Since the identification of the coronavirus on Jan. 7 in the Chinese port city of Wuhan, more than 110,000 people have tested positive, of whom over 3,800 — at the time of writing — have died.
In this context, the struggles of the fashion industry are beyond trivial. However, looking at the epidemic through the lens of fashion provides insight into just how reliant on China the industry has recently become, including within the Middle East.
As the virus continues to spread, so too does its impact on fashion.
Not only has the infectious disease prompted major re-shuffling within the industry’s calendars of events — Giorgio Armani recently postponed its Fall 2021 cruise show set to take place in Dubai in April — its consequences are also affecting the way local businesses operate.
According to the World Trade Statistical Review, a report by the World Trade Organization (WTO), China remains the world’s largest textile producer and exporter, rounding up $119 billion in textile exports in 2018, or 37.6 percent of the global market share. It also produces many of the other elements that go into clothes, from buttons and zippers to thread.
However, in light of the outbreak, local Chinese governments have decided to shutter factories and keep workers home amid fears of spreading the coronavirus, in turn halting manufacturing and disrupting the supply chain.
“I wasn’t able to buy fabric I needed for orders. My supplier gets his fabric from China and all fabric mills have shut down. I was told I had to wait until June,” said Tala Nehlawi, founder of her eponymous womenswear label based in Toronto, which sources its fabrics from Dubai.
Nehlawi is not alone. A vast number of brands based in the region depend on China for manufacturing and raw material sourcing, but as the country clamors to contain the disease, many local brands and designers could face months of operational delays.
For Azra Khamissa, founder of UAE-based leather accessories label Azra Dubai, the closing of China’s non-essential enterprises will encourage local designers to produce regionally — Tunisia has one of the most established textile industries in the world — thereby boosting the economy within the Middle East and North Africa. “Most of my products are made locally, so the coronavirus hasn’t really affected me so far,” she said.
However, while luxury labels and brands with multiple manufacturing bases are better equipped to weather the situation by temporarily re-allocating orders to other regions, small-scale brands are more vulnerable, finding that it is costly to move between markets.
“We have stock stuck with manufacturers in China and we have had to move manufacturing locally here in the UAE. It’s costing us a lot,” said Dubai-based Ola Farahat, founder of online shopping platform Ownthelooks.com.
Shipment of goods is affected too. Kuwaiti entrepreneur Nouriah Al-Shatti said: “I had to temporarily discontinue one of my products because of scarcity of packaging from the supplier due to shipment restrictions from China.”
Additionally, with such uncertainty, many people are understandably hesitant about gathering in crowded public spaces, and that is hurting traffic to physical retailers, meaning that brands who rely on brick-and-mortar stores to drive sales are also expected to take a hit.
Luxury resellers may also suffer as consumers get more germ-phobic. Founder of UAE-based luxury vintage platform Reeborn Vintage shared that all of her products go through a vigorous cleaning process, that includes thorough washing and scrubbing with powerful disinfecting agents before they are ready for sale.
And it is not just fashion brands and designers who are feeling the consequences of the health epidemic, but local agencies too.
“When the virus was limited to China, several international brands shared with us the necessity to focus on Arab clients as Chinese customers are now a big chunk of the retail and tourism business. Now that the threat is global, some brands have canceled their local events or postponed them,” said Sofiane Si Merabet, the brainchild behind creative platform The Confused Arab.
Indeed, for the next few months, local creatives will undoubtedly have to re-think the way that they operate.
“Online seems to be doing good, so with less events we have to think about tailoring new digital experiences in addition to smaller-scale gatherings,” Si Merabet said.