Clothing for the COVID Era

Populations around the world are slowly starting to test a post-COVID daily routine that involves some form of work, school, shopping, and leisure. But the reopening of society has shown that the coronavirus is still a threat, as illustrated by the recent spikes in the number of cases in the U.S. and some other countries. Consumers are therefore looking for solutions to help them balance their wish for a somewhat normal life with their desire to stay healthy.

The apparel and accessories industry is responding by developing designs that address the potentially long-term need to social distance, mask up, and sanitize. Their efforts take a number of forms:

  • Adding antiviral properties. Antimicrobial and antibacterial apparel, especially in the athletic and athleisure space, has been a trend for some time. But these items do not protect against viruses. An emerging area is antiviral fabric that can help protect against COVID-19. The Canadian firm Intelligent Fabric Technologies North America is one company that has developed a chemical treatment specifically for the SARS-CoV-2 virus that is at the center of the pandemic; other companies have been developing more general anti-coronavirus or anti-virus treatments. IFTNA’s invention could be integrated into apparel items as soon as the end of 2020. It is introducing its own travel lifestyle line called Underit that will be treated, while its customer Careismatic Brands, licensee for Cherokee, Dickies, and ELLE scrubs, will launch it into the healthcare market. A caveat: It is likely that many companies will introduce apparel billed as having antiviral properties, but there may be questions about efficacy. In addition, most apparel does not cover the hands or face, both of which play a big role in transmitting the virus.
  • Elevating facial protection. A number of designers and others have been marketing fashionable face masks almost since the beginning of the pandemic. But as it increasingly looks like face masks or other coverings will be encouraged or even mandated for some time to come, companies are creating products with built-in face masks. Hi-Tec Sports, a subsidiary of Apex Global Brands, has done this in its Venture Series of performance t-shirts, sweatshirts, and jackets, set for a fall launch from Hi-Tec’s North American licensee Tharanco Lifestyles. The face covering is flexible so it can be raised as needed and look good whether in use or not; a filter screen can be inserted for additional protection. Separately, Italian label Elexia Beachwear is marketing a “trikini,” which is a bikini with a matching, waterproof facemask.
  • Designing for distance. Some fashion labels are touting garments or accessories that have physical properties to keep others from coming too close or otherwise protect the wearer. Chinese architect Dayong Sun and his company Penda designed a wearable and design-forward plastic shield; U.K. designer Harris Reed created very wide hats and skirts; a Romanian shoe maker, Grigore Lup, came up with extra-long shoes (size 75 European, about three-quarters of a meter); and San Kim, a student designer in the U.K., introduced protective suits that look like puffy robots out of plastic bags from retailers Marks & Spencer and Poundland. Many of these and other examples are too avant-garde for the average consumer, at least at present, but it is possible they could inspire more mainstream designs with some of the same properties.
  • Integrating technology. A number of wearable technologies are being developed to warn consumers if someone is getting too close, serve as an early warning system by measuring temperature and other vital signs, predetermine how many people are in a store before entering, or monitor whether someone is violating quarantine. The last would typically be a mandated rather than voluntary accessory; the first is also being tested on a corporate level to protect employees in the workplace. But all four could have consumer potential. While many of these technologies are still in development, they could, like other wearables, be integrated into accessories such as bracelets or earrings, as well as directly into apparel or footwear.
  • Uplifting spirits. Rather than focusing on functional, protective properties, some designers are turning their attention more toward attitude and mental health by creating designs that are simply meant to raise consumers’ spirits during difficult times, as well as being casual and comfortable and often contributing to COVID-related charities. Italian label TL 180 launched a series of collaborative items involving celebrities including journalist and style icon Monica Ainley, fashion influencer Reese Blutstein, fitness guru and dancer Mary Helen Bowers, actress and model Clémence Poésy, and actress Kelly Rutherford. The launches of each item in the capsule, one designed by each partner, are 10 days apart—the series is currently scheduled to end on July 31—and each is available for no longer than 90 days. All of the proceeds go to Sapienza Università di Roma for coronavirus research.

Most of the items cited here are innovative and functional—if not always entirely practical for mainstream apparel shoppers—and consumers may embrace some of them, at least to a degree. But it should be remembered that the fashion industry has much deeper issues in front of it. This sector has been affected by the pandemic as much as any. It must deal with the current struggles of department and specialty stores, inventory and sourcing issues, and shoppers not needing as many clothes as in the past as they maintain a still-mostly-at-home lifestyle. It also must face longer-term issues, such as sustainability, seasonality, and changing shopping patterns, all of which have been on the radar for some time but have been highlighted and/or accelerated during the crisis. Facilitating a safe and stylish post-COVID lifestyle for consumers is just one small part of the solution.

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