COVID TIMES -A Talk With Michelle Branch

Michelle Branch from Markt &Twigs is a well known denim consultant from US . Sandeep Agarwal spoke to her recently to find out her views on the prevailing crisis and its impact on her work as well as the fashion and denim industry. She shares her candid views on the situation and her analysis of the same.

Sandeep
Hello Michelle, How are you? I welcome to you and first of all I hope that everyone in your family and friends ,everybody’s fine , healthy and safe.

Michelle
We have had a couple of family members who caught the virus.They are recovering though, they are on the opposite side of it now and I have some family members who are medical professionals so we pray for them every day but so far so good everybody is alive and on the mend if not already healthy.

Sandeep
I really hope so and pray for everybody. How situation in New York ? How’s everybody is really coping with the current situation?

Michelle
It clearly is crazy for everybody. It’s unprecedented and I think initially it was a shock and now people are kind of settling into their social distancing routines because honestly this is the only way that we can eradicate it .So, yeah here in New York and New Jersey have been hit pretty hard. My small town of Jersey City which is right outside of Manhattan even though it’s in another state, I just read somewhere that we have more cases thancases in 23 states. Not combined but more than 23 individual states.

Sandeep
This really clearly is a very unprecedented situation and and it calls for unprecedented responses from all of us . As denim consultant and as a person who is interacting with so many players in the supply chain from the retailer’s to the mills , what is your professional response to this?

Michelle
First of all, everything is shut down right now so personally as a creative person I try and make sure I do something creative every single day – A for my own Sanity and B to be prepared for when this situation ends which it will. I think the important thing to  look at for all of us particularly in the denim community where we’re very tight and we’re very huggy and touchy with the product, It is something that there are times when I personally find it easier to make presentations when I have garments in my hands. It’s like a security blanket and I think those things are going to change. I mean even the lexicon is gonna change .You know – shake on it – to do a deal, that’s not gonna happen anymore ! . Those words will probably go away as and we move towards a digital way of communicating and is sad as it is for me because connection is the thing that I love most aside from the actual product . Connection is the thing I love the most about our industry .We’re gonna have to find other ways to connect and it’s gonna be interesting but the good part about this to me is that it came at a time where all of us recognized that we had a problem and it’s giving us an opportunity to hit the reset button that we would have never been able to do in such a quick period  of time. Slowly we were moving there but now I think this is forcing everyone.There’s a saying that the universe wants you to know something and they whisper in your ear .If you don’t listen , it’ll tap you on your shoulders and if you don’t listen to that it’ll hit you in the head and that’s what’s happened to us. So, I think it’s really an opportunity for all of us to look at how we do things. We don’t need to travel nearly as much as we do but it’s become part of our way of doing business that will clearly change and there’ll be and are already technological ways to develop the product without actually having to touch it all the time .So, those are ways I think that it’s gonna change and that’s good for us.

Sandeep
Yeah, I think it’s good for us and we need to really push the Reset button. What do you think will become of sustainability ? Because we already been moving in that direction. Will the definition of Sustainability change in some way ? Because we have been talking about various definitions of Sustainablility which are confusing. So post CORONA , is our definition of sustainability going to change?

Michelle 
Of course it will change. It will be enhanced,it’ll be bigger because the things that this virus will force us to do – for example less traveling – you know that uses less resources already. I think that this is going to kickstart us into having to behave sustainably whether we want to or not. It’s just the way it’s going to be but , for example , I just read somewhere where – if anybody  is listening from Jeanologia hey you guys thumbs up – they developed the G2 to figure out ways of bleaching the product more sustainably. But now because of this virus that has evolved into a way to sanitize medical equipment. So I feel like the things that we’ve already been doing will just be ramped up a little bit and maybe we have to look at things from all different angles. Everybody that I know will still pursue creating products more responsibly.We also need to create less of them I think.

Sandeep
We are talking about reduced quantities, maybe a huge reduction.

Michelle
Yeah, it’s gonna be painful and for sure but it’s the right thing to do. I think that we have to kind of look at it that way -for example – we have models , seasonal models that we’ve used for decades but now we have the ability to speak directly to the consumer and get information directly from the consumer. So maybe instead of a 20 piece collection ,a denim collection, fabric collection for example – I’m talking about  a denim collection – we know that the consumer insights come from Instagram or from whatever comes out of this that they like these five things the most. So we focus on those five things we don’t need to do the other 15 because the five things and things that are going to sell. So much of these products get made and they get marked down , sold off end up in landfills. Therefore, we have to create less.

Sandeep
So we are cutting the seasons and we are cutting the number of products, the collections that we are making and we are saying we should be sure that we are doing it in a much greater speed then we were doing before.We were probably doing it before also but now we need to speed it up much faster and probably seasons are going to become kind of redundant in terms of the impact the way people used to prepare for two or more seasons and all of what we have done in the past well.

Michelle
I think for the most part yes there will still be some seasonal things like sleeveless tops and five ounce jeans those kinds of things.They will still remain but they they’ll be one or two . They won’t be an entire collection and I think that’s the main point .

Sandeep
So if you would try to quantify for the moment – let’s say for currently we are making 70 to 80% products as per  seasons. Probably we might come down to 20-30%,  20% or something like that?

Michelle
It would definitely be less.I don’t know the exact percentage and I don’t think that there’ll be a cut-off. I think it’ll be something that quickly and gradually will happen.

Sandeep
One more thing which comes to my mind is that this disease is not really going away so soon. Even if you are coming out of it, after two months we are back to work ,still this is going to remain until the time we have a really effective vaccine against it. When everyone is vaccinated and safe but that rule might take let’s say one and a half to two years. So till that time we need personal protective apparel . What do you think about this so we are actually probably creating new fashion category?

Michelle
I think maybe for the short term . I think a couple of things here and there are some fashionable ones like there was a company in China which had each of their employees create their own individual ones and they had like their faces but with a smile because when you wear a mask you can’t see the smiles and so everybody digitally printed their smile on top of the mask and it’s cute and it’s fun . For sure will need it for the short term but I think what is happening or what will happen probably is that this is a wake up call to make us aware that a pandemic is possible.I don’t know that we will wear masks forever I think out of necessity it’s going to become a category for the short term. I don’t know that it will stick around forever in as much as we wear it every day but we will be able to flip back into it . Like people will find ways of becoming flexible in case it happens again to flip back into it just like the G2 machines .That machine will go back to bleaching denim and then if this happens again – God forbid – we know that it’s able to be switched quickly to sanitize equipment . So I think it’ll be more about flexibility. I don’t imagine jeans factories converting  to making masks for the long haul – I just I hope that doesn’t have to happen.

Sandeep
But you know if you see countries like Japan, 10 years back they had this problem of SARS and that you see Masks have become a reality in their life.

Michelle
Yes, not every body wears that but yes you see it there for sure.

Sandeep
I think twenty percent people are wearing them once out there .So they have learned how the people in this part of the world uses masks.What I see is on the internet right now that even expensive masks are coming up even I saw yesterday $60 mask which was quite interesting to see. So that is probably something which might happen – this crisis may trigger a new fashion accessory.

Michelle
I think for sure in the short term and short term meaning a couple of years like you said until there is a vaccine that they know for sure will work.

Sandeep
It might also be an oxygen supply to the supply right now . Now the second thing is what do you feel about the category of home wear? Because many people are now working from home and it may also become a sort of regular practice for many people over the next few months or worse -years. Does that also pick the category of new products ?

Michelle
I think that it was or even before this it was already I wear jeans at home but that’s just me but I think before this there was a category of indigo knits that was starting to explode. Everybody’s just waiting until they can figure out how to do it more efficiently so that’ll probably grow. I see that category growing but I don’t see it replacing denim because that’s more of an emotional purchase – jeans are still comfortable.

If you’re talking about the comfort aspect of it there knits would be the biggest but there are obviously there are fibers that create a bunch of comfort , stretch comfort .That’s the thing about this pandemic is that all of the things that we’ve been doing along the way more slowly focusing on comfort stretch that exploded several years ago. Tencel ,for example, on the market now creating comfort everywhere and it’s exploded into denim in the last few years. Those things have already been happening slowly but surely plugging along. Now everything gets kicked into high gear just like sustainability everything is getting kicked into high gear out of necessity.

Sandeep
How the supply chain is going to survive ? What we are hearing is so many orders canceled ,so many stores closed, so many factories lose workers out of work .What do you think what will happen to the supply chain and how they the people, the workers will survive ?

Michelle
I think it’s gonna be hit really hard .The saving grace in some countries will be that from an employment perspective –not an inventory perspective – but there’ll be some help from governments but not every government is going to do that .Those countries where the government’s help will kind of ease the way a little bit and in terms of inventories I mean people need to honor their orders that’s the bottom line.They need to honor their orders even if they ship it longer-term .I mean if you think about the supply chain there is a top of the food chain and a bottom of the food chain. I think that the folks at the top of the food chain are that have to honor their orders so that when we do recover there are places to produce things. They can wipe folks out if they cancel completely – they need to come together and maybe you know take some sort of reduction but not cancel the whole thing.There was a million ways that they can handle this but they need to honor the orders that’s my personal opinion.

Sandeep
It’s a moral responsibility and it is also part of the sustainability talks that we have been doing for so many years and know it’s the time to really walk the talks.

Michelle
Yeah the people are part of this.To that point I think the consumers we are all in this together right not just a supply chain, not just the retailers and brands but the consumer is also a part of this. They’re gonna recognize those companies that act responsibly now and that act from a place of humanity and they will  remember that too . So it behooves everybody.

Sandeep
What we have been hearing from different thoughts going around the world is actually many of the retailers, many of the factories the factories who don’t have so much cash flow they may not survive and at the end of the day we’ll have retailers who are very strong surviving and we have the factory so very strong who were surviving and also the mills. So I mean will that be actually a more balanced situation where we actually are in a production situation right now? If we talk about till now what has happened is actually an overproduction.We are producing and over selling and over buying , so maybe after this rebalancing ,we are actually looking at the new balance being created between the supply chain.

Michelle
I think that there is a rebalancing that needs to happen for sure is  that is probably the point of this whole thing but I don’t know that if these smaller producers without the cash flows need to go away . Instead of that it would be great if they can be absorbed into the larger ones that are nearby . There needs to be some sort of balance and it has to include the least of us.It has to , otherwise this whole thing was just a big waste of time. If this pandemic doesn’t show us that we need to care for the folks who have less and figure out a way to absorb them maybe into these larger businesses or convert them to other like maybe cotton growers get converted into food sources But there needs to be a way to make sure that the least of us is protected.

Sandeep
In China you know after this disease have been sort of controlled now, what we can see in China the consumers coming back to shop .They are actually quite happy to shop because they’ve been confined to their homes,  they’re going out there to eat and visit places and  shopping a quite a bit. So do you think this is a similar response we might have in Western world when, let’s say after three months, everything is okay and you see people rushing to shop and go. Of course they will be meeting friends and family and all those things but do you think you see them shopping?

Michelle
Well I think it depends on what part of the world you’re talking about because I feel like in the US and in Europe there’ll be an aspect of people that just have cabin fever and they need to go out . So restaurants probably will see an uptick but in terms of shopping I think that people in the West are kind of reevaluating what’s important.Do I really need 20 pairs of black boots? I mean so people will start shopping again but they’ll be more mindful about about how they shop. I think China has probably a socially a different perspective  about shopping and I think that in the West we will probably think a little bit more about what we buy. We will still buy but we’ll think a little bit more about we do.

Sandeep
What are the biggest positives you see coming  from this situation?

Michelle
I think the biggest thing -and this is gonna sound weird – because we’re all so part but I feel like the biggest thing is that everybody is connecting more.First of all we have more time to connect. There are people in the industry that I speak to all the time   but now I have time to reach out to those people in the industry that I never speak . Like you -we never talk -you know we we talk once or twice a year maybe you know so I think that’s kind of a positive thing that people are reaching out to each other that’s one thing . The other thing is that it forces us to become a little bit more ingenious about an intentional thinking when this is over how do we move forward and  people are coming up with ways to to use technology . For example,  to help us when we can’t get on a plane and fly 15 hours to get to where we need to be to review a sample.So  I think that it’s using ingenuity and having the time to really sit down and think about those things we never have the time before because we’re moving too fast.

Sandeep
In terms of digital usage how easy or difficult you are finding work digitally?  Or how fast you are adapting to this digital communication and do you think let’s say if we have to continue this for a long period of time does it work out ?

Michelle
Well for my business because most of my clients are in other parts of the world, I work that way anyway. I only really had one major client in New York that I could actually get on the train and go visit but most of mine are all around the world anyway . So I’ve always worked this way I mean but I still got on a plane and and have to go places but maybe they’ll even be less of it but we found ways digitally to to review things.

Sandeep
I just want you to know if you want to say anything else to so many friends of ours who  are watching you.

Michelle
Yes I miss you guys. Well I I do miss my denim community. We are a tight-knit group and we will get through this together. Thank you so much and stay safe . Namaste!

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