TORONTO — When Myriam Maguire sits down to design footwear for her fashion boutiques in Montreal and Toronto, glamour and special occasions are often on her mind.
But in the COVID-19 era, no one's looking for gala-ready high heels or statement shoe to wear to a wedding or an important day at the office.
"Everything that we have that is more dressy is not working, so what we're doing is just keeping the shoes for next year," said the Montreal designer, who runs Maguire Boutique with her sister Romy.
"We had to change our designs. I'm not doing any heels for fall. I'm doing everything flat, everything comfy."
The shift at Maguire Boutique is being mirrored at retailers across Canada as the country adapts to a pandemic lifestyle, where function often trumps fashion.
Gone are the days when retailers would advertise formal wear, suits or gowns. Instead, comfy knits, sweatpants, pyjamas, athletic wear, face masks and shoes are in demand as many Canadians continue to work from home and avoid venturing out.
The shift meant yoga pants maker Lululemon Athletica Inc. experienced one of its largest quarterly gains in market share in recent years. Uniqlo Canada saw a 200 per cent increase in sales for comfortable clothing.
Online sales jumped by the same amount in the second quarter at Roots Corp., where executives reported a scramble for everything sweat — pants, shorts and dresses made of comfortable materials.
Clothing and accessory sales saw gains of 142 per cent month-over-month sales figures as more stores opened to the public, Statistics Canada reported. Even so, the total dollar amount was 21 per cent below the same month in 2019.
The initial drop in March, at the height of pandemic-related lockdowns and store closures, was a whopping 51 per cent. Even with the surge in June, apparel sales are still below where they were in February.
That first rapid decrease was rapid and scary, said Nina Kharey, the founder of Nonie, a Calgary-based luxury brand famous for its sleeveless, blush trench coat worn by Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex. The uncertainty ahead is the real source of anxiety, however.
"When I started to get worried was when I started seeing that this is more long term," she said.
"There are not that many people shopping for luxury clothing because they are feeling the need to cut back on spending and a lot of people lost their jobs."
It got Kharey thinking about her values. She didn't want to create a massive collection fit for offices with her typical price tags, so she pared the size and cost back.
She decided not to show the collection a year out, instead allowing consumers to get their hands on it right away.
"It'll be very small, because that's what we can afford and that's just the safest thing to do when there's so much uncertainty in the industry," she said.
"We're going to design it so that you can wear it and be cosy and comfortable at home, and wear it while you're on a Zoom call, but also be able to wear it when you're physically at work."
She also started selling the season's hottest accessory: masks.
Facial coverings have been added over at Hilary MacMillan, a contemporary womenswear brand based in Toronto.
The masks, said MacMillan, are made of fabrics left over from past seasons and jazzed up with embellishments to give them character.
When COVID-19 struck, she was plotting a U.K. expansion, but with mask-making and reimagining apparel taking up so much time, those plans have been put aside.
She's focusing more heavily on e-commerce than wholesale these days, is dropping new products slowly over time to keep consumers coming back and is reassessing her fall collection, which was designed well before COVID-19.
"We've taken a second look at it and reduced certain styles and gotten rid of certain things that maybe weren't going to be seasonally correct," she said.
That includes high fashion pieces like an oversized, "cocoon-style" coat made of cord and several styles of pants.
Making such switches takes plenty of time and money. Collections are often planned months or even a year in advance.
Maguire Boutique was able to shift within two months because it works with a lot of small factories that could handle a collection overhaul.
But not all retailers did.
"I used to work for Aldo and then I went to see their windows and they still had really high heels that no one is wearing right now," she said. "I'm wondering, is it because they already booked them so they have to bring them to store?"
Her company was careful not to sacrifice quality to meet sudden demand because people are increasingly being frugal and want to ensure that the purchases they've made will last through COVID-19.
The key, she said, has been paying attention to trends, but also staying calm.
"Instead of freaking out ... we are doing something that fits the new normal and the new lifestyle, but we will be ready when events come back."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 14, 2020.
Companies in this story: (TSX:LULU, TSX:ROOT)