Petite Fashion Challenges

What will petite shopping look like post-COVID?

When J. Crew announced this week that it was filing for bankruptcy protection, it was just the first retail domino to fall. The retail fashion industry was in trouble long before COVID-19. But the forced shuttering of stores and economic standstill in the past two months was the last straw. Clothing sales fell by 50% in March alone, and while April’s numbers aren’t out yet, many analysts are predicting that they will be even worse.

Sure, the pandemic might merely be speeding up a retail apocalypse that was already long underway, as stale brands struggled to compete in the notoriously tough world of fast fashion. But our post-COVID “new normal” will also introduce new challenges. And many of us petite ladies, or, really, anyone who doesn’t fit into the most common sizes out there, is probably asking, what will this mean for us?

Here are five predictions:

1. “Buy local” will take over.

Closed borders worldwide, factories shuttered in Asia, supply chains disrupted, next to zero air cargo transport available — all of this may spell the end of globalized “fast fashion” as we’ve known it for the past few decades. When you add that to the rise in “buy local” campaigns meant to support local businesses through the crisis, then the days of buying cheap clothes from overseas are probably over — at least for the time being.

There are some positives to this, of course. If you’re concerned about ending sweatshop labour and child labour, then you may have already been making an effort to buy locally produced garments. The quality of what we buy may go up, leading to less consumption and less waste. (Hey, this might even bring the schmata business back to Chabanel Street — something that would amuse my late grandfathers a great deal, I’m sure.)

But for petites, this could mean that it will become more challenging than ever before to find clothes that fit our bodies. I’ve already written extensively about the challenges of finding any petite-friendly clothing at all in Quebec — and that won’t get better in a pandemic. There are basically zero local Quebec brands that make petite sizes. They don’t even know what it means. We’re a market of only 8 million people, and most local designers and fashion brands have only heard of three sizes: small, medium and large. Finding any kind of “special sizes” including tall, petite, or even plus sized — is basically unheard-of here. With a handful of exceptions, which cater mostly to seniors — Laura Petite, Cazza Petite, a handful of reintroduced petite items at Reitmans — there’s very little here that isn’t a standard size. And it will get worse as those aforementioned retailers, already on shaky financial ground, likely succumb to the economic turmoil of the market.

Reitmans has recently re-introduced a handful of petite items into its line, making it one of the only local brands to even offer petite-sized clothing.

The end of globalization will mean that niche markets get shut out. There simply aren’t enough of us petites here in Quebec to be a viable market. And this isn’t only in Quebec, but applies almost everywhere. The bigger the total market, the more practical it is to make more sizes to fit each subset.

2. Clothes will get more expensive.

All this “buy local” sentiment will mean that, inevitably, clothes will get more expensive. The fabric, thread and materials used to make them will become more expensive as they get more difficult to source. Labour costs, of course, go up significantly. And obviously, the biggest factor is the per piece cost when you’re producing at a much smaller scale.

We have limited production capacity here in Canada. We haven’t since the manufacturing industry moved overseas in the 1970s and 80s. The few factories that do still exist are being asked to convert to making gowns, masks and personal protective equipment for frontline workers. It’s not as if we can overnight start manufacturing clothing en masse. And even if we could, our domestic market is too small to produce the quantities that get made in Bangladesh or China or Vietnam for worldwide markets today. The per-item cost of a sweater goes up dramatically when you are only making a few hundred of them, rather than a few million. Sure, it sounds nice to talk about “atelier” projects or “boutique” clothing lines… but only the rich could afford those before. And with the economic collapse brought on by COVID-19, even fewer people than before will be able to afford high-end clothing.

There are some COVID-specific added costs to the equation, too. Fabric, elastic and materials used to make PPE are in short supply worldwide and won’t be available to make nonessential items like fashion for a long time. Clothing factories have always been places where lots of people crowd together, working in small spaces. The need to introduce safety measures and social distancing at work will add more costs and be practically challenging. And a worldwide slowdown or shutdown in immigration means that finding skilled labourers willing and able to work in this industry will be extremely difficult.

We petites were already paying more for clothing than our regular-sized counterparts. We should expect that to get much worse in post-COVID times.

3. Cross-border shopping will no longer be a realistic option.

For many Canadian petites like me, cross-border shopping in the US has been a lifeline for years. But I never thought I’d see the day when the Canada-US border was closed like it is now. And it’s likely to remain closed for a long time.

Even when the border eventually reopens, I doubt there will be the sorts of easy crossing options that there used to be. The days when I could jump in the car and be at my favourite border mail PO box place in 45 minutes flat seem long gone. There’s a very real possibility that any border crossing could spell a mandatory 14-day quarantine for months or even years to come. That’s a big price to pay for a sweater or a pair of jeans.

This means that we Canadians will either have to make do with our pitiful homegrown selection here in Canada, or pay steep shipping costs to buy things online from the US. It will also mean that returns won’t be an option anymore — something every petite woman knows is unrealistic, given how tough it is to get the fit right on the first try.

Going to the US to buy clothes used to feel like a hassle. Now it feels like a lost freedom.

4. All this means we’ll have far less choice.

Petite-friendly retailers such as Macy’s, GAP Inc, Nordstrom, and many more, are all in financial distress. Many of them won’t survive this crisis. The ones that do will probably dramatically scale back their operations, close stores, shift more resources to e-commerce, and offer less selection than before. This may mean consolidating their lines and sizes to only the most popular ones, and cutting back on “niche” sizes like petites.

All this means that we petites can expect to get basically shut out of the fashion market once again. And it’s not as if we had lots of selection available to us before any of this happened.

Like so many things about life before COVID, I may find myself looking back at the mundane challenges of finding petite clothing pre-pandemic with wistful nostalgia.

5. But we won’t need as much.

The silver lining in all of this is that we simply won’t need as many clothes in our post-pandemic “new normal” lives. We’re working from home and living in confinement now. That means nobody cares if you wear pyjama pants all day, and only get dressed for Zoom calls from the waist up. (Even Wal-Mart is reporting that nobody’s bothering to wear pants anymore.) It’s easy enough to look professional when all anyone can see is your head and shoulders. I know at least one person who’s been joining all her video conference calls in a unicorn onesie.

Nobody cares if you wear the same outfit three days in a row when your boss and colleagues can’t see you anyway. Work-to-weekend doesn’t mean a quick wardrobe change anymore; it means going from the living room to the bedroom.

We won’t need outfits for fancy parties or gatherings now that those are banned. Nobody’s going to weddings, bar mitzvahs, parties, clubs or bars, or black tie events. We don’t need vacation clothes when we can no longer take vacations. We don’t need date night outfits when there’s no such thing as dating. Heck, we barely even need shoes anymore.

The premier of PEI inspired the only must-have fashion item of 2020. 

This unprecedented pandemic is reminding all of us about what truly matters: Our health, our loved ones, taking care of each other and of our communities. Buying clothes seems trivial, given everything else that’s going on. We are all being forced to simplify our lives and to focus on the essentials.

Post-COVID, we won’t have as much. But we don’t need as much. And maybe that’s okay.

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