It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, to paraphrase a writer who knew all about hard times. We’re talking shops and for some  – wine merchants, pizza pounders and certain supermarkets – it really was the best of times. For others, the bloodletting in retail is nothing short of a terror.

And what about fashion – one of the major fiscal forces of modern economies?

My conversation with Shelly Corkery, Fashion Director of Brown Thomas, was supposed to be a glimpse into the post-Covid-19 future of retail and a peek into how fashionistas coped with designer withdrawal symptoms. It turned into A Tale of Many Cities (this is fashion):  a meditation on revolution and redemption in the rag trade, a cautionary tale for our times.  

Charles Dickens, with his acute understanding of the suffering caused by loneliness and economic constriction, was the man for lockdown. Great expectations were put on hold as we discovered, like Pip, that there is no greater teacher than suffering. 

Shelly Corkery
Shelly Corkery: “If you weren’t on top of your digital, you were left behind.” Photo: Bryan Meade

But permit a little mixing of Dickens’ novels, gentle reader, and we shall find that Mr Micawber, the optimistic clerk from David Copperfield, is our teacher for lockdown lifting.  Now is the time to live life by the Micawber Principles; spend – carefully –  but spend nonetheless: watch the little things like the future depends on the detail and – here’s the thing – make sure you’re going in the right direction.

Micawber had one other quality which could have been minted especially for the fashion industry. Absolute optimism. “Something will turn up” was his mantra,  but his counsel – “ride on over all the obstacles and win the race” – could inform the entirety of retail. Indeed, it’s got as much of Ryanair’s Michael O’Leary about it as Dickens’ Mr Micawber. 

The fashion director and the IT guy

In the early part of lockdown, retail went into shock. April sales were down nearly 45 per cent on the previous April. Frightening, but not nearly as catastrophic as other countries. New Zealand – the shining citadel of Covid-19 management – lost 80 per cent in the same period.

The month of May, I’m prepared to bet – apart from for hairdressers and hospitality, who have truly experienced the worst of times – will look better. After the first few weeks, when everything came to a halt, the great Irish ability to improvise swung into practice.

As always speed was the essence of survival to Shelly Corkery. “Because we are in the fashion business, we reacted fast,” she told me. 

She had no illusions about the severity of what was coming down the line: she was in Milan at the beginning of the spring/summer 2021 “buy” when the virus took hold of northern Italy. 

We are meeting in her office in Brown Thomas in my first face-to-face work interaction since March. Though the department store is open almost a week, the buyers’ office on Anne’s Lane, Dublin is like a deserted ship. We observe all protocols – taking the lift up separately, sanitising even the control button. There is nobody in the building apart from myself, Corkery and an IT man. 

The fashion director and the IT guy – was this a metaphor for the future of fashion retail?

Actually yes. Because even the most superficial dig into retail reality yields one truth; those with digital savvy survived. Those without were caught. The better the digital offering, the greater the success – it’s as true of makeup sales as it is of media. Except that media wouldn’t be in the same ballpark as make-up sales, which, in BT, even identifies customers’ replenishment needs. 

“Our one year plan had to happen in three months. Everything had to be challenged.”

Shelly Corkery

“If you weren’t on top of your digital, you were left behind.” Corkery puts it bluntly. “I wasn’t from a digital background. I had to learn fast. It brought me very close to the digital team.”

The first thing they did was a survey of 6,000 people. From that, they learned what their customers wanted.

In a nutshell, the crisis forced Brown Thomas’s digital plans, which were proceeding at a stately pace, to be accelerated. “Our one year plan had to happen in three months. Everything had to be challenged.”  

Eighty people now work over 25 digital channels. As Corkery reels off the names of the channels, it’s clear that there is something for every possible type of customer, from emails, apps, salesfloors chats and mood boards, through to personal shopping. Personal shopping can now be “by appointment,” where it is brought to your home, or personal shopping via Zoom. There are Zoom masterclasses for larger groups or virtual catwalk shows. It goes on and on but the one thing that strikes me is that although this is a digital revolution, never was personal contact more important.

Shelly Corkery
Shelly Corkery: “We have a much smaller tourist market and the Chinese customer is obviously gone.” Photo: Bryan Meade

While the twenty-five channels may sound daunting to the IT illiterate, in reality, there was something very homely about the whole operation. As Corkery explains how it worked in lockdown the resonance was of the childhood magic of the “parcel from America;” the thrill of the postman’s knock, the excitement of excavating the contents.

The image is not too far from reality. The personal shoppers all worked from home. “They worked flat out” Corkery explains, ringing clients, sending them images gleaned variously from catwalk shows or partnerships with stylists and influencers. “When we knew it was coming, we did a lot of photographs. The digital team put it together.”

The client made their choice, and it was assembled in the warehouse. And then the dark days of lockdown were lightened by a delivery which happened in a number of ways – home delivery being the most frequent. But the most exciting, for my money, was what Corkery calls “kerb collection” where, if you were within your two (or five) kilometre radius, someone waited at the kerb outside the shop to hand over the goodies. 

And you went home with your bags – and for one brief but shining hour, all was right with the world.

Did it matter that they were all dressed up with nowhere to go – the title of a Brown Thomas virtual initiative during lockdown? Not a whit. A true fashionista never needs an excuse to dress up. Though another virtual initiative, “In The Garden” proved more grounded in those halcyon days of May. 

“There was a sense of excitement,” says Corkery. “People loved the availability of the personal shoppers, chatting to them and getting their stuff sent out.” 

It didn’t make up for everything. “We did brilliantly online in everything except perhaps in the highest end of ladies designers, where our top customers prefer what we call one-to-one, that is to fit on in the shop and that was the one thing which wasn’t possible.

“On top of that, we have a much smaller tourist market and the Chinese customer is obviously gone.”

“It’s a shopping revolution”

Nonetheless, the digital door is now open and it will never shut again. “We pumped everything into this. It’s a shopping revolution. Bricks and mortar (shopping in-store) and digital are fusing. We will shift a lot of our teams into digital – the work opportunities are with the digital teams because the digital world is accelerating.”  

They will still open in the former Harvey Nichols shop in Dundrum, but it “has been pushed back six months, due to Covid-19.” 

In fashion, as in life, change is the only rule. Change will come in the way that fashion moments happen: “We will do our autumn/winter trends but the shows will be virtual.”

Press shows may have to take place one-to-one in the store with Corkery; buyers may shop from the catwalks as they unfold; influencer affiliates will become more important. “The more theatre and fun you have online the more you reach people.”

Shelly Corkery
Shelly Corkery: “Spring-summer 2021, which is what we would be buying right now, isn’t even designed.” Photo: Bryan Meade

But not all change is smooth. “There are problems,” Corkery explains, “But these won’t be felt for a year. For example, spring-summer 2021, which is what we would be buying right now, isn’t even designed. And there have already been cancellations of autumn 2020 deliveries.” 

But not for nothing is improvisation and a genius for merchandising the name of the fashion game. Besides, one event which is not being cancelled is Corkery’s passion project, Create. For some years now, this great exhibition and gallery of Irish talent has been the high point of the year for Irish designers. It will happen on September 22 instead of July and it’s a certainty that it will spark a new appreciation of the genius on our own doorsteps. 

And it won’t end there. “At the moment our online is not international. It was supposed to happen in July – that’s been delayed a little. In a lockdown, online elevated itself, but it also elevated the road map to us going international,” Corkery said. This will undoubtedly benefit Irish designers who may, via Brown Thomas, find a whole new world. 

The fashion industry, because it is huge and visible, comes in for a lot of stick – much of it justified. Its speed encourages waste and it is one of the biggest offenders in polluting the planet. Some companies are sincere about “sustainability;” for others, it’s no more than an exercise in PR. But in the Covid crisis, that same speed, combined with a lot of emotion, proved a real positive and offered both redemption and a way forward.

“The fashion industry was immediately out of the traps, faster than anyone,” Says Corkery. “They really stood up. They saw it as a call out.” 

Instead of making up their autumn collections, for example, the Prada factory in Perugia was immediately turned over to making  PPE – 80,000 overalls for health workers to be precise – and funded the building of two ICU wards in hospitals. Burberry also moved like lightening to make PPE for Britain. LVMH (which is the parent company for many top luxury names) turned all their perfume factories over to making hand sanitisers and donated millions to Italian hospitals. 

Armani donated over €1 million, Balmain and Valentino gave €2 million to WHO and also donated to Spain. Chanel and Dior turned all their factories over to making PPE and face masks. Victoria Beckham donated twenty per cent of all sales to Covid-19 charities and Ralph Lauren donated $10 million. McQueen, Gucci and Versace were not found wanting. Many of the top fashion CEOs made huge personal donations to Covid-19 charities. Tom Ford and Anna Wintour decided charity begins at home and re-ignited an initiative to help young designers in trouble. 

“Cyclists don’t stop. Cyclists don’t shop. That’s what’s really frightening.”

Shelly Corkery

Noblesse oblige may be the cynical view of all this charity. But the latest edition of Vogue offers a different perspective: fashion’s solidarity with the frontline. If they can just hold that thought, fashion might just re-set the button and become a more sustainable industry.

There is one thing, however, it can never get away from – to survive, fashion must sell.  “I think the future is bright. But then I’m very positive,” says Corkery. We reflect for a moment on one of the paradoxes facing that future: threatened plans for even greater cyclisation of Dublin city centre.

“Cyclists don’t stop. Cyclists don’t shop. That’s what’s really frightening. All around the world when people visit a city there’s a desire to be able to get in and see the great stores,” Corkery said. “That’s going to be harder. Planners must have a thought for retailers.”

Retail is the engine that drives an economy. Perhaps, to quote Mr Micawber, the planners should register “on the virgin pages of the future,” the thoughts of Shelly Corkery and others at the frontline of retail. 

Read more

Anne Harris meets Shelly Corkery: “I look at a team of people and I can feel the energy”