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NEW YORK, United States — Just six weeks ago, Joey Keefer, a consultant who has worked with Saint Laurent, Deveaux and other brands, had a string of exciting projects lined up, and was in talks to join a luxury label in-house.
But then the coronavirus swept New York, and work dried up almost overnight.
“Within days everything just disappeared,” he said. “Everyone kind of went into their shells.”
Keefer is finding ways to keep busy, including learning how to use new digital tools. But it hasn’t been an easy time.
“For me it’s been a very isolating and quiet period,” he said. “We can become very singularly focused on our careers, and when that gets pulled out from underneath you, it really can rattle you to your core.”
We can become very singularly focused on our careers, and when that gets pulled out from underneath you, it really can rattle you to your core.
Keefer is one of millions in the fashion industry who have found themselves swept up in an unprecedented wave of layoffs. In the US alone, over 30 million people have joined the unemployment rolls in the last few weeks, from store associates to senior executives. Millions more across Europe and Asia are also looking for work, even as companies implement hiring freezes with no end dates.
With the future of the fashion job market in flux, it can be hard to know what the best way forward might be. BoF talked to experts to find out what fashion workers who have lost their jobs during the coronavirus pandemic should do next.
First thing’s first: figure out what government benefits you’re entitled to, and apply for them. Immediately.
State aid is typically available to furloughed workers as well as those who were permanently laid off. In France, Italy and the UK, furloughed workers are entitled to a percentage of their paycheques. Employers apply to the state on their employees’ behalf.
In the US, employees apply directly to state governments for payments, and since the pandemic, the federal government has also begun sending cash to some workers. However, with unemployment offices overwhelmed with applications, it’s important to act fast as there have been reports of cash being slow to arrive.
Furloughed employees may also still be entitled to health insurance and other company benefits, said Edgar Ndjatou, a former employment attorney and executive director at Workplace Fairness, an organisation that advocates for employee rights.
It’s ok to look for a new job while furloughed, especially if an employer hasn’t made it clear when employees can return to work. But use discretion.
“I’ve heard from a few people who are furloughed that they don’t want their company to know if they’re out there looking for a different job because they don’t want to risk the possibility of not being welcomed back,” said Kristy Hurt, career consultant and recruitment and HR specialist focused in the fashion and luxury sector.
For those who have been formally laid off, securing health insurance is a priority. US employers typically pay workers through the end of the month they were fired. After that, employees can extend their company plans via COBRA, a federal programme, but will be footing the entire cost themselves. Enrolling in an Affordable Care Act plan is another option, though they also can be expensive.
Look After Your Mental Health
Resist the urge to panic.
“You’ve got to have resilience, you’ve got to have confidence,” said Tracy Short, a career coach and consultant.
These qualities don’t always come naturally to people at the best of times, let alone immediately after they’ve lost their job during a global health crisis.
Focus on what you can control, Short said. That may mean taking a break from the news for a while. Take the time instead to think about your strengths, polish up your resume and LinkedIn profile, and plan for the future.
Maintaining personal interests is also important to avoid becoming overwhelmed, said Keefer. During this time he’s been enjoying hobbies like cooking and biking.
Pivot Your Skill Set
The fashion industry has largely put hiring on hold. In a BoF survey in March, 93 percent of respondents reported their workplace had implemented a hiring freeze. Economic conditions have only deteriorated further since then.
There are still jobs available, but there’s a mismatch between openings and many applicants’ expertise. With most fashion companies a way off from hiring again, it may be time to consider a more radical career change.
I think that there’s absolutely work. It just might look a little bit different and we have to advance our skill sets.
Companies outside of the fashion industry need creative people, from art directors to brand storytellers to public relations executives, said Karen Harvey, chief executive of The Karen Harvey Companies, a consulting and advisory services firm for luxury fashion businesses.
“I think that there’s absolutely work,” she said. “It just might look a little bit different and we have to advance our skill sets.”
Consider companies that are seeing a boost from the pandemic, such as essentials retailers like Amazon, tech communications companies like Zoom or Slack, or even a financial services firm like KPMG.
“I don’t see why someone from a fashion retailer can’t shift gears and go work for an essentials provider,” said Hurt, pointing to Target and Walmart as examples. “If you’re a [fashion] PR, there’s no reason why you can’t do PR for something else.”
Don’t underestimate the stakes. Competition will be fierce: even at essential retailers, there are far fewer jobs going than people being laid off elsewhere. Candidates should zero in on their niche and really emphasise where they can add value to a company, advises Short.
Consider using some of this downtime to take an online course, go back to school or learn a new professional skill.
Many top fashion schools offer online courses, including New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and University of the Arts London. Some institutions are offering discounts, while others aren’t charging at all. Harvard, for example, has a selection of free online courses available.
Harvey recommends preparing for a digital-heavy world. If you were previously working in retail and have good merchandising skills, for example, learn how to translate those to digital merchandising for e-commerce. Keefer, who works in design and product development, is currently learning how to use 3D digital design software.
At a senior and executive level, Harvey anticipates more companies are going to be putting greater emphasis on hiring people who specialise in business strategy and have strong data and analytical skills.
Crises usually foster innovation. Take the 2008 financial crash, for example, which saw the launch of tech companies like Groupon, Square, Uber and WhatsApp.
Within the fashion sector, Reformation, which started out as a repurposed vintage dresses brand, and Vestiaire Collective, which allowed people to sell second-hand luxury online, were both founded in 2009, finding a market niche at a time when shoppers were scaling back on spending. Gilt Groupe, which launched in 2007 and offered hefty designer discounts via “flash sales,” thrived during the recession as brands were figuring out what to do with inventory they couldn’t shift at full price.
There are so many ways to help right now. We just all have to pitch in and do what we can — and it could end up leading to a completely new career.
If someone else won’t hire you, why not start a business of your own? Consider what opportunities the current crisis presents, and what unique solutions you can offer.
There are a lot of talented people who are out of work at the moment. It’s worth networking with like-minded, smart people in a similar situation, whether it’s to collaborate on a new business venture or just to find support.
“There are so many ways to help right now,” she said. “We just all have to pitch in and do what we can — and it could end up leading to a completely new career.”
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