Pandemic puts the squeeze on fashion industry, but local shops remain part of the fabric of the community

Laura Tanzer Designs
Laura Tanzer working on new shoe designs.

Local fashion boutiques and designers continue to face challenges due to the pandemic, but some have recently seen shoppers looking for new clothes alongside a push for more sustainability in the industry.

Last March, businesses—especially non-essential businesses like boutiques and thrift shops—were forced to close.

The pandemic had a rippling effect across the industry as manufacturers also closed and barriers arose to traveling to places to find source materials and designs.

Not only small boutiques but large powerhouse brands and retailers suffered through the pandemic, with factory shutdowns and delays in merchandise. Many filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, including retailers like J. Crew, Men's Wearhouse and Lucky Brand.

However, small boutiques had an advantage with a strong local following and the ability to quickly pivot or build on existing online presence.

For a year, Laura Tanzer Designs, a sustainable retailer and atelier, has remained open by appointment only. Owner and designer Laura Tanzer had to furlough all four part-time workers, as she continues to feel uncomfortable putting her employees at risk. With appointments few and far between, she said she probably made about a sixth of her typical income over the past year.

Tanzer sources material from deadstock–leftover fabric from manufacturers. With manufacturers closed, she was unable to get more deadstock; however, Tanzer already had a large stockpile of vintage materials and still plenty of inventory.

She received the first round of PPP, and applied for the second but has not heard back. Unlike other small businesses or restaurants, retailers did not receive as much government help through the Paycheck Protection Program or other government loans, said Tanzer.

"I make a product that is extraordinary and beautiful and artistic, very creative, and this type of product wasn't something that people wanted or needed during the pandemic because everybody was at home. People weren't going out. People weren't being seen," said Tanzer. "It really was very close to devastating for me to be closed for this amount of time, especially since my business, prior to the pandemic, was ramping up and doing really, really, really well and then it's just like somebody pulled the curtain and closed everything."

From March to May, Tanzer made masks from left over cotton, which sold faster than she could make them.

However she didn't plan to make masks for the rest of her life, so she made a shift in her business model and a new website, called Learn Craft Sew, soft launched at the end of March. She will post online tutorials and offer workshops on sewing and pattern making in a two- to three-hour session.

For Tucson Thrift, a known vintage shop on Fourth Avenue, the ability to pivot was a little harder, but the shop took the opportunity to remodel and install a new POS system while closed.

Owner Arlene Leaf said they closed on March 18 along with other nonessential retailers and had already purchased Halloween merchandise in January, not cancelling their orders and keeping their commitments. With people not celebrating Halloween, as other years, they still have merchandise, but Leaf said the community comes by to support the shop. They reopened on Oct. 10, but she decided to close again after seeing the spike around Thanksgiving before reopening again in February.

Leaf thanks the government programs that allowed her to continue to support her staff and remodeling efforts.

"Very fortunately I had savings, so I could keep the staff going while we worked out the other stuff but it was a little scary there at that time. But honestly, without the government we couldn't have made it," said Leaf. "It's like I was just to zero in my account and the $10,000 showed up."

Leaf said they also received an additional $42,000 in PPP and EIDL that allowed her to keep going.

Like Tucson Thrift, W Boutique had already purchased merchandise from manufacturers and designers for the spring and summer about six months prior, then the pandemic hit, said owner Sydney Duncan. The boutique kept their commitments and was given more time to pay to deal with the losses as people were no longer purchasing "going out" outfits at the same rate as before.

"We got kind of caught in the middle of our busy, busy season," said Duncan. "We definitely had a lot of dressy things but we always have a really nice casual selection and that's what was our strength."

W Boutique, a 25-year Tucson retailer, had a wide selection of sweatsuits and elevated casualwear and currently have sold out their Kermit the Frog and Animal boyfriend tee and hoodie.

The pandemic had a rippling effect across the industry as manufacturers closed and traveling to source materials and designs stopped.

Star of India Fashions, the enterprise that owns the Fourth Avenue staple Creations Boutique, found itself with more of their own Angie brand merchandise, as retailers cancelled big orders. The national brand sold in Nordstrom and Dillards was now more available at the company's own retailers across Arizona and in California.

"We were really lucky to be diversified into wholesale and retail that we have our own brand," said Star of India Fashions general manager Olivia Verma Smith, daughter of original owners Avtar and Satya Verma.

Star of India, which sources their products from all around the world (with designers travelling from India to China), had to transfer their design process online, shopping for artwork over Zoom and with employees on the ground sending fabric material photographs through email.

"It's been a lot of innovation in the design process and I think we might keep some of that because it's very cost effective to not travel and if so, we'll see If we keep some of those practices long term," said Smith. "It's been interesting to keep it going, but the fashion is new. It keeps on going, it's just the inspiration comes from other places. It comes from online. It doesn't come from physical things."

As vaccinations roll out, the shops have seen more business. Tanzer said for the month of April, she had more appointments and looked forward to participating in the Tucson Museum of Art's Spring Artisan Market on April 16-18.

The market, which will also be open on April 23-25, showcases local arts and craft and this year implemented social distancing and mask wearing to keep participants safe.

"We're starting to see people sort of coming out a little bit, especially because a lot of people vaccinated and a lot of people are halfway vaccinated, and then other people are going to get their vaccination," Tanzer said. "All of those factors are playing into a little bit more comfort, whereas before, you know, we were all very on edge."

Tucson Thrift offers an array of vintage wear that could not be really tailored to the elevated casual wear and sweatsuit fashion that became popular throughout the pandemic, but Leaf had seen not only people coming out more, but appreciating the value of vintage clothing.

"There's a shift, whereas the people are really appreciating the vintage clothing and looking forward to wearing it," said Leaf. "They finally woke up to what fast fashion is. It doesn't have the character, love, whatever in the creation that the oldest things had and they really are enjoying that. I think that's a big shift."

While the fashion industry had been trending towards a more sustainable future, Tanzer said the pace was slow and the pandemic accelerated the change.

"I think you'll find in most industries, the pandemic has accelerated things that were sort of trending that might have been positive things but people are stuck in old behaviors," said Tanzer. "So I'm hoping that the pandemic will continue to accelerate these huge changes in the fashion industry and we will not see overproduction and overconsumption going forward."

Tanzer often thinks about how to reconcile her role as a retailer while advocating for sustainability.

"I'm an artist and as an artist, I'm not going to stop creating, but what I can do is use found materials, which is what I do with vintage and the deadstock. Those are found materials that otherwise would have gone to landfills or incinerators," said Tanzer. "We were not going to stop creating, but we're going to find other ways to be of value. So yes, so having a retail shop in the general sense is contrary to being sustainable. If that shop carries non sustainable products. If that shop is only there to sell, sell, sell, sell, sell, regardless of whatever, and I don't do any of those things. My shop is just an extension of my creativity, of my personality."

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