Adapting to different circumstances is a part of an entrepreneur’s job description. As public spaces around the city that were not considered essential businesses were closed mid-March—including restaurants, clothing stores, museums, schools, parks and the lakefront—the quarantine enforced by local government is another level of adapting, and it affects small fashion businesses differently.
“We haven’t had any sales since shelter-in-place started,” says Jamie Hayes, owner of sustainable fashion brand Production Mode. The majority, if not all of her manufacturing, is done in Chicago. As fashion brands began making face masks to assist with the shortage of protection gear for medical staff, frontline workers and the homeless, Hayes followed suit. “As soon as everything was announced we switched to making masks,” she says. “This mass initiative from the beginning was a collaboration between different designers around the city.“
The importance of community was made clear, even as social distancing collaborations continue with the help of technology and donations from clients. The same applies to Hayes, who is working with Anna Brown, Emily Winter of The Weaving Mill, as well as her own staff and volunteers to produce face masks.
With the aggressive shift of everyday interactions between people, the urge to help local brands and artisans by purchasing products has become a way to directly support the creative community. Nelissa Carrillo, founder behind the brand Stronger, Wiser, Everyday, has seen an uptick in sales for her label. “I’m a freelancer. Wardrobe styling has come to a halt. But what’s crazy is I’ve been getting more engagement and consistent orders for my brand,” she says. “Before it was pretty sporadic but now I’m staying busy with orders.”
Like many industries, the fashion industry has had to take a step back and hit the reset button. Carrillo thinks things will go back to basics and designers will not take the typical route of designing a collection during fashion season. “So many emerging brands have used that as their business model from the beginning and I think more people will respond to that now.”
Throughout the shelter in place, resources for small businesses have been shared through multiple outlets and as of April 16, the $350 billion fund created to support smaller businesses was exhausted. Every day a new email about a grant or loan that will help small businesses comes in. But what a lot of people don’t realize is that under these guidelines in the United States any company with 500 employees or less is considered a small business.
“For solo entrepreneurs or self-employed people apparently you can apply for the Payment Protection Program (PPP), but they shared that information so late and I can’t imagine there will actually be funding available,” Carrillo says. “Same with the Economic Industry Disaster Loan (EIDL). There’s so much confusion around these programs. There’s no real support that I can see for people that are the most vulnerable.
“There’s definitely a lot of community involvement in helping small businesses and the information is out there,” she says. “It depends on what you personally need. One private lender is Kiva, you support whoever you want in the community and they can even give small business loans up to $50,000 or $100,000.” Hayes adds, “I applied for the CFDA grant and another one called the Red Backpack Fund, created by the founder of Spanx, Sara Blakely.” Both designers feel things will change drastically with how fashion is presented and consumed going forward.
“I keep having this feeling it’s going to be appointment-only or small capacities for events,” says Carrillo. “I think people are going to be more involved with their communities and that’s what stood out the most was how much support I received and given it back. It might be the change we needed.”
Hayes ended our conversation with an idea of what the creative process will look like for designers going forward. “A lot of things are being brought into strict relief and it’s super-clear,” she says. “How does your brand matter? What does it actually do? How does it bring value? If you can’t answer that question, you’re going to struggle after this, but if you can you’re going to fly.”