Katrin Leblond was boarding her plane on her way back from spring break in March 2020, when she first heard the news about the pandemic. She put on the mask that she bought at a pharmacy several years earlier, and wore it on her flight back to Montreal.
The gravity of the situation was starting to set in. By the time she had landed, schools had closed, and many businesses were forced to shut down.
Worse news for Leblond, founder of Katrin Leblond Design, was that most social events, from weddings to charity galas, were abruptly cancelled.
That was the start of a long roller-coaster ride for the fashion industry that has not yet ended.
WATCH | Montreal designers explain how the pandemic upended their plans
Montreal shoe designer Alfredo Prado Caro started the year on an optimistic note, but he could not have foreseen what was coming.
His company, Orué Lima, started three years ago when Caro was working with a Peruvian designer to make ethically sourced, handmade shoes produced in Peru.
"I was so happy," Caro said. "I couldn't ask for a better beginning." At the time, he was optimistic about doubling — or even tripling — his sales.
"I had a plan," Caro said. "I planned a proper collection, production, importation. I was going to reach out to new retailers across Canada, not just Montreal — then the pandemic happened, and everything was cancelled."
The shutdown was hard on Caro, whose line was designed primarily for the many social events that had been postponed indefinitely. Demand plummeted.
Another challenge was production. Caro's shoes were produced in Peru, where some of his suppliers shut down. COVID-19 also made shipping internationally more expensive and delayed the whole process.
"The biggest challenge was that the orders I had were cancelled," Caro said. "The stores were closing; my contacts were going out of business."
Leblond's first move was to contact a friend to help design some mask prototypes. It wasn't long before mask production became their main activity — in fact, their website now dedicates an entire section to masks.
"It just caused such a shift, where for six months all I was doing was making and shipping masks," Leblond said.
She felt fortunate that she had an online store set up before the pandemic hit.
"It became everything, and I already had an online store, thank God!" she said. "There were still struggles, but going online … I can't imagine how people could survive without it."
Marie-Eve Proulx was also caught by surprise at the sudden change, but nevertheless felt prepared.
When she and Yana Gorbulski launched their Odeyalo clothing line in 2016, Proulx researched what the future of the business might look like. "I got a few articles saying that in 2020, 40 to 50 per cent of people will work from home," she said. "I was like, yeah, I can see that coming. But we didn't know 2020 would be the year of everyone working from home."
Proulx got creative to meet the demands of her customers, despite the challenging times.
"We felt that need of people wanting colour and to be comforted," she said. "We wanted to custom [make] things that were really warm and kind of comforting, too."
Proulx pointed out that, as with Leblond Design, Odeyalo already had its e-commerce system in place, and its style of clothing works well with online shopping.
However, with each brand, the pandemic required a unique response. Caro had to rethink his entire business approach.
"Instead of doing spring/summer 2021, I decided to change my model to adapt myself to the new reality," said Caro, who soon began working on a second collection of footwear with a new retailer. And he is planning to release a third collection once international travel fully resumes.
Proulx believes her business wouldn't have survived the pandemic without being flexible.
"The advice I would give any entrepreneur — not just in a pandemic — is you need to adapt," she said. "I can't think of a year where everything was stable for the whole year. It always changes, especially when you're a small business."
Leblond agrees. While it's been an exceptional year, change is a constant in the industry — and there are so many ways things can go wrong.
"Fashion is one of those things where every six months you're making 12 new things in five different sizes," she said. "If you like a really stable business, fashion's not for you."
This story is a collaboration between Concordia University's journalism department and CBC Montreal.