THE WASHINGTON POST – This should have been a season of celebration for Nellie Partow, a designer who is literally and figuratively a fighter. Almost 10 years in business. Profitable.
But then the world stopped.
“It’s not an easy pill to swallow,” she said.
Partow normally works with a team of 10 from her New York design studio. Now, she’s at home in her West Village apartment with her dog Mika. For the first time, she gets a little nervous taking her “four-legged child” for a nightly stroll in her adopted city.
“It’s scary outside,” she said. “There’s no one on the street.”
It’s almost impossible for Partow to work remotely. Fashion is a tactile pursuit. She can’t do proper fittings by video conference. Patternmakers can’t function. Still, she checks in on her employees every day.
“I spend more time with them than with anyone in my life,” Partow said.
Partow’s is the kind of business that occupies one of the most perilous positions in the fashion universe. It’s not big enough to be a bully. And it’s not so small that it’s really still a dream. Yet it’s fundamental to the industry. Hers is the kind of business that makes up its soul. And fashion’s soul is in New York City, the current epicentre of the US’ COVID-19 crisis.
Partow, and others like her, are trying to remain resolute. They have faith in their own tenacity. They see slivers of a silver lining in a profoundly dark sky. They believe fashion matters.
“I might have to take three steps back,” Partow said. “But I know what starting from three steps back looks like – because I started from nothing.”
Partow’s clothes are supremely accessible but also quite beautiful – the kind of styles that might cause someone’s glance to linger for reasons they can’t quite put their finger on. Partow, 40, has never been an industry darling; that designation is usually reserved for young, charismatic men. She’s never mounted provocative runway productions. Instead, she simply has focussed on creating gorgeous clothes for ambitious women who wanted panache in a pragmatic wardrobe.
Partow opened her business in the aftermath of the 2008 recession and managed to turn a profit after only three years – a near miraculous feat in an industry where entrepreneurs sometimes toil for a decade or longer and never see their dedication pay off.
She had every reason to believe that if she kept doing as she had always done, the momentum would continue.
“We were lean. I learned to operate that way, starting from nothing,” Partow said. Last year “was the best year of the brand. The business had just started to really scale”.
Now, the USD400 billion American fashion industry, along with every other segment of the economy, is in the midst of a breakneck unravelling. Awful news has been overwhelming, from Macy’s announcing that it was laying off some 125,000 people – almost its entire workforce – to the Gap and Kohl’s cutting 80,000 employees each from their payroll. Runway presentations have been cancelled or postponed. Trade shows have been shelved. Factories and workshops that normally churn out fancy perfume or cocktail dresses have been making hand sanitiser and face masks. Others have simply shut down. Brick-and-mortar boutiques are dark. And online retailers are touting massive e-commerce markdowns on merchandise that they’ve barely had time to market at full price.
For small and medium-sized independent companies, those without a global footprint or bold-face notoriety, the struggle to survive can be especially lonely.
To help those businesses – both design houses and retailers – Vogue and the Council of Fashion Designers of America have launched the fundraising initiative A Common Thread. Approximately USD700,000 initially earmarked as prize money in an annual competition to nurture new designers has been redirected there. Ralph Lauren’s philanthropic foundation contributed USD1 million. Designer Gabriela Hearst chipped in USD20,000. And others with connections to the industry have offered financial help.
But much of the outreach – online video messages from designers, email blasts from Vogue Editor Anna Wintour, social media posts – has been focussed on asking the public to help keep fashion afloat.
Similar community pleas have come from the restaurant industry. And in many ways, these small fashion firms are akin to the chef-owned restaurants that give character to neighbourhoods – and the food world, in general – and make them vibrant.
Fashion holds a very different place in the public consciousness. It doesn’t stir a similar kind of neighbourly intimacy for most people. Consumers may love the creativity of fashion but find themselves exasperated by everything else: the cost, the exclusivity, the inability to find a single swimsuit in stores in August because they were all sold or discounted by April.
But what these brands produce is no less personal and satisfying. They helped transform our culture from one of business-suit formality to sneaker-wearing, open-floor-plan casualness. They make main streets places of discovery rather than homogeneity. They are made up of real people who fill a role.
“More than ever, people need to be uplifted,” Partow said.
This crisis is a test, not just of fashion as a business, but also as a culture. Common Thread is testing whether society believes that self-expression is worth preserving.
Two weeks ago, as Congress was debating the USD2 trillion COVID-19 relief plan, the fashion industry was lobbying hard for inclusion. Nearly two dozen chief executives, as well as representatives from industry trade organisations, were asking for immediate funds to help pay employees and rent, along with a break from duties and tariffs, said designer Tory Burch, who was a point person in the effort. She, along with Wintour, put in calls to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin, House leadership and New York’s senators to ask that Seventh Avenue receive the same focussed consideration as the airline industry and the hospitality trade.
“I don’t know how to underplay the sense of urgency,” said Burch in an interview during that period. “We’re not going to have an industry if we don’t get relief.”
The final bill includes more streamlined access to small business loans, portions of which will be forgiven. But that has not stemmed the layoffs or the closures. The industry wants more support. And a big question is not whether consumers will want fashion when the lights come back on, it’s whether they’ll be in a financial position to buy it.
“I think the government situation with the loans is, in theory, a fantastic idea. My concern is how the whole process is going to work and how long it will take and when the funds will be available. It’s scary in the sense that there’s so many unknowns,” said owner of the independent boutique Relish in Washington, DC Nancy Pearlstein. “I think a lot of small retailers will not be here in six months. It depends on their landlord, their cash flow, their relationships with vendors and their will to survive.”
Fashion is an ecosystem with one segment often at odds with another. Independent retailers are often enraged by the cycle of sales at larger competitors. Small design houses often feel buffeted by large merchants who have the clout to negotiate asymmetrical contracts. Big, corporately owned labels set a minimum amount of merchandise that small boutiques must stock – and pay for – if they want to sell the label at all. This pandemic has forced the industry to put those differences aside.
“We need to help our competitors,” said Burch, who so far has not had to furlough any of her 4,500 employees. “We cannot be political.
“A lot of (industries) are in peril,” Burch added. “But I don’t want ours to be left behind.”
Partow saw the storm brewing.
She shipped her spring collection to stores in full. It included a violet pantsuit that manages to be both professional and rakish. Pin-striped shirt dresses that fall just above the knee. And one especially striking day dress with intriguing stitching encircling the waist.
Neiman Marcus, which is one of her largest accounts and reportedly considering filing for bankruptcy protection, included that collection in a shop-at-home flash sale. At the Bon Marche in Paris, the collection is only offered in-store, not online. And the store is closed. So are the small boutiques.
Her fall 2020 collection is a winner – full of generous silhouettes, nubby sweaters and a shade of lapis blue that’s as deep and invigorating as the Mediterranean Sea. If Partow is lucky, those clothes – at least some of them – will make it to stores. Most of her production was in northern Italy. When the health situation began to deteriorate there, she moved some of it to factories in the south. And then, chased by the rampaging COVID-19, she brought as much as possible to the US. But the knitwear manufacturing couldn’t be relocated to the US – the machinery to make it just doesn’t exist here as far as she knows.
Brett Johnson, 30, is an American menswear designer who decided to move his business from New York to Milan in January 2019. It made sense at the time. His high-end, restrained tailoring was attracting mostly European customers who saw it as an Americanised version of sprezzatura, a studied nonchalance. His production was already in Italy. He was so committed to his decision that he even named his 16-month old daughter Siena.
Johnson also wanted to stake a claim for African American men as both customers and entrepreneurs in the luxury market – the tippy-top of the fashion pyramid.
“My hope, my goal when I talk about my core values, is setting an example for black men on how to dress, how to fit in, how to immerse themselves into a culture predominantly run by white men,” said Johnson, who has been working from his New York apartment since returning from Italy several weeks ago. “I think with streetwear, you get pigeonholed or labelled as a lesser-than demographic, whether it’s true or not. It’s a perception people have.”
Johnson doesn’t design streetwear. His sportswear is a rebuke of it. He is dressed in one of his company’s cashmere hooded sweaters that even in the murky lighting of a FaceTime conversation looks as plush as a baby blanket.
Johnson, the son of BET co-founders Robert Johnson and Sheila Johnson, had the advantage of his parents’ entrepreneurial savvy. But this situation? There are no case studies, no templates. His business is six years old, self-financed and not yet profitable. His fall collection was in the midst of production when everything shut down. Now, instead of getting it to stores in May, he hopes it will arrive by August. He hopes the stores will be open.
Spring is the lost season. And fall? When might it arrive? How much merchandise should a store plan to stock for a future that people are hungering for but that will be shaped by incomparable, devastating events?
“It’s a balancing act,” Pearlstein said. “That’s what I’m struggling with.”
If there’s any positive glimmer, it’s that the fashion system, what remains of it, could be reset. If fall merchandise is delayed, that means consumers would walk into stores in September and see freshly arrived fall clothing – instead of being asked to start thinking about parkas and snowboots in June.
That was the old system – the way fashion worked before the countless drops and special editions. Stores engaged in two planned sales a year instead of panicked discounting. Shoppers were wooed with creativity instead of massive quantities.
Before Partow launched her own brand, she was a a child of immigrants, growing up in Laguna Beach, California, and obsessed with ‘90s fashion television, which was defined by MTV’s House of Style, and CNN’s Style with Elsa Klensch. She was enamoured with the work of Gianni Versace and Yves Saint Laurent.
“I came from a family that left Iran as a result of the revolution and had everything taken away,” Partow said. “My dad ended up in the luxury space selling yachts. My mom’s side of the family was artists.”
When she decided she wanted to be a designer, her parents argued that a business degree would be the best foundation. So after doing due diligence at San Francisco State University, she studied fashion at Parsons School of Design. She interned at Donna Karan and then worked at Calvin Klein and John Varvatos.
But what might have most prepared her for this punishing moment was the hobby she picked up as a teenager: Boxing.
It culminated with a championship Golden Gloves fight at Madison Square Garden in 2007. She climbed into the ring wearing bright blue satin shorts and a matching tank – blue-padded headgear fit snugly over her dark hair piled into a bun. The fight commentators praised her relentless jab and fearlessness in the face of an opponent who was taller and had a longer reach. Partow won by unanimous decision.
“You learn in the boxing ring to weather a storm,” Partow said. “It’s like a form of meditation. The calmer you are, the more you see.”
So in the midst of this tsunami, she stubbornly, shockingly – perhaps reflexively – refuses to even consider that her business will fail.
“I don’t,” Partow said. “I think it’s the fighter in me.”