It is going to be ten full months very soon since Covid-19 upended life in every sense. The world has lost the year 2020 to the pandemic which continues to rage with no end in sight. As many as 39mn people have tested positive since the outbreak started and 26.1mn recovered while more than a million lives were lost. Many habits and routines have gone for a toss. Most people in “white-collar” jobs are working from home, with a newfound love of sweatpants, a trend that some experts expect to outlive the pandemic, according to a Reuters report. This seismic shift in behaviour is having profound repercussions across the supply chain for suits and formal wear, upending a sartorial sector spanning every continent.
In Australia, the world’s biggest producer of merino wool, prices have been in freefall, hitting decade lows. Many sheep farmers are in dire straits, storing wool in every available shed in the hope of a rebound. In northern Italy, the wool mills that buy from the farmers and weave the fabric for high-end suits have seen their own orders from retailers nosedive. In the US and Europe, several retail chains specialising in business attire such as Men’s Wearhouse, Brooks Brothers and TM Lewin have closed stores or filed for bankruptcy over the past few months, and more could follow. Players at all levels told Reuters they were being forced to adapt to survive, from farmers turning to other forms of agriculture to mills making stretchier fabrics for a new breed of suits that don’t crease easily and are more resistant to stains.
“People want to be more comfortable and are less inclined to wear a formal suit,” said Silvio Botto Poala, managing director of Lanificio Botto Giuseppe, a wool mill in Italy’s textile hub of Biella which counts Armani, Max Mara, Ralph Lauren and Hermes among its customers. Fine wool prices in Australia have more than halved during a tumultuous 18-month period, as usually healthy purchases of merino wool from Italian mills have almost ground to a halt. The benchmark price for merino wool fell to $6.1 per kg in early September, auction results show, down from $14.28 in early 2019. It has since partly recovered to just over $7.08.
Andrew Blanch, managing director of New England Wool in New South Wales, which sources wool from farms for Italian textile makers, said many buyers now had excess supplies. He said that China, which alongside Italy purchases most of Australia’s more than $2.12bn in annual wool exports, was now “the only show in town” even though Chinese buyers were also acquiring less wool. Many merino sheep farmers are storing their wool in sheds or storage facilities; though some who are still emerging from a three-year drought are selling their bales into the weak market to stay financially afloat. “A lot of the orders we had bought wool against just got cancelled by their clients in the US and around Europe,” Blanch added. Dave Young, a farmer near the New South Wales town of Yass, who has about 4,500 sheep on his property, said he had re-focused some operations to provide lamb meat instead.
A gradual move towards casual wear has been going on for years. In 2019, even Goldman Sachs - a bastion of bespoke suits - relaxed the dress code for its staff. Not to mention the rise of the Silicon Valley hipster crowd. But Covid-19 has turbocharged that shift - boosting sales of comfort clothing and sportswear at the expense of business attire. Life has changed, indeed, and expected to change further.
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