When Toronto-based designer Steven Lejambe received the news that he’d been nominated for the Swarovski Award for Emerging Talent in Fashion at the 2020 Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFAs), he was elated. The nomination represented a pivotal moment in the fashion career he has been building since 2016, as well as a shred of hope in the midst of being pummelled by disappointing news. As the COVID-19 virus rages around the globe, three major events he’d been gearing up for—the National Bridal Market trade show in Chicago, a figure skating red carpet event and a charity fashion show—were all cancelled. “I needed a bit of good news,” he says.
As a small-scale independent designer, Lejambe is one of the many individuals in the Canadian fashion industry who have lost their entire livelihoods in the span of a few days thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the estimated $10,000 to $15,000 in new business he expected to earn from the trade show, he lost $7,000 to $10,000 in evening dress commissions due to cancelled events and was laid off from his full-time retail job at John Fluevog Shoes. (Full disclosure: Lejambe and I are former coworkers.)
“Everything has come to a complete halt”
As calls from public health officials to “flatten the curve” (a.k.a. stay home) to curb the spread of the virus grow louder, the way the world operates has been completely rewritten in a matter of weeks. Hundreds of thousands of Canadians have been laid off from their jobs, and self-employed and independent contractors, of which there are many in the Canadian fashion industry, now face an uncertain future.
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As I sketch my thoughts, I cannot help but remember all of the beautiful memories I have had so far with ZOFF. All of the laughs and memories break down the negativity. I am so ready for more adventure. If you believe in a vision, you have to pursue it. My vision is to share the stories I have encountered in life, and make beautiful clothing. I have learned my energy and love is important. I only want to share it with those that want it from me. Ferocious as fuck, Michael 💜 Photo: @victorrusu shot at the studio at @tfi_fashionincubator
“It’s definitely put my business on hold,” says Michael Zoffranieri, the 25-year-old designer behind ZOFF. Since 2017, Zoffranieri has invited clients to his studio for a completely custom dressmaking experience. Clients select fabric, have their measurements taken and partake in multiple fittings to ensure the finished creation is perfect; he describes the process as “very intimate and personal.” At the beginning of February, Zoffranieri was gearing up for what he calls “gala season”: a four-month period, from March to June, when many ritzy charity fundraisers are held. Most of the dresses he designs are worn to these events, which have all been cancelled due to social distancing measures. Of the 15 custom dresses he’d expected to make this season, only three remain. “That’s a little bit concerning,” he says.
Zoffranieri estimates that he has lost 35% of his income since coronavirus hit (he still has a product-development contract with a startup), and isn’t quite sure how to proceed. If he continues to lose money, he may no longer be able to afford the subsidized rent on his studio at the Toronto Fashion Incubator. Right now, he says, the future is a “major question mark.”
Stylist Nadia Pizzimenti is also experiencing a coronavirus-induced loss of work. “At the end of last week, shoots started dropping like flies and everything that was scheduled until the end of March disappeared,” says the 2020 CAFA-nominated stylist. “Everything has literally come to a complete halt.”
Pizzimenti is lucky—she says she’s financially stable enough to weather a few lean months but estimates that she lost $3,000 of income in a single week and she has no jobs on the horizon. “In times like these, you realize that [independent contractors] have no protection in this business,” she adds. “The biggest fear is the uncertainty and not knowing how long this is going to last.”
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“Only the strongest will survive”
“I just keep thinking about the REM song ‘It’s the End of the World as We Know It,’ and it truly is,” says Gail McInnes, the owner and president of brand management firm Magnet Creative and a stalwart in the Canadian fashion industry. “Everything we ever thought we knew about how we conduct business is completely changing.”
McInnes predicts a significant dip in clothing purchases related to income loss. According to an Angus Reid poll, 44% of Canadians have reported that someone in their household has been laid off or lost hours due to the economic fallout from the pandemic. The tightening of purse strings to come will affect the entire fashion industry—but small independent designers will be hit the hardest. “A lot of brands won’t make enough money to sustain themselves for the next six months,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s times like these where only the strongest will survive.”
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The threat of coronavirus presents a double whammy for the fashion industry: The economic fallout means that consumers have less money to spend on luxuries like clothing, and thanks to social distancing, people are no longer required to maintain a bare minimum of presentability. As a result, many people—including myself—are opting for a wardrobe of grungy sweatpants for the foreseeable future. As Lejambe says, “Who’s going to need an evening gown in a pandemic?”
Shopping is certainly not at the forefront of most people’s minds, and Lejambe expects fashion to be the last business to experience an upswing once the economy rebounds. As a non-essential business, marketing efforts now seem to be in poor taste. “I feel bad even posting about my business on Instagram, because everyone is scared and stressed and freaking out about this whole other thing,” he says.
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“This allows me to sit down and plan and think about my strategies”
Despite panicking over lost income, many are looking at this time as an opportunity to re-evaluate or refocus their business. “I’m kind of seeing it as an isolation vacation,” says Pizzimenti. For years, she poured herself into work and struggled to slow down—it has taken a global pandemic for her to realize that it’s okay to take a break.
Lejambe plans on using the time to strategize ways to grow his business. Currently, he plans on building an online store where he can sell a line of essential pieces, something he has never done before. Zoffranieri is also optimistic. “As a business owner, it allows me to sit down and plan and think about what my strategies are for the next three months,” he says.
On March 18, it was announced that the CAFA awards night Lejambe was so looking forward to was being postponed until the fall; if social-distancing measures are still intact by then, there’s a chance the event will have to be cancelled entirely.
But as difficult and untenable as the current situation seems, McInnes puts it all into perspective. “In the grand scheme of things, this is all about keeping people healthy and not putting a strain on the healthcare system,” she says. “Fashion can wait. We’ve already bought enough stuff.”