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Sweatpants craze and DIY patios: What the pandemic has taught design-led businesses—so far

August 18, 2020, 10:26 AM UTC

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The COVID-19 pandemic has sent shockwaves through two key design-led industries: home furnishings and apparel. Border closures have scuttled the constant caravans of interior design and luxury fashion shows in Milan, London, New York, and Paris. In much of the world, shoppers remain hunkered down at home. Retailers including Muji USA, Bombay & Co, Barneys, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew and Nieman Marcus have toppled into bankruptcy.

And yet, in both sectors, there is growth amid the rubble.

The Wall Street Journal noted this weekend that the outbreak has proved a surprise bonanza for U.S. home-improvement giants Home Depot and Lowe’s. At the former, sales rose 6.4% in the quarter ended May 3, more than double growth a year ago; at the latter, sales jumped 12% in the spring quarter above last year.

Americans, stuck at home without much to do, started painting, building, fixing and decorating,” explains the Journal. “Government stimulus checks buoyed long-delayed home improvements, as did less money spent on restaurants and summer travel.” (A helpful companion piece explores the new ethos of home-renovation: all-white kitchens are out, apparently, while expansive outdoor decks and patios are all-the-rage.)

The pandemic has proved an even bigger boon for Wayfair, the online furniture seller, which posted a $274 million profit in the three months to June 30, its first since going public in 2014. Sales surged to $4.3 billion, up 83% from the same period last year, and the company expanded its active customer base to 26 million, a 46% year-on-year gain. CEO Niraj Shah says Wayfair picked up “a year’s worth” of new customers in just the last quarter.

IKEA, too, is a winner. The Swedish furniture giant had to close about 80% of its 433 stores in 50 countries because of the pandemic. In Europe, some locations didn’t reopen until late May, after being closed for two months. But customers came stampeding back. Jesper Brodin, chief executive of Ingka Group, the parent company that holds and operates most IKEA stores, confessed to the Economist his astonishment that reopenings in Europe became “an effort in crowd control.”

In Britain, meanwhile, The Guardian reports that the surge in “pandemic makeovers” has triggered a parallel outbreak of “flytipping” (illegal dumping) because consumers are buying new furniture faster than local rubbish collectors can get rid of their old stuff.

The cover story of the latest New York Times Sunday Magazine weaves a similar tale about Entireworld, a little-known line of sweatsuits, T-shirts and underwear, that has become a runaway success during the pandemic—even as the rest of the fashion industry seems to be unraveling.

The brand is the creation of Los Angeles-based designer/entrepreneur Scott Sternberg, who initially feared the pandemic meant certain doom. That was a painful prospect for Sternberg; his previous company, a red-hot line called Band of Outsiders, flamed out in 2015. Instead, Entireworld’s sales took off in mid-March. By April, when U.S. clothing sales tanked 79%, Entireworld’s sales climbed by nearly 700%, leaving Sternberg scrambling to keep up with demand.

As the profile’s wry title, “Sweatpants Forever,” implies, one reason for Entireworld’s success might be that its main products are just the thing for schlepping in place: loose-fitting basics that come in cheery colors and at affordable prices.

But author Irina Aleksander also argues that Entireworld is thriving while bigger labels flail because Sternberg has shunned the entire global fashion machine. Instead of jumping on the ever-accelerating hamster-wheel of fashion “seasons,” designing increasingly over-the-top haute couture to get noticed at shows by the fashion press, and adding evermore bizarre flourishes to its products just because the retail buyer demands something “exclusive,” Entireworld sells “direct-to-consumer” via its own website.

It may be too soon to distill the lessons from these case studies. But at the very least they suggest that, for design-led businesses in the post-pandemic era, the road to survival lies in returning to basics, democratizing design by making it accessible for everyone, and using technology to move closer to customers.

More design news below.

Clay Chandler
– clay.chandler@fortune.com

NEWS BY DESIGN

Unprecedented

The 2020 Democratic National Convention kicked off on Monday—virtually, for the first time ever. Major broadcasting networks will air the four-day convention every night, but viewers can also catch the livestream on Youtube, Facebook, Twitter, Twitch, Apple TV, or Amazon Prime; Playstation 4 users can watch it on the gaming devices; and Amazon Alexa owners can ask, "Alexa, play the Democratic National Convention." The first night combined pre-recorded clips with live segments in which politicians and activists spoke to viewers through webcams from their homes, sans audience applause, laughter, or other audible hallmarks of physical conventions. Singers across the U.S., wearing red, white, or blue T-shirts, delivered the national anthem on multiplying screens that dissolved into star shapes at the end of the song.

Bad grades 

The U.K. government is scrapping use of a controversial algorithm designed to provide A-level grades to high school students after accusations that it was biased against poorer students and students of color. The government instituted the algorithm after canceling A-level exams—the results of which determine if and where students go to university—because of the pandemic. The algorithm accounted for factors that went beyond students' performance, like their schools' historical performance. Students and teachers held demonstrations outside the prime minister's offices to protest the government algorithm.

Rebound 

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Saturday authorized a cheap saliva-based COVID-19 test that the National Basketball Associated helped pilot. The test, SalivaDirect, is less invasive than a swab test and could cost just $10 to run in a lab, according to one of the Yale University researchers who developed it. The NBA partially funded research for the test and helped trial it—the league's players are currently playing their season in a "bubble" and take coronavirus tests almost every day.

Postal patent 

The U.S. Postal Service filed a patent for technology that would enable Americans to register to vote by phone, scan a QR code to access ballots, and use tamper-proof blockchain technology to keep track of voter rolls and ensure confidential voting data remains secure. The agency filed the patent in 2018, and the application just became public. USPS was reticent about details of a possible rollout in response to a Fortune inquiry. "This is a pending patent," a USPS spokesperson said. "Nothing happens this year. We will have no further comment beyond what is covered in the filing." 

Virtual films

When the coronavirus hit, a huge number of films had to suspend, delay, or shut down production as it became unsafe for cast and crew to be in physical proximity. Hollywood is reopening now, but it's returning to a changed production landscape. Virtual production, where filmmakers use LED video wall technology to shoot multiple locations remotely and cobble them together into one scene, may become the production norm. 

Voting hub 

Facebook has launched a 'voting hub' on its site to provide users with accurate information about the upcoming U.S. presidential election. Facebook hopes to reach 160 million Americans before the November election, and it will promote the hub at the top of users' Facebook feeds starting this fall. The voting hub will compile information from state officials, bipartisan think tanks, and federal agencies like the Federal Voting Assistance Program. 

MOST POWERFUL WOMEN

A little break from the news to make a request.

Fortune's Most Powerful Women issue will be published in November and we’re collecting nominations to include on the annual Most Powerful Women lists. The lists—one focused on U.S.-based executives and one focused on execs based outside the U.S.—have long relied on four criteria: the size and importance of the woman’s business in the global economy, the health and direction of the business, the arc of the woman’s career, and her social and cultural influence.

This year, there's a new criterion: how the executive wields her power to shape her company and the wider world for the better. (Examples might include, introducing—and maintaining—hazard pay for frontline employees during the pandemic, instituting gender/racial pay parity, creating a program or business unit that serves a disadvantaged population, measurably reducing the company’s carbon footprint, or creating new hiring pipelines that have resulted in a more diverse workforce.) We’re accepting submissions through this online form until August 24. So if you have any nominations, please send them in.

EVENTS BY DESIGN

August

Web design conference Beyond Tellerrand has rescheduled its August event in Berlin to September next year. However, organizers hope their event in Düsseldorf will continue as re-scheduled in November.

Copenhagen’s NordDesign festival, with its focus on industrial and product design, is online this year and currently underway; it runs until August 24. 

The 6th International Conference on Design Creativity will continue as scheduled August 26-28, but will be online rather than in Finland, as initially planned.

Hong Kong’s Knowledge of Design Week will also run online this year, from August 26 to September 3.

September

London Design Festival has decided to go ahead September 12-20, with a stripped-down offline program that will target Londoners much more than international visitors. Other events will be online. The organizers are still figuring out how exactly to proceed.

Design Matters in Copenhagen appears to be carrying on, too, September 23-24, although it is now selling tickets to view a livestream of the event.

November

Dubai’s inaugural architecture festival, d3 Architecture Festival, will run November 11-13 on the sidelines of Dubai Design Week. The event will focus on sustainability—an existential issue for the desert city.

QUOTED BY DESIGN

"This uncertainty feels different: less like one product being overtaken by its rivals and more like an app possibly being murdered just when it seemed at its peak. But the lessons are familiar: No one, from famous creators down to casual viewers, can fully trust the platforms that host the things they care about, no matter where they are in the cycle of relevance."

Abby Ohlheiser, senior editor at MIT Technology Review, writing about the potential U.S. government TikTok ban, how the platform's breakout 'content creator' stars are reacting, and how the app's possible demise stacks up against the fate of erstwhile apps like Vine.

This week’s edition of BxD was curated by Naomi Xu Elegant. Email her tips and ideas at naomi.elegant@fortune.com.