The beginning of this week brought countless announcements that retailers and fashion brands will temporarily shutter their brick-and-mortar businesses to combat the spread of coronavirus. The list includes major players like Macy’s, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdales, and brands like Ralph Lauren and those under the conglomerate Kering, such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta, and Balenciaga. A number of them are attempting to soften the economic impact by offering discounts online and sensitively remerchandising products like tracksuits and slipper-like shoes that speak to our work-from-home present.
For smaller retailers, independent boutiques, and brands that emphasize the brick-and-mortar experience, closing and simply shifting energy and resources to e-commerce isn’t really feasible. Many of these stores have built something more than a customer base—they have a community, and one that relies on the vision and creative resources that these stores provide. Many don’t even have e-commerce, relying instead on an old-fashioned yet ultra-contemporary approach that encourages in-person product discovery and connection. “We’ve always wanted people to come to the shop or come to the archive and love something, and touch it, and try it on,” said Jess Gonsalves, who runs the New York archival-fashion mecca Procell with her life partner, Brian Procell. “And smell the incense, and hear the music, and interact with the staff.” The whole goal is to elevate a sort of knowledge-sharing between sales associates and clients, from individuals looking for great jeans to major fashion clients looking for the next cool collaborator.
“At times I feel like this ain’t no time to be shopping, but I quickly snap out of it,” René Tadeo Holguin, founder of the Los Angeles tastemaker’s paradise RTH, wrote in an email on Thursday morning. “We need the business so we can continue, and folks out there need the connection. I like to think that folks making purchases is a sign of hope, optimism with looking forward.”
These stores find themselves facing the crisis with something beyond the standard playbook, instead focusing on kindness and ingenuity to chart unorthodox new paths to connect with customers. They come to fashion and retail with a specific vision, a philosophy, best practiced in person, and which they need to sustain for an uncertain future without the usual tools—namely, their near-mythical retail spaces—at their disposal. Consider Sid Mashburn, the Atlanta-based purveyor of approachable but impeccable menswear, who, along with his wife, Ann, has made customer goodwill a keystone of the business: “Be nice to your customers, and they’ll be nice to you,” as GQ described it in an interview with the retailer last year. “The thing we keep coming back to is how can we be helpful to our customers and to our teams?” Mashburn wrote by email. “For starters, we’re trying to just make ourselves available.” He’s been keeping his customers updated on the status of the business and stores—he has five, in Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, all of which he closed earlier this week—with warm and personal emails. “Like everyone else, we’re trying to adapt our email and social content to be encouraging and helpful and relevant to this strange time we’re in,” he wrote, “and perhaps provide a little community while we’re at it.”
Procell and Gonsalves said the decision to physically close Procell was easy. Last week, business “was pumping,” Procell acknowledged in a phone interview, but by Saturday, it was clear that closing “was just the right thing to do.” They have elderly neighbors in the Lower East Side building that houses the store, and their customer demographic skews young. “We don’t have our main source of income coming in [now],” Gonsalves said, “but it just seemed like the right thing. And I think that that’s what is going to get us through this as a culture, as a city, as world citizens.”
For both Mashburn and Holguin, personal appointments have become a crucial way to sustain customer relationships. Holguin is offering FaceTime appointments, and is also fielding emails from customers about what’s available in-store. “We have to keep going,” he said in a phone call last week. A guiding motive for Holguin has been the continued wellbeing of his employees. “Their livelihood depends on the business, and the business depends on sales.” His e-commerce was previously limited, but he’s adding more and more products—the store has a small batch of new inventory that they need to move, he said.
When Mashburn closed his stores earlier this week, he and his team decided to “keep the lights on and have someone there for private appointments…We’ve found that a lot of people are looking for a reason to safely get out of the house.” He suggests calling before visiting.
Mashburn has a strong e-commerce offering, which he is continuing “with a small (socially distanced) team picking, packing, and shipping orders out. Fortunately, customer service can happen from anywhere. And we’ll be waiving our return fees during this time so that you’re able to make returns from home.”
Procell, on the other hand, is an e-comm atheist. You’ve never been able to shop their inventory online, and you can’t just direct-message him to get something you see on his Instagram the way you might with other archival fashion accounts.
So for Procell and Gonsalves, this offers the first chance they’ve had in as long as they can remember to organize and share their extensive archive, which they’re now rolling out on Instagram. If most vintage dealers are sourcing “in real time,” Procell said, sensing what’s hot and buying pieces that speak to that moment or trend, Procell and Gonsalves have such an extensive collection—built over a lifetime, basically—that they’re able to “have an idea of what can be valuable in the foreseeable future.” That prophetic sensibility has been another primary source of income—their archive is a creative cabinet of curiosities, proverbially behind the carefully assembled storefront, that makes them desired consultants for fashion brands on future trends, concepts, collections, and collaborations. (That part of the business has slowed down, they said, but not stopped entirely.) And now they are “looking at what we’ve been able to purchase ahead of the curve, and maybe back-posting some of that stuff. That might give us some time to shine in the industry, because everyone is looking at their phone, at the same time.” He added, “With this time, we can blow people’s minds with our posts.”
Over the past few days, for example, they’ve posted a tee by the hardcore band Biohazard with one of their famous lyric-cum-mantra “the virus of hate infects the ignorant mind”; a painting of a “Humanity Street” sign by mural artist ESPO (also known as Steve Powers); and a Butthole Surfers toilet paper roll. “I think the world can see the potential of what the real Procell or archive experience is,” Procell said. “Like, those are shirts that are not only worth a ton of money, but are impossible to get because of how in-demand they are.” And while the sense of rarity is cool, the philosophy that T-shirts are fashion’s most urgent medium for expression is what really stands out. Rather than do a moodboard or screenshot of an editorial, “I like to think of [T-shirts] as memes,” he said, giggling a bit. “Why not showcase fashion’s first meme, which is the ultimate broadcasting tool? [The T-Shirt] the common thread in every fashion house at some point now.”
Like Procell, RTH and Sid Mashburn don’t take a typical marketing approach to Instagram, and plan to use it as a way to connect with their customers. “On Instagram, let’s just keep each other engaged, and find human connection,” Holguin said. “We’re human, and we need human connection. If it can’t be in person, I think there’s other ways of doing it.” Holguin said. On Wednesday, he posted a note on his account that he’d been fighting anxiety by doodling and journaling on his pants, “something many of us did in school.” His super-customized skinny but slouchy denim silhouette is perhaps the product he’s best known for, and he’s now offering to mail customers their own drawing kits, allowing them to doodle on a pair of deadstock white or neutral pants that his team will then embellish and slouch post-crisis. “We never do this but let’s figure out how,” he wrote, and added the hashtag #journalpants.
For Mashburn, Instagram is also something more than a moodboard for branding. “While we mostly sell clothes,” Mashburn wrote, “we’re a lifestyle brand at heart and have always loved connecting with people, sharing things we found or made, mixed tapes or recipe cards, or just things that we just thought were really, really great…and that’s honestly sort of our way of storytelling.”
I asked Procell whether he thinks that this kind of community building, at a moment when everyone is glued to their phones for both news and distractions, will have an effect on the other side of all of this—if it might shift tastes, more generally. Fashion, after all, is a cycle of responding to and against last season’s trends. If there are “no trends” coming out of streetstyle and the runway, will the very idea of what’s trendy or cool completely reset? “I think in this time of isolation, there’s going to be a new wave of influence, 100%,” he said. “Let’s say the whole percentage of the population that never had time to be on their phone will now be bombarded with imagery, and that’s got to have some kind of sea change or shift. We shall see. It’s undeniable. Art will change, and fashion will have to change. And obviously, we’ll be a part of it.”
“What a moment to reflect,” Holguin said. “It doesn’t matter, our faith, our culture, our geographic location—we are all feeling exactly the same way…. It’s not a bad time to reflect on what’s important, and how do I want to move forward?”
Originally Appeared on GQ