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Reporting on the European situation recently, Robert Perkins, Chair of the British Footwear Association (BFA), said that most countries are now forecasting a decline in footwear sales of 20-30% for 2020 versus 2019. This is better than the forecast decline of 30-40% four months ago.
More specifically, he noted that “specialist footwear, safety shoes, children’s back-to-school and slippers are the strongest product categories, with e-commerce and small independent shops being the strongest channels”. Sales have been worst hit in tourist destinations and city centres, with “occasion and office shoes” the worst performing products.
We are seeing this with a number of leather sectors, with gloves reporting that areas like cycling, golf, outdoor walking, gardening and work gloves are doing well, while fashion and dress gloves are struggling.
The definition of luxury stretches the imagination
The wide area of luxury has also seen changes, not least the move online. The definition of luxury has conveniently been expanded to stretch the imagination with the inaccessible becoming widely available, the exclusive becoming affordable and historic lasting quality being replaced by a large brand label. One wonders what Thorstein Veblen would make of it were he around to revisit the Theory of the Leisure Class which he wrote in the 1890s.
Veblen introduced us to the concept of conspicuous consumption and using objects such as clothing – patent shoes were a favoured leather example – to display wealth and power. With time we have started to think of all luxury as measures of status, of keeping up – or preferable ahead of one’s peers. True as this might be, during times of social change it is generally only a small part of luxury purchase motivation.
The widening availability of new technical textiles has quickly impacted the historic annual autumn sales of leather garments, be it top-quality soft Spanish lambskin in Japan or more basic black pigmented sheep and goat in the EU states that were once part of the Soviet Union.
Previously, economists argued that the security of employment had the biggest impact on the purchase of leather footwear while the level of disposable income decided the success or otherwise of fashion leather garments. 2020 has added new dimensions to all this and businesses have to be extraordinarily nimble to survive unprecedented circumstances.
While the impact of the virus has been varied, the truth is that everyone will be affected directly or indirectly, and for many the dual geopolitical impacts to come from the US Presidential election and the UK’s final departure from the EU at the year end imply major additional layers of macro-economic change ahead.
We see this in the current fashion weeks, with some being nearly 100% virtual and others having returned to a more physical normality, but none being the same as before. Key individuals have been themselves trapped at home by national quarantine rules or company instructions against travel. Everything has become blended. In the last few days I was involved in appointments and salary reviews online. “I hope to meet you all soon in real life” was the closing statement from one senior appointment; we look forward to it, but in the UK these days, who knows when.
When we do, I expect I will be wearing a jacket, regardless of the last six months of casual wear. I like to carry a fountain pen and a notebook wherever I go, and shirts with pockets are not good enough to do this safely and comfortably. But will ties survive the Great Global Lockdown? How about high heels?
More significantly, what will the new world of footwear, garments and gloves end up looking like for leather. What will the future look like for transport, for furniture, interior design and the whole landscape of luxury? A re-reading of Veblen (it’s free on Gutenberg.org) is well worth it at this time, as it would be easy to look at an impoverished world and rush to cheaper goods and let brands and retailers replace leather with cheap plastic, pretending it to be somehow ‘vegan’ or better for the environment.
Wearing leather means we care for biodiversity and for the planet
As Veblen would argue, leather will cost more, and with it make a statement about the user. But it is not necessarily one of ostentation and conspicuous consumption, but one of care for biodiversity, for the planet, for things natural and of quality. Yes, they can be bright and exciting or more tranquil and simple; but made of leather, they are all doing us and our society good.
So creative thinking will be required and thoughtful marketing impacting product areas, categories, design, pricing and distribution; far beyond anything that has been ‘normal’. Let us step away from a relentless move to jeans and T-shirts, polo shirts and chinos, from sweatpants and Dad shorts. Perhaps even put a tie on - but where to find an appropriate leather jacket?
September 29, 2020
Follow Dr Mike Redwood on twitter: @michaelredwood
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