Independent Fashion Brands Are Rediscovering Their Purpose Amid the Pandemic

With consumers stuck indoors, the fashion industry has been in a state of freefall since the early days of lockdown. The brands that have been able to navigate it, however, are rediscovering their purpose and refining their values in ways previously overlooked. Los Angeles communications agency Ritual Projects tells us more.

When Courtney Wittich joined Ritual Projects as an intern at the agency’s Paris headquarters, she never could have imagined that in a few years’ time she’d be based in Los Angeles, leaving clothing on her doorstep for publicists to pick up and deliver to celebrities around town. Uprooting herself from the French capital to become Founding Director of Ritual Projects LA in Spring 2019, however, that’s exactly how things played out.

With a roster of clients that includes some of today’s most culturally progressive brands, Ritual Projects has worked hand in hand with labels such as Y/Project, GmbH, Area, Ottolinger, and 69 to navigate the uncertainty the pandemic has brought upon the fashion industry.

One of the first projects Wittich worked on, the doorstep-pickup, was born out of necessity like most things in those early weeks of lockdown. The industry at large had stopped sending the same stock email with the same faux-personal message about “being there for you during these uncertain times.” Instead, brands, particularly independent ones with more freedom to take risks, were beginning to experiment with new ways of expressing themselves and reaching audiences.

For Wittich and Ritual Projects, that meant trusting their creative network to map uncharted territory. “Normally it’s a commissioned shoot that has a whole team on set and you know what’s happening, but it was people I trust, so I was like, ‘Okay, let’s see what happens.’”

Feedback was quick and positive. A who’s who of It influencers styled and shot themselves in AREA clothing for an “at home” campaign, including Julia Fox, Kitty Ca$h, and Jazzelle, leading to clippings from a number of magazines including Vogue and Dazed. “The response was killer. The content itself felt like pure creative expression without trying to be a certain type of fashion persona.” 

Lil Miquela, a virtual phenomenon created by Trevor McFedries and Sara DeCou, participated in the campaign as well, adding a sense of playfulness to the seriousness of everything occurring during those first few weeks of lockdown.

The early win was welcome news but only a small victory given how things were unfolding across the country. Personal protective equipment (PPE) was in short supply and countless lives were being lost to COVID-19. Brands across the board, from Nike and adidas to Ritual Projects clients MEALS, 69, and Busted, soon pivoted their production operations to manufacture PPE.

The shift was a small gesture but one that would go on to have a major impact, both for those on the receiving end and the brands themselves. “Those masks didn’t just keep them in business, they propelled them to the next level of being able to have collaborative projects that actually help the communities around them.” Community had always been at the heart of independent brands but this very real method of giving back had started to move the needle around the importance of brand values.

Soon after, the tragic killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police officers sparked a global revolution. Like the need for PPE, brands were quick to take a stance on social media and donate to various causes in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. At independent brands in particular, where teams often consist of BIPOC individuals, the emotional impact of the pandemic and the senseless killing of an unarmed Black man caused them to look inwards, reevaluating their potential as creatives with platforms to make a difference.

It’s exactly here where Wittich believes independent brands—and the creatives that run them—are rediscovering their values and demonstrating them in ways that have actual impact. “People want to be able to say with complete transparency, ‘We give back to these communities. We give back to these organizations. We’re donating. We’re participating in a different level of corporate social responsibility.’”

While taking a stance on political issues and working with similar-minded organizations is nothing new, it’s the degree to which independent brands are now doing this that has changed fundamentally and perhaps permanently. Of the eight brands Wittich is currently working with, six have pushed to have more active voices alongside philanthropic actions. Additionally, it’s something she’s adamant new clients seriously take into account.

EMCĒ Studios, an LA-based brand focused on crafting elevated garments with transparent practices, is another label Ritual Projects has been working with since the early days of lockdown. Like many of the other brands Wittich is currently collaborating with, EMCĒ is committed to giving back to the city it calls home, enlisting a local family-owned and operated facility that pays fair wages to a small team. Its first collection, launched last week, makes this message clear across its social media channels, while placing friends and family in its self-shot and self-styled lookbook.

“We’ve all become hyper-aware of what we’re purchasing. The message is now: support local businesses, support local people.”

Beyond the real-world changes this shift has caused, Wittich sees this development as a way for brands to hone their identity and sharpen their message at a time where customers are looking to associate themselves with brands that share their values. “We’ve all become hyper-aware of what we’re purchasing. The message is now: support local businesses, support local people. When people say, ‘Hey, if I buy this mask, the proceeds are going here,’ that becomes an external motivator for why they would want to wear something. That’s what consumers are looking for right now. They want to buy something that makes them feel good in a different kind of way.”

The same way certain cultural elements have defined today’s most recognizable brands—Supreme and skating, Nike and athletics—the causes labels support and the values at the center of them may go on to define the independent brands of tomorrow.