Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Peak Fast Fashion

I think it's clear to any casual observer that fashion has changed massively over the past 10-15 years. The old model, of fashion houses releasing two seasons of looks a years that gradually filtered down through the high-end ateliers to become part of the general pattern of clothing over an extended period, has gone for good. Nowadays, we see it, we want it. And technology and manufacturing processes have advanced to a point where that urge can be serviced, at a low, low price.
Fast fashion, which most observers agree was pioneered by Spanish clothing giant Zara, is a different beast altogether. It takes the catwalk not as inspiration, but as a blueprint for the new season's ranges. It can now take mere weeks for new designs to be in the shops. Sure, they won't have the precise cut and finish, or the luxurious materials of the clothes that Cara, Kate and co. show off, but the look is right. See how quickly the Christian Louboutin red-soled stilletto went from the fashion mags to the high street. For the most part, copyright claims and cease-and-desist orders simply don't work. Think of the fairground game Whack-a-Mole. Bop down one shop, another pops up. Fashion has always been an arena where ideas can't be protected. It's tough enough to keep the knock-off Adidas trackies off the streets. How do you prevent a particular cut or fabric print from percolating down to the masses?
The price of all this is, of course, twofold. You need a big, cheap workforce to get these clothes on the shelves, and it's best if you don't pay too much attention to the conditions of their factories, or their pay, or how old they are. Fast fashion is, for the most part, a humanitarian disaster zone.
There's another cost, and here's where things get interesting. The Zara model, focussing on the newest trends and clearing them off the shelves as soon as the next big thing arrives, has been so successfully copied by its competitors that our expectations of how long we should wear clothing for has changed. We throw away billions of pounds of clothes a year, knowing that because it's cheap (and frequently made from shoddy materials that won't last) that we can just bin it to make room for more. This is, of course, an environmental problem on a massive scale, but it's led to problems for Zara as well.
The brand's insistance on quick turnaround of ranges has led to huge overstocks of clothes that they can no longer get onto the racks. The solution? They've launched a new discount store brand, Lefties, that sells last season's clothes. But that's not really helping. Inditex, Zara's parent company, has seen profits flatline while cheeky newcomers like Primark and H&M have been doing increasingly good business in Spain, the brand's heartland.
If even Zara is feling the pinch as the fast fashion model accelerates, where next for everyone else? Could it be, as the public's attention moves to a more sustainable clothing philosophy in the face of a global recession that includes more focus on make-do-and-mend and the recycled/pre-loved idea, that we are seeing peak fast fashion? Can it be, as we start to insist that the workers that make our clothes are fairly paid and treated, that our hunger for cheap, fast clothing is finally starting to ebb?

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