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Richard Malone Autumn/Winter 2020 AW20 London Fashion Week
Richard Malone Autumn/Winter 2020Photography by Paul Phung

11 British Designers on How They’re Dealing with the Coronavirus Outbreak

Covid-19 has left the world in a state of unprecedented crisis. Here, 11 British designers tell us how they are facing the pandemic and keeping the capital’s creative spirit alight

Lead ImageRichard Malone Autumn/Winter 2020Photography by Paul Phung

Little reminder is needed of the unprecedented crisis the world faces in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has caused a worldwide shutdown few, if any, of us have encountered in our lifetime. There is no doubt that plunging markets – despite promises from governments about multi-billion pound bailout schemes – will leave nearly all industries damaged for months, and perhaps years, to come.

Fashion, from close to the beginning, has felt central to the narrative: the outbreak of Covid-19 in Italy, which has proved the most devastating in western Europe so far, coincided with Milan Fashion Week. Giorgio Armani, itself a multi-billion dollar company, cancelled its show on the final evening to attendees; later, The New York Times ran a piece titled ‘Fashion’s Patient Zero’, about Nga Nguyen, a Vietnamese heiress who had attended fashion week in the Italian city before testing positive for the virus. The outbreak hung like a cloud over Paris Fashion Week which followed; in the weeks since, cruise shows have been cancelled, department stores and factories shuttered, and campaign shoots put on hold, while brands in Milan – fashion’s second city after Paris – remain in the very epicentre of the crisis.

It leaves fashion’s future more uncertain than ever – particularly for its next generation of designers and their fledgling independent businesses, many of which are based in London. Some, like Phoebe English – forever a tenacious force for change in the British fashion industry – are pragmatic, turning their studios into places to construct face masks and medical uniforms for NHS workers in the face of rapidly depleting stocks (those who wish to find out more can head to English’s Instagram). Others are using this time to reassess their businesses, to connect with others, or to simply do like the rest of us should: isolate, until the worst is over. What none of them know, though, is what is yet to come. By September – when the women’s ready-to-wear shows usually take place – the world is likely to look an entirely different place.

Here, a number of those designers – each part of London’s fashion vanguard and most the product of the city’s fashion schools – talk to AnOther about how they, and their young businesses, are facing the pandemic, what we as consumers can do to help, and how to stay positive in the face of it all.

Laura and Deanna Fanning of Kiko Kostadinov

“We usually spend a lot of physical time in the studio and with the team. We’ve been trying to do as much FaceTime meetings and check-ins, and lots of digital feedback. Over the past week we’ve been rotating skeleton teams. A few of us can walk or cycle to the studio and I think mentally that really helps any anxiety around travel during this time.

“Work aside, the large majority of people are or will be severely affected health-wise and financially. It’s good to stay positive and working at home as much as possible, but romanticising self-isolation or quarantine is irritating as it’s for a privileged minority.

“Fashion will adapt and respond to this global change. I hope solidarity and community is strengthened within the local industry and that this can be reflected through all stages of the system from studio through to stockists and press. If you can support online that’s a big help. We see a lot of stores have been adapting with free global shipping and small discounts. Perhaps time-wise it’s possible to spend more time researching and staying informed. We hope people can get to know the brand better through online images and press.

“FaceTime, message and call family and friends so you don’t feel alone! Podcasts! There are so many interesting, captivating ones. We’ve been listening to Sam Harris and lots of series on Wondery. It really helps to get out for a walk, we’re close to a big park and we’re really lucky to have that.”

Richard Malone

“For now I’ve just set up a computer at home for the first time ever as I usually try to distance myself from tech once I leave the studio. Other than that it’s probably come at the best time possible as we’ve been working solidly, having two shows during London Fashion Week, a huge project with BAFTA, as well as a sculpture show planned for the Irish Museum of Modern Art which has now unfortunately been postponed. It’s extremely scary for those in our society who are vulnerable and need extra help.

“My biggest concern is that we won’t learn, that we spring back into mass consumption and speed. Periods like this remind us of humanity, how vital the human touch and compassion are to us. Posting your routine on social media and getting some likes doesn’t come close to offering help to an elderly neighbour, or watching your friend’s kids while they go to work. The validation part of social media feels so irrelevant in times of crisis.

“After things calm down, British fashion will be excellent, as ever. I have no doubt. These challenges are terrifying and unique but we will always rise to the challenge. Not only designers but artists, communities, students, tutors – learning is truly the only thing that needs to remain consistent.

“I have brilliant friends who have surrounded me for over ten years now – we really lift each other up. I’ve tried to encourage them into doing handstands and silly yoga shit but it hasn’t happened just yet. Also, Candlelit Tales are a group of Irish lads who tell traditional folk tales with instruments which was fab for Saint Patrick’s Day, especially as I was missing the festivities. Other than that some friends and I have decided to try and learn some synchronised dances ... as you can imagine, they are going terribly!”

Rosh Mahtani of Alighieri

“The epidemic has changed so many things, we’re a very hands-on team and are very used to helping each other. This week we have transitioned for the whole team to be working from home. As we make everything in the studio, everyone on the production team has taken materials and jewellery to make from home; our wholesale team are shipping large orders from their houses, so are buried in boxes! Everything has to change.

“We’ve seen an amazing amount of support from our clients, who are continuing to purchase directly from us. We’re donating 20 per cent of the sales to the Trussell Trust, to support food banks around the UK, and so many customers are making the purchase that they had been lusting after because they want to support in any possible way.

“We had so many plans in the pipeline for the next 12 months; the biggest challenge will be the decline in orders from brick and mortar stores who have had to close their doors. Cashflow will become a major issue, especially if the government does not provide relief from business rates. Having said this, while it is incredibly stressful to see such a steep decline in growth, I do really believe that we will find a way to be stronger after this. My father has progressive multiple sclerosis, and is severely immunocompromised, for me, personally, my main concern right now is his health, and the health of the people I love.

“Alighieri is keeping me positive; I’m packing bunches of dried mimosas from our show in every customer order, which is making me feel hopeful. We’re also making a time capsule of letters for a future generation to find. We’ve reached out to friends, asking them to write us a poem, a story, a playlist, anything at all that is giving them some light at the moment. We’re sharing these on our platform, and that’s also bringing me joy. As for music, I can’t stop listening to NYX Void, the amazing drone choir who believe in the healing power of sound.”

Charlotte Knowles and Alexandre Arsenault

“It has been really scary, it affects a lot of aspects of our business, but mainly the looming lockdown could delay everything. As a young business it is already a feat to make things happen in time. One concern is that our factories and mills will be closed, that we won’t be able to start production. We were also planning an amazing campaign and were so excited about it, and now it might all fall apart. Brexit was already a scary thing, now you combine the economic strain of this pandemic with Brexit greeting us at the end of it and it seems like a recipe for chaos...

“Everyone seems to think that a slight slow down of the industry might be good and if worst comes to worst we should skip a season, would that be good? Potentially! In terms of ourselves, we were so sad we couldn’t go to Caroline’s [Polachek] concert, so Charlotte has been listening to her album a lot, and watching some movies, reading some books and a bit of work we can prep in case we have to go full gear when it calms down.”

Phoebe English

“Our whole working practice has had to completely change, the team are now working from home and have been since the start of the week so we are trying to operate remotely. I feel a huge sense of relief that everyone is in a safe place and don’t have to take the risk of going through central London to get here each day. I am still here in the studio as I live next door and don’t come into contact with anyone to get here; it’s very strange to be here alone each day, but I’m grateful that I can still come in and try and have some sort of sense of normality for now.

“If you own a business you are responsible for these people and they will be looking for you for guidance in this frightening time. Stay calm and stay connected, stay focused on the things you can actually do and don’t feel overwhelmed by the thing you can’t, stay agile and flexible, if you have abilities, skills, equipment and machinery these things could be really useful to people on the front line of this situation, so be prepared to diversify your abilities in order to help those most in need, such as people working in the medical and social care sectors and all their support staff.

“After all this I think and hope [British fashion] will be very different; nobody can tell how this will affect us and how long it will go on for but I’m sure it will have a marked and deep impact on our values and psychology as beings. I hope it dramatically and irrevocably shifts our values to things which are actually important and we come out of this with a deeper respect for the very fragile systems which sustain us and that we have been so far entirely taking for granted and over-stretching.”

Rory Parnell Mooney

“For now, the pandemic hasn’t changed that much day to day, because of the size and way my business works. But I think it will slow growth by about six months as we probably won’t be able to do wholesale in June. That’s my main concern at the moment, and what will happen with fashion week. 

“During lockdown, people can still support designers – DM designers directly and ask if you can buy, they might be self-isolating in the studio so can send or ship before full lockdown. Designers themselves should reach out to the BFC, use the internet, speak to each other, ask for help – everyone is in the same position. Always have three plans: a plan for the worst, a plan for the best and one for the bit in the middle. 

“It’s nice to see a community of young people isolating and making the right decisions for everyone’s good. Necessity is the mother of invention – we are all young, dynamic thinkers we should all be thinking about alternative positive outcomes and actions in the way we work and communicate our work, rather than just hibernating for six months.”

Stefan Cooke and Jake Burt

“We have decided to leave our studio in London and work from Jake’s parents’ house in Somerset [for now]. It seems easier to be out of the city and it’s much easier to isolate in the countryside. We will focus on admin and business structure for the week. It actually feels really good to be forced out of the studio, to be unable to ‘design’, and focus on other important things that we tend to put off. 

“[We are] mostly [concerned with] the financial health of our stockists, especially the ones that don’t have a strong online element to their retail. It would be sad to see them buying less next season and we are trying to think of ways we can help them if their situation becomes worse. Apart from that, we are thinking about London Fashion Week Men’s in June. Who knows how it will be affected, especially after last season when it already felt quite empty.

“Hopefully next season there will be less pressure to put on a traditional catwalk show as attendance may be limited. It would be nice to see everyone rethinking how they present their work, trying different types of projects and partnerships and ultimately being as creative as possible. Our best advice? Communicate with other designers, business owners, and creatives to share knowledge.

“To stay positive we’re keeping in touch with a lot of friends in the industry. Stefan has dusted off his old Nintendo and is playing Zelda and Jake has been listening to Battleporn by Leslie Winer.”

Saul Nash

“It’s all pretty new and sudden, [I’m] still processing it. It has definitely slowed the pace of things, I know it will be difficult to access materials during the lockdown and this could impact the speed of the season. There’s uncertainty about whether it is safe to continue going to the studio or not – temporarily, I have told everyone to work off-site as it’s unclear what the situation is in the UK. I’m mainly worried about how long this will all last, how severe the virus is and to what scale it will put our lives at risk.

“I think that at this stage it is too hard to say [what the future holds for British fashion]; I have heard a lot of stories about the immediate effect that the virus has had on businesses in general. I think that it could completely change the course of the schedule and also affect the way that live events are held. 

“My advice for others in similar positions would be to stay positive, plan ahead and think about your options across a spectrum – things going well versus if they become bad. I’m staying positive by spending a lot of time talking to my friends online – we are all in a similar position so it is great to still be able to stay connected in some way.”