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  • Dr. Mila Burcikova

Downtime in the months of disruption, vulnerability, and generosity of spirit

A lot of time seems to have passed since those of us fortunate enough to be able to adapt our daily routines to work from home have started getting used to 2D versions of our colleagues’ houses. To their partners dodging Microsoft Team calls in the background, to the shy smiles of their kids interrupting with requests for snacks or new drawing tasks, and even to totally random moments such as someone suddenly shouting stop hammering!!! as you’re trying to navigate an interview with a key external partner, having up to that point successfully ignored their neighbour’s DIY activity.

Back in January, the first of the 2020 series of blog posts linked to our Fostering Sustainable Practices project started with a proposition to consider capping production and building in some downtime, as a way of rebalancing our constant ‘go mode’ with natural cycles of activity that is followed by stillness, rest, and time for reflection. Based on acute awareness that more is not always necessarily better, this call came out of our conversations with micro and small fashion businesses during our Better Lives event in the autumn of 2019. Of course, nobody knew then what was soon to come. Read – Better Lives: Capping production and building in some downtime.

Here we are now, in our home offices, researchers, designers, makers, all doing our utmost to adapt to the new circumstances of the COVID 19 pandemic. Production has considerably slowed down or stopped already, studio work for businesses not able to operate from home has paused for the foreseeable future, many wholesale orders have been significantly reduced or entirely cancelled, retail shut down and on-line orders are facing a lot of uncertainty as these too rely on people who are all vulnerable to the virus and its multi-layered consequences. Understandably, the uncertainty is stressful, causing a lot of anxiety, not least to micro and small fashion business owners, many of whom are months, if not weeks from closing, if they are unable to continue trading as planned.

While many suggest that this time is used as a time to appreciate what we have, as a time for reflection and silence that will help us to “understand what we have felt but not yet adequately processed”i, in the face of everyday reality, micro and small fashion business owners are among the many not privileged enough to fully reap such benefits. Reflection and downtime are hard when you are worrying about the safety of your staff, how you’re going to pay them, how you’re going to fulfill your orders, how you can go on for much longer without sales, not mentioning juggling all this alongside new childcare arrangements and other family commitments, possibly being kept awake by concerns about the most vulnerable family members on top of everything else.

three models stood looking at the camera, wearing AW20 Phoebe English designs
Phoebe English AW20 – Image: Asia Werbel

One of the most recent biographers of Virginia Woolf notes that Woolf’s work shattered the conventions on how and when events are felt and processed. As Alexandra Harris writes, Woolf would “insist that the moment of importance comes not ‘here’ where society demands it, but ‘there’ when we least expect it. We do not feel things on time, to order.’ii These words seem to strongly resonate now, when the immediacy of the current situation leaves most of us slightly shell-shocked, doing our best to survive and thrive in the new circumstances despite not yet being fully able to grasp and absorb their implications and future impacts.

What emerges though is a delicate fusion of strength and vulnerability, demonstrated in so many amazing ways by the micro and small fashion businesses that we are so proud to have been working with over the last year. Paynter Jacket, for example, recognising that with only two people behind the business it is easier for them than for others to live simply over the next few months and focus on development, have postponed the launch of their latest jacket until better times. Meanwhile, they are putting all their energies in supporting their suppliers and fellow small businesses, keeping in touch with their customers, and using the constraints of the current situation to focus on their creativity. Little Black Pants are spending more time on blog posts, such as the one they recently wrote on business resilience, highlighting the precariousness of the current economy where very few, especially of those in independent fashion business, can survive without constantly running on a treadmill.

Phoebe English initiated sharing of the #ViralKindness campaign that offers voluntary help to the most vulnerable in local communities, she is also offering her studio machinery to help in the Government’s effort to replenish stocks of protective gowns and masks for the medical sector, and encourages other businesses to join in the effort. While also taking part in the #ViralKindness campaign, Fabric for Freedom have collated a list of useful resources to support individuals, communities and small businesses in these difficult times, as ‘We’re All In This Together’. Raeburn are encouraging making at home, offering a free download of their Shark Mascot pattern and inviting donations to support frontline health workers through Direct Relief from those who can afford to do so. Birdsong have started an emergency fund to support their makers and Petit Pli have created a comic to help parents explain all the restrictions and hygiene needs linked to the Coronavirus to their children.

We are blown away by all these acts of kindness from those who themselves are no doubt in need of emotional, practical and financial support right now. What the last two weeks have clearly shown is an incredible generosity of spirit and a sense of community that revolutionizes what fashion and fashion business are and what they can be in the future. Over these coming months we will keep doing our best to support these amazing entrepreneurs in all ways we can, in the hope that sharing our vulnerabilities and pulling together our strengths will eventually give us all an opportunity for some reflection and downtime over these coming months.

Up-to-date information on the support available to UK micro and small fashion businesses in connection to COVID 19:

i The School of Life (2020, March 24) ii Harris, A. (2016 [2011]). Virginia Woolf. London: Thames&Hudson


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