For a brief window of time during worldwide lockdowns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the world gave up on fashion. As homes became workplaces, pyjamas became uniforms; meanwhile, the fate of the last vestiges of bricks-and-mortar stores seemed sealed. In response, the big international names of the fashion world rushed to adapt, amping up their digital presence and strategically limiting physical shopping options around the availability of customers.
With people spending more time online than ever thanks to social restrictions, the digital avenue became the way to reach potential customers. Although the daily conundrum of what to wear was no longer an issue for most of the world, a change as simple as a new pair of jeans was just as good as a holiday. Influencers unable to travel switched to showcasing fashion as high-end as the destinations they’d once graced. Almost overnight, the retail fashion landscape changed.
For denim fashionista GUESS, the unprecedented situation was a chance to showcase the company’s ingenuity, versatility and agility – the same skill set it used to turn jeans from casual wear back into a fashion icon. At the epicentre of the pandemic outbreak, GUESS Vice President Asian Markets José Blanco says his team’s response dictated the entire company’s approach. “Last January, I was in Europe doing the buying for winter,” he recalls. “The day after I got back to China, they closed the whole country and locked down, so we got together with GUESS globally to create an executive crisis committee.”
From the heart of the crisis, José and his team were able to understand its full set of implications. “As soon as anything happens in any GUESS market, the entire company is ready to react,” he says. “So from our response we helped all the GUESS organisations prepare for the time COVID-19 would eventually affect their markets. Maybe not 100 per cent the same strategy, but at least the fundamentals to execute it.”
Even before the advent of the pandemic, José faced the challenges of a marketplace unique among the GUESS stable. The Chinese customer, he says, has developed a taste in fashion entirely different to Westerners, and the financial clout they wield has forced international labels and brands to adjust. “In response, Chinese brands are pushing harder than ever to take the top spot in the local market, so we’ve got these two big forces shaping the fashion industry in China.”
The situation has been a gift for GUESS, providing an opportunity to become a brand that is locally connected in ways never before possible. “We’ve had to readjust our store portfolio and strategy to acknowledge what’s happening in the market,” José shares. “In China, that’s been a jump from the cheaper fast fashion to affordable luxury, so we’ve been elevating the GUESS brand little by little to meet that need. It’s a very dynamic market, and you need speed to jump the bridges.”
“2021 has to be a year in which our digital connection to our customer base matures.”
You also need the right tools for the job and, in China, the best tool is digital. COVID-19 has turned foot traffic at shopping malls into an uncertainty; when the traffic isn’t there, José says digital is where the customers will be. “2021 has to be a year in which our digital connection to our customer base matures. Offline stores are still important in key areas, but people will only come if they can see what they’re also seeing online.”
Live streaming has proven to be a river of gold in that regard. For GUESS, it’s a direct insight into the latest trends and access to an instant customer base.
“Traffic happens digitally,” José says. “If people can’t go to our stores and interact with us, they have to be able to do it online. Live streaming is great because you can open as many channels as possible. Each store can have its own live stream to stay connected with its customer base. That’s how, during lockdown, we were able to keep interacting with our customers.”
If 2020 was a year to be agile, José believes 2021 will ultimately be a year of resilience. “Some people were talking last year about resilience, but to me it’s a long-term thing,” he explains. “We’re thinking about how we’re going to stay resilient after such a difficult year. We can’t just return to how things were – that’s wrong and very risky – so instead we’ll strengthen the pillars that got us through last year.”
One of those pillars – a greater focus on the local market – is already shaping up to be not only a game-changer, but also a realisation of José’s dream of GUESS as a global brand with local connections. “International brands will always be there, but with so many local brands investing here now, they need to stay humble to ensure they stay relevant. It’s very important to find the right way to play the game.”
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