Fashion pivots to the essentials | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

Bench store personnel wear face shields and masks.
Bench store personnel wear face shields and masks.

(Second in a series)

The pandemic has presented not only pitfalls but also opportunities for major fashion retailers. While reopened stores struggle to make up for the losses of the monthslong closure, retailers like to believe that the past three months didn’t go to waste.

First, they say, it drove them to step back and review their offerings to respond to new needs brought on by the health crisis. It also sped up the implementation of new ways to reach customers and, from a broader view, forced them to rethink the way they make fashion.

Penshoppe, one of the largest homegrown fashion brands, has reopened 90 percent of its stores, and like other brands, has had to adhere to strict health and safety protocols.

“The situation removes the social aspect of shopping, but we have found that opportunities still abound by zooming in on how we can address our markets’ needs at the moment,” Alice Liu, chief marketing officer of Golden ABC, owner of Penshoppe, told Lifestyle in an email.


Social distancing floor stickers at Penshoppe


“We have challenged our teams to diversify offerings and develop concepts we have recently introduced on the market, including our line of protection essentials (masks and shields) and personal hygiene products (hand sanitizers and fabric disinfectants),” she added.

Bench, the homegrown fashion giant that’s turned global with stores in China and other countries, is also banking on sales from core products to buoy them through this period. Of its 516 stores that have reopened, sales have been mainly of its underwear and athleisure wear lines, as well as its expanded line of alcogel disinfectants.

“We are fortunate to have invested early in e-commerce, long before the lockdown. This has allowed us time to hone our efficiencies, understand the market, and expand in other marketplaces,” said Bryan Lim, vice president for business development of Suyen Corp., owner of Bench.

Both Bench and Penshoppe have their respective e-stores and outlets in online marketplaces like Lazada, Zalora and Shopee.

“Even as our stores were shuttered, Penshoppe continued interacting with our market, keeping them engaged with positive messaging to help them through the challenges of isolation,” Liu said. “We believe this has maintained the brand’s strong connection with the market, until the time we can welcome them back into our stores.”

She added, “Our priorities have shifted from market expansion to serving different markets around the country in new ways, to ensure the stability and continuance of our business moving forward.”

Lim sees “deprioritized spending” as the biggest hurdle for fashion retail, apart from operational adjustments “to fulfill the same service with reduced manpower because of our public transportation limitations.” Bench also has to contend with production delays and distribution rescheduling, he added.


Signage at H&M

Renewable fashion

When the pandemic hit, Swedish fast-fashion giant H&M had to close over 60 percent of its stores globally, including for a time its online store

Dan Mejia, H&M Phils. head of communications: “We need self-reflection, quick action.”

In June, H&M reopened most of its stores here, except those in Cebu, as the city reverted to lockdown. H&M Philippines also launched its catalog delivery service for those who remain uncomfortable about going out to shop. The catalog is updated on a weekly basis on the H&M Facebook page, said Dan Mejia, H&M Philippines’ head of communications and press.

With fast-fashion producers drawing so much flak for environment and ethical issues, the pandemic only hastened many of H&M’s global initiatives.

“Even before this pandemic, we were already faced with situations directing us to do better for both the people and the planet,” Mejia said. “This pandemic put to light what we need to do now for the industry to continue to thrive. Now that we were forced to pause, it allowed us to step back and see the bigger picture more clearly.”

As H&M refocuses on what it calls “renewable fashion,” Mejia added, “We are not perfect but we strive to constantly improve, to be a part of the solution rather than the problem. We aim to lead the change toward a circular and renewable fashion by being a fair and equal company. However, for the industry to be truly sustainable, we need the other 98 percent to join in and have a circular approach.”

Market response

Asked about the market’s response to the reopening, Liu said, “Some areas have been encouraging,” though recovery “still has a long way to go.”

“We are hopeful that because we have managed our inventory levels well, we are in good position to react quickly to customers, giving us the edge we

Alice Liu, chief marketing officer of Penshoppe:“Opportunities still abound.”

need to stay relevant to our market,” she said. “Brands that have shifted to provide products that cater to their customer’s need to stay safe, comfortable and within budget, will remain the most resilient and will weather this crisis.”

With Filipinos prioritizing expenses on essentials, it will be a slow recovery for fashion retail, Lim said. “The effect will be long-term not just for brands, but for the entire supply chain and its ancillary industries,” he said.

Lim, however, sees a silver lining. “It is an opportune time to review purpose-driven design, conscious production and sincere consumer engagement so that we can make better fashion and better retail experience,” he said.“At Bench, we have been focused on producing essential goods such as everyday basics, underwear and alcohol disinfectants that are relevant to the needs of the consumers now. This has helped us delay deep discounting, which we will eventually do as it is a necessary part of the retail cycle. Alternatively, we have been offering bundling promotions to offer our consumers more value for money.”

“Beyond discounting, we are concentrating on seeing how our existing styles fit into our customers’ lives in the new normal,” said Liu. “What do they need to work from home? What do they need while commuting in this rainy weather? Are they wearing something differently now? We are looking if there’s a way we can answer those questions with the lines that we have. And if we aren’t able to, we set about addressing them by introducing new and relevant items.”

Value for money

H&M is banking on its value-for-money offering to keep consumers shopping for essential items to wear at home and at work.

Bryan Lim, Bench vice president for business development: “Pivot, reconfigure and adapt.”—RICHARD A. REYES

“Although we are not the most essential items during this time, we believe that people will continuously need clothes,” Mejia said. “That presents an opportunity for the industry. But we need self-reflection and quick action because we cannot continue to do the same thing. We must make sure to offer fashion and quality at the best price in a sustainable way.”

However challenging this period, these retailers remain optimistic.

At Bench, which has reopened 70 percent of its stores, “we are still in careful study and have not made any decisions on closures,” said Lim.

“As a business, it is important to know your strengths so you can capitalize on them and to accept your weaknesses so you can pivot, reconfigure and adapt,” Lim added. “As a brand, it is important to know the values you uphold and the market you service. In times of crisis, they are the two things that will define you.”

Talk of store closures is also “a bit premature,” according to Penshoppe’s Liu. “We continue to track and assess each store’s performance, and we aim to be present in markets where business conditions remain worthwhile.”

She added, “This situation has strengthened our resolve to continue fashioning experiences for our community at large… It is a priority for us to take care of the community closest to us… It is important for us to be part of the collective effort to give back to the community that has fostered Penshoppe as a brand, and help out in any way we can.”

There were imperative changes demanded of the fashion industry long before the pandemic, Mejia noted. “What the pandemic situation did is accelerate the changes that we all want to happen, that must happen,” he said. “It is forcing all of us to approach the new world order with fresh perspectives—one that will be truly beneficial for both the people and the planet, which will in turn be beneficial for the business.”


Fitted clothes at Bench are heat-steamed and treated with UVC light.