At the time of writing, Singapore is in Phase 2 of the government-imposed Circuit Breaker.

Shopping malls and retail stores have reopened, with safety measures in place. But long before that, people were already basking in the pleasures of shopping in the comfort and safety of their homes. For luxury, the experience has become an elevated, more intimate one that analysts predict will continue even after we come out of the woods and people are allowed back into physical stores.

How has the pandemic made luxury shopping feel more exclusive?

Show of solidarity

When lockdowns around the world started confining people to their homes, fashion forces swung into action like superheroes to the rescue. On one hand, they marshalled their resources to combat the crisis, making monetary donations to fund public hospitals and emergency services, lending muscle to fundraising initiatives and relief efforts, as well as pivoting into the production of single-use masks and PPE (personal protective equipment).

On the other hand, they thought about emotional wellbeing too. They brought comfort in the forms of positive messages, entertainment and fun activities, in a bid to alleviate the depression and stress of living in isolation during a global health crisis.

A demonstration from Dolce & Gabbana’s digital workshop

Dolce & Gabbana was one of the fashion houses that acted early by making a donation to to longtime partner, Humanitas University, which is doing scientific research on the coronavirus. It also sought to raise more money by dedicating a portion of proceeds from e-commerce sales of its Devotion bag to the institution. To distract those frustrated from being cooped up at home, the brand hosted a series of digital workshops that families could enjoy together.

Over at Dior, its renowned petites mains banded together to reopen the Baby Dior ateliers in Redon to make more masks for frontliners. The maison sought to uplift spirits with feel-good content through inspiring Dior Talks podcasts, staved off boredom with book and film recommendations, gave ideas on games to play and which of Monsieur Christian Dior’s favourite dishes to whip up, and even provided online dance lessons to get people moving and endorphins pumping.

And there’s always retail therapy. Dior, along with counterparts such as Bottega Veneta and Gucci, introduced remote shopping services with direct-to-door delivery. In July, Louis Vuitton launched its dedicated e-commerce website in Singapore. Available on both web and mobile platforms, it offers a host of personalisation services, in addition to complimentary same- or next-day doorstep delivery via the White Glove Service by a dedicated team. Come October, Longchamp will join the e-commerce wave, even as it already offers remote shopping with home delivery.

Masks made by Dior’s petites mains

As the pandemic changed the way people live, fashion had to quickly adapt to consumer needs, while remaining relevant and accessible.

Brands that embraced e-commerce and offered lifestyle-related merchandise ticked the right boxes during these months of coronavirus-induced isolation.

Case in point: In an interview with Reuters, CEO Axel Dumas revealed that Hermès’ e-commerce sales in China increased by 100 per cent or more when the maison had to close 75 per cent of its stores at the peak of the health crisis in the country. It even had a first-time buyer purchasing a sofa online (Hermès opened its flagship digital store in Singapore last December). Yet, it still raked in US$2.7 million (S$3.8 million) in sales just one day after reopening its flagship store in Guangzhou in April, according to WWD. The figure is believed to be the highest daily haul for a single luxury boutique in China. Pent-up demand from the long home confinement led to purchases such as a diamond-studded Himalayan Birkin and the most exquisite tableware.

The latest tableware from Hermès

High-tech, high-touch

The pandemic’s months of shutdown also forced fashion houses to push the technology envelope. In July, Salvatore Ferragamo added a sophisticated dimension to shopping from home. Visitors were offered the thrill of an in-store shopping experience through a 360-degree virtual tour of the recently renovated Via Condotti boutique in Rome. Harnessing augmented reality, the interactive experience lets clients browse from room to room within the store. They can even interact with the products from the current collection for a detailed look, and place orders via the website.

The wonders of digitalisation wows those out and about too. In China’s technology hub, Shenzhen, Burberry amazed the locals with the unveiling of what it dubbed as luxury’s first social retail store. People can interact with the brand and product in person and on social media via this digitally-immersive, game-inspired retail concept powered by Tencent technology.

A custom WeChat mini programme unlocks exclusive content and personalised experiences that can be shared. Guests can also book in-store appointments or make table reservations for the in-store Thomas’s Cafe. The higher the engagement with Burberry, the richer the experiences. Each customer is given a playful animal character that evolves with each in-store and social interaction, with new characters to discover and new outfits to acquire for them. Other rewards include exclusive café menu items.

Thomas’s Cafe in Burberry’s social retail store in Shenzhen

Apart from shopping, digitalisation also extends to shows. With enforced international travel restrictions and the coronavirus still lingering, fashion houses have turned to social media and the web to present their latest collections in the form of pre-filmed videos or on-the- fly livestreams. The move, which guarantees viewers a front-row seat wherever they are, is not new nor exclusive. But it is the jolt of excitement fashion fans crave, eager to let their imaginations take flight. It offers tempting escapism from dreary days. But is it fashion democracy? Not quite, for those without the affluence to go from runway to reality and take the showpieces home.

We are the world

Navigating this difficult period has brought about a change to mindsets and shopping behaviours. With brick-and-mortar stores shuttered and online deliveries delayed, retailers are struggling to cope with sudden developments as consumers adapt to living with less, and cultivate a newfound appreciation for nature. Together with a magnified sense of social responsibility and wellbeing set off by Covid-19, people are starting to seriously think about the kind of world they will be leaving behind for future generations. With environmental issues now at the top of the minds of shoppers, it won’t be surprising if fashion’s pivot toward sustainability starts to accelerate, as it stays attuned to market shifts and consumer demands during this period.

Virginie Viard reused flared jeans from a previous collection for Chanel’s Cruise 2021

If people are seeking out luxury brands with similar moral alignment, Chanel would have caught their attention. For the maison’s Cruise 2021 collection, Creative Director Virginie Viard told WWD that she turned to materials the house already had in stock, such as leftover buttons and yarns. In addition, she reused items from previous collections: Flared jeans were given new life with customised panels of cotton fabric printed with the camellia motif, and shirts were dyed with new seasonal colours of salmon and pink. On top of that, 14 of the 51 looks were made from sustainable silk and cotton that had Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) certification, which meant the fabrics met high-level environmental criteria along the entire organic textiles supply chain and complied with social criteria as well.

Burberry also deserves a mention with the release of its cotton face masks in August. Decked out in its signature plaid, the ultimate accessory of the times is reusable, provides Particle Filtration Efficiency (PFE) and is enhanced with antimicrobial technology that protects the wearer from microbes and germs. Plus, the masks are sustainably produced from revalued fabric, and 20 percent of the selling price of each face mask will be donated to the Burberry Foundation COVID-19 Community Fund operated by The Burberry Foundation.

Going forward post-pandemic, analysts believe this new consciousness will play a major role in purchasing priorities.

Protect and serve

In Singapore’s Phase 2, customer health and safety are of utmost importance as wary shoppers step out of their homes after months of strict constraints. Clients are advised to make an appointment before heading down to boutiques. It is a fast-pass to skipping the queues – observing safe distancing in stores means imposing a limit to the number of customers allowed in the space at any one time.

Burberry Shenzhen store

Before entering malls and its individual retail stores, people have to check-in via the national digital SafeEntry system. Staff greet each customer with a temperature check and a quick spritz of the sanitiser to clean hands. Even so, in-store staff may prefer to handle the merchandise for you to take a closer look as the alcohol in hand sanitisers may damage leather goods. Clothing items may be “quarantined” for a period between 24 and 48 hours after they are tried on or returned to stores. Clients don single-use foot coverings that will be disposed of immediately after shoes are tried on. You may even find plexiglass shields at some counters.

While some retailers have modified opening hours to allow additional time for a thorough cleaning, they also keep their sanitisation up during operation hours to reassure cautious shoppers. And these safety efforts do not let up at the point of purchase. Contactless payments are the way to go in the bid to minimise contact between customers and staff.

In some ways, things have not changed. The lengths staff will go to make customers feel welcome and secure take that sense of VIP exclusivity up a whole new level with these one-on-one experiences. It is certainly a twist that coronavirus-induced safe distancing efforts are bringing people closer.

(Main and featured image: Burberry)

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