It is hard to know where to start when writing anything about COVID-19, and trying to write about it in relation to the rug industry seems a little foolhardy at a time when there is only one certainty, and that is that no-one knows what will happen. Time is no longer the consideration it was, we are all just stuck in the here and now for the foreseeable future. But limbo offers us a time for much-needed reflection, so what will come out of this quiet period? This article has no ambitions to predict the future, just to report on the here and now and what it means for people.
With no relatable events in our recent history it is hard to guess what the outcomes will be, so perhaps we have to stop trying to surmise where we will be in April, summer, September, 2021. The people I have spoken to recently have mentioned the 2008 financial crash, when the luxury industry was hit hard and the rug industry was down by about thirty per cent. It is not yet clear if the industry and the economy in general can bounce back easily or how hard it will be hit. Changes are happening so fast, it is tough for people and companies to keep up with the latest developments and make intelligent decisions based on the available information. What is clear is that everyone is affected, the same questions and concerns are running through the minds of people on every continent and everyone is doing what they need to do to keep companies going and wages paid.
Retail stores may have closed their doors but many rug companies are running on skeleton staff—with strict Healthy & Safety protocols in place—to keep business going. Production may have come to a halt across the globe, rugs may be stuck in transit and there may be deep uncertainty but firms such as Knots Rugs in London, Baltimore’s Tamarian, and Samad in New Jersey still have orders coming in that need to be fulfilled. Taylor van der Mandele, Vice President of Rug Operations at Stark Carpet, comments: ’We are still getting new orders, we still have plenty of beautiful products and we continue to ship to those destinations that can receive, shipping within the US hasn’t been an issue.’ The debate about how much stock a brand needs to hold has been in everyone’s mind for a number of years but perhaps having stock will prove to be beneficial for this quarantine period.
Of course the best way to order a rug now is online. With the online services, resources and communication platforms at our fingertips, we can surely appreciate how much better it is to be quarantined now rather than 15 years ago. David Samad, owner of Samad in New Jersey, has already observed that the company’s online orders are ‘doing better than before, now that people have more time on their hands’. Simon Goff of London’s Floor Story has remained busy after closing the doors to his showroom on 13 March. ‘Online sales are up,’ he comments. ‘We have had lots of traffic on the website. I guess people are staying home and doing what improvements they can make.’ It will be interesting over the next few weeks or months to see how our current lifestyle will translate into online sales with millions of people stuck indoors on their computers. E-commerce is sure to be a winning formula in the race to stay relevant.
It will certainly be a time of contemplation and evaluation for many as people sit at home and think. Carol Sebert of Creative Matters Inc in Toronto—whose staff is now working from home— saw an increase in residential work during the 2008 downturn and wonders if CMI will see the same response now. As the company name suggests, the focus for the next few weeks is on a creativity: a new Art Days at Home project, based on the company’s Art Days workshops, looking at new qualities and textures and focusing on a launch for the firm’s new needle felted wall-coverings. ‘Creative things can come out of this,’ says Sebert. ‘Communication is key at a time like this. We are lucky as Thailand is still producing and China is coming back to life.’ Canada also has the advantage of government programmes to help small businesses being put in place.
There are many ways of facing the issues we have, but it seems that out of a positive mental attitude new ideas will flourish. To Jürgen Dahlmanns of Berlin’s Rug Star, our quarantine situation is ‘like a think-tank’ and ‘we should embrace it as a chance’. ‘We should face this with an open heart and trust that we will find solutions for questions we maybe cannot answer yet,’ he comments. ‘The biggest mistake and the real loss would be not to use the time which is given to us all at this moment.’ Rug Star are wholeheartedly embracing this chance, and have formed a small unit of three people to work on new ideas from ‘digital presentation and aesthetics to work routines and ethics’. For Dahlmanns, how you respond to the crisis is a choice: ‘The core of my company is love in craftsmanship, faith in creativity and most importantly the belief that it is on us to convert any experience into something positive or negative.’
Always positive in outlook, David Samad is keen to explain his company’s latest plans thought up by company co-owner and brother Malcom Samad, whose ideas are much in line with where other companies are placing their energies. ‘Two weeks ago Malcolm came up with a theory which I call “Comfort Food for the Floor”,’ he explains. ‘When people are bored at home they want comfort food, which could be translated as comfort for the floor. They will start to look at their homes afresh and want to make changes.’ The firm is also focusing on connecting with customers who David describes as ‘friends’ after 35 years in the business. ‘The orders we are getting make me feel humble and appreciate what we have,’ he adds.
The focus for many businesses is to keep orders coming, not just to ensure wages can be paid but also to make sure that when operations begin again there will be rugs for the weavers in Nepal, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran to start working on. As Reto Aschwaden, Managing Director of Label STEP, is eager to point out: ‘The weavers are used to hardships but they are the most vulnerable in this situation. If they have no orders they will not get paid. There will be interruptions all along the supply and demand chain but orders stopping may be the biggest problem.’ This week Simon Goff of Floor Story contacted his outstanding clients to warn them of delays and received ‘total acceptance’. I hope this acceptance and patience is something that is happening across the industry and that it will last as long as is needed. STEP continues to monitor the situation of the weavers in the main weaving regions through phones and social media using the organisation’s database. To read more about what STEP is doing and what is happening in each country, read the Label STEP report here.
Non-profit organisation GoodWeave shares similar sentiments. VP, International Business Development, Scott Welker reflects on the situations in both Nepal and India: ‘The overarching story seems to be that the migrants are returning to their home villages. I suspect this is because they will continue to fall through the cracks of government support efforts.’ GoodWeave is focusing on getting help to the vulnerable workers and children from the rugs and clothing industries who are not earning and have no safety nets. The organisation is raising money to provide supplies and aid were possible, promote safety during the COVID-19 outbreak and link children to distant learning programmes. For most companies, the most important aspect of this quarantine is to keep their staff safe but we need to ensure the same for the weavers and workers who make our rug designs a reality. If you would like to donate to this cause, please click here.
While the length of the lockdown is key to how the virus will affect the world and the economy, we have to face the idea that it is not entirely within our control (compliance with the rules helps). Perhaps out of this period of contemplation and letting go some positive responses will emerge. Is it possible that we will begin to question our need for fast fashion, our over-consumption, and our treatment of the environment? I would like to think that old habits could be replaced by new well-thought-through behaviours. It is a time to reflect on what we really need and what is actually desirable. As people turn to crafting and creative ways to survive, let’s hope that a new creative thinking will prosper. Although sadly, there are sure to be casualties along the way, hopefully handmade rugs can come out of this even stronger. The rug industry is one big family and in times of need we need to work together, ensuring all the links in the chain keep working.
COVER sends best wishes to you all.
Stay safe and keep in touch with us.