There won’t be a fall fashion season this September.

Trends don’t matter: Who needs a new power suit or the latest in back-to-school denim when most of us are working and learning from home? Special occasions are a no go, so glittery holiday frocks and ball gowns are a nonissue. Women’s magazines’ annual September issues will be more about racial equality than retail therapy.

The see-and-be-seen aspect that fueled the fashion industry’s frivolous reputation is pretty much a done deal in 2020.

Not only is the fall fashion season not happening, fashion entrepreneurs — especially local small-business owners — are facing the stark reality that shoppers don’t have anywhere to go to show off their new duds. And, I don’t know about you, but spending money on clothing — unless I absolutely need it — is not a priority right now. I’m too worried about the fragile economy. I’m not alone. According to the NPD Group, apparel sales were down 34 percent from March through July compared to sales during the same period in 2019.

But even while we save our coins and bake bread at home, it’s important that, when we do venture out to replace our moth-eaten sweaters, we shop at local boutiques. Because where we shop this season is just as important as what we buy. Like restaurants, apparel retailers are the backbone of our local economy. How fashion fares on the other side of the pandemic might be an indicator of our collective futures.

Philadelphia businesses are struggling

There is a lot going on in the fashion industry right now and none of it is sexy. The year started off challenging. Esteemed designers shuttered their studios and legacy brick-and-mortars, like Barneys New York, permanently closed their doors. The emergence of COVID-19 sent the industry into a tailspin, taking down Lord & Taylor, New York & Co., and Diane von Furstenberg.

Local businesses, too, were hit hard. Linda Golden is shuttering her eponymous Haverford boutique. “How can I recover after being closed for three months?” Golden asked me. Across town, Marissa Gelman is closing up Fashion Statement’s in-person shop. “People were afraid to walk in the door,” said the 29-year-old business owner who is now solely doing business online.

Those spared by COVID-19 are in a difficult position because they’ve lost three months of sales. And what is traditionally the most important season of the year has fizzled before it started. What happens in specialty stores in September influences crucial, fourth-quarter sales. There is no excitement to shop for the upcoming winter events because holiday parties and balls can’t happen.

To make matters worse, the New York and European fashion shows, where the world’s top designers introduce the following year’s trends, will be virtual, if they happen at all. And Hollywood’s annual red carpet season? Forget about it. Our favorite actors and actresses will receive their Oscars and Golden Globes virtually. And if talk show host Tamron Hall is any indication — the Temple grad accepted her first Daytime Emmy last month in a plush bathrobe — they may be wearing jammies. Talk about another blow to the aspirational vibe, which fashion trades on so heavily to sell clothes.

“What’s happening in 2020 is certainly a major paradigm shift in the world of fashion,” said Elissa Bloom, executive director of the Philadelphia Fashion Incubator. “What will happen in fall 2020 and spring 2021 in stores and with designers will have a long-term impact on how the customer purchases clothes.”

The industry is adapting

But there is a chance we can both save local retailers and influence how fashion treats us in the future. Because for the first time since the days of Sex and the City, the industry isn’t focused on celebrity. Its focus is us and what we need right now, not what we hope to be tomorrow. Because if this coronavirus experience has taught us anything, tomorrow is uncertain.

No wonder all local retailers are focused on comfort.

Even the proprietors of the city’s poshest boutiques like Boyds Philadelphia and Sophy Curson are investing in less-structured — and less-expensive — apparel in ways they’ve never done before. Sophy Curson’s owner, David Schwartz, who once declared to me that leggings should be banished from polite society, is even giving in. “I’m adjusting as I go,” said Schwartz, who is still on the hunt for casual pieces, including pants that aren’t yoga pants, but are comparable.

In a brilliant move, the owner of the uber high-end specialty store Kirna Zabête, Beth Buccini, designed a line of house dresses, T-shirts, and masks to sell alongside the elevated (translation: really expensive) sportswear she’s known for, including Golden Goose sneakers and Suzie Kondi sweats.

But for Joan Shepp, revving up comfort to her customers is a way of comforting herself. Not only did Shepp, the owner of the city’s most exclusive women’s wear boutique, lose the bulk of her spring sales during the shutdown, but her store was also trashed by looters angry over the death of George Floyd a week before her store was set to reopen. All of her windows were smashed and tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise was stolen.

Joan Shepp boutique is shown in Center City, Philadelphia, Pa. Wednesday, August 19, 2020. After closing due to the coronavirus and then rebuilding a store that was virtually destroyed after the George Floyd protests, Joan Shepp reopened the boutique this week.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Joan Shepp boutique is shown in Center City, Philadelphia, Pa. Wednesday, August 19, 2020. After closing due to the coronavirus and then rebuilding a store that was virtually destroyed after the George Floyd protests, Joan Shepp reopened the boutique this week.

Shepp used the setback to rethink the mix of her store and also put a heavier focus on casual pieces from the likes of Rick Owen and Norma Kamali. And she’s focusing on the health and safety of customers. Like many boutiques, shopping is by appointment only. She can only have a maximum of 10 people in the store at a time. And each piece must be steamed in between try-ons.

Still, Shepp added, “After all we’ve been through, the last thing I want to do is get someone sick. There is no amount of fashion that’s worth that.”

Supporting local creatives

COVID-19 has brought with it lots of hardship, yet it’s also brought the potential of innovation. And, said Bloom, believe it not, local designers are finding a way. That’s why it’s more important than ever for us to support them.

Philadelphia Fashion Incubator alumni brands like PrintFresh, Milano di Rouge, Smart Adaptive Clothing and Lobo Mau consistently sell out collections thanks to the direct-to-consumer relationships and robust social media followings. Lobo Mau owner, Nicole Haddad, added bar codes to her store’s windows so potential customers can shop virtually, and get clothes delivered by mail or through contactless pickup.

Nicole Haddad stands in front of her boutique, Lobo Mau, in Philadelphia on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. The store has bar codes on the windows for people to scan and shop during COVID-19.
HEATHER KHALIFA / Staff Photographer
Nicole Haddad stands in front of her boutique, Lobo Mau, in Philadelphia on Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020. The store has bar codes on the windows for people to scan and shop during COVID-19.

Kevin Parker, cofounder of Philly Fashion Week, pointed to Jeantrix as another example of new success despite the pandemic. The brand’s edgy sportswear was recently featured in Beyoncé’s ”Black Is King” video album.

So, Parker stresses, we need to remember it’s just as important for local boutique owners to support local designers as it is for Philadelphians to shop local. It’s all connected. It’s all necessary. It’s all needed for our collective survival. “COVID leveled the playing field,” Parker said. “ If we want Philadelphia to survive, if we want fashion to survive, all of us have to buy small and shop local.”

This truth, if nothing else, this alone should take the frivolity out of fashion.