When China sneezes, the world catches a cold. So, when China caught the new coronavirus, or COVID-19 virus, there was going to be major economic repercussions. With the world’s second largest economy on virtual lockdown, its effect on both domestic and international sales for fashion companies will be seismic.
While there is no way to predict how long it will take to runs its course, companies have already started to make tentative statements about how it is affecting their bottom line. Those companies heavily reliant on the Chinese market and high spending Chinese tourists will be particularly affected and be crossing their fingers that this is over quickly.
While it is hard to predict the length of the outbreak and its impact, we can look back at the last major virus outbreak, SARS, which originated in China in 2002. It's thought that this strain of the coronavirus usually only found in small mammals mutated, enabling it to infect humans in the same way as COVID-19 has. By the end of the nine-month long SARS outbreak, the virus had spread to several other Asian countries as well as the UK and Canada, killing 775 and infecting more than 8,000 people.
The current stats for COVID-19 are 71,499 confirmed cases and 1,776 deaths, that’s a 1 in 40 death rate compared to over 1 in 10 for SARS. In terms of stats it looks less serious, with many people being carriers and displaying no symptoms. The under reporting of Chinese authorities has been questioned and how they are trying to minimise the severity of the outbreak, but they seem to be taking swift action to prevent contagion.
The world in 2020 is very different from 2002. The Chinese are travelling much more and have become some of the world’s highest spending tourists. In 2005, there were 95,000 Chinese visitors to the UK, in 2018 that number had reached 391,000 and was continuing to grow. Chinese tourists make up the largest share of visitors to the UK (32%) and they have one of the highest average spends of any national group. In 2018, the latest set of statistics, the average spend of a Chinese tourist in the UK amounted to £1,373. They were only surpassed by visitors from Qatar and UAE.
In London’s West End, accounting for a quarter of all non-EU tax-free spend in 2018, on average, Chinese customers spent £1,630 per shopping trip, making them 59% more valuable than other international shoppers.
Hong Kong-based airline, Cathay Pacific, has already cut 90% of its capacity into mainland China and announced that overall capacity would be slashed by 30% as a result of falling demand related to the outbreak. British Airways announced that it would temporarily suspend its flights to mainland China, following the UK Foreign Office’s advice against all but essential travel to the country.
The most visited country in Europe was France with 2.2 million Chinese nationals visiting in 2018. Paris was already having to contend with transport strikes and gilet jaunes protests and now one of its most valuable visitors is staying away. The same could be said about Hong Kong; months of riots now followed by COVID-19 will have taken its toll on this important luxury retail location. The majority of the world’s major cities will be affected by the lack of Chinese tourists.
For British luxury giant, Burberry, Chinese consumers account for 40 per cent of revenues worldwide. Burberry Group plc released a statement at the beginning of February saying, “The outbreak of the coronavirus in Mainland China is having a material negative effect on luxury demand. While we cannot currently predict how long this situation will last, we remain confident in our strategy.” said Marco Gobbetti, Chief Executive Officer.
Currently 24 of Burberry’s 64 stores in Mainland China are closed with remaining stores operating with reduced hours and seeing significant footfall declines. This is impacting retail sales in both Mainland China and Hong Kong “The spending patterns of Chinese customers in Europe and other tourist destinations have been less impacted to date but given widening travel restrictions, we anticipate these to worsen over the coming weeks.” the statement said. Burberry was planning to hold a fashion show in Shanghai in March but that has been put on indefinite hold, while Chanel has cancelled its May Métiers d’Art show scheduled for Beijing.
Estée Lauder gave a recent update to the markets saying it it expects adjusted earnings of $5.60 to $5.70 per share in 2020, down from a previous estimate of $5.85 to $5.93 citing the coronavirus. Fabrizo Freda, Estee Lauder president and chief executive, said: “The global situation will also affect our financial results in the near term, so we are updating our fiscal year outlook. We will be ready to return to our growth momentum as the global coronavirus is resolved.”
Other brands who have focussed on growth in China will feel the effects. Luxury outerwear brand, Moncler, warned that footfall at its stores in China had plunged 80% since the coronavirus outbreak and it earns 43% of its total revenues from Asia. Michael Kors and Versace owner Capri Holdings saying it would take a $100m hit from coronavirus in China, where it was forced to close more than 150 stores.
Right - Off-White - Logo Print Face Mask - £65 from Farfetch
Kering makes 34% of its sales in Asia Pacific, excluding Japan. Kering’s chief executive officer, François-Henri Pinault, said - on the 12th February - the group - Gucci, Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta - had experienced a strong drop in sales over the past 10 days. Many of the group’s stores in China are closed or running reduced hours. The company said it will halt advertising spend and postpone new openings in China in the near-term in a bid to limit the damage caused by the virus. Pinault said that planned product launches might also be reconsidered and is also shifting inventory to other regions to make sure stocks don't pile up in China. Without giving an estimate for any impact from the virus on earnings, he said online shopping was not really making up for the decline in store footfall. "The warehouses are shut. People can place orders but there are no deliveries," he said.
While being strong in China and in the Chinese market has been a boon for many years, this outbreak shows the danger of having all your eggs in the Chinese basket. Once a high growth area, this is a double whammy for brands; you have the domestic market closed and the free spending tourists are no longer shopping.
China’s growth was already slowing, but it was just about to come out of the trade wars with America. Even if this outbreak is over in a relatively short window of time, it’s the momentum it has lost that will take the longest time to get back. Getting those Chinese tourists to rebook their flights and travel plans, brands reworking expansion plans and product and consumers getting that feel good factor to spend will take months to correct. Many brands are downplaying the current impact to protect their share price. Hopefully, the epidemic will be over shortly, but the repercussions of COVID-19 will be felt by the fashion industry well into 2020.
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It was most likely those wrinkly Ugg boots, looking like an oversized Shar-Pei, that garnered Y/Project its recent and biggest amount of attention. The Paris based label, headed by Belgian designer, Glenn Martens, has been lumped in with that Off-White/Balenciaga cool wave of recent years. Martens, 35, has been at Y/Project for the past 5 years, taking over from founder, Yohan Serfaty, when he died in 2013. His first assistant, Martens, was an Interior Architecture graduate and an alumni from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.
Left - Y/Project's signature waders
This season’s guest designer at Florence’s Pitti Uomo, this was the label’s AW19 show of men’s and womenswear, bringing forward their usual date from Paris.
Forget the museum, it was a night at Florence’s famous Santa Maria Novella monastery, next to the central station and known for its smellies. Guests were given torches as they entered the huge, darkened church and we followed the hundreds of mini flashlights into the cloistered quadrant where the catwalk ran around the four sides with the models ending up like chess pieces in the middle.
Divine despite the cold, the columns and erect cypresses were silhouetted onto the shaded honey walls as the models took a turn on what has to be one of the longest catwalks ever. One model was hobbling in her lemon yellow stilettos before she’d reached the fourth side and on into the soil centre.
What we saw was a delight of design. Yes, a designer actually trying to design something and, the majority of times, pulling it off. There’s such a difference between a designer, here, and an editor, the majority of brands, who just reconfigure and fine tune things. The word here was reconstruction. Your eye followed seams and there was an itching want to open it all up and look inside: seeing where things were going to and how they worked. This is the kind of stuff that interests us fashion geeks and isn’t something Zara can easily replicate, and, as such, makes you crave the original.
Right - Y/Project AW19 - First men's bag and shoe collection
This was the debut of the brand’s men’s footwear and bag line, both hand-crafted in Italy.
The signature waders were there, but in rigid, shiny plastic, almost like creased trousers with the shoes attached. There was plenty for the tailoring revivalists. A new tuxedo jacket appeared where the satin label was pulled out to create a 3D effect with the button. This is difficult stuff to get looking right. Fringed scarves resembling Turkish carpets added to accessorises, plus pinstripes and this season’s pattern du jour, tartan.
This was contemporary cool, bit not aching or gimmicky. You could see different age groups in these clothes and wearers enjoying the newness and the details. It felt like the direction we’re headed in. From the deconstructed and harsh reality of recent years, back to a glamour of construction and playing with new ideas while still keeping it real.
This feels like the last of this type of designer we’ll see at Pitti Uomo, as I predict a return to more tailoring and Italian industry brands, but, Martens, lead us into temptation and away from the sportswear grunge to a higher sophistication. Could Martens become the Y/Prophet?
Young men are officially the biggest consumers of footwear in the UK. Move over Carrie Bradshaw, or is that reference way too old when you consider many of these 16-24 year old men weren’t even born when she started shopping for her Manolos.
According to the latest research from Mintel on footwear retailing, 95% of British males aged 16-24 bought shoes last year, making them Britain’s number one footwear buyers.
There’s been a revolution in men buying shoes and while women (86%) are still more likely to purchase footwear than men (78%), females aged 16-24 (10%) are twice as likely to have not purchased footwear in the last year compared to their male counterparts (5%), as the continuation of the casual and ‘athleisure’ trends drive men’s footwear sales.
Male shoe addicts are fast catching up on women. Men’s footwear accounted for 37% of all footwear sales in 2017, up from 34% in 2015. Valued at £4.38 billion in 2017, sales of men’s shoes increased an impressive 31% between 2015 and 2017. In comparison, sales of women’s shoes grew by only 10% over the same period to reach £5.48 billion in 2017.
“Men’s footwear, particularly among younger age groups, is really fuelling growth in the footwear sector.” says Chana Baram, Retail Analyst at Mintel. “In fact, our research shows that men aged 16-24 are more likely to be swayed by big brand names than women of the same age.” says Baram. “With trainers such a popular category for men as a whole, young men in particular are likely to respond positively to advertising campaigns by the big sports brands that feature their favourite male sports personalities.” she says.
This footwear sales growth is being fuelled by trainers, trainers and more trainers. Casual shoes and trainers are now the most popular shoe styles purchased by men.
“These are not just essential buys, but, got-to-have-it buys,” says Richard Wharton, footwear veteran and founder of Office & Offspring. “It’s all about the latest sneaker, there are millions version of that: the luxe trend, the Balenciaga Triple S, Off-White, Converse or Vans or whatever.” says Wharton. “These young guys have never worn formal shoes or been forced into wearing them at school. They buy what they want,” he says.
“Sneaker culture has really grown, from being a niche market to having mass appeal,” says Pamela Dunn, Senior Buyer, Schuh. “The rise of exclusive collabs and hard-to-get releases from brands like Nike/Adidas has fuelled the sneaker market.” she says.
In our age of sportswear and dress-down, our footwear choices have mirrored this and what was once unacceptable in certain social situations has now become mainstream and mass. Comfort is key.
“In modern offices nobody wears any other formal attire anymore so it’s acceptable to wear sneakers,” says Wharton. “Hype’s there. Before you didn’t have trainers for different occasions,” says Wharton. “Where you had that in formal wear, you, now, have that in sneakers: all black sneaker for work, weekend, something casual, or a club, maybe Dior or Louboutin,” he says.
The trainer market has grown to such as size that there is now multiple categories within this market and men are buying a full wardrobe of trainers for every social occasion. Designer brands have piled into this market seeing big margins and huge volumes. But what are these guys buying into?
“Big brands at a more mass market level like Nike/Adidas or more top level brands include Off-White / Gucci / LV etc.” says Dunn.
“It’s so broad. They are buying high-end street couture to basic Vans or Converse,” says Wharton. “Nike rules with guys buy into their new technology. There are huge queues waiting for the next thing and Nike limit it, so they drip feed it in.” he says.
Boys are buying brands and this may go someway to explain the latest movements within the men’s footwear market. Ted Baker recently bought back its shoe license for £21 million. The fashion brand bought ‘No Ordinary Shoes’, the worldwide licensee, from the Pentland Group. “This is an exciting opportunity to drive further growth in our footwear business by leveraging our global footprint and infrastructure, in line with our strategy to further develop Ted Baker as a global lifestyle brand,” said Ted Baker founder Ray Kelvin.
As Pentland lost Ted Baker, it appointed Marc Hare as the new ‘Product Director of the Lacoste Footwear Joint Venture’. He will be leading the new ‘Mainline’ and ‘Future Concepts’ product teams and working with Lacoste JV CEO, Gianni Georgiades, to support the company's vision for the brand. Marc Hare is known for his luxury evening styles and his, now, defunct Mr Hare footwear label. It’ll be interesting to see whether Pentland want to grow Lacoste further out from its sporty origins or use Hare’s skill by giving those sports shoes an elevation to compete within the luxury sneaker market.
What these brands see is growth, but is there further room for expansion or is the market becoming saturated?
“I think males will increasingly buy into footwear in the future, but the market will change,” says Dunn. “I think exclusive products may become less desirable, but brands that are big now will become even more dominant e.g. nike/adidas.” she says.
“It depends when it becomes saturation point,” says Wharton. “So many people want comfort that looks cool and there are multiple sub-genres such as Japanese sneakers, and Palace/Supreme collabs,” he says.
While the sports brands continue to offer newness, limit 'exclusive' product and raid their archives for classic styles, the trainer market seems healthy and will sustain the desire of men to keep adding to their collections. But, this rise of young men becoming the largest consumers of footwear is skewed towards one category and it will be interesting to see how the footwear industry gets this entire generation off their sport wears addiction and into a pair of leather lace-ups.
It’s subjective, I know, but if you’ve bought something from a ‘luxury’ brand, recently, you will probably notice the quality isn’t quite what it once was. On the unstoppable growth trajectory of higher prices and sales, the quality hasn’t stayed consistent: no doubt increasing already inflated margins.
I’m not naive, I understand you pay a premium for a designer name or brand, but there was always a minimum quality to the product, leaving you, the customer, satisfied and at least without the feeling of being ripped off.
I’ll give you an example. I bought one of those new GG buckle Gucci belts online, 18 months ago. I hadn’t felt it, or seen it, I just ordered it online. It was a simple black belt after all. You think you know what will arrive.
What turned up felt like a free pleather school belt. I’m not being facetious, but there was no quality there. When you’re charging £250 and you can’t even offer a decent strip of leather to take the strain of holding your trousers up, there’s clearly something wrong.
Why didn’t I send it back? When it arrived at home, in insolation, seduced by the packaging, and Gucci was so-hot-right-now, you just shrug your shoulders and think, "okay, so it’s not the best, but it’s what I wanted and it’s cool ATM". (Damn you hype!)
It’s when I look back, and think about that belt, I feel, that if I’d handled and seen it in the shop, I probably wouldn’t have bought it in the first place. I would have felt the quality and moved on.
And, so to my theory - the growth of online is allowing mainstream luxury brands to get away with lower quality products. Consumers are more accepting in their own homes, they have nothing to compare it to at the time and the thought and hassle of sending something back is making people keep things they wouldn’t have necessarily bought in a physical store.
“Shopping is very much a human multi-sensory experience so it follows that we want to use as many of our senses. Emotion plays the dominant role in our buying decisions so the in-store experience will always be far superior to the online experience. As Boxpark MD Roger Wade put it ‘Shopping online is like watching fireworks on TV’ says Andrew Busby, Founder & CEO of Retail Reflections.
There’s no doubt online has contributed to the massive growth of these brands, whether on their own websites or third parties. Last year Gucci’s online sales posted triple-digit growth on their branded website and that’s without all the other online retailers. Gucci didn’t hit €6.2 billion turnover in 2017 on physical stores alone.
“This all depends on your definition of ‘Mainstream Luxury’. The word ‘Luxury’ is banded around all too often. True luxury is confined, generally, to bricks and mortar shopping, hence the resistance of major houses to enter the online market. When I consider ‘Luxury’ I think of brands such as LV, Chanel, Loewe etc,” says Darren Skey, Founder/Director of Nieuway Limited, and former Head of Menswear at Harvey Nichols.
“I wouldn’t class brands such as Off White, Amiri, Vetements as ‘Luxury’. What we are seeing is the luxury brands such as Loewe and LV seeing the growth potential of hype products and as such are designing products with this in mind. This leads to more quantity produced and a lower quality, compared to their main ranges, Fashion details are hard to produce on a large scale. Unfortunately, there is no correlation in price reductions, as you would expect with economies of scale,” says Skey.
It’s hard to prove this point, but it’s an interesting factor to think about. Net-a-Porter group recently introduced a new service for their “Extremely Important People”, where the delivery person waits to see whether you want the item or not, after they deliver it. It’s an instant reaction to the item(s) and it would be interesting to know whether this has increased or decreased returns. Obviously, they want the latter.
Quality is subjective and brands vary. But I think we’re seeing an overarching trend towards higher margins and lower quality from brands trying to still offer ‘luxury’ and compete with other brands’ stratospheric growth in turnovers.
There’s also a generational shift to think about. Since 2016, the global luxury market has grown by 5%, with 85% of this growth generated by Millennials according to a report by A LINE, a global branding & design studio. These younger consumers don't have as much experience and product to compare the quality to and brands are taking advantage of this.
“The expectation of the younger consumer is also changing and I think this is an interesting observation. For the younger consumers it is more important to have the latest hype piece regardless of the quality. And, as we know, the majority of the Millennials shop online,” says Skey.
Brands have made it easier to return products, but unless it’s the wrong size or nothing like pictured, I think people are more accepting in terms of quality.
“I don't think that shoppers are unwilling to send things back once purchased online. Fashion is not cheap and I don't believe we are in an economy where this can be an option. I also think retailers are making the process of sending product back easier,” says Skey.
‘I am predicting a backlash to the returns culture we are currently witnessing - both from retailers and environmentalists. The average returned purchase in the UK passes through seven pairs of hands before it is listed for resale. According to Iain Prince, supply chain director at KPMG, "It can cost double the amount for a product to be returned into the supply chain as it does to deliver it”.’ says Busby.
What brands have to remember: when you’re not cool or hot anymore, the thing that will keep consumers returning is quality. This lowering of quality is short-termism and greedy and will ultimately be a big factor is diminishing future sales and brand loyalty.
I’ve also written about brands which offer great value, like Fiorucci. here
Paris is always the most serious of fashion capitals. Never one for irony or a sense of humour, when Paris does something, it does it with a serious face. That aside, thanks to a few international designers, a few glimmers of fun poked through.
Call of the Wild
Safari, wild beasts, dodos?! Which animal would play you in the fashion Jungle Book?
Left - Louis Vuitton, Valentino, Walter van Beirendonck, Louis Vuitton
No need to shrug those shoulders as your neck disappeared seasons ago.
Putting the gay into 'Gay Paris', Joseph has nothing on this technicolour.
Left - Paul Smith, Lanvin, Balmain, Thom Browne
A new way to do prints. Thinking natural dyes and historical influences.
Left - Dries van Noten
Big Trouser Bulge
Pack everything in.
Left - Givenchy
There is something about this wash which is so wrong yet so right at the same time. Think Dynasty/Dallas denim.
Left - Balmain
If life gives you lemons, then wear yellow?!
From Left - Paul Smith, Hermes
From Left - Off White, Haider Ackermann
Those tails are wagging for this new cropped evening style.
Left - Balmain
(See more from Milan - here)