image: Zara

image: Zara

Fast fashion represents a polarizing section of the fashion industry most often characterized by its speed to market, on-trend offerings, low prices and questionable ethics. It has been the subject of debate, the object of competition, and above all else, the one part of the industry that shows no signs of slowing down. Amongst all of the debates and think pieces dedicated to this portion of fashion, one thing is clear: the fast fashion business is booming. Inditex, the parent company to fast fashion giant, Zara, is the world’s largest fashion group and its founding chairman, Amancio Ortega Gaona, is the world’s second richest man.

Fast fashion has no shortage of detractors, though. There are those who look at the rampant labor abuses, overflowing landfills, and constant intellectual property infringement and wonder how anyone can put their money towards that. In an attempt to reform the industry, education has been the first step and now, even consumers of the cheap, quick-to-market offerings are quick to question their ethics: What were once merely rumors and criticisms from industry insiders that seemed more concerned about maintaining the elitism of fashion than ridding the world of labor abuses have been legitimized and thrust into the collective consciousness by images of lifeless bodies beneath rubble in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza collapse of 2013. 

The Western world was outraged by these images and the unsatisfying response. Ethical fashion activists have done well to keep these issues in the forefront with viral videos, social media campaigns, and documentaries. I think it’s safe to say the populace is the most educated it’s ever been – but fast fashion is also the most popular it’s ever been, and both its critics and competitors would like to know why. 

The most widely touted theory has always been low price. Perhaps that’s why some view reforming the industry as a lost cause. A mere elementary understanding of business and competition would tell you the best way to compete with low prices is with lower prices, and for ethically minded businesses, undercutting or even maintaining the same prices as fast fashion companies never seemed possible. After all, we have been led to believe (and were sometimes comforted by) the supposition that we have not failed – ethical fashion is just a luxury not all can afford. This is partially true, but it is one many more could afford if they didn’t want the option of new clothes every week. 

So, the new initiative has been to teach people how to shop “smartly” by pushing “less is more” motifs. But with the current prices of fast fashion steadily rising – Topshop currently has four items in the clothing category of its website listed at $1,800 – chasing a deal doesn’t seem to be what’s keeping most beholden to these retailers. At least not anymore. This is not to say that the appeal of truly cheap clothing is gone: Irish retailer Primark has begun their expansion in the U.S. with offerings so cheap e-commerce isn’t a feasible option, because the cost of shipping would very likely be more than the cost of the items purchased. But fast fashion prices have risen to meet those of contemporary brands and ethically sourced powerhouses like Everlane and Reformation – most seemingly without making any changes to the design process or their problematic supply chain – and their appeal hasn’t declined. 

To those in the contemporary and luxury markets, this should be a frightening wake up call. This isn’t the first time the success of fast fashion has signaled destruction for a section of the apparel market. The rise of fast fashion chains, like Forever 21, Zara, Uniqlo, and H&M, coincided with the sharp decline in sales for budget brands and department stores (think: Kohl’s, J.C. Penney, and Sears), not to mention “the three A’s” of teen retail: Aeropostale, American Eagle Outfitters, and Abercrombie & Fitch. We are said to be witnessing the death of the American mall with daily closings of long established “mall brands” like Delia’s, Old Navy, Gap, and Wet Seal. 

The most widely accepted analysis as to the cause of the mall retail space’s steady decline is that the low-end to middle market has fallen victim to the popularity of e-commerce in this price range, a comfortable space from which to experiment with the medium. Some have even suggested that the American customer simply doesn’t want to shop brick and mortar anymore. This makes sense; the popularity of e-commerce cannot be denied, especially when it refers to lower priced items that customers are typically more comfortable buying sight unseen. But these shuttering storefronts stand in stark contrast to fast fashion giants, like H&M, that plan to open more than a store a day in the next year. It is clear consumers aren’t fed up with brick and mortar – they’re fed up with the old way of doing things. Whatever the fast fashion formula is, it seems to be working.

Many likely view this result as predictable: Of course fast fashion would be a hit with the budget customers (think: Kohl’s and Wet Seal) and middle market customers (think: Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch), alike. But the spread didn’t stop there. Major fast fashion retailers have begun to enter the contemporary price point (think: J. Crew, BCBG, and some of your favorite luxury diffusion lines). This is most evident in highly anticipated collaborations between fast fashion chains and luxury designers or celebrity influencers. The Balmain and H&M collaboration saw customers shell out upwards of $500 on some items at the same place they buy $5.99 tees. Phillip Lim’s collaboration with Target had similar results with customers trampling their way to $200+ items in the same place they buy milk. 

The price hike has been met with open wallets by old and new customers alike, and the genius of this strategy is that these retailers don’t have to neglect one customer to service the other. They can maintain a foothold in the cheap, near disposable, clothing market while expanding into contemporary price points by carrying both, the way Marc Jacobs and his diffusion lines joined forces or by going the route of Forever 21 and F21 Red, or H&M and Conscious Collection or & Other Stories. Effectively, they would do what many luxury brands have done with diffusion lines for years, securing the patronage of a differing population through a lower price line. Only in the case of fast fashion retailers, they have the option of moving their prices to both ends of the spectrum. For every F21 Red, the lower priced Forever 21 boasting $1.80 tank tops, there’s an & Other Stories, the H&M-owned brand regularly selling at a higher price point (up to $400) without the marketing boost of designer collaborations.

The effects of this change in strategy may already be being felt in the market as Macy’s, home to many contemporary brands, announced it is closing 40 stores and expanding into the outlet market with Macy’s Backstage. Perhaps less pointedly, but also worrisome, luxury retailers seem to be taking cues from fast fashion in regards to digital and production strategies. Last year Chanel, who has long voiced its opposition to e-commerce, announced plans to enter the space by 2016 (current offerings include beauty and eyewear), and this year the likes of Prada and Burberry embraced the see now-buy now movement. This coming from a segment of the industry whose arrogance didn’t allow them to view the budget conscious retailers as competition during their market introduction, even when their intellectual property rights were being infringed, because they didn’t think they appealed to the same consumer. The end of days predictions have long screamed destruction for low priced offerings, but I think it’s high time those fears are updated to include contemporary/designer and even luxury price points.

Given their widespread appeal, the breadth of their supply chain and distribution capabilities and their expert manipulation of digital media and celebrity culture, if fast fashion giants continue in this vein of a strong up-market presence, struggling big box retailers and up and coming designers, who occupy a lot of the contemporary market, will find themselves in the position of the “mall brands” of yesteryear, underprepared and unable to compete. As far as I can tell, the last saving grace for contemporary brands is that they’re usually loved for the “designer feel” of the brand, where every item seems purposefully and thoughtfully executed under the vision of a likable young designer (think: Rebecca Minkoff). 

This is a quality fast fashion retailers have historically eschewed in favor of cheaply made copies of well-crafted and thoughtfully executed pieces, but customers have had no problem paying more for the same ethically suspect garments. Think of how easy it would be for someone like Zara to hire and market an in-house creative. He or she wouldn’t need to be the creative director of the entire company and mess with the current formula but would just create an in-house collection – not unlike Topshop Unique, Topshop’s up-market fashion week-shown collection helmed by a former Vogue fashion editor. With the infrastructure and near-confounding popularity of fast fashion retailers, I think most are just one buzzworthy design hire away from obliterating the contemporary market as it did the budget market.  

Gabrielle Turnquest is a graduate of The University of Law (formerly The College of Law) in London. After law school her interest in fashion lead her to explore the industry from the side of the creative through studies at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, California.  She is currently securing practicing qualifications throughout the Caribbean.