Madame Premier, Sophie Grace and local artist Mandy Stobo collaborated to release four limited edition T-shirts featuring artistic portraits of top public health officials Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Eileen de Villa, and Dr. Theresa Tam. PHOTO COURTESY OF MADAME PREMIER

When the world shut down mid-March, it shut down quickly. One day it was business as usual, and then like dominoes, companies closed their doors indefinitely, having employees work from home, or laying them off entirely. The question that seemed to be at the front of everyone’s mind: “When will the world get back to normal?”

The cost of COVID-19

The global fashion industry in particular has taken a large hit. In fact, they were already suffering pre-coronavirus. A McKinsey & Company study revealed that the average market capitalization (the value of a company calculated by multiplying the total number of shares by the present share price) of apparel, fashion, and luxury companies dropped almost 40 per cent between the start of January and March 24 due to disrupted financial markets, upended supply chains, and crushed consumer demand across the global economy. According to a survey published by Optimum, roughly 38 per cent of U.S. adults intend to spend less on fashion and luxury items due to the burdens of the global pandemic. While luxury fashion houses are feeling the squeeze, designers with roots in local communities may be best placed to weather the storm. 

When COVID-19 first hit the industry, Sarah Elder-Chamanara, founder of Calgary-based clothing store Madame Premier, put business on the backburner. 

“Initially my response was I actually decided I wasn’t even going to focus on selling anymore, I decided that all my captions on my Instagram posts would be dedicated to COVID safety tips, because I wanted to remain a presence but I also wanted to be COVID-focused.”

She wanted to give her customers space to deal with the disaster at hand, even if that meant shifting the focus away from her brand. Other large scale retailers had a much different approach. 

Sarah Elder-Chamanara is the founder of Calgary-based Madame Premier. PHOTO COURTESY OF MADAME PREMIER, INSTAGRAM

High fashion, higher prices

It was high-end brand Louis Vuitton who led the pack immediately following the global shutdown. They, along with other brands such as Dior, Gucci, Burberry, Prada and more, repurposed their production facilities to make masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies at the height of the pandemic. These supplies were donated to medical workers on the front line. Following the cancellation of Paris Fashion Week, Louis Vuitton launched a digital showroom that allowed fashion enthusiasts to view and order designs remotely. This was a particularly well-received idea, as the hefty price tag of Fashion Week travel was no longer a hindrance. The idea also received praise for its environmental impact. An Ordre report states that travel to Paris Fashion Week is responsible for 28 per cent of all fashion-related carbon emissions.

Where Louis Vuitton fell short, however, was in regard to their price hike. While the company saw a sales growth of 50 per cent in China in early April, they decided to raise prices in the United States and Europe. They are not the only ones – Chanel has also increased the price of leather goods between five and 17 per cent due to the increased cost of certain raw materials. 

When high-end brands can cost the consumer thousands of dollars, and the COVID-era  market has switched to millennials as primary customers (a quarter of those aged 18 to 34 predicted an increase in their spending on fashion items), it will be the brands who have the highest social media presence and consumer interaction who stand out above the rest. Social media challenges became a trend, starting when French fashion label Jacquemes launched an Instagram campaign where they asked followers to recreate the brands iconic asymmetric heels using household items with the hashtag #JacquemusAtHome. Other brands and designers, such as Alexander Wang and Christopher John Rogers, quickly followed suit with challenges of their own. 

Strong, independent brands

The shift to digital spending will be deeply crucial for big brands, but will it be enough? Even online sales have declined 15 to 25 per cent in China, 5 to 20 per cent across Europe, and 30 to 40 per cent in the United States. Forbes predicts that it will be the independent brands – those who have had to rely on authenticity and sustainability in order to make a name for themselves – that emerge successful, if they continue to play their cards right. 

Madame Premier’s Instagram COVID-19 update, posted on March 16th.

Perhaps this is why Elder-Chamanara’s eventual comeback was so successful.  Madame Premier and another local company, Sophie Grace, collaborated with each other along with local artist Mandy Stobo to release four limited edition T-shirts that feature artistic portraits of top public health officials Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Dr. Bonnie Henry, Dr. Eileen de Villa, and Dr. Theresa Tam. 

The shirts align with Madame Premier’s core values of supporting increased diversity and inclusion of women in politics. 

“We had a tremendous response,” explains Elder-Chamanara. “We did one round and had to cut it off because the responses were so high. At the time it was really overwhelming. I had just lost my childcare, and to take on the project was a lot, but the demand was so intense that we decided to do a second round and cut it off after that. To be honest, I think people might still be ordering them if I hadn’t.” 

Net proceeds of the shirts, which ended up amounting to $27,000, were donated to charities in the doctors’ provinces. 

This isn’t the only case where Hinshaw has emerged as a fashion icon. After Hinshaw appeared on TV in March wearing a charcoal grey, half-sleeve dress patterned with the periodic table of elements, viewers everywhere just had to have one. The dress had been released by British Columbia company Smoking Lily but was taken out of production six months prior. Smoking Lily saw the increased demand as an opportunity to reintroduce the dress and donate 10 per cent of the proceeds to the Mustard Seed Church in Victoria.  

Dr. Deena Hinshaw in her now-infamous Smoking Lily dress. SCREEN CAPTURE FROM MARCH 17th COVID-19 UPDATE COURTESY OF KENDALL BISTRETZAN.

Local businesses with a charitable focus may be more likely to thrive than showy brands going forward. According to consultants at McKinsey, the COVID-19 crisis has left consumers with little interest in flaunting in-your-face bling. Andrea Felsted writes, “What is perceived as unethical behavior — or simply ugly consumerism — could turn off customers, especially younger shoppers who are particularly conscious of brands’ social values.” 

One way to avoid being seen in this light is to donate masks or give a percentage of profits to a good cause, much like Madame Premier, Sophie Grace and Smoking Lily did. 

“If anything, it [COVID-19] has made me more vocal to speak out on issues that are important to me and to people who belong to the Madame Premier community,” says Elder-Chamanara. 

This is why, in light of recent events, Madame Premier has already started their next collaboration with Operation Black Vote Canada, in which the proceeds of two new shirts will be donated to the organization that encourages and helps Black people in Canada run for office. 

The fact is, the modern world has never faced anything like the COVID-19 global pandemic, meaning that while experts can predict the future of the fashion industry, nothing can be certain. Consumers can help by supporting small, local brands. That cute store in your downtown area probably has curbside pickup, and your favourite boutique likely has an online store now. These purchases will not give more money to the rich, but will rather help owners like Elder-Chamanara, who are enacting socially conscious, sustainable, creative ways to stay afloat. There is no better time for consumers to take a hard look at their values and invest in the brands they align with.