As COVID-19 shut down businesses across the nation, the fashion industry found a way to remain relevant while pursuing their own survival.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, no industry was left unscathed, some burnt far worse than others. For the Philippine fashion industry, the challenges of COVID-19 were much like those of other businesses: a forced shut down of production, cancellation of events, and postponement of client meetings. The “we’ll be back” social media notices that went up in expectation of a two-week quarantine turned into months, and many designers realized what other entrepreneurs also came to terms with: they had to pivot or perish.
Sofia Borromeo-Alvarez, founder and designer of the local brand Sofie.B, enjoyed great success prior to COVID-19. Her brand’s premiere fashion show was well received, and she became one of the standard designers of choice for many of Manila’s and Cebu’s elite who wear her label both for everyday occasions and special events or milestones. Demand grew so quickly that soon her small production team had to work double time to meet their deadlines for both their ready-to-wear (RTW) lines and their custom-made pieces.
Perhaps it was intuition, but it was as early as January 2020 when Sofia decided to make some major changes to her brand. The plan was to create a diffusion line of Sofie.B called Sofie.B Basics – a slightly more casual line meant for more everyday wear without losing the elegance for which her brand became well known. Focusing on RTW was, in a sense, a stroke of intuitive genius because well before the quarantine, the brand was able to stop its made-to-order service; reliance on which is what hurt many other designers.
The premiere trunk show of Sofie.B Basics was scheduled days before the lockdown, but she and her team ended up cancelling the entire launch. Later, they launched the line online, and began taking orders online as well. That was the brand’s first pivot during the quarantine. The second was to create face masks.
“We decided to start selling masks a couple of months after the lockdown to make use of the opportunity to lessen inventory of excess fabric,” Sofia shares. “It worked very well as we designed the masks to be comfortable around the ears and to the nose, which are two areas that are very sensitive to the majority of people.”
Her face masks, like those created by other designers in Manila, were well received by their loyal customers. Initially, Sofia tried to create face masks for children only, and though these sold out, the traction was nowhere as fast as those of the adult face masks she and the team made. She found herself shipping out masks all over Manila and overseas to fulfill international orders.
Other designers like Charina Sarte, Mark Bumgarner, and Vania Romoff have also chosen to create fashionable face masks and PPEs as more relevant product lines for their clients. Each designer mask carries the distinct style of the different brands, very often complementing clothes from their previous lines since these – like Sofie. B masks – were made from excess fabric, making them sustainable for both brand and client.
Mark Bumgarner launched The Armor Project and created face masks and outerwear in place of PPEs.
As months have gone by, however, the demand for fashionable masks has slowed down. “I think people realized their inventory of masks were piling up, and they didn’t need so many since the masks we produce are reversible and washable,” Sofia says.
Because of the dwindling demand, Sofia has completely stopped production of the masks, and is now focused on the sale of the remaining inventory of clothes from Sofie.B Basics. Again, her intuition is leading her in other directions.
“I don’t see fashion being a priority in the market anytime soon,” she says. “Unfortunately, I think those that want to remain in the fashion industry hereon will have to restructure and focus the majority of their businesses to essentials.”
Her words reflect the sentiments of what many other designers have shared publicly (see Vania Romoff’s letter to her clients), that it may be a long time before people begin to order designer items, custom-made ensembles, or cocktail dresses and ball gowns again. Even when restrictions ease, many will be watching their wallets or being careful of the events they attend.
Luckily, the Philippine fashion industry seems well represented by young, entrepreneurial designers who are quick to adapt, pivot, and evolve. The face masks and PPEs are likely to be the first of a series of innovative ideas that will keep their businesses both relevant and alive.
About the Writer
Rachel Kelly Davis
Rachel Kelly Davis has been a published writer since the age of 14, often writing features, essays, and cover pieces. In 2016 she started writing poetry, leaving index cards of her poems all over the world and posting the photos she is sent by the people who find them. She has worked in communications for over a decade, wearing various hats ranging from digital marketing and SEO practitioner, brand strategist, and investor relations officer. Most recently she was the Associate Vice President for Customer Experience (Public Affairs) at WSP Inc., a public relations company based in the Philippines.