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Home Fashion Judy Zhang on Managing a Start-Up during the Coronavirus Outbreak

Judy Zhang on Managing a Start-Up during the Coronavirus Outbreak

I first heard about the novel coronavirus on January 19 in my home in Shenzhen. Just the day before, my office had closed for the Chinese New Year break. At the time, the situation didn’t seem very serious, and like many, I was preparing for my holiday travels. On January 23, I traveled from China to Milan with no issues. However, when I arrived in Milan, I learned that on the same day, Wuhan had been put on lockdown.

With the increase in travel over the holidays, things took a quick and nasty turn in China—and then the world. Soon, travel bans became ubiquitous, and these would prove to be challenging in running my business. As the CEO and founder of designer ready-to-wear brand Judy Zhang and a fashion production company, I split my time between Shenzhen, Milan, and New York.

When I launched my own label in 2019, I was determined to base my brand out of the three cities that inspire me most. I am attracted to New York’s diversity and how the city presents opportunities for people of different walks of life to thrive. Milan, on the other hand, is rich with culture and art, and is known for its delicacy in craftsmanship. Lastly, Shenzhen—which, in comparison to New York and Milan, is a young city—is a breeding ground for creativity and miracles. The interactions I have in these cities broaden and enrich my perspective, and they inspire me to push myself to bring out my own individuality in designing something more global.

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Initial design always begins in Milan, and I will often fly there first. It is where I source inspiration and raw material, and confirm initial design sketches. I spent the good part of February in Milan doing just that. On February 27, I flew to Paris for market appointments. In the meantime, back in Shenzhen, what was supposed to be a well-deserved, celebratory two-week respite for my team quickly became a nightmare. I immediately advised my employees, regardless of whether they traveled within China or not, to stay home and not return to work until it was safe to do so. We made sure that all employees were paid during this time.

On March 1, we slowly began to return to work, albeit from home at first. Employees who had traveled back from lower-risk areas were asked to self-quarantine for seven days, while employees who returned from higher-risk areas were asked to self-quarantine for 14. Per the law, all employees took and passed the nucleic acid test and provided their health QR Codes—this is the government electronic health data on an individual—before they were allowed to work. Lastly, all employees were advised to practice social distancing, and work areas were constantly sanitized. Every employee is given six masks, and every day they have their temperatures taken, and their shoes and arms sprayed with alcohol before entering the office. They are also required to wear masks at all times for the safety of each other. By April 1, most of my employees in China had returned to work. My team in Milan and New York are currently working from home. The impact will only be fully known by the end of this epidemic.

They put a surveillance camera on my door to supervise me.

My plan was to return from Paris to Milan on March 5 and fly back to China on March 8. However, things had escalated in Milan a few days before market appointments ended, and it became clear to me that I would have to adjust my travel. Italy had canceled flights to and from China, and many flights to China from elsewhere had already been canceled. With so many cities on lockdown, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to return home.

I was able to leave Paris for Shenzhen on March 6. I was immediately quarantined—especially since I had been in Milan within 14 days of arrival. I was traveling alone at the time and was allowed by the government to quarantine in my own apartment after signing a contract. They put a surveillance camera on my door to supervise me. I had my temperature taken by government-assigned health officials who came to my door every day at 9:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to take my temperature and ensure I was not showing any symptoms. Community managers came by to deliver food and other necessities, as well as fruits as a gift.

This time of isolation and self-reflection had led me to find new ways to develop business strategies. I spent my time in isolation gathering inspiration for my spring 2021 collection and having virtual meetings with my teams and calls with clients. I also made sure to stay in touch with my friends and family. To strengthen my immune system, I practiced yoga and cooked healthy meals daily. I also deep-cleaned my apartment, which I don’t always have time to do. On the 15th day, I had my last checkup, and I signed another agreement. At my final checkup, the health officials sang me a celebratory song. After all, I had completed the government-mandated quarantine, as well as my spring 2021 collection designs and strategy.

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Overall, things are much more calm in China now. Many returned to work starting on February 20, and by March 1, most businesses were back in action. However, given the global nature of the pandemic, many companies are still affected, as we are unable to export goods. As for the illness itself, right now, there are few new domestic cases in China, as the government has been very strictly controlling the outbreak. Anyone who enters through airports is forced to quarantine for 14 days to ensure safety.

In these trying times, I am grateful for my team. Having an exceptional team enables me to manage them from afar. Design begins in Milan; Shenzhen manages the manufacturing process, where I oversee the team to ensure quality; and New York, our headquarters, is where sales are managed. Because the virus is contained in China, in Shenzhen, we are back at work and able to go right back into motion.

My team in Milan is greatly affected by the virus, and other than online, there is no way to conduct business. The city seems to be at the peak of the epidemic curve, and I’ve been told that we may not return to work until June, when the spring market season is mostly over. I assume that the manufacturing for our fall season might also be affected, and I must plan our dates accordingly. To mitigate the loss of our in-person meetings, we have been advised to shoot a video to introduce the newest collection to our Milanese clients who are not able to review the collections in person.

The pandemic will sadly wipe out many businesses, but hopefully will create space for other business.

New York’s epidemic has just begun, and I am still trying to grasp a timeline for it. We have an exceptional sales team that typically travels around the country to understand the market and the needs of clients. Obviously, this has been impacted by the pandemic, so we have shifted gears. We began working with different sales teams and clients on selling collections on their online platforms to introduce new merchandise. We have been pushing our own e-commerce platform intensely and are fortunate to move our physical sales to online. I’m sure this shift will continue to be fruitful for our business.

The effects of COVID-19 will change how the global fashion industry conducts business. I believe the change will be a greater shift from physical to online, not only in retail, but on every level. I think businesses will allow for more flexibility to work from home with productive, problem-solving online meetings. The pandemic will sadly wipe out many businesses, but hopefully it will create space for other businesses to innovate. To alleviate the financial pressures, I plan to maintain strict control on merchandise quantity and control unnecessary spending. Having our own factory gives us better control over the quantity and quality of goods, and the flexibility with time to produce them. We are ready to develop and produce with very little lead time. We are also ready to expand our sales into different markets, either physically or virtually. I am also going to continue to nurture a strong and talented team. I am looking for quality employees over quantity. I believe the business will be affected in the coming years, and I will need to make sure my teams are well-balanced.

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Managing an independent fashion business is a dream that I’ve worked so hard to make come true—and the pandemic will not change that. I’ve built my team around the ideas of cooperation to reach goals together, and empower employees to find their own managing and problem-solving methods to reach our collective goals. I like having young talent at the company—they make me feel younger with their freshness and new ideas. They are often the ones who make me feel more creative and willing to take chances, even if I fail.

At the end of the day, I am grateful for everything that I do have. I have my health. My parents and siblings are all quarantined at home and are also healthy. My daughters, who flew back from Los Angeles to China on March 26, are currently quarantined but are doing well. I look forward to reuniting with them after their 14 days. Even a pandemic will come to an end.

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Everything is always in constant motion, and we will stand our ground in the face of turbulent change. I have 168 phenomenal colleagues across production, sales, and design teams who are also family to me. As long as we have our goals and a team, we will always find our way back to the right path and achieve our dreams.

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