina

The hands of Standard Issue head of design Zsoka Majzik at work. Photo / Supplied
The hands of Standard Issue head of design Zsoka Majzik at work. Photo / Supplied

1: "A sense of community, kindness and respect I think will come from this experience. 'Locals supporting locals'. There is talk of our borders staying shut for a while and this will mean there is the potential for us to really strengthen our local economy and within fashion specifically, brands may consider moving their production onshore.

We will hopefully see a strong return to face to face relationships with people. Communication and support and an appreciation and keenness for the story behind a product, whether it be food, skincare or fashion."

2: "Something we believe should be part of the conversation right now is how we can efficiently move forward as designers and support our retailers in a post Covid-19 environment. I think now more than ever we need to come together and agree on production and launch timings.

Essentially, the reason we may be able to push back this calendar is by matter of survival. Most designers were selling their next season range spring/summer 2021 in March to wholesalers. When Covid-19 loomed in, many designers were waiting on wholesale orders to be placed but due to uncertainty, very few retailers felt confident enough to place at all. This means our minimums for production weren’t met, and now we cannot go forward and produce the next collection.

We have an opportunity now to recalibrate the calendar.

What I hope to happen is that fellow designers and brands will hold out and revisit the process once we are out of lockdown and the economy begins to settle. Reaching out to retailers post-lockdown and giving them the confidence to place orders means that we may be able to go into production, even if summer arrives in store 2 months delayed. If that’s the case, it actually means we are more in-line with the actual seasons

Dropping later gives our retailers more time to sell, make more money and drop seasons at a more appropriate time of year.

If we can all agree to come together to delay products for the benefit of our businesses and our retailers to give them time to get back into post-lockdown swing, push out the season two months and all drop in October, it’s a win for all and will strengthen our local fashion community."

3: "Being part of an industry that has integrity and functions in a wholesome manner that is not at the expense of any individual or the planet."

Rosie Herdman  Assistant fashion editor, Viva

Rosie Herdman wears a Karen Walker organic cotton top. Photo / Supplied
Rosie Herdman wears a Karen Walker organic cotton top. Photo / Supplied

1: "It's put a lot of pressure on the industry as a whole, and as sustainable and ethical fashion can often be more costly to produce, I hope that it won't badly affect too many conscious brands as this ethos becomes more necessary than ever. As others have said, I think it will highlight who's actually doing a good job and who's just greenwashing because it's trendy. And I think we'll see more collaboration than ever as the people running these brands come together to share knowledge, resources, contacts and ideas in an effort to keep a foothold in the industry."

2: "A big conversation I'm hearing at the moment is around the wholesale versus direct to consumer retail models. Some of our locally created, designed and made brands rely heavily on wholesale accounts for sales and income, but the entire wholesale system has now been severely disrupted and may never look the same again. How can these brands pivot to stay afloat when they're having to deal with cancelled and delayed orders from their international stockists? How can they be supported locally to deal with the fall-out from this?

It is important that our local manufacturing and production industry receives urgent attention. I believe circular practices are the future of fashion, not just sustainable fashion, and for this to be a feasible reality in New Zealand we need the technology and education to explore it."

3: "It means not making decisions based on convenience. If you are financially able to, it means supporting businesses that prioritise fair and sustainable practices so they can in turn affect change in the industry that they're a part of. It means realising the power you have when you make a purchase  it's not just about the garment. By buying something from a brand or a store, you are endorsing an entire chain of decisions and actions that went into creating it, positive or negative."

Shelley & Georgia Hembrow  Designers, Wixii

Dianne wears a 1970s made in NZ Bendon maxi-dress from the Welcome Back Slow Fashion online store. Photo / Supplied
Dianne wears a 1970s made in NZ Bendon maxi-dress from the Welcome Back Slow Fashion online store. Photo / Supplied

1: "There are reports of major fashion brands cancelling orders without payment and in some cases leaving suppliers unable to pay farmers and workers. Greed is unsustainable in any industry. Covid-19 has heightened awareness of systems that are not working, many of us have had time to consider the precarious balance of nature and make better choices for a slower fashion future that harms less. I'm not a big fan of the term sustainable fashion as I'm not really sure what it means anymore. Rather than sustaining systems, it might be time to be giving back, more regenerative design and thinking will create good things."

2: "Getting investment back into NZ natural fibre/fabrics and garment manufacture so we have regenerative industry for the future. It is amazing to see innovative women like Rachel Mills developing The Pattern Table here in New Zealand."

3: "The Fashion Revolution brand comes to mind first and the individuals behind the movement like Carry Somers, the founder, or Celine Semaan from the The Slow Factory  these women have created the dialogue that inspires change. When we first started our brand the tag #sustainablefashion had a few thousand posts on Instagram, now it has over six million. When sustainability becomes second nature and not just a tagline, then the world will be cool again."

Tuhirangi Blair  Designer, Lucky Dip Clothing

Kate wears the Wiebke skivvy from Penny Sage. Photo / Supplied
Kate wears the Wiebke skivvy from Penny Sage. Photo / Supplied

1: "I think there will be less emphasis on seasonal collections and more time allowed for ideas to become fully formed."

2: "I think the situation has created an opportunity for brands to galvanise its community. An opportunity for people to better understand the impact of a purchase and alter their behaviour from conspicuous consumerism to a stance of support, in the hope that the brand stays afloat."

3: "Moving away from the 'take-make-waste' model and adopting a more circular and thoughtful approach to all aspects of the business."

Zsoka Majzik  Head of design, Standard Issue

Helen Young-Loveridge of Auckland vintage store Waves. Photo / Supplied
Helen Young-Loveridge of Auckland vintage store Waves. Photo / Supplied

1: "I think now more than ever, it's time to reflect on the state of the industry as it currently is, and take ownership for what each of us can do to make the necessary changes for a better future. This crisis has provided us with the opportunity of a blank page, the ability to reflect and move forward with purpose. I think the best way for countries to proceed, is to first look internally and focus their energy on creating the best environment they can for their people, for their environment. Whilst placing a huge emphasis on ourselves, we can still look globally for learning's that enable better solutions locally.

It’s the perfect time to focus on New Zealand made. From our land to our craftspeople, we have an amazing collective of skilled workers here who are able to pass on their skills to the next generation. I feel this time has provided greater awareness of our own footprint and the flow on effect our choices have. Now more than ever, our choice to buy local can change the outlook for our country. Many New Zealand businesses are formed with our classic spirit of ingenuity at heart, alongside a strong desire to make a difference and do something better. Naturally, supporting these businesses supports our local economy and a more sustainable future."

2: "Connection and community  recognising the wonderful makers we have right here in New Zealand, ensuring their skills are handed down to the next generation and not lost. Industry and communities working together to support one another.

Our land for future generations  celebrating and supporting brands and businesses that are truly striving to leave our beautiful home better for future generations."

3: "The fashion revolution means living your life in a way that delivers a better environment for those around us.  It encourages us to never stop learning and educating people about why we do things the way we do. It reminds us to ask how we are making sure we're doing this the best way we can."

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