Some untold truths about fast fashion
By Emma Birnbaum on 20 March 2020h 2020
Love it or hate it, fast fashion is the great success story of the contemporary apparel industry, with a value system centred around inclusivity, representation, gender-neutrality, body positivity and racial equality. But as the the visual virtual world tightens its grip, fast fashion's future may not be as unwavering as it initially appears.
Unlike any other sector, fast fashion retailers have not only scaled and multiplied but have figured out how to harness technology to cultivate relevancy in an industry currently void of consumer loyalty.
It is sacrilege to portray fast fashion brands as anything but villainous regardless of the composition of your wardrobe. It is standard practice for the right-hand to admonish fast fashion while the left-hand trolls it racks. Unquestionably, disposable clothing is divisive, unsustainable, and frequently unethical. However, it is myopic to ignore its social impact, which may be bad but has also created good.
Beyond its current relevancy, fast fashion is deemed (by many, not everyone) to be the future industry. However, upon probing deeper and following the development of digital life and the potential for digital fashion, fast fashion's death-grip on the apparel industry may not be as unwavering as it initially appears.
The explosion of fast fashion is dependent on the internet and the infrastructure of social media. Internet native fast fashion brands are constructed to design and deliver clothes for young, fashionable shoppers. Therefore, not only are the styles a response to identity and taste, but the functionality of commerce platforms and social media accounts are developed and stylised to appeal to a generation-specific culture of assessing and sharing information.
The age range of fast fashion's target demographic is either stated or inferred. On the homepage of its investor website, Boohoo Group states: "boohoo, boohooMAN, PrettyLittleThing and Nasty Gal target fashion-conscious 16-40 years olds in the UK and internationally." That said, a consumer demographic that lumps together 16-year-old girls with 40-year-old women seems like a bit of a stretch, especially considering Boohoo's predilection for baby pink spandex, sequins and lace. Additionally, Boohoo and its sister brands offer a 25% student discount.
Like boohoo, Asos clearly articulates its consumer profile with a mission to "become the world's number-one online shopping destination for fashion-loving 20-somethings." Missguided and its menswear brand Mennace are similarly positioned, both offering a 20% student discount.
Officially, fast fashion's consumer averages individuals in their twenties. However, it is evident through both an anecdotal assessment of consumer's and influencer's social media, YouTube and blogs, in addition to interviews with the respective CEOs of each company, that the dominant percentage of consumers are teenagers. Shoppers with little to no personal income, but with a notable drive to participate and engage. Most importantly, they inhabit all social and economic rungs and are the cultural creators and relevant players on and offline.
The global rise of fast fashion tends to be attributed to consumers' unwillingness to pay to play. Everyone wants an excessive, fashion-forward wardrobe but simply does not want to splash out for quality (and, ahem, integrity).
However, this assessment overlooks the fact that along with fast fashion, low to middle market fashion – aka "commercial fashion" – is also new. Before the noughties, high street brands did not retail fashion; they sold commodities. While Gap and Levi's may have appealed to a broad demographic, they were selling their identity through branded items of simplistic design, not facilitating the development of personal style through a wide selection of unique design. It simply was not possible for the average individual to participate in "fashion" not to mention perennially shop, reinvent their wardrobe, buy a new dress for every party, and never wear the same outfit twice.
Today, all of the above is not only doable, but it is made commonplace by companies such as Primark, PrettyLittleThing, Nasty Gal, Missguided and Boohoo. Just as the internet may have democratised information, opinion, and self-expression, fast fashion has democratised personal aesthetic and style. Until very recently it would have been next to impossible for a girl or boy growing up in some podunk town to access creative design and exciting clothes that push traditional social boundaries, empower individuality, and embrace differences.
Most critics are culpable of disregarding fast fashion's commitment to their consumers' values. Everyone recognises the need for sustainability and ethical practices; we, therefore, baulk at the youth supposedly more woke than the rest of us and their predilection for the overconsumption of disposable clothes. And in doing so, we fail to spot a value system centred around inclusivity, representation, gender-neutrality, body positivity and racial equality.
Unlike the majority of the high street, fast fashion brands are attempting to meet these new demands. Last April, Boohoo's stocks skyrocketed by nearly 50% after initiating a "fashion for all" agenda across all labels, catering from sizes 2-26. Their push for size inclusivity translates into their traditional marketing and social media campaigns, positioning size 10 models next to their size 20 peers.
In 2018 Asos launched Collusion, a line created by and for Gen Z. The styles are vibrant, non-binary, size-inclusive designs photographed on a wide range of models of all colours, shapes and sizes. And guess what? Collusion has been a huge, multi-million-pound success and Asos's biggest success story. These are worthy goals that are forcing industries across the board to evolve. No wonder young women, browbeaten and diminished by traditional branding, are attracted to retailers that celebrate their differences.
What was once disdainfully labelled fringe is now embraced as a subculture. In business, it is called niche markets.
It is unlikely that this monumental change now rippling through mainstream and designer fashion and high-end magazines and publications would have occurred without fast fashion's reduced-price-tag.
Social media and the smartphone have established a ubiquitous method of shopping, creating and sharing. The virtual world, as displayed on Instagram, Snapchat and WhatsApp, is becoming as vital to the young consumer as the physical world. Something once known as "real" life. The curated posts, feeds and galleries depict a holistic window into the lives of users. All of what you see is edited – and a great deal of it is fake – but it is a wholly crafted representation of an individual.
f course, the de facto stylisation of the subject and location depicted in the post is obligatory, but equally, it is essential to express a cultural ethos and promote values. It is more than the clothes, the pose, the backdrop; it is about who you are. What does a plate of food, an inspirational quote, a shelfie or a meticulously styled flat lay say about you? The individual is not present in these photos, but each image is integral to what she or he wants to say about their taste, aesthetics, creativity and the brands that reflect their identity. If the goal is to demonstrate who you are, then in the visual virtual world, apparel is only one component of many.
Think about it. You get dressed, have breakfast, open your front door and go about your public physical life. How many of the people you interact with really care what you are wearing, eating, doing, where you went on holiday, how cute your significant other is, and how you cut your hair? Only your friends, maybe a few of your colleagues, pay attention.
I am not admonishing society. Instead, I am trying to point out that if you wear the same dress twice in a row, very few people notice. However, say you upload an #OOTH (outfit of the day) every day. Instantaneously, you have traversed the chasm of 2-20 people paying attention to 100-500,000-2,000,000 people not only paying attention but expecting inspiration and emotional connection. Your clothes and style that nobody gave a toss about in-person become central to who you are and what you think.
However, to maintain and grow followers, you need to create new, exciting content continually. To do this, you need more clothes. Forget about re-wearing an outfit. How many times can you post an image wearing the same green dress before your carefully curated gallery begins to look like a drag?
To demonstrate a personalised and intriguing narrative of #lifegoals, maintaining a cohesive "brand" while diversifying your posts is a must. For most people, fast fashion is the only means of achieving this goal – cheap goods, designed for the youth, and sold by retailers who order limited stock while continually changing out styles. In this case, quality is secondary to variety. Everything is about the photo, actually wearing the goods is irrelevant.
This notion calls into question the necessity of a physical wardrobe. Don't get me wrong; I am not championing social nudity, which will undoubtedly remain taboo. However, hoarding ever-multiplying piles of clothes is not a sustainable option, both in terms of the environment but also square footage. In addition to the fact that physical goods always have limitations. Design is dependent on what the tools and machines are capable of constructing. Price is dictated by the cost of materials and time and effort required. The speed at which new items are rolled out is contingent on sourcing and manufacturing lead-times. The sheer physics of tangible reality inevitably constrains product. Remove corporal characteristic, and you can design and wear anything conceivable.
If fast fashion continues to reside online before and after purchase, then there is no need for a physical product.
The downfall of fast fashion probably won't be caused by new laws or trade codes or even the consumer trend towards sustainability. Instead, it will be brought down by the fact that its value lies not in its function as clothing but instead in its ability to inspire the wearer with its ever-changing carousel of new designs. iTunes and Spotify disrupted the music industry; no one owns CDs, and Mp3 sales have plummeted. Netflix and Hulu disrupted film; Hollywood is in free fall while cinema ticket sales continue to drop. With the rise of realistic 3D modelling and faster rendering time, companies like Scandinavian brand Carlings and Amsterdam's The Fabricant are already experimenting with virtual fashion. The truth is, convincingly realistic digital clothing already exists – and it is only a matter of time before it mainstreams.
A subscription to an infinite catalogue of styles and the ease of becoming your own designer will surely upend and potentially replace much of the apparel industry. And when it arrives, fast and designer fashion will both suffer the consequences.