The founder of fashion PR agency Showroom 22 – which represents a number of Britomart-based fashion brands – talks about the impact of Covid-19 on the industry.
Nearly two decades ago, Murray Bevan set up one of New Zealand’s first dedicated fashion PR agencies, and has since worked alongside many of the industry’s biggest names, including Deadly Ponies, Karen Walker, Juliette Hogan and Kowtow. Just a few years later, he was confronted with helping many of these brands ride out the Global Financial Crisis. He talked to Britomart’s Melinda Williams about how the industry might face down an even bigger challenge.
MELINDA WILLIAMS: Hi Murray. Who are you with in your bubble today, where are you, and how are you all going?
MURRAY BEVAN: I’m at home in Titirangi with my wife, Imogene and my son, Beau, who is 18 months. In the big scheme of things, we’re good. On a beautiful day like today, it’s easy for me to think, “It’s going to be okay; it’s going to be tough but we’re going to soldier through it together”. But on other mornings, I’m like, “Oh my god…” and the dread just sweeps over me. I guess we’re all thinking the same things and having those panic moments. All you can really do is take it one day at a time.Murray Bevan: I’m at home in Titirangi with my wife, Imogene and my son, Beau, who is 18 months. In the big scheme of things, we’re good. On a beautiful day like today, it’s easy for me to think, “It’s going to be okay; it’s going to be tough but we’re going to soldier through it together”. But on other mornings, I’m like, “Oh my god…” and the dread just sweeps over me. I guess we’re all thinking the same things and having those panic moments. All you can really do is take it one day at a time.
How has the Covid-19 shutdown immediately affected your team at Showroom 22?
Our team has had to leave our showroom and studio, which are places that people from the industry come to congregate and share ideas and laugh, and that’s part of our business we love dearly and others rely on. So we’re feeling the effects of that lack of contact. We’re having an online meeting every morning at nine o’clock, we’re trying to keep a lot of those things normal, but there’s nothing like the team all coming in with cups of coffee and having a chat.
It feels hard to see into the future right now, but how do you think this is going to affect the fashion businesses you work with
I think it is impossible to say. All of our clients keep saying to us, “We just don’t know what the future is going to look like for us.” In the back of their minds, they have the worst possibility of not having a business, but even the ones who are generally confident and optimistic are saying “It’s just going to be really different and probably smaller, but we don’t know how different or how small yet.” Even just the idea of a department store or a shopping mall where people feel free and easy about having their hand on an escalator rail – all those things will be called into question now.
How have the businesses you work with been responding?
Generally, the small and medium businesses have just gone into damage control. This is the first time they’ve seen something like this, and they’re freaking out. Whereas I talked to Karen Walker the other day, and she said it’s the fifth time she’s been through a bear economy. Not that she likes it or it’s easy, but she’s already survived four of them so she’s in the trenches. She might have to pull on some levers that she has in the past, but she’s been here before and she’ll get through it again.
This isn’t the first time you’ve helped your clients negotiate through a crisis though, is it?
Showroom 22 has had the Global Financial Crisis of 2007/8 to compare to. The business was a lot younger then and I was a lot less experienced. Now, I think there’s been a lot more trust built up in the business. During the GFC, we had to take a leading stance on how to help our clients generate revenue. One thing we did was my sister and I started a little store called Macaroni Penguin on Teed St to help sell all the product that our clients were left with when their wholesalers closed. We hit up a landlord and said, “Hey, we’ll take your empty space for a month and if it goes well, we’ll take another month.”
For the likes of Kathryn Wilson and Twentyseven Names and even, I think, Juliette Hogan, it was one of the first times that they dipped their toe into retail. I look at some of our younger brands, who only operate online at the moment, and this may actually force them to push into retail. So it’s not all doom and gloom. You just have to look at every possible solution.
Do you think you will start seeing more labels clubbing together to survive, operating on a month-to-month see-how-we-go basis?
Absolutely. Already I’m talking to Gemma Ross at Hustle & Bustle and Dan Gosling at Public Library. We’re all going to have clients that are hurting, so we need to proactively bring them business solutions. If our clients don’t have a business, we don’t have a business either. If that means coming up with creative retail solutions – which would normally be outside our purview – then we’ll do it. I’ve got an 85sqm photo studio in my showroom that I guarantee isn’t going to be a photo studio every day when we open up again. It’s going to be a gallery, a pop-up store, a sample sale, anything and everything we can do.
How about from a consumer perspective – what will this mean?
For the consumer, there are going to be incredible sales. As soon as people can ship online, the sales are going to come thick and fast. Maybe it’s not the conscious way to do it, but I think consumers are going to be buying because money’s burning a hole in their pocket. There could be a huge windfall of sales and retail revenue in May and June if people can hold onto their jobs and stores can hold onto their businesses.
Are supply chain issues likely to have an effect on what designers can produce?
I can’t speak with expert knowledge but my gut says that fashion might have to start operating like the restaurant industry with more of a farm-to-table attitude. Whatever the mills have got on hand in the next 12 months, that’s what the designers are going to have to use. If a mill in Italy has 50,000 metres of pink denim, they’re going to use that. I don’t think it’s going to be a time where designers can have hand-made prints created in Portugal or digitally printed at AUT because they can’t afford it. They’ll have to choose the beige cotton because that’s what they can afford, and get clever about tarting it up with detail or pleats. The shape of clothes might change because it may have to be about draping and cinching and the cut and stitching rather than the fancy print. Maybe they’ll do more screen-printing.
Can you see any ways in which this could have some positive outcomes for the industry?
Some really big companies like Levis and Allbirds are pivoting towards their sense of community. They walk the talk and are helping in their community. The initiative that Allbirds set up was to supply footwear to healthcare workers, and they have supplied, I think over US$500,000 worth of product already. They just said, “We have to do something and we can weather this kind of expense. This is the right thing to do.” They are very lucky to be in the position to do that.
I hope we’ll see those kind of initiatives coming through other fashion businesses - not only donating money, but making their products work in the community. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could turn the normally quite frivolous conversation around fashion into something that served a purpose in the world? Look at Levi’s Jacquard technology that they’re working on with Google. Maybe there are more tech initiatives where the clothes you wear can check your temperature levels or your hygiene levels, as well as making you more comfortable in the work you do. I think those discussions are only going to intensify. This pandemic might force people to say, “You know that thing that was a total blue-sky idea? Now it’s time to put that into action, this year.”