From booming business to a world in lockdown

It happened so fast. One day, business was booming: shoppers were browsing in stores, new collections were being planned and the Amsterdam Area’s sustainable fashion sector was growing. But then the coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis changed everything, creating serious challenges for the industry.

Despite it all, there’s reason to have hope. Speaking to industry leaders from around the city region, it’s not hard to find optimism and a belief that things will get better. Companies are adapting, and the hurdles they face are helping to drive innovation and inspiring real change.

Speeding up the dawn of fashion’s digital age

Though the pandemic has been tough for the style sector, it's given the digital fashion scene a serious boost. Already, businesses like The Fabricant, which makes virtual apparel for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, are making waves. Lalaland is also gaining prominence with virtual models that can be customised to reflect a shopper’s size, shape and even skin tone.

Leslie Holden, a former education leader at Amsterdam Fashion Institute, thinks innovations like these are just the start. “The virus has amplified so much,” he says. “There’s been a move towards digitalisation and a lot of talk about it, but there’s been resistance about changing. COVID-19 has really accelerated change though, and it’s happening really fast.”

Amstel canal Edwin van Eis

Though Holden, like everyone, has despaired at the problems the virus has caused, he believes it’s the way it’s forced the industry to reflect and pursue a greener future is definitely for the best. “Fashion needs so much change. We’re now in a different time and if the world can change so much, what else can we change?”

How a loyal customer base can help businesses survive the crisis

The past few months have been particularly trying for brands. Though online sales have been swift for some labels, many are struggling. H&M has seen turnover fall by roughly 50%, UK brand Ted Baker is cutting 500 jobs and consulting firm Bain & Company predicts luxury goods sales will drop 35% this year. To put it simply, times are tough.

For Martin Johnston, the co-founder of Crafted Society, the situation has meant putting plans for new deals and collaborations on hold. At the same time, Johnston says that it’s also helped businesses realise that a commitment to putting ethics and sustainability at the heart of style can have tangible rewards.

Crafted Society sells luxury goods – including bags, shoes and scarves – made by the same craftspeople who turn out products for famous couturiers. Unlike large corporations though, Johnston and his team actively support these artisans and help them to train the next generation of skilled workers. And he hasn’t let the virus compromise his values.

“Luckily, we’re healthy and that’s the most important thing,” he says. “The business has been tremendously hit, though. We produce all of our products in Italy and from the very beginning of the virus, the factories all closed. It’s been a tough time.”

Nevertheless, Johnston has worked hard to help others while keeping his company alive. “We tried to do our part and pay for orders so that when factories did reopen, they had work and some liquidity so they could continue to pay workers. But it’s going to be a very long road back for a lot of those businesses.”

For Johnston, having loyal clientele helped the business survive. “Our customers have stuck with us, even though the store and our factories were closed,” he says. “Even though new products were not ready to ship, they were still pre-ordering and saying ‘if we want to support any business, it’s a business like yours, that’s really built around humane values, supporting people and giving back.’”

Fashion for Good sees hope on the horizon

Like most museums, Amsterdam city centre’s Fashion for Good Experience was hit hard by the outbreak. The interactive fashion museum, which promotes ethics and sustainability while letting visitors explore the stories behind how clothes are made, was closed for many months due to the outbreak.

When the crisis hit, its team moved events, classes and other initiatives online. Its innovation platform – which includes accelerator and scaling programmes that support startups and young companies looking for a foothold in the industry – also went digital.

Despite the problems it has faced, the museum’s marketing and communications director Anne-Ro Klevant Groen believes that the outbreak also provides a valuable opportunity to enact serious change.

“This pandemic can be a turning point for accelerating the building of a circular, resilient, and carbon-neutral economy in the fashion industry and beyond,” she says. “What we have seen with previous crises shows us their potential to accelerate transformations within industries.”

Fashion for Good shop Amsterdam - photo by Presstigieux

Klevant Groen predicts the rise of reworked and seasonless collections, an approach Fashion for Good has been advocating brands to adopt since it was founded in 2017. In this new world, a dress, top or pair of pants left over from an old collection would be taken apart and turned into new pieces.

Consumers can also help – the power to keep the sustainable style sector healthy isn’t the exclusive domain of clothing companies and design schools. “Visit our museum and learn about the history of fashion, sustainable brands and what the future entails,” she says.

“Knowledge is power. Educate yourself, buy less but better, revalue your garments, take good care of them. Talk about your personal fashion journey with friends and help each other where you can.”

Whether it’s shoppers turning out for the brands they love, educators helping students adopt new approaches or museums supporting entrepreneurs, the Amsterdam Area’s sustainable fashion sector is full of resilient, innovative businesses and people. Every day, they are tackling the crisis head-on and making the most of a chance to bring about real change.

Along the way, it seems that they’ve also learned that taking an ethical approach to work can help businesses survive – and perhaps even thrive.

Read more about the fashion sector in Amsterdam.