The fashion and clothing industry will overcome the myriad challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic
This year we helplessly watched Covid-19 bring the global economy to its knees. Governments around the world responded by implementing lockdowns to contain the rapid spread of the deadly pandemic to their populations. Unfortunately, these measures — intended to save lives — suffocated economies.
By the end of 2020, the world’s economy is expected to have shrunk 7.5%, the deepest contraction since the World War 2, which ended in 1945.
Closer to home, the pandemic has thrown our 26-year old democracy its biggest challenge since the end of apartheid in 1994. We have lost nearly 21,000 South Africans to the pandemic, our economy has slipped into a recession and is expected to contract 7.3% in 2020.
To add salt to the wound, the unemployment rate has also crept up to 30.8% following large-scale layoffs during the hard lockdown.
Like many other industries that were hit hard by the Covid-19 lockdown, the fashion industry — in which I have invested my energies and resources over the past several years — was not spared the ravages wrought by the pandemic.
During the hard lockdown, introduced for the first time on March 27, fashion retailers had to shut their stores to comply with Covid-19 regulations. This closure led to job losses in the industry and forced businesses to restructure their operations to survive. Many fashion designers who run small businesses in the clothing sector were also caught in the Covid-19 storm as their businesses took a knock.
While the blow has been severe, the industry is not taking it lying down. It has had to adapt and find innovative ways to sustain itself through the pandemic, which poses health and financial threats simultaneously.
The biggest shift in how the fashion industry operates has been its pivot towards digital platforms and e-commerce. This shift was in full display at this year’s African Fashion International (AFI) Joburg Fashion Week, which went completely digital for the first time since its inception and produced a fashion film.
The event was beamed online to audiences around the world, where everyone got a front-row view of the designers showcasing their Spring/Summer 2021 collections.
Hosting the show digitally not only reduced our carbon footprint but gave the viewers an opportunity to order and purchase their favourite garments while the show was being broadcasted.
The evolution that is currently taking place in the fashion industry is positioning the sector to contribute positively to our country’s post Covid economic recovery plan, which is being championed by President Cyril Ramaphosa.
We are likely to witness an increase in investment in local manufacturing, a development that will give employment in the industry a major shot in the arm, not forgetting the expansion of supply chains, which will also benefit small businesses.
The investment in local manufacturing will further support the shift towards local procurement and localisation, whereby there has been an attempt by SA to reduce its reliance on Asian imports, which at one point made up about 80% of clothes sold on our stores.
At the height of the pandemic it was encouraging to see local manufacturers moving fast to take advantage of the opportunities presented by the disease. Many clothing and textile factories reorganised themselves to produce face masks and other personal protective clothing that protects people from contracting Covid-19.
The industry is also looking forward to the implementation of the R110bn in investment pledges announced last week at the annual investment conference. It is no secret that the SA economy is in desperate need of investment if it is to grow faster and create sustainable jobs.
If we manage to steer the economy out of the recession, the fashion industry will benefit immensely from robust economic growth that fast-tracks the emergence of consumers with high disposable incomes as well as from the return of tourism. A stronger economy will generate more sales for the fashion industry and boost production.
There are pledges that were announced at the investment conference that will rub on positively on the fashion sector. These pledges highlight the industry’s interconnectedness with other sectors of the economy.
For example, the R100m pledge made by Provenance to develop a film studio and innovation hub in KwaZulu-Natal will boost local fashion.
What we see in Nigeria with Nollywood is that the growth of that country’s fashion industry is closely linked with growth in the entertainment industry. The two industries feed off each other. There is an opportunity for SA to showcase the beauty of its fashion when telling its stories through films and music videos.
In the data sector, the huge investment pledges that were made will boost the fashion sector as it evolves and move towards e-commerce and digital platforms. Telkom, Google, Teraco and Dimension Data pledged a combined investment of R15.5bn to improve connectivity and expand access to data services.
I strongly believe the fashion and clothing industry will overcome the myriad challenges caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. If anything, the pandemic has encouraged the industry to evolve and is poised for growth that will benefit investors, workers, suppliers, and many other stakeholders.
The AFI is committed to becoming part of our country’s economic revival plan. We will continue investing in the fashion and clothing sector in order to develop commercial markets for African designers.
• Dr Moloi-Motsepe is founder and executive chair of African Fashion International.