Fast Fashion: A Deconstruction
The Dictionary’s Definition // Fast Fashion the New Business Model
Twice a year a dance takes over Paris. Power brokers and arbiters from across the fashion world descend upon the city in a flurry of competitiveness, glamour, and curiosity. Designers from all over the globe set up showrooms in every corner of Paris: parks, warehouses, and galleries, to display their latest collections. Reputations are minted, and lost, based off little more than a slight nod or a dismissive glance from a powerful editor. Influential bloggers, rapt by the creations of an unknown talent, instantaneously transmit a fresh name to readers across the internet. Global retailers make multi-million dollar decisions based off a handful of pieces and the promise of more. This is Fashion Week
Then, in a flash, it ends. Paris returns to its regular rhythm.
A month later, Fashion Week’s trendiest designs are available in stores from Japan, Europe, and the US at a fraction of their high-fashion prices. Meet Fast Fashion: a sector of the fashion industry where retailers capitalize on rapidly changing fashion trends and deliver new styles to shoppers in weeks instead of months. These are the Forever 21s, Uniqlos, Zaras, TopShops, and H&Ms of the fashion retail ecosystem. Fast fashion is the black sheep. It’s radical in its politics, intentionally disrupting the traditional supply chain management practices and saying adieu to vertical integration. What results is a new equation – one that not only redistributes profits and margins, but strongly favors the manufacturer, who, in this case, is also the designer, distributor, and retailer.
Gone are the days of funneling a creation from one middleman to another. Gone are the six months design and manufacturing cycle that consumers have experienced for decades. Design and production has been condensed into a three weeks cycle. Shipping and distribution take but another week. This compressed timeline means two things: 1) a constant supply of new products that are fresh and on-trend, and 2) annual production levels that surpasses 11,000 unique items, and that are 3X the annual product output of The Gap’s approach.
The Critic’s Definition // Fast Fashion the Supplier of Continuous Shallow Abundance
When critics assess fast fashion, they are quick to view it as a shallow entity, disruptive and manipulative, operating and growing at heinous speed. The immediate reaction is an urgent cry for consumers to “end their affair with cheap fashion.” Naomi Klein, a journalist and cultural critic, published No Logo in 1999. She argues that mass-consumer brands manipulate people, convincing them to indulge in frivolous spending by imposing an artificial demand upon them. In today’s fast fashion world, Klein would argue that there are piles of superfluous products on store shelves, and in our closets, that represent nothing more than hollow waste. A study conducted by the Mayor’s office of New York City estimated that H&M, Uniqlo and Forever 21 grew 13%, 23% and 25% respectively between 2006 and 2010. Over that same time period, other specialty retailers grew 2%. To critics, these statistics further emphasize fast fashion’s role in enhancing the world’s reckless consumerism.
But critics’ reaction to fast fashion is a biased one. The notion of fast and inexpensive conjures a preconceived negative perception. A clear example of this is the marginalized place that fast food occupies in the public’s mind. Brands in this sector, most notably McDonald’s, have come under fire for advocating an unhealthy lifestyle. Speed is viewed as a compromise of quality and value. Yet these beliefs have been turned upside down in other industries. In car manufacturing, speed is a source of tangible and significant value. In the mid-twentieth century Toyota introduced the concept of lean manufacturing to the world. Car plants started to operate more efficiently through tightly choreographed operations that minimized material waste and movements. Errors in the process were documented, studied, and eliminated from future production runs. The result is a line-up of highly-successful vehicles that, for over three decades, have challenged competitors, notably American car companies, to be more innovative, affordable, and mindful of quality.
Fast fashion practices a similar style of lean manufacturing. Clothing manufacturers traditionally made bets on a design six months before it would be on store shelves. When they estimated incorrectly, retailers were left with products hanging off of racks and sitting on shelve aimlessly for months. Fast fashion has lessened this problem. Zara and H&M take great effort to better match demand and use cutting edge supply chain management software to produce efficient quantities of product.
Critics worry about fast fashion. It’s too fast, too cheap, too much. Yet, an inspection underneath the surface of fast fashion reveals that it occupies a nuanced and layered position in the lives of consumers. Fast fashion has evolved into an industry that is more socially democratic, creatively empowering, and collaborative.
The Discovery // Fast Fashion the Unsung Hacker
Fast Fashion disrupts the fashion hierarchy by hacking the funneling down of fashion from runway shows to retail stores. It’s made high fashion accessible, affordable, and approachable to the masses. Consumers now have a seemingly endless reservoir of materials to work and play with. It’s granted the average consumer tools and freedom to craft personal styles with a flexibility unique to this era. Fast fashion translates high-end styles into something that the average person can actually wear, and then mutate with a hacker-like mindset.
Hacking is not a new notion in fashion. The hacker ethos of ‘move fast, break things’ existed in the clothing industry well before computers even existed. Fashion is a medium that is particularly sensitive to disruption. EBay and black market vendors have given people indirect routes to consume high-end designers and knock-off equivalents. Sites such as Rent The Runway have made high-end fashion accessible at a tenth of the actual price. Fashion DIY bloggers have duplicated runway looks like a pair of $425 Miu Miu sneakers with coarse gold glitter, Mod Podge, and heavy duty adhesive. Hacking in fashion isn’t new, but fast fashion has made hacking even faster and more efficient. There’s an understanding on fast fashion’s part that consumers no longer wait to learn about fashion trends through magazines. A month is too long of a wait. The internet disseminate trends instantaneously. Runway shows are streamed; bloggers share their favorite shows and pieces, and consumers’ desire and demand to constantly be on-trend is ever growing. Fast fashion is a reaction to this demand. It hacks the runway for fashionistas-aspirants everywhere.
The Discovery // Fast Fashion Grows the Closet & the Tools to Express
Every Forever 21, H&M, and Topshop is filled with racks of clothing that change within a few days. There is a wide range of price points and styles within these stores – one that is matched by the impressive diversity of the shoppers found within them. H&M, by design, speaks to a broad audience. Their stores contain an array of sub-brands that cater to varying tastes and aesthetics. In their flagship locations, which are found in cities such as New York and San Francisco, it’s common to see shoppers of different ethnicities and ages, who rarely find themselves in the same clothing stores, next to each other, searching through racks of shirts and jeans. It’s not unusual to see a mother and daughter both shopping from the same racks at an H&M. Department stores are far more segmented, as are specialty retailers such as Ann Taylor. But the chaos of the fast fashion shopping experience cultivates spaces that comfortably house unexpectedly diverse crowds.
Locations of brands such as Zara and Uniqlo can be analyzed through the lens of biodiversity. Compared to their more traditional competitors, fast fashion stores feel more like whole ecosystems where a diversity of shoppers and styles are represented. Cross-pollination is a by-product of this close contact. The wardrobes of a Uniqlo shopper are impacted by the chaos and complexity of these environments. Finding what works requires patience going through racks and racks of clothing. It involves spending extra time in the dressing room. Consumers end up of having to navigate more styles and options than ever before. The Forever 21 website lists 650 different dresses. Conversely, The Gap’s website offers just 43.
Fast fashion’s massive inventory and its diverse range of shoppers results in combinations that yield an impressive array of personal styles. Fast fashion increases the richness of the individual’s closet. Personal style allows for implicit statements of individuality. Although two shoppers may visit the same store, fast fashion’s inventory and turnover rate heightens the probability that their closets will never look the same. This allows for dynamic possibilities. Pieces of clothing become expressive symbols through the artful manipulation of their wearers. And adding an article of clothing to the closet does not translate to one more outfit, it translates to ten or twenty new articulations of expression.
The Discovery // Fast Fashion’s Creation of Collaborative Gatekeepers & a New Social Construct
Reassembling and finding novel ways to articulate personal style is not possible in solitary confinement. In a fast fashion world, people’s closets become nodes in a network joined by lively dialogue. The cycles of fast fashion do not occur in a self-absorbed vacuum, but rather a place where information is highly social. Ideas attain their highest states of power when they are shared with and absorbed by an audience. This reality subverts pre-existing models of influence. In the past when a charismatic figure imposed an idea with authority, it appeared as though information was being expressed with intelligence and reason. But that was an illusion. Information doesn’t want to be imposed top-down. It wants to spill through a network irrespective of authority. The elegant rebellion inherent in fast fashion is that influence arises from the act of observation. With fast fashion, granular fragments of ideas are being absorbed and incorporated by others in a rapid and continuous flow. This kinetic exchange underpins a virtuous cycle where those who are the most perceptive, those who are the most open to shifts in their environment, are the ones whose ideas spread with wide coverage and unexpected speed.
While fast fashion reflects an evolution where normal people, the socio-economic classes who traditionally resided at marginalized levels, can attain higher levels of influence, it is also a signifier of a social contract more equitable than previous times. The fact that there is a free flow exchange of information between the different spheres of the fashion world does not by itself explain the ever-accelerating pace of the fast fashion industry. There is a deeper kind of sentiment underpinning it, which binds people together in cooperative interest.
Fast fashion represents a new sort of social contract is exemplified in a world where rapid fashion cycles allow us to trade ideas on style, in turn allowing us to all find a differing degree of expression. This notion of empathy injects feeling and humanity into the sophisticated power of observation exercised by adherents to fast fashion. We have all agreed to disagree on what constitutes the right outfit. And as a result of this mutual respect, an infrastructure that supports a greater diversity of individual style, namely the fast fashion industry, can thrive and expand its footprint on society.
The rapid and continuous pace at which fast fashion moves makes it impossible for a select few to exclusively own influence. In part due to radical shifts in communication technology and in other parts due to the manufacturing innovations of fast fashion, even the normal person on the street can affect the trajectory of popular taste. But this is now a collective phenomenon. No one person or company can create, deconstruct, and share fashion at a speed that outpaces the collective. Fashion gatekeepers are more numerous than ever before. Influence can now come from anyone. Herbert Blumer, a sociologist who studied how symbols provide social structure, introduced the notion in the sixties that “fashion is a world of collective selection.” But it took fifty years, after the 21st century began, for that concept to become a true reality for American consumers.
The Conclusion // Fast Fashion is Packed with Humanity under the Superficiality
Fast fashion became a part of America’s cultural lexicon a little over a decade ago. This modern climate is an inflection point in how the normal consumer approaches the concept of style. The new norm calls for more than simply disrupting the system; it requires consumers to find and pull concepts from anywhere, shape their look using a vast range of materials, then deconstruct and share it. This system of sharing and influencing directly contributes to the remixing often seen on fashion blogs and sites, creating a positive feedback loop. A blogger’s fashion sensibilities no longer live in isolation. It encounters a network of influencers both off and online. Suddenly the art of creating an outfit is no longer the individual’s own; it is recognizably an output of layers of inspiration.
Today’s world is filled with re-mixes. This concept can be applied to every corner of society, from the arts, to race, to business. A key pillar of this climate is a liberation of concepts in the service of individual creativity. This attitude serves as a foundation of this broad change in how concepts are treated. Copyrights and prohibitively expensive means of production kept the control of concepts in the hands of the few, much like how the traditional fashion world was structured. Today’s world is one where the average fashionista has the ability to be both the influenced and the influencer. Concepts are treated as the building blocks to new and individualized ideas. The barriers that allowed ideas to be owned are now porous. Fast fashion is a democratic reflection of this more liberal reality where concepts are not ‘stolen,’ but rather adapted to generate new and vibrant products.
Do we live in a time where none of our ideas are completely our own? In this new reality, do we need to accept the notion that our ideas may be co-opted by others? The answer right now is: Yes. Fast fashion reflects advancement in a visible and accessible manner. That said, the fast fashion model has clear flaws. The problem with excess clothing is not trivial. But there’s something profound in what fast fashion has generated, something more impactful and longer lasting than giving everyday citizens stylish closets and louder visual voices when they walk down the street. Fast fashion has multiplied the fashion world’s gatekeepers. In an environment where ideas are continuously being generated and then built upon, where there’s more gatekeepers and greater cross-pollination and collaboration, the fashion world is ever evolving from a place of perceived superficiality to a realm packed with humanity.
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