Designer Tarun Tahiliani on the business of fashion in the times of COVID-19

Designer Tarun Tahiliani gives us a bird’s eye view of the impact of COVID-19 on the fashion industry and where it is headed in the months to come. The veteran was part of Stimulus 2020, a webinar encompassing 70 speakers across 14 panel discussions. The event was designed to cut through the volume of rhetoric and despair surrounding the current COVID-19 scenario, which has declared the market slow-moving or outright stagnant, organised by Women inspiring Network and The Global Luxury Group.

Excerpts from an interview:

Indian designers rely on artisans. With factories closed and migrant workers attempting to go home, what impact will it have on production?

The very basis of what Indian designers do is based on the talent of the craftsman in our industry.

In companies like ours, the top craftsmen are not daily wage workers but workers on salary. But it is a fact that a lot of traditional craftsmen, especially in embroidery, prefer to be on a double-daily-wage. That is how it has been in India traditionally where they like to come and go as they please, take longer holidays during festivals and then work longer hours when they wish to.

I think this period is going to be particularly disastrous for them because its almost the second time they are getting impacted over a small period; first being demonetisation.

With production and shipping at a standstill, how is the industry expected to fulfil orders for Spring-Summer ‘20?

In my opinion, globally nobody is buying or thinking of buying at the moment and is too preoccupied with the pandemic. But we will certainly have to be more creative in increasing our digital presence and in giving people the experiences through our various platforms.

For shipments where payments are pending, should producers start to worry, as the world economy has been hit?

Of course, people need to worry terribly about their payments. Fashion is famous for delayed payments and more than that, all the major exporters will face an issue, because if the stores are shut for four weeks, the shipments will be delayed by four weeks. And there is not much one can do about that.

This fact has been made worse by knowing that, at the moment, there is a global recession that anyway is leading buyers to not pick up their merchandise. So, this is going to be a very tricky situation.

In our case, since we deal B to C (Business to Customer) primarily, we don’t face that problem. Although, all the consumers who had to cancel the orders because they saw this coming, have done so. But we won’t face an issue of bad debts.

How long do you think the domestic fashion industry can sustain itself without sales. Can two months easily be tided over?

I think maximum two to three months. As stated by the BoF, around 70 percent to 80 percent of businesses will be in terrible financial distress after these two months (assuming we continue to pay salaries, rents etc as usual).

We work on a very tight cycle and the fact is, that there are no sales. So, I am not sure how this will be sustainable. And unfortunately, we are not like the Western economy that can afford to payout salaries to help businesses sustain themselves.

With regard to couture collections timed for the festive season, do you expect buyers will continue to spend lavishly?

I certainly do not expect buyers to continue with lavish spending. Everyone has been hit by this pandemic and everybody’s businesses are down. More than that, even if people can afford it, we are going to need to observe very strict social distancing and follow protocols to ensure we are not stuck with a viral blow-up once again. And learn to live carefully till there is a cure or vaccine created.

Having said that, festivals will go on and our NRI clients are already in touch with us for their events — provided this period passes by. And while the scale will of course be smaller; the bride, groom and their immediate families will still wear beautiful clothes to make wonderful memories.

Do you think the fashion industry will immediately bounce back or will the recovery stretch over a long period?

No, the fashion industry is going to take a long recovery time. If there are no celebrations or no crowds, people are not going to wear a lot of clothes that they do at the moment.

Fashion designers are faced with heavy rentals for retail spaces, do you think there should be a policy on relief in this matter across the board?

They should absolutely be a policy for rental of retail spaces. The moment the pandemic broke out, the Mall of Qatar announced a three-month moratorium on rental. This is what encourages people to feel a little safer and continue with their work. I hope very much that the malls and the big landlords will consider this. Ofcourse, I acknowledge that they have their own costs to bear, but its such a huge down time for the industry, that I feel this will help in restabilising themselves. Afterall, one should not kill the goose that lays the golden eggs!

How are you spending time in isolation and how do you think COVID will change our psyche?

Well, in the beginning it was strange because I may have lived in this house for 20 years, but hadn’t been home for more than six odd days at a stretch. Its was still okay, but then the reality of the situation we were in, got to me.

For me personally, having a fairly disciplined routine helps instead of freewheeling through the day. Which is why I am up early, exercise, I like to work six to eight hours a day — which might not necessarily be physically drawing or attending just Zoom meetings; but thinking about the way forward.

Then I usually spend my meals with my family and exercise some more in the evening. I am not one to hang out with friends on video calls and this has been a fantastic time to reset our clocks, think of our own priorities. The only positive, if at all, that can come out of this is that people got the time and were hopefully able to use it to recalibrate the lifestyle that suits them more.