“What's the point of having a cute bathing suit and tops from Reformation if I'm going to be sheltering at home for the next three months?” a friend of mine recently asked. She paused. “Or if I'm dead?”
She had purchased her haul of new clothing several weeks ago in preparation for now-canceled trips to Miami and Mexico City, and she wants to return the whole lot. “I’m just really mad because I wanted to wear it,” she says, “and not be buying cheap toilet paper at a discount store, like I did just now.”
Another friend eyes a never-worn dress from Zara she bought a week before the pandemic spread to the U.S. “It’s so pretty, and I can’t stop looking at it, wondering when I’ll ever get to wear it,” she says. “Maybe I’ll throw it on for a FaceTime happy hour.”
Welcome to the new normal: a reality in which a majority of Americans are confined to their homes to help slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus (as of April 14, more than 500,000 cases have been identified stateside). For most, that means going into survival mode, forgoing shopping trips and online orders in favor of less exciting but necessary items like canned goods and toilet paper. Shelling out money for clothing is the last thing on many people’s minds, especially in light of financial stresses and potential job layoffs.
“With discretionary retail spending, when consumers don’t know exactly what the future holds, when they’re faced with the unknown, they’ll hunker down and generally not spend as much,” says James Cook, America’s director of retail research for commercial real estate services firm JLL.
At the same time, some sectors of the retail industry are seeing a boost. Walmart recently reported a spike in the sales of tops — not bottoms — as people swap business attire for teleconference meetings via Zoom or Google Hangouts, where they’re seen only from the chest up.
“We’ve been tracking ‘stay at home’ fashion searches as more cities around the world go into lockdown, and our latest data reveals what’s being worn behind closed doors,” says Katy Lubin, the vice president of communications at Lyst. “In the U.S., there are three stay-at-home shoppers emerging — sporty, slouchy, and sexy. Last week, shoppers were looking for activewear, and comfortable sweats, but in the last few days, we’ve seen a spike in searches for lingerie, specifically lacy, barely-there pieces from brands including Bluebella and Agent Provocateur.” Why the uptick in searches for intimates? "This suggests shoppers are either making the most of their intimate moments in isolation, or they’re (un)dressing in style to spice up those Zoom calls," says Lubin.
Marianne Mychaskiw, a beauty copywriter, is what Lyst would call a "sloucy consumer": She’s bought multiple Juicy Couture tracksuits — her new work from home uniform — over the past few weeks, and has placed two underwear orders from Parade. “They’re comfy, the sheer panels are cute, and if you post a picture of yourself wearing Parade, the brand will donate a dollar to Feeding America,” she says.
Brands are banking on this consumer desire to help by shopping. It’s why an influx of companies, from Kim Kardashian's shapewear line SKIMS to LA-based jewelry brand Kinn Studio to Abacaxi, are pledging to donate a percentage of their proceeds to a good cause.
But even with relief initiatives in place, people are shopping for luxury less and less. Shoppers tend to buy those items at brick-and-mortar stores, which are now closed. “Designer clothing saw declines in demand as necessity shopping peaked in the early days and weeks of March,” says Sara Skirboll, shopping and trends expert for coupon site RetailMeNot. “Around the start of the quarantine, we saw increases in demand for more accessible clothing retailers like casual clothing or activewear instead."
Many luxury designers are hosting sales to keep the business afloat — and their employees working. After temporarily closing storefronts in New York, Los Angeles, London, and Waikiki, Phillip Lim of his namesake label 3.1 Phillip Lim launched an archive sale online to build revenue. He’s offering brand-new pieces from previous seasons for up to 75 percent off the retail price as long as there is inventory or until the warehouse is no longer able to fulfill the orders.
“Our regular price merchandise is considered luxury, and no one is buying luxury right now, so it’s more about, if you want a piece of joy, shop the archive sale for a steal of a deal,” Lim says, adding that this approach has been successful — so far. “What’s scary about it is that it might come to an end soon. It’s our only lifeline.”
Smaller brands are faring worse. Christina Tung of SVNR, a jewelry brand that’s a favorite among the street-style set, says not only have sales slowed, but customers have reached out to return their made-to-order items — a trend that, “from speaking to other designers and retailers, seems to be the norm across the board.”
And there’s still the broader issue of what the future holds for retailers. Cook believes retailers will continue to struggle, although he’s trying to be optimistic.
“If they can hold on through this pause, we do expect things will get back to normal,” he says. “When people are released from their seclusion, they’re going to be looking to get some new summer clothes and we do think for those retailers that can hold out, they’re going to see a return.”
One shopper, Melissa Cornelius, is already back to her normal spending habits. “I took a break once the lockdown started but then I bought a vintage Gucci handbag from Rebag last week,” she says, unable to resist the online sale. She ordered a crop top and skirt from a small fashion brand later that evening.
“I’m wearing it to brunch the minute quarantine ends.”
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