Why the new normal could be good news for retail industry

I love fashion, but don’t love what it had become before lockdown happened

 body temperature check milan
A security officer checking the body temperature of a customer in Milan Credit: MATTEO BAZZI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

I just heard on the news that clothes shops are going to open in mid June. While this is a welcome sign that things are slowly getting back to normal, in truth I am not exactly sure how I feel about this news. I have now spent nearly three months not buying anything, and, if I am honest, not really feeling the desire to either.

The retail industry has been one of the hardest hit by the virus, and let’s be honest, it wasn’t doing too well prior to it. Many brands have closed their doors for the final time during lockdown – Laura Ashley, Oasis, Warehouse and Debenhams to name a few, but others will be suffering badly at the loss of foot traffic through their expensive high street stores.

I’ve been in the fashion business for more than 20 years – formerly working as a brand director for Topshop and chief executive of Whistles, and I’ve never seen as much change as I have in the past three months.

But while we are emerging blinking into a brave new world and working out ways to adapt to this new normal of one-way systems and checkouts behind screens, I can also spot some exciting things happening amid the chaos.

Shopping in Milan has entered phase 2 Credit: IPA Milestone

Perhaps this is a time to reset our relationship with fashion? Maybe rampant consumerism and throwaway fashion is a thing of the past? Something that was maybe never normal when you really think about it. Perhaps we will realise that having not bought anything except food for three months, we don’t actually need the shopping high street any more. The latest It item doesn’t prop up our self-esteem any longer, especially now that food is now the new black.

Before lockdown, the fashion industry had become way too fast. We were producing clothes on an unprecedented scale, and almost 70 per cent of those produced ended up in landfill soon after. We were attaching less and less value to clothes. The past few months, if nothing else, have given us all an opportunity to consider the way we live, and the way we shop and consume. The glorious spring weather has made us aware of the beauty of our planet, and what we were doing to it through our choices.

Online shopping has been our only choice through lockdown, and many people will continue to stay clear of the high street, both from fear and the simple convenience that e-commerce provides and they have discovered for the first time. In addition, the stores themselves will have to ensure the safety of both their staff and customers, making the experience far from ideal, and perhaps not very enticing. Imagine shopping for a summer dress in gloves, with a mask, served by staff wearing visors, and not being allowed to try it on? An afternoon shopping for fun suddenly doesn’t seem so fun when it has to be done alone. The idea of shoes going into quarantine for 24 hours after every try on suddenly doesn’t seem very appealing.

Zara stores are opening up in Milan with hand sanitizer gels at the entrance Credit: Marco Passaro

So if the old ways look tired and the new normal feels wrong, it is no surprise that new fashion business models are looking at things in a completely different way. Some are questioning our need for immediacy, and producing in order to cut down on waste. Others such as My Wardrobe HQ, of which I am the chairman, are nudging us towards a new guilt free enjoyment of fashion, whereby we only need to buy everyday essentials, and then rent complete show-stoppers for parties and weddings.

Worries over cleanliness are dispelled by the ozone cleaning system which destroys all bacteria, and is less polluting than ordinary dry cleaning. However, I do of course realise that rent-worthy events are rare right now! The ripple effect of all of this is being felt far and wide. Luxury designers are reconsidering the need for so many “seasons”, and the fact that they are so out of line with our real seasons that we get swimwear deliveries in November, and coats in June. What sense does that make to anyone? There is an industry quietly building that utilises waste from the existing clothing production processes, and repurposes it into super cool swimwear and sleek, minimal bags. There are exciting new collaborations between scientists and fashion designers, producing jackets that photosynthesise – absorbing carbon and producing oxygen whilst being worn.

More than plastic visors at the till and staggered entry at your local department store, this is the real future of fashion, the true opportunity for an exciting rethink of a retail industry that was old and tired. But it will take a little more time to get there. In the meantime, we must consider our purchases carefully, not only what do we really need, but which brands do we want to support, which brands uphold our values, and how did they behave in the time of crisis? Many will not survive, so we must spend wisely. It’s much more beneficial for a brand to now sell through its own website and not through a third party, as they have to pay up to 30 per cent of the price to the department store or online brand store. So shop directly if you can, even if the delivery offered isn’t quite as quick.

Face masks have become mandatory everywhere, even in luxury stores Credit: LaPresse

Local shopping has also made something of a comeback. While at the beginning of lockdown this may have come in the form of the return of the corner shop, now at the end of lockdown could this see a revival of the local boutique?

It feels much safer than risking public transport to get to the centre of town, so if there is a local store that you love, support them when they reopen. They will desperately need your business, and will be hugely grateful to see you and your cash.

I love fashion, but don’t love what it had become before lockdown happened. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the new normal isn’t just what we did before with the added headache of longer queues, shut changing rooms and hand sanitiser at the door? Wouldn’t it be better instead if it was a return to the old kind of relationship we had with clothing; where something was valued and treasured, instead of worn then discarded without a thought.

A customer being temperature checked at the Etro store Credit: MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images

6 ways a shopping trip will look different after lockdown, by Tamara Abraham

One-way only
Much like supermarkets, many retailers will insist on a specific route through the store in an effort to maintain social distancing. There will also likely be a limit to the number of shoppers in-store, so expect to queue outside if a shop is at capacity.

Mask up
Some shops will require customers to don a face mask and use hand sanitiser upon entering. Staff will probably be wearing masks and gloves, and will use hand sanitiser before assisting each customer. We’ll see dispensers stationed across each store for both staff and customers.

Fitting rooms
If fitting rooms are open at all, only every other cubicle will be open in order to maintain social distancing.

Quarantined clothes
Expect any tried-on clothes and shoes to be quarantined for up to 72 hours before they are returned to the shop floor. The same process will apply to online returns.

Pop socks
In need of a new pair of summer sandals? We’ll have to use (more) hand sanitiser before touching any products and wear disposable pop socks before trying them on.

Sneeze guards
Checkouts will be fitted with “sneeze guards”: perspex screens to protect the customer and the cashier. Many retailers also insist on card transactions only to reduce the risk of infection in handling cash.

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