Fashion & Covid
How One Community Is Fighting Back

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged all parts of the world and all parts of the economy. Creatives working in the fashion and beauty industries have been among the hardest hit, in particular those who run small businesses. They’ve seen their shops close, customers disappear, deals and collaborations evaporate, and their incomes lost.

With their lives and livelihoods upended by Covid, many of these independent creatives have turned to online communities for advice, support and inspiration. I run such a community, a Facebook Group called Hint Fashion Group, where I have noticed a spike in activity since the start of the pandemic.

With that post, I was able to establish that Covid poses the most urgent issue to the group. Next I wanted to understand the individual toll on the group. Specifically, I wanted to know how they’ve pivoted their operations to meet the Covid threat and keep their businesses afloat.

I identified and contacted three active members from Hint Fashion Group: a non-profit founder in Belgium, a perfumer in New York, and a fashion designer in New York. I arranged a half-hour conversation with each of them on Zoom, in order to hear a personal account and gain a deeper understanding of their unique experience with Covid.

I asked the same questions in each session revolving around the impact of the pandemic and their response to it:

  • At what point did you understand the magnitude of the Covid threat?
  • How has your business been impacted by Covid?
  • How have you adapted your business to meet this challenge?
  • What communities have you turned to for advice and support?
  • Have you seen anything positive come out of Covid?
  • What is your outlook for next year?

I condensed and edited their answers for clarity. And I have contextualized our chats with portraits and other images from their brand pages.

Here are their stories.

Ninette Murk
Non-Profit Founder
Antwerp, Belgium

Based in Belgium, Ninette Murk has launched numerous non-profits, including Beauty Without Irony, Designers Against AIDS and her latest, Beauty for a Better World, in response to Covid. In addition to social activism, Murk works as a consultant, creative director, journalist, curator, producer and remains an “eternal optimist.”

At what point did you understand the magnitude of the Covid threat?

When I had it myself in March. It was like a monster in my body. I was in bed for like ten days. They tested it and I was negative, but a doctor said I obviously had it. He was sure and I was sure, because I had never encountered anything so severe. It was scary.

In the beginning I didn’t realize Covid would have so much impact. I remember when I started following it, there were 90,000 cases worldwide. Now there are 65 million. Belgium is a very bad example. At one point we had the most infections per million of anywhere in the world. We’re such a small country. I think we have the same amount of inhabitants as New York has, like 11 or 12 million. It was horrible. The politicians didn’t know what to do. It was everywhere. Even the scientists said they didn’t know what was happening. It was quite chaotic.

How has your business been impacted by Covid?

I was just starting to look for new collaborations for Designers Against AIDS, to keep raising awareness because AIDS is still going on. It’s not stopping because there’s a new virus. The collaborations are T-shirt collections that we print for free and sell to shops like Dover Street Market, Ann Demeulemeester’s shop in Antwerp, and 10 Corso Como in Milan. We’ve worked with Katy Perry, Pharrell, Yoko Ono, and Cyndi Lauper to create the prints.

So earlier this year I started to reach out to brands to find new ideas for a collection of T-shirts, but they all said it’s the wrong virus! I was like, Fuck off! But it is the wrong virus from their point of view. It doesn’t fit into their marketing plans, so I had to put it on hold.

“It will grow and grow into a snowball of beauty, inspiring people and making them happy.”

Ninette Murk

How have you adapted your business to meet this challenge?

I was in bed a lot and I was thinking and thinking. I had founded Beauty Without Irony in 2001. Similar to DAA, it’s a creative platform in which I ask artists and fashion designers to supply prints or something else for a capsule collection. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to go back to this idea of collecting people’s visions of beauty. I ask people to send in the most beautiful drawing or film or artwork to them, and also to tell me why.

So I started Beauty for a Better World. It hasn’t launched yet, but I’m already asking people from my network to submit images of beauty. One of the first I got was from Peter Philips, the Dior make-up guy, and Olivier Theyskens, who sent me a picture from his shop. We have 50 images so far. It will grow and grow into a snowball of beauty, inspiring people and making them happy.

We still need a charity partner. I was reading a press release from the World Health Organization, and they wrote that due to the pandemic, over half the world’s population has mental health issues. That’s four billion people who have depression, suicidal thoughts, or anxiety, especially young people. I knew we had our issue: mental health.

There are going to be so many mental implications. We are not even close to knowing how bad this will be for people and their partners. I’m not going to change that by showing some beautiful pics. It’s not my goal to heal people, but maybe to give them some hope for the future — to inspire them and distract them from this shitty situation.

What communities have you turned to for advice and support?

It could be a really big community that sees Beauty for a Better World. I called the World Health Organization in Geneva, and I asked them if they would like to be our charity partner. They loved the idea and came back with a yes, though it’s not official yet. They are in 192 countries around the world. My idea is to do a collection of T-shirts with the most beautiful prints, or make a book or something totally different and send part of the money back to the World Health Organization to use with their projects with young children and teens.

Have you seen anything positive come out of the pandemic?

For me it has sharpened my creative instincts. And I see a lot of people getting very creative as they try to map out their future. For creativity, it hasn’t been all bad. I mean, for real creativity here (taps heart).

People are also becoming more human. It’s very good to see how many people help each other, on the street but also when you ask for help on Facebook. We’re getting back to a human level. Even before Covid, people were swapping clothes and buying more second-hand. I think for many young designers that means having a little shop and not designing too many things. They will not have to invest tons of money, and they will make beautiful clothes for 50 people and be happy and content and spend time with their friends. I think Covid is accelerating this return of slow fashion.

What is your outlook for next year?

I think we have another year of being very careful. Maybe we can feel better in January 2022. Forget it next year because you need 70% of people to be vaccinated, and in all countries because people travel a lot. We’re not going back to normal as it was before. It’s going to be a different world.

Joseph Quartana
New York City

Joseph Quartana founded Six Scents Parfums in 2008 and Parfums Quartana in 2017. He was awarded FGI International Finalist Award for Best New Fragrance Series in 2012. From 1999 to 2012, Quartana was the founder and fashion director of Seven New York, a boutique in New York City.

At what point did you understand the magnitude of the Covid threat?

I would say probably back in December or January because I work in the fragrance industry. It’s pretty much based in Italy, which got socked really early on. Then in March, the big perfume trade fair Esxence got canceled. I was going to release a new fragrance there. So I thought, Now what?

How has your business been impacted by Covid?

Slowly but surely my foreign business started canceling orders. Retail apocalypse had already been fucking everything up, but this felt much worse. All the dominos fell. By March there was no revenue coming in. If there’s no trade fair, there’s no business.

How have you adapted your business to meet this challenge?

Since it didn’t look like 2020 was going to be a good year for wholesale, I immediately shifted to digital retail [direct to consumer]. I learned everything myself. I took all these online Coursera classes, all this stuff on Shopify and Facebook Academy, learning digital ads and email marketing. I did a really cool online class at a Spanish university about integrated marketing. I’ve been doing all of my own web design too. I mastered Illustrator. Basically five or six months went by and I was just learning, learning, learning.

I also converted part of the business to making hand sanitizer. That’s what kept the lights on. The fragrance market fell apart. A lot of department stores had already gone under — it was already a bleak landscape. But suddenly there was a massive shortage of sanitizer. My factory got christened to be able to make it legally. The government gave perfume factories permission to make it. We sold almost $10,000 in one month, and the next month was maybe $8000. It did well because our sanitizer smelled really nice. Sanitizer is typically designed to be nasty so that alcoholics don’t drink it. Believe it or not they put glycerine in it to make it goopy and smell horrid — to discourage anyone from trying to drink it. People who didn’t want stinky hands bought mine. Then one day in April the industry caught up and you could find sanitizer everywhere for cheap. Our business collapsed again.

Parfums Quartana keeps rolling along though. We’re still winning awards, still getting a ton of press and still selling through the website. One weird thing that’s happened is that one of my risque scents called Bloodflower, which literally smells like blood and anise, became a huge hit in Vietnam. A gothic, vampiric scent is super popular in a tropical country — go figure.

“We’re all in our little desert islands and my desert island includes lots of ’70s ambient music, beautiful things, and nice food. That’s my civilization.”

Joseph Quartana

What communities have you turned to for advice and support?

As my information sources, I only read Reuters, the Associated Press, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the L.A. Times. For the business I relied on the advice of my mentor. We have kind of a loose Board of Directors that I turn to for advice and various things when I need it. So my main fragrance mentor has been wonderful in helping us steer the business. He’s the one who helped us out get the sanitizer program up and running. I’ve also been turning to the fragrance communities on social media to see what they want and how their tastes have changed.

Have you seen anything positive come out of Covid?

I try to stay focused on the finer things in life. Not only do I wear fragrance every day because it’s part of my life, I also get dressed up every day. I can’t live in pajamas. We can’t forget we’re a society. We have to have culture still, and discuss high art and listen to musical masters. We’re all in our little desert islands and my desert island includes lots of 70s ambient music, beautiful things and nice food. That’s my civilization.

What is your outlook for next year?

I’m skeptical. I did a lot of soul searching this year. I think everyone did. Being in this meditative period I finally realized that I’m not a fan of capitalism. For me, Covid has exposed the toxicity of our hyper-capitalistic system. I don’t see that changing.

Joshua Katcher
Fashion Designer
New York City

Joshua Katcher started Brave GentleMan, a vegan and ethical menswear brand, in 2010. He lectures internationally on sustainable and ethical fashion and he serves as an adjunct professor at Parsons The New School. Katcher was awarded Menswear Brand of the Year by PETA in 2016.

At what point did you understand the magnitude of the Covid threat?

I think things like that are really palpable in New York City because we’re all so close. It really hit home when everything got quiet and people stopped doing the things they did regularly. Also, I would say probably when my husband was let go from his job. He worked in restaurants. That was also a really big moment when we knew this is not something that’s just going to go away in a couple of weeks. This is going to be long-term.

How has your business been impacted by Covid?

A lot of deals that I had in the works all fell through at exactly the same moment, which was really disappointing because I worked really hard on them. It felt like I was on the verge of something big for my brand. I was in talks with Indochino, a suiting company, to do a suit collaboration that would have been my biggest deal. They were interested in trying to figure out how to make a sustainable vegan suit that was affordable and they were going to partner on that with Brave GentleMan. As soon as the shit hit the fan they were like, We can’t do this and we can’t do anything at least until mid-2021. That was in March.

I had already sublet my shop before the pandemic, because somebody wanted it for the holidays in 2019 and I needed a break. I was at the store so much and I wanted to reconfigure a few things with the business. I was planning on coming back right after the holidays but when March rolled around, I knew I couldn’t take the store back. I couldn’t have the overhead of a brick-and-mortar.

“I’ve seen people support each other in ways that show bravery and resilience.”

Joshua Katcher

How have you adapted your business to meet this challenge?

I immediately eliminated every product category that wasn’t our main product category. I have not had anything but footwear this entire time. I knew that I had to trim anything that could potentially lose money or that would be an additional expense. I zeroed in on footwear and did the best I could through online sales, without the store and without employees. So, I pivoted to best-sellers, trimmed staff, I didn’t take back the storefront, and I focused on online sales.

What communities have you turned to for advice and support?

I wish there were communities or a system for getting people relief information. I would get texts from a friend that said, “Quick, apply for this loan, the deadline is tomorrow.” And I would scramble to do it. It felt like a free-for-all, like you had to know somebody who’s going to hold your hand. I would think, I know people in city government and city hall. I’ve lobbied city hall. I’ve spoken and given testimony in consideration of legislation. Even for somebody like me who’s connected to politics, it still felt like it was a total mess and that we were all in the dark. I remember feeling like we are on our own. My fellow entrepreneurs were talking to each other and whoever found out something would share it.

There should have been people who do public-facing marketing to simplify messages. There should have been step-by-step guides to getting financial assistance, sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure. There should have been TV commercials and web advertisements that were talking about these things. The assumption was that people who own a business would know how to do this stuff, but it’s just not true. We’re creatives who rely on automated systems like PayPal or Shopify or Squarespace, and if those companies aren’t providing information, then we’re not going to get it.

When I contacted local politicians, I would get form letters in response. I know they were overwhelmed, but that’s their job. There should have been liaisons. There should have been people who were tasked with this. There’s a reason we’re incorporated. We’re in a database, so why weren’t we directly contacted by someone to say they’re going through all the lists, even an email to all the LLCs in the database with links and updates. If I could have signed up for alerts, I would have, to alert me anytime there’s an opportunity for a grant or a PPP loan. Even my accountant was confused. Those are the kinds of communities we should have had.

Have you seen anything positive come out of the pandemic?

I think there was a hope that the pandemic would be like a reset button. My fear though is that it really wasn’t much of a reset button. We see that it didn’t have a big impact on greenhouse gases. The lack of all of our activity didn’t really put a dent into what’s happening. What that means is that putting the burden of responsibility to battle the climate crisis on consumers is a distraction from what the reality is, which is that it happens on the industrial side of things. We need to change the system of industrial production. We’re all running around trying to take cold showers and wash our clothes on cold. But it’s just a distraction. It doesn’t have much of an impact. Real change isn’t going to be convincing your neighbor to recycle their newspapers. It’s going to be passing legislation that mandates what corporations can and can’t do on a huge scale.

But I will also say I think a lot of people during the pandemic changed their eating habits. I’ve seen some data showing that a lot of people are eating a lot more plant-based foods, which I think is really promising. When left to cook for ourselves and become aware of our health and what we’re eating, it seems that trend is being supercharged.

Also, I’ve seen people support each other in ways that show bravery and resilience. I was taking part in the protests over the summer with Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police. Everybody was so respectful, wore masks, kept distant and were sharing hand sanitizer. At the same time there were thousands of us out there protesting the police and demanding justice. That felt really magical and bizarre to be in a mass protest during a pandemic. Part of it felt apocalyptic and another part of it felt transformative, from an emotional support standpoint.

What is your outlook for next year?

I’m troubled. I’m very science- and data-oriented so it’s very distressing to see the denial and the conspiracy theories. There’s a disdain for expertise, academics, intellectuals, and scientists. It troubles me too because part of my brand is about environmental science and biology, and understanding our relationship to nature and animals. We use data to look at climate impacts and the decisions we make for our materials and the things we’re trying to replace in the market. Why we’re trying to do that is very much based on what the current science of the climate crisis and the biodiversity crisis is.