MILAN — “Don’t stand so close to me,” used to croon The Police. How fitting in this day and age.
While the Americas continue to grapple with new COVID-19 outbreaks and new clusters emerge in China and in Germany, Europe is facing its fears of a second wave of the virus in the fall even book profits as cases decline in the continent’s capitals and a newfound degree of ease is cautiously spreading after months of lockdown.
Over the past few days a number of fashion houses have been revealing their plans for presenting future collections, from Dior, which will stage a cruise show in Italy’s Lecce town on July 22 to Burberry, which will stage an outdoor presentation on Sept. 17, and Fendi, which plans to kick off Milan Fashion Week on Sept. 22 with a show at its headquarters in Rome with guests and a digital element. The Dior and Burberry shows will be available online, but staged without guests. Also, stores have reopened for business, with New York City on Monday moving to phase two of the lifting of its lockdown — although the number of customers is limited in retailers around the world, and precautions continue to be taken, including the frequent use of hand sanitizing gels and of masks.
In this scenario, questions linger: How comfortable will people eventually be with attending fashion and trade shows? Will customers continue to prefer online shopping? The common denominator between these questions is fear. Will it go away? And how will it continue to affect the industry?
Milan-based psychologist and psychotherapist Laura Manigrasso identified three categories of respondents to the pandemic and the lockdown. “There are those that just couldn’t wait to get out, as they feel almighty, have little respect for regulations, and live as if nothing happened; there are those that have been so used to being at home and feeling safe that they feel anxious about the end of the lockdown and can’t find their bearings. We call it the hut syndrome; the third group has found a balanced way to live with the virus, follows the rules and has returned to work and to a normal life.”
Asked how she helps her patients overcome the anxiety, she said she suggested baby steps, “to slowly make contact with reality. The fear of contagion is something invisible, an enemy that is outside and people see the outside as a menace.”
“Fear of what is new is a classic, but we cannot do otherwise, but adapt — otherwise we are totally blocked by fear, fear of traveling, fear of crowded places,” said Giovanna Brambilla, partner at Milan-based executive search firm Value Search.
Fear and distance, at least in a first phase, will take over but socializing and sharing — even morsels of front-row gossip — continued Brambilla with a chuckle, are inexorably linked to the fashion business. “As distancing sets in to limit contacts, will the shows be more restricted and even more selective? Will the events be small and itinerant, reaching the journalists locally and not the other way around?”
Paola Cillo, associate professor and vice director, department of management and technology at Bocconi University and coordinator of the luxury business management MBA at SDA Bocconi school of management, said “fashion has always been synonymous with creativity, change and innovation and it would be difficult to imagine fashion not defining the direction of change also in this situation. How? Imagining new ways to live the dream of the new collections, hybridizing on-site solutions with augmented and virtual reality that can favor a unique experience independently from the location.”
Cillo believes “this is an immense opportunity for inclusivity. Once there are no physical spaces and limitations, the experiences can be not only desirable but doable. Shows and luxury events would no longer be distant, exclusive and elitist, but open to populations of fans, making the fashion houses true change motors not only of style but also of real cultural and social movements — restoring the role they had in the past.”
Overcoming physical and social barriers will lead to more inclusivity, she contended. “There were already seeds of this at a social level but the lockdown has accelerated the pace and been fundamental to erase barriers,” Cillo said, pointing to social media as an aggregator, for example.
She observed that several creative talents have already expressed “the need to re-appropriate their own time and to individually define the pace of their creativity. If a creative designer or a fashion company really want to have an impact on the deepest changes in society, is it really possible to force them to create something different every month? And does each of us really need something new with this frequency?”
The use of digital will “bring people to be inevitably less suspicious of what is new, because they have experimented that what is new is often useful and efficient,” Cillo remarked.
Emanuela Mora, professor of sociology of communication at Milan’s Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore and creative director of ModaCult, also remarked on the acceleration of changes in shows and trade shows, which before COVID-19 were increasingly perceived as too expensive and not sustainable.
“The pandemic helped us understand that digital tools have potential. We can be more creative with digital resources, visuals can be very sophisticated, we can set a mood and communicate, so we see the possibility to change the shows’ format. But we need to maintain that energy and effervescence so typical of the shows,” she said.
Reducing trips and costs would free resources to perhaps stage even more events, less crowded and in strategic places, she offered.
“The lockdown triggered a behavioral change, imposed and temporary, but we had no choice, and we all understood that it’s possible to change and quickly and it would be silly not to in the long-term. All that we have learned should not go to waste and this is an opportunity for companies to reorganize.”
Civil lawyer Laura Cereda believes people are adapting to the new normal. “We are comforted by the data [reporting a slowdown in contagions in Italy], we are less afraid of the virus and we are getting used to the protective measures, such as getting our temperature taken.” At the same time, there is another kind of fear: another lockdown. “The lockdown has been so painful –also in terms of the economy — that it has made us more careful.”
In her position, Cereda has seen employers take all possible steps and measures to be able to work. “To preserve the health of employees means preserving the company,” she said. “The decrees were pushed forward very quickly, since they are not new laws, and the regulations to protect employees have been widely adopted. Personally, I have not seen any situation where employees were not protected.”
Cereda said it’s a penal crime if employers do not tick all the boxes and check on the protection of their employees. “The same way that if you are sick and you put others at risk, it’s also a crime.”