Over 40 years of knowledge link David R. Shah (editor and CEO of View Publications – www.view-publications.com) to Tollegno 1900: a long-running story that has led the journalist to witness the evolution and growth of the company, as he confirms:“I have known Tollegno 1900 and its Lana Gatto brand since the late 1980s. As well as being a journalist and publishers, I am also a consultant and from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, I was employed as marketing and design director at Maconde, the Portuguese menswear manufacturer that had Tollegno 1900 as supplier. Since that time I have seen the evolution of the company into Tollegno 1900: the change of its product line from more classic to modern, contemporary weaving and its pace-making route into sustainability and responsible production. A very exciting ride!
From your privileged observatory, you have the pulse of the situation in the yarn and fabrics sector: how has Covid-19 impacted on the sector?
The collapse of tourism, financial insecurity, reduced consumption, growing unemployment and the cancellation of all types of events, public and private, made for the perfect storm. Management consultancy firm McKinsey & Company considered 2020 the worst year on record for the fashion industry, forecasting a 90% decline in profits and a 15-30% fall in sales, compared with 2019. Non-essential shops were closed for many weeks, while the proportion of clothes bought online rose from 30% to over 70% in many countries. This was paralleled by a complete change of wardrobe: with the arrival of lockdown style, sales of formalwear, tailoring and partywear fell, while sales of loungewear, exercise wear and outdoor clothing grew. The fulcrum of fashion is clearly moving East. China’s strong, post-pandemic recovery has made sinologues of us all – especially at the luxury end of the market. The consultancy firm Bain & Co predicts that China, the only region to report year-on-year growth in 2020, will become the largest luxury market in the world by 2025, accounting for half of all spending. At the time, we are still living with the virus and unprecedented levels of uncertainty in business. Tourism and travel will remain restricted, consumption diminished and a less is more mentality the new modus vivendi. Companies will need to step up digital activities in terms of Industry 4.0, sales and distribution, and brand communication. As the gap between good and bad performers becomes wider, there will be greater opportunistic investment and increased mergers and acquisitions. Companies need to heighten flexibility when it comes to market response and move from transactional to mutually beneficial partnerships along the supply chain. Finally, they need to ready themselves for a workplace revolution, not just in terms of remote and on-premises working by local office staff but enacting a policy of justice and fairness amongst garment operatives wherever the location. That’s a massive list of challenges. But they have to be confronted sooner rather than later.
In your opinion, what are the strengths and weaknesses of Italian companies in the yarn and fabric sector?
Everyone knows that there is no textiles without Italy. Menswear or womenswear, from Biella to Prato, from wool and linen to cotton and silk, from the technical to the recycled, Italy always leads the way. They are the masters of textiles and when you go to any trade show, you know who will have the busiest stands. That’s not to downgrade any other country. It’s just that the Italians are always there. It’s not just the creativity – technically as well as aesthetically – that amazes but the flexibility of Italian companies. But what serves them well could also serve them badly. Many Italian companies are family-built companies and SMEs. This allows them to react quickly but often does not give them the financial or structural muscle to see through “Black Swan’ events like Covid-19. In addition, being family sized can also make them conservative. They are often slow off the mark to develop new export markets. Although open-minded to changes in fashion, they have not been as fast as many other European or Far Eastern companies to adopt industry 4.0, A.I and digital platforms. This was not a problem in the past where many could hide behind their creative strengths, but the market will not be the same in the post-Covid landscape when everyone will be seeking to reduce stock and work so much closer to the market.
Has the pandemic changed the way companies communicate?
The great thing about Italians is that they are super-fast adapters and learners. I have been very impressed talking to spinners and weavers how they have been busy circumventing the last round of trade shows in February being cancelled. One thing is certain: the pandemic has accelerated the move in textiles to digital platforms. Companies that were reluctant to invest early, are now busy trying to catch up. Pitti Filati and MU both featured digital marketplaces with exhibitors showing their wares in password-protected, digital showrooms – generally neatly arranged squares with either flat or 3D yarns and fabrics. Meanwhile many manufacturers have been busy developing their own digital websites, all are protected. Once you have access, you can press on the fabric squares for more details or demand physical samples, which are confirmed and, in many cases, dispatched the same day. Most companies offer video-conferencing support. Some spinners have come up with collection boxes, which are sent to its main customers at the beginning of the season. Sample headers carry QR squares that can be scanned for extra information and further samples can be ordered. All that said the digital will not replace the physical: the two systems will co-exist. Digital has given companies another tool with which to find new customers; it saves many of the costs associated with physical exhibitions; it is a good way to launch a collection and assess customer reaction without massive investment in collection building. But all are united in one feeling: the need to meet people is as strong as ever; as good as visualisation and 3D draping has become and however detailed the accompanying information, there is no substitution for touch. So, we’ll all be back at trade shows as soon as health legislation permits.
Which tools do the companies invest most in: web, social media, paper magazines?
A great deal has been said about the battle between analogue and digital media forms. Of course, the pandemic has exacerbated internet usage. Microsoft’s CEO, Satya Nadella, said the software giant had seen “two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months” at the beginning of the pandemic thanks to coronavirus shifting lives abruptly online.
Now that we are looking towards a post-Covid scenario, the situation needs re-assessing. There is no single answer to your question: it all depends on age, location and interest. In terms of apparel, where the consumer is the direct customer, there is no doubt that digital will maintain its gains. When non-essential shops were closed for long periods, the proportion of clothes bought online rose from 30% to over 70 percent in many countries. Indeed, market research firm Savanta found that only 12% of UK consumers intended to return to their pre-pandemic fashion choices. However, when we move downstream to the yarn and fabric sector, the picture changes. Although textile companies are the first to acknowledge the aid digital systems have given them during the lockdown, they also say there is no substitute for the physical and actual touch when it comes to selecting yarns and fabrics. The same can be said about information. If you are stating facts or giving news, then either system is as good as the other. When you are concentrating on visual content, as with fabric and yarn photography, then analogue is always the better choice in terms colour properties and cut and paste.
How did VIEW move?
VIEW is a niche product and famous for its fabric and yarn photography and content. We publish the magazine in both digital and analogue versions. Because the lockdown has curbed travel, there has been a new thirst for published trend information. Indeed, our digital sales have increased by over 20 percent in the last 12 months largely due, too, to the fact that readers have not been able to go to offices and studios to read or share the physical editions. But, at the same time, sales of our printed magazines have not suffered in the least bit. Quite the opposite, we expect them to increase rapidly once trade shows are opened up (especially since our magazine update and makeover has been so well received). At View Publications, we will continue to pursue an omni-channel approach to publishing improving our digital platform along the way. However, we believe, too, that if a product is niche, unique, and beautifully made, readers will always choose the physical version. We have not a few subscribers who proudly say they have all 134 issues of Textile View Magazine.
For the future in which direction should companies that want to promote their image go?
It’s everybody’s favourite guessing game: what will happen next when the covid crisis ends? Who will be spending? When will they be spending? Where will they be spending? And, above all, what will they be buying? As with everything concerning post-pandemic living, the market is completely split over whether consumers will stick with the casual comfort and lounge/athleisurewear wardrobe that has seen so many through the pandemic or will revenge buy their way into glamour and fun after so many months of basics? The general arguments that support a brisk return to dressing up are that many consumers have money in their pockets, they are sick of sameness and everyone wants to go out, feel good, be seen and socialise. But other companies believe the momentum still lies with loungewear, athleisure and sporty performance. Comfort, always an apparel issue in recent years, became paramount during the pandemic. Once you are used to the ease of stretchy constructions, it’s very hard to give that up. Besides, who said everyone is going back to the office? Most agree that companies will start to see the office as a hub and combine that with working from home, encouraging what Nordstrom calls Work-from-Anywhere Style. And, almost certainly, companies will relax dress codes as the workforce returns.
Lifestyle choices have also changed…
Of course, partying, holidays and music festivals remain priorities for many, but others have discovered the power of silence and, above all, nature during lockdown. The passion for country walks, cycling, gardening and self-sufficiency is not going to disappear. But when the crisis abates, it’s never going to be quite the same again!
What role do the environmental factor and the increasing attention to sustainability play in this change?
Although day-to-day living concerns meant many people took their eye off climate change, a new kinship with nature has made sustainability and recycling core issues for the industry, with regeneration the new go-to word. And, far more importantly with regard to long-term success, ESG (environmental, social and governance) concerns have become the new metric of the money world.
The rise of ethical brands that positively promote inclusivity, equality, community and caring for others will increase, and take centre stage. And last, but by no means least, there is a new word in clothing – justice. Justice for workers, wherever they are, on issues from safety factors to working hours, conditions and salary.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that there is no single answer to which direction companies should go in once lockdown is over. But that’s how it should be since, as I have always argued, there can no longer be a ‘one solution fits all’ in post-pandemic marketing and designing, but only fragmented approaches depending on age, work conditions and lifestyle preferences. One thing I feel strongly about: the future will be hybrid and blended, and, whether seriously smart, sexy, fun, responsible or regenerated, it must always be comfortable!