Is fast fashion killing fashion?
By Leonie Barrie | 12 October 2010
What is Fast Fashion?
Do you follow fashion trends like they are rules engraved on stone? If you shop for ramp favorites as soon as they are declared the 'in thing' for the season, then you are already indulging in the retail trend known as fast fashion. We tell you more.
You switch on the television to see what is the latest trend according to the biggest fashion week of the year. You see some designs that you completely fall in love with and swear to own them as soon as they are available. The next time you walk into the mall, you see the exact design that you had your eyes on. When you buy that dress, you are taking part in the retail trend known as 'fast fashion'. It is a term that fashion retailers use to define a trend in which clothes move from the ramps to stores in the fastest time possible in order to be able to capture the market. In this article, we tell you what fast fashion is and how it works.
Fast Fashion: An Overview
The easiest way to understand the concept of fast fashion is to actually think of it as having similarities to the concept of fast food. Think of a situation where you go to a fancy restaurant and are served a fancy dinner but after waiting for half an hour. Compare this to a visit to a fast food joint where you are served in a matter of minutes. Fast fashion follows the same basic principle. Some of the top fashion brands come up with new designs based on ramp favorites in days, rather months, or after the end of every season. This is what sets fast fashion outlets apart from other designer fashion stores. The fast fashion model developed sometime in the 1990s when stores like Zara started a fashion revolution. This type of fashion is also often associated with disposable fashion as the pricing of the clothing is much lower than would be expected and makes designer clothing available to the mass market. Other retail outlets that follow the same business model include H&M and Topshop.
So how do fast fashion outlets achieve this cost-effective model? Well, the retail outlet is so well-organized that they understand the demands of the target market and then cater to the specific demand. It keeps prices to a minimum by joining hands with different foreign manufacturers who can produce the clothes at a cheaper rate. The process of design and manufacture is streamlined so that the design goes from on paper to the shop floor in less than two weeks. Every design is a limited edition and is generally sold out in almost two weeks, which creates a sense of emergency in the customer to buy the product rather than missing out on the same. It is a fashion merchandising trick that tends to work very well in getting the customers to the shop. This trick also reduces the number of unsold stock left in warehouses. This is known as the quick response model. Another
factor that works in the favor of fast fashion are the high fashion designs that make up its core. Design ideas are generally copies of clothes off the ramp or copies of clothes that celebrities wear on the red carpet. Proper marketing is extremely important to fast fashion as this is what creates the need in the target audience. When you promote fashion products as fast, inexpensive, and changeable, more people get interested in the products that are on display. With more fashion weeks and reducing time cycles, the gap between production and consumption has reduced drastically, therefore creating more buying seasons.
Critics have been predicting the death of fast fashion for sometime now calling it a hyped marketing tool that is responsible for shopaholism. The share of fast fashion in the global market has increased manifold but in the recent past there has been some decline, with some of the major players in the fast fashion industry like Zara and H&M posting a fall in their profits in recent quarters. This fall has been attributed to the increased awareness about how these clothes are made, the conditions in which they are made, the reasons for their cost-effectiveness, and the effects of mass disposal.
While fast fashion allows you access to the best designs on the ramp and in a fraction of the time it would have taken earlier, does it really make sense to buy a fashion forward dress for the next weekend party when you paint the town red?
One of the biggest retail success stories of the past decade has been the phenomenal rise of fast fashion, a shopping trend spurred by rapidly changing styles and the ready availability of cheap brands. In a session entitled 'Is fast fashion killing fashion?' at last week's IAF World Apparel Convention in Hong Kong, delegates were in left in no doubt the concept has forced the industry to change.
The undoubted pioneer of the fast fashion concept is Spanish clothing retailer Zara,
with its 4,780 stores in 77 countries and a formula for success that relies on the regular creation and rapid replenishment of small batches of new goods. With new lines being dropped into shops every 4-8 weeks (or twice a week in the case of Zara), it's a recipe that ensures customers can always find new products every time they visit the store, as well as encouraging more visits and more frequent purchases because items are in limited supply.
And it's a blueprint that has been emulated by numerous other retailers including Mango,H&M, Topshop, Primark and Uniqlo, who have wasted no time in tapping into
younger consumers' ever- shorter attention spans, and lifestyle changes like mobile communications, the internet, and social networks.
The growth of fast retailing "seems to be phenomenal," Arvind Singhal, CEO of Indian consultancy Technopak told delegates at last week's IAF World Apparel Convention in Hong Kong. Even during the recession Zara owner Fast Retailing booked revenues up
29% from 2008-09, followed by Primark (up 24%) and H&M (up 19%) - figures that would be "spectacular, even at the best of times."
In contrast, traditional brand names like Liz Claiborne are struggling, while upmarket
retailers like Nordstrom and Saks have been lowering their price points in order to
It also seems unlikely there will be any let-up in fast fashion's advance across the
globe. "Initial reports suggest it will have even more impact in new markets like China and India than could ever have been imagined," Singhal says. As evidenced by the fact Zara has opened 44 stores in China since 2006. And in India, where it made its first foray earlier this year, the retailer achieved a turnover of $2.7m in its first two days of opening.
Obstacles to fast fashionAgainst such stellar growth it might seem strange to question whether a concept that's so obviously popular and makes fashion accessible to a large number of people could also be killing the industry.
But Robin Anson, managing director of Textiles Intelligence, believes there are quite a few things getting in the way of fast fashion.
"Everything's getting faster, including fashion," he says. "But fast fashion can't happen without facilitators. While low prices might encourage more purchases, to get low prices you need low labour costs, low raw material costs, and high productivity - but the quality must still be good." Other facilitators are logistics (but the conundrum here is getting from a low-cost source to the consumer quickly); nearby manufacturing (for in-season replenishment); technology tools (to allow the supply chain to communicate, speed sample making etc); and online retailing, which enables consumers to buy online or pre-select so they can make purchases quickly in-store.
"If cheap fashion is finished, then fast fashion is too," Anson adds. "One thing that everybody's buying is cotton. The cotton price has doubled this year from $0.50 to $1.0 per pound, and while we don't see any further massive increase in prices, we don't seem them coming down either.
"So for the foreseeable future, high cotton prices are here to stay. And as labour costs get lower and supply chains get more efficient, raw material aspect assumes a higher proportion of the final price. "But raw materials are just one component. Other threats to export prices include rising labour costs - not just in China, but also in countries like Bangladesh, and the appreciation of the renminbi."
He also suggests climate change could impact on fast fashion, since rising sea levels in cotton and garment producing countries like Pakistan and Bangladesh will affect prices and capacity.
And what about a consumer backlash against a throwaway society? "There's pressure to reduce food miles and the same could be said about clothes miles. This could favour nearby sourcing."
Market demandHowever, for Dr Marc Schumacher, director of retail, franchise and international marketing for German casual wear company Tom Tailor, "fast fashion is not to do with cheap products but with market demand."
He told International Apparel Federation (IAF) delegates: "I believe the core competence of a company is marketing, and fast fashion is a demand from the market. Fast fashion means taking a decision later and responding more quickly.
Tom Tailor makes casual wear for men, women and children, which it sells in its own 87 stores, as well as various franchise stores and shop-in-shops. The company has 12 collections a year, and by blocking fabric in Asia can get its lead times down to just five weeks, Schumacher said.
"The rate of technology advancement means ideas can be exchanged even faster," he added. "Take this to the next level, and as technology gets cheaper and faster then
fashion will get faster too."
Threat to quality and creativityShorter lead times and more deliveries "are doing a lot of damage to the design profession," believes Michael Tien, chairman of workwear retailer G2000. "Designers don't have the time any more to be really creative. Fast fashion needs them to be very quick at 'adapt, copy and paste,' not design as an art form. So it's not good for originality."
He fears quality is also under threat since "no-one cares about the quality of disposable clothes, and this is not good for the clothing industry as a whole."
That said, "making trendy stuff more affordable" does enable consumers to buy more units - and it lets them be more creative in the way they put outfits together. "In Hong Kong, selling more units creates more jobs. Units translate to jobs and employment opportunities in places like China," says Tien.
He also agrees that fast fashion is forcing the whole industry to change the way it operates, and that even luxury brands have been forced to follow suit with new ideas and more deliveries.
But at the end of the day, Tien contends "different customers have different needs" and not all will be lured by the likes of Zara. In China, for example, there is huge demand for more quality-conscious upmarket brands. "If you can identify these specific needs then you can compete."