As China's biggest client, the fashion industry is in panic as the coronavirus threatens shows in its cities
From politics to social justice movements such as #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter and the pro-choice marches, fashion has often used the runway to make a statement, while politicians take to podiums to address a mudslide of world issues.
In 2019, Prabal Gurung gave us a show titled Who Gets to Be an American? at New York Fashion Week, addressing U.S. immigration laws head-on; while the Gucci Cruise 2020 show observed 22 May 1978 - the date on which abortion became legalised in Italy - in a bid to offer solidarity amid abortion bans.
According to WWD, Alessandro Michele expressed how "women should really be respected and considered as much as men, they should have freedom of choice, even to interrupt a pregnancy, which is the most difficult one."
And at the tail-end of the month that created the #AmINext conversation in South Africa, a Free State designer, Hestie Jacobs gave a nod to #AmINext and #EnoughIsEnough when she had models walk down the runway at Free State Fashion Week with placards in their hands.
The point is, fashion has always reacted and made an effort to respond appropriately to some of the social ills of the world. However, the spread of a virus is one literal ill that seems to be out of fashion's delicate hands.
As an industry so dependent on China for production and clients, it's a no-brainer that the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) that spread from Wuhan, China in November 2019, would have an impact on fashion.
New York Fashion Week as well as the London FW events, managed to commence successfully uninterrupted despite the fear of coronavirus. This can be attributed to the fact that, as it currently stands, New York State still has no confirmed cases of the virus, but the governor, Governor Cuomo, has reportedly warned that "no one should be surprised when we have positive cases." New York Times reports that the state has also set aside $40 million to fight the coronavirus.
With regards to London Fashion Week, South China Morning Post revealed that "involvement of Chinese retailers and media was sharply down at LFW due to travel restrictions imposed because of the COVID-19 virus outbreak," adding the largely known fact that "it was a heavy blow for the industry as China is the world’s biggest consumer of luxury fashion goods."
The article also added that "the British Fashion Council deep-cleaned the main London venue, with disinfectant on hand. However, only a few catwalk models wore face masks."
During the latter part of this Fall/Winter fashion season, the remaining fashion capitals' fear of catching this deadly virus have intensified.
As confirmed cases of the coronavirus neared 1 000 in Seoul, South Korea, it was announced that Seoul Fashion Week - scheduled for 17 to 21 March - is cancelled. This is usually a fashion week with street style characterised by trendy masks, which serve the dual function of being style statements as well as protection from dust pollution in the city.
But had Seoul's fashion week resumed this season, these masks would have been an indication of a more grave phenomenon - a pandemic, to be precise - which according to Business of Fashion, reports "the largest number of confirmed cases after mainland China."
"Thirty-six labels were slated to showcase their new collections on the runway next month, according to the Seoul Metropolitan Government."
Additionally, "coronavirus fears have already disrupted fashion week events in Milan, where Giorgio Armani cancelled his show and streamed it digitally. In Bologna, beauty trade show Cosmoprof Worldwide has been postponed until June. A lockdown was imposed on ten North Italian towns on February 23 and over 229 infections and 7 deaths have been reported in the country as of February 25," BoF reported.
Another article published in British Vogue notes that at the time when the mayor of Milan announced that offices and schools would close in response to two deaths from the virus in northern Italy, rumours began to circulate that Linate airport would be shuttered later that evening, heightening the anxieties of the fashion community present in Milan.
The article also anecdotally shares how U.S. fashion editors had opted to hire cars to drive from Milan to Paris rather than risking flights, where the writer also details the visible "signs of unease" at the airport.
This British Vogue article also detailed various reactions to the coronavirus at Paris and Milan Fashion Week as follows:
"At the Lanvin show, held on Wednesday morning, the brand had face masks and hand sanitiser available for guests, as well as backstage for the models and hair and make-up teams," they said.
"It was a similar story later that day, at Dries Van Noten, where suited and booted assistants offered face masks to guests upon arrival, and at Lemaire.
"Marine Serre went so far as to put them on her runway, and by Wednesday evening, people had started to post selfies of masks and glamorous rhinestone earring combinations, while the LVMH Prize had decided to cancel its cocktail event, on Thursday 27 February, and Net-A-Porter had cancelled its karaoke event on Friday 28 February. Meanwhile, Milan has postponed its design fair, Salone del Mobile – due to take place in April – until June."
In the BoF article mentioned earlier, it's also highlighted that "both Shanghai Fashion Week and Beijing’s China Fashion Week, originally scheduled for March 26 and 25 respectively, have been postponed," while Rakuten Fashion Week Tokyo also scheduled for next month is yet to make an official announcement.
With South Africa's AFI Fashion Week coming up on 12 to 14 March, we're optimistic it will be business as usual as no coronavirus cases have been reported locally, although Nigeria announced the first confirmed case in sub-Saharan Africa on Friday.
Perhaps COVID-19 is the unlikely, yet unfortunate 4IR nudge fashion needs to start reconsidering its ailing fashion week model. Armani has already proven that streaming works.