image: Mango image: Mango

There is an interesting phenomenon underway amongst fast fashion retailers like Forever 21, Topshop and H&M. Long known for their $20 trousers and dresses, many of which are “inspired” (read: copied) from high fashion runway looks, such retailers are beginning to add more expensively priced goods to their shelves – both online and in their brick and mortar stores. In a move that includes stocking other brands’ wares, as well as in-house designs, fast fashion retailers are not only aiming to reach out to new customers (ones that may not be tempted by $25 cut-out frocks). They are also looking to revamp their images a bit by way of more upscale garments and accessories, as the fast fashion market continues to become increasingly saturated.

Take Forever 21, for instance. The Los Angeles-based fast fashion giant made its name beginning in the 1980’s thanks to its dirt-cheap line-for-line copies of high fashion garments and accessories. On the heels of opening a new concept store, F21 Red, which stocks $2 tops and $7 pairs of pants, Forever 21’s main collection is offering an array of “Web Exclusive” garments with relatively hefty price tags. The $220 printed Collosal Dress by Ministry of Style, an Australian label known for its trendy wares, and the $190 Maurie & Eve Ribbed Bodycon Dress, for instance, join a moderate amount of other similarly priced garments. While not even remotely rivaling the prices of high fashion garments, the brand’s more upscale offerings are certainly at odds with its $3.90 v-neck tees, $14 scoop neck bodycon dresses, and $15 linen blend pants.

H&M is taking a similar path. A pair of $299 suede culottes, $299 leather jacket, $119 silk kimono, $80 silk nightgown, and $40 printed scarf, among other garments, are offered in the category of “Premium Quality.” And do not forget its frequent high fashion collaborations, the most recent of which was with Paris-based design house Balmain, which included garments that sold for over $650 in H&M stores.

Mango, the Spanish retailer, which recently announced that it is slated to observe an even faster seasonal cycle, has upped the price points of some of its wares, as well. A number of outerwear garments come in at nearly $230, whereas its “Contrast Platform Shoes,” which are direct copies of Stella McCartney’s Elyse platforms bear a price tag of $130 (that’s still more than $850 cheaper than Stella’s version). There is also “Premium” denim for $120.

Topshop, the big British chain, has followed suit. It’s $330 coats, $230 shift dresses, and $170 boots are in stark contrast to its $18 crop tops and $20 t-shirts.

Lastly, Zara is worthy of a mention, even though it has always bucked the trend a bit in terms of manufacturing model, prices, etc. The Spanish fast fashion giant, whose owner Amancio Ortega, is the second richest man in the world according to Forbes, is on a somewhat different playing field, one that is a bit more elevated than the other fast fashion retailers. Known for its more sophisticated wares – think: Celine copies and more core wardrobe pieces than Forever 21 and H&M with their lower priced tween-focused apparel – Zara has long observed slightly higher prices than the aforementioned retailers. A BOUCLÉ coat from Forever 21, for instance, costs $49; from H&M it costs $69; and from Zara it costs $150. As such, Zara has consistently drawn a slightly different clientele. Instead of primarily high school girls, Zara is a favorite of young professionals and even fashion industry insiders, who long for Celine lookalikes without the truly hefty price tags that accompany Phoebe Philo’s garments. The quality of Zara garments are also arguably a step above those of the Forever 21’s of the retail world.

REACTIONS TO THE GROWING MARKET OF FAST FASHION

As a result of increased competition, fast fashion retailers are evolving. Primark, for instance, is putting low cost retailers to the test. The Irish fast fashion brand, which began opening stores in the U.S. this past fall and which is known for what the Economist calls “astonishingly low prices,” set its sights on expansion in the U.S., France, and Italy in recent years. Additionally, the influx and success of other similarly situated web-based retailers like Nasty Gal, Missguided, and Pixie Market, the most longstanding fast fashion retailers are being forced to up the ante in order to attract new customers and to hang on to the ones they already have.

And it appears that adding variety – in terms of price and quality, and in some cases, brand (some of which also appear to stock on Revolve.com and other non-fast fashion e-commerce sites) – is key to such efforts.

By incorporating higher priced/higher quality goods, such retailers can entice new consumers and attempt to revamp their brand’s image, which could certainly afford to be viewed in a new light, especially on the heels of significant garment manufacturing tragedies, such as Rana Plaza and subsequent increases in awareness about the realities of fast fashion manufacturing. And they can do so without deterring existing customers, which is crucial given that it is more expensive to win over new customers than to keep the ones you have. If the addition of such garments and accessories is systematic and does not interfere with or outnumber fast fashion retailers’ extensive lineups of low cost items, which they have relied on for enormous success in recent years, their regular shoppers will likely not be deterred.

This newfound variety also gives fast fashion retailers the flexibility to cater to more than one type of consumer – something they simply have not had the ability to do when their stocks consisted of only dirt-cheap trend-driven garments. It will ideally allow H&M and Forever 21 to compete more readily with Zara and other retailers that boast shelves lined with more sophisticated wares. In this same vein, such a change may even allow them to hold on to existing consumers for the long run. There is a chance that as their core consumer – generally, high school-aged girls and young women – begin to age out of cheap bodycon dresses and crop tops, and need more office appropriate attire, for instance, these retailers will be able to retain such shoppers with the influx of more sophisticated, more core garments and accessories.

Lastly, the introduction of wares that are of higher quality, and are less tied to a very specific high fashion runway season, and thus, lend themselves to a longer shelf life (a la Zara) will allow these retailers to stand a chance with the millennials, who are reportedly more concerned about sustainability and eco-fashion concerns than many other generations of shoppers.

And at the end of the day, what does H&M and co. have to lose by incorporating “Premium Quality” goods into its line up? Not much. Luckily for these retailers, their prices are about as low as it gets in terms of retail and so, alienating consumers – particularly those with very limited budgets and an unending appetite for trendy clothes – would likely be difficult to do. So, the risk of incorporating higher priced garments and accessories is absolutely worth it!