The Fashion World, Upended by Coronavirus

PARIS — Twice a yr, the luxurious vogue homes of the world current their ready-to-wear clothes for the approaching season. This creates a world touring circus of outlets and reporters, high-spending clients and Instagram influencers, executives and a small military of public-relations professionals, many touring from New York to London to Milan and at last to Paris.

This yr, the caravan’s arrival in Milan in mid-February intersected with an outbreak of Covid-19, the brand new coronavirus, in Italy, then the nation worst hit by the sickness exterior of Asia.

And so, a thousand or so very well-clad folks questioned for a couple of weeks: Would they change into a worldwide public well being menace, a vector of transmission from the elite entrance rows of vogue reveals to the world at massive?

The closing leg of this monthlong tour arrived for every week in Paris beginning on Feb. 24. On the primary day of reveals, the variety of reported circumstances of coronavirus in France was simply 14; by the final day, there have been greater than 200, and the nation had banned gatherings of greater than 5,000 folks in confined areas.

By midweek, Americans had begun strategizing with their employers in New York about their returns to the United States. Would they need to self-quarantine — work from home — and for how long?

It was an eerie setting: The museum’s staff had walked out on Sunday amid concerns about the spread of coronavirus, effectively closing the French monument. (After three days, the Louvre reopened on Wednesday.)

Sidney Toledano, the chief executive of LVMH Fashion Group, shared squeezes of hand sanitizer from his pocket-size bottle with Jonathan Newhouse, the chairman of Condé Nast, and both of their wives.

At one show, a New York Times journalist was approached by a reporter from another outlet. Was it true, the reporter asked, that someone at The Times had already contracted the virus? (It was not.) At the next show that day, a Swiss fashion executive recoiled when another Times reporter tried to greet him with a handshake, avoiding the gesture (and eye contact).

The crisis has accelerated a question hanging over fashion in recent years. Runway shows are expensive, laborious and environmentally harmful. Are they still worth absorbing an entire month?

Before the Alexander McQueen show in Paris on Monday night, François-Henri Pinault, the chief executive of the luxury conglomerate Kering — owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga — wondered whether the industry should begin digitizing showrooms and considering a new system. (Throughout fashion week Mr. Pinault joked, or half-joked, that he had been taking his temperature twice a day to monitor for fever, a symptom of coronavirus.)

Anna Wintour, the artistic director of Condé Nast and editor of Vogue, said she had also been thinking about the future.

“At a time of crisis, we have to think about a radical reset,” she said.

As coronavirus spreads — more than 90,000 cases and more than 3,000 deaths have been reported worldwide — the industry isn’t so sure about its ability to move forward.

Rakuten Fashion Week, scheduled to begin on March 16 in Tokyo, was canceled. (Japan has, at this time, only slightly more cases than France.) Subsequent fashion weeks in Shanghai and Beijing have been postponed.

Ralph Lauren, who planned a runway show in April in New York, has canceled his show. Burberry has postponed an April show in Shanghai. Gucci has canceled a show in San Francisco in May, and Prada has canceled a show planned for that month in Tokyo.

Ms. Wintour conspicuously stayed in Paris through the end of the shows,— as did editors from other Condé Nast titles, including Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue. She and her team had been discussing how best to support emerging designers in the current climate.

“They are a creative force and the generation we look to to lead the way forward,” Ms. Wintour said. “If they are all having cash flow problems — as I am sure they are, because of low retail traffic in the showrooms and supply chain issues and people wanting to stay out of public spaces — anything we can do to support them is important.” She was hoping to announce a plan in the next few days.

“We can’t let them fall by the wayside,” she said.

After Paris, Ms. Wintour planned to visit London before returning to the United States. Other editors said they would return to their New York offices on Monday — 14 days after they left Milan, the recommended time for self-quarantine set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after visiting regions where there has been significant presence of coronavirus.

Others will not go back to their offices for two weeks after leaving Paris — mid-March, at the earliest.

“Empty seats at shows are not the problem — it is what is happening in showrooms, the holdups in the supply chains and what they might mean,” said Pascal Morand, the executive president of the Fédération Française de la Couture et de la Mode, the organizing body of Paris Fashion Week. “It is the uncertainty and not knowing how long the situation will last.”

Designers don’t just show their collections at these four big fashion weeks in February and September. They also sell them.

Fashion buyers employed by retailers (Nordstrom and Bloomingdale’s, for example) and e-commerce platforms (Net-a-Porter, Matches Fashion) negotiate order sizes and prices with brands and decide what goes into stores. This happens during intimate showroom appointments separate from runway presentations.

This season’s orders have been down, designers said. Not necessarily for big companies like Valentino, Vuitton and Tod’s, their executives said, but for smaller independent houses, and particularly for those whose production takes place even partially in China.

“Lots of buyers are saying their budgets have been cut,” Ms. Ege said. “Some have also asked whether they can cancel orders or have discounts, given the lack of visibility on what might happen next.”

At the end of the fashion tour, buyers typically return to Milan for further appointments with Italian designers and showrooms. This year, those have been canceled. Milan is now, according to one boutique owner, a ghost town. One local restaurant, normally a kind of fashion central, made less than 100 euros in a recent evening. The fashion directors for Bergdorf Goodman and Saks Fifth Avenue did not stay through the end of Paris shows.

But, Ms. Ege added, buying has not stopped completely. It is just happening remotely. Unable to touch and see the products up close, buyers have been video chatting with designers throughout Milan and Paris, using these conversations, along with high-definition look book photos and sales line sheets, to make decisions for the fall season.

Ikram Goldman, the owner of the influential Ikram boutique in Chicago, said that while she has cut back on orders — “with an unstable economy and late deliveries, we are taking precautions,” she said — she is still trying to look for and buy from new designers.

“They are the future, and we can’t forget them,” Ms. Goldman said.

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