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Unprecedented Times…But a Repeat of History for Fashion

This week an individual involved in the NHS contacted the BBC to be put in touch with British brands Burberry and Barbour in a desperate move to solve the dire shortage of medical gear across hospitals. This not only revealed the extent of the crisis in Britain, and throughout the rest of the world, since the outbreak of Coronavirus but also the realisation of the potential for the fashion industry to be part of the solution. In the midst of the global pandemic which has brought entire nations into lockdown, there have been many stories emerging of the actions of both businesses and populations offering a glimmer of hope. Fashion for one has proved its commitment to the battle against the virus with a number of luxury conglomerates and designer labels, as well as smaller brands, hitting the headlines for their contributions. Although the pandemic itself is referred to as unprecedented, the support of the fashion industry in extreme social and economic hardship is not novel. Parallels have frequently been drawn between the fight against Coronavirus and the fight on the front-line during both World Wars, and in turn similarities have been noted between the actions of the fashion industry in the 1940's and now.

The major efforts by fashion brands across Europe have taken the form of sizeable financial donations or the repurposing of factories to manufacture protective clothing and medical equipment. In Italy it has been reported that Versace, Giorgo Armani and the Kering Group have contributed significant financial aid to major hospitals throughout the country, and alongside others including Prada have altered supply chains to provide essential protective clothing. Similarly in France, LVMH has rallied efforts across its factories to produce hand-sanitiser, in place of its usual Dior perfumes or Givenchy cosmetics, to be delivered free of charge. Earlier this week in Britain, heritage brand Barbour began distributing medical gowns and it is expected that Burberry will begin to do so imminently, whilst other brands like Jimmy Choo have offered generous donations to the NHS. Individual brands have also received praise for various initiatives across social channels which have focused on mental and physical well-being, ranging from yoga classes with Karl Lagerfeld to sketch competitions with Alexander McQueen, in a praise-worthy effort to uphold morale and boost creativity. As part of this we have also seen a breaking down of the barriers of exclusivity within the world of fashion, with brands like Balmain treating fans to a rare peek into private archives or unseen footage to keep audiences connected and inspired.

This is not the first time that the fashion industry has offered support during a national crisis, or been severely affect by it. Both World Wars had mixed effects on fashion and its customers alike. Clothes rationing was enforced from the summer of 1941, and the British government introduced universal restrictions on materials and labour. Whilst is some ways this constrained the freedom of clothing design, the challenge also brought the opportunity for great innovation. A number of couturiers became enlisted in the designing of government regulated clothing to increase its desirability and to ensure it was celebrated in the press for this reason. The Daily Mail declared triumphantly that 'suburban wives and factory girls will soon be able to wear clothes designed and styled by the Queen's dressmaker'. For the working-classes being able to afford garments associated with these designers, something which would have been entirely unattainable under normal circumstances, offered a little happiness amidst the austerity and alluded to a dissolution of social barriers in favour of unity. It wasn’t only at home that the influence of fashion was felt. During the First World War, Burberry supplied roughly half a million of their trenchcoats for soldiers as the light yet durable coats proved much better suited than traditional garments. This acclaimed heritage of British labels like Burberry, Aquascutum and Barbour – all of whom contributed to the war effort- has subsequently become a key part of their branding.

So why does the fashion industry get involved in these global events, and what can it bring to the table? On a pragmatic level, there would be no logic in running production lines for fashion purposes, since this would only contribute to an already mounting backlog of unsold stock, and repurposing this infrastructure may mitigate the disastrous impact on fashion sales. Furthermore, marketers have widely claimed that traditional branding and advertising could be deemed insensitive at present, whilst also warning against going silent on audiences. Hitting national headlines for these great contributions is therefore a way to colour favour with the public. However, it is clear these efforts are more than a PR stunt. Although brands receive positive publicity and public space for brand-building efforts whilst stores remain shut, many decision-makers have spoken in ways which reveal a sense of personal duty to both their employees and for the countries they call home. In these incidences, looking good and doing good are one and the same. It is clear from history that in moments of crisis the creative industries offer not only physical resource in the products they manufacture, but also entertainment and enjoyment that transcends social barriers. In a society that often overlooks the arts this may be a lesson to remember.

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