Is fast fashion going out of fashion? By Suzy Menkes
Sunday, September 21, 2008 Whooooah! Slow down! Rein in the galloping madness! No – it’s not the economy or financial woes, although Intidex, the parent company of Zara did announce last week a fall in profits in the second quarter, slowing down its apparently unstoppable rise.
It is just time, after seven wild years, to say Basta! to fast fashion.
As a phenomenon, speedy style has given a shake up to the industry and brought the look of the moment to main street, with the collaboration of leading designers. It has proved that fashion does not have to be elitist and that big names are as capable of creating cheap chic as haute couture.
But, as with all things fashionable, from kitten-heel mules to girly frills, there is a moment when it is over. And for fast fashion, that is now – or perhaps in November, when Comme des Garçons and the cerebral Rei Kawakubo embrace H&M.
It all started with Karl Lagerfeld at H&M four years ago, kicking off a media phenomenon, marking a seismic cultural shift and creating lines of eager shoppers in capital cities across the globe.
Since then we have had the unpronounceable Proenza Schouler suddenly hitting billboards throughout America with their Target collaboration. H&M has ratcheted up a roster of designers, from Roberto Cavalli to Viktor & Rolf. Topshop of London has increased its long-term designer collaborations (Celia Birtwell, Zandra Rhodes, etc.) by presenting the super-cool model Kate Moss as design star. And just this month, the products that the Parisian boutique Colette produced with Gap sold like hot croissants in New York.
The concept of high fashion coming down to affordable levels is potentially good. That was the idea when couture houses first produced ready-to-wear back in the 1960s and when Giorgio Armani led the fashion world by starting a second, Emporio Armani line in 1984.
But as prices of designer clothes have crept ever upwards, fast fashion has plunged prices dramatically downward. Taking the cappuccino – arguably Italy’s most successful global export – and France’s croissant as benchmarks, fast fashion starts at that level. If you look at the price of a dress at Primark, in London’s Oxford Street – and then cross the road to a Selfridges café – you pay the same £6.50, or $11.90, for breakfast and for the frock.
That leaves a feeling of unease at how the ultra-cheap clothes can be manufactured. As Michael Fink, president of women’s fashion at Saks Fifth Avenue, puts it: “How cheap can you make it? If it is about being less expensive – who can make these clothes in a responsible manner?’
Adrian Joffe, who heads Comme des Garçons, says he has been surprised by the manufacturing supervision at H&M, who made the CDG collection in China and in Romania and the fragrance in France. Joffe says that, with the leather wallets he is making for them, “their control of my factory was unbelievable.”
“But it has got to change – it has to step back,” says Joffe. “Zara and H&M have their design teams. And they are making 10,000 pieces, where we make 10 to 50. But Primark is ridiculously cheap. It’s got to be a little more expensive.”
Significantly, although Joffe says the timing is coincidental, Comme’s current much-heralded collaboration is with Louis Vuitton in Japan, proving that if you want to make a fashion splash now, it might be smarter to aim high, rather than low.
“I never thought fast fashion would have legs – it was a fun idea of the moment,” says Fink of Saks, pointing out that while ultra-cheap fashion is booming, a Chanel jacket at $7,000 has remained the store’s perennial best seller.
“Fast fashion is a totally different customer, fashion savvy, who knows and understand the unique opportunity – or someone trying to make a quick buck by selling it on eBay,” says Fink, adding that for a designer whose name is plastered over ads for Gap or Target, it can mean higher recognition in the United States, where only 10 percent of the population are hyper aware of designers.
Specialist retailers who themselves collaborate with designers and fast fashion producers, are enthusiastic about its appeal and its lasting power.
“I don’t think it will stop – I think it is part of fashion – after all, at the end of six months we throw out a collection,” says Colette’s Sarah Lerfel. She insists that the Paris store generates all its collaborations and, although she was amazed at the success of Colette products for Gap in New York, she already had seen the power of Target to put Proenza Schouler on the fashion map and to make the label accessible in price and available to a European customer.
Carla Sozzani, whose 10 Corso Como store sets the fashion pace in Milan, also is enthusiastic about the fast fashion collaborations – when they are under her own retail control.
“Of course it will last, I think it can be great,” Sozzani says.
But Tiziana Cardini, creative director of the La Rinascente department stores in Italy, believes that from a designer’s perspective, any collaboration on fast fashion is mostly about the visibility – making waves, rather than making money.
“I don’t think fast fashion is over, especially in this economic situation,” says Cardini. “People have less money to spend and they are considering fashion in a different way. For designers, it is a very strong communications lesson, and if it is weak in terms of quality, this is a celebrity-driven moment.”
“When Roberto Cavalli does H&M, it makes him more accessible and even more popular. The customer of fast fashion is not high end and for the designer, it boosts the image,” she said.
Significantly, La Rinascenti in Milan, a streamlined, luxurious store since its recent makeover, does not sell top designer lines, but rather that particularly Italian invention: the second line, like Just Cavalli, Moschino’s Cheap and Chic or Philosophy by Alberta Ferretti.
Gabriella Forte, who has spent much of her fashion life with Italian designers, and now works with Dolce & Gabbana, remembers the debut in the 1980s of Emporio Armani, inspired by the designer and his partner Sergio Galeotti.
She can still recall the excitement as “very young 19-year-olds arrived on their bikes at Via Durini.” She herself worked on A/X Armani Exchange, with the idea of bringing the Armani name to yet another group of customers, younger, hipper and looking for the right price.
Since Dolce & Gabbana already has world-wide recognition and important sales with the D&G second line, the designers would not have any immediate interest in embracing fast fashion, says Forte, who recalls that Lagerfeld’s H&M venture came at the moment when he was focused on promoting his own name label with Tommy Hilfiger in America. (That partnership was ultimately as short-lived as a fast-fashion hit.)
Designers themselves are often skeptical about fast fashion – particularly if they are already household names.
“I think designer fast fashion it is over,” says Donatella Versace. “It didn’t bring anything back. It is great for them – but not for the designer. There should be more quality.”
The basic Italian consumer is probably unique in expecting a higher quality than in other countries, particularly in Northern Europe.
Cardini says that the culture in Italy means that “if you go on the subway, the majority of people are well dressed.”
“The difference between fast fashion companies in Italy is there is always a certain quality,” Cardini says. “Prices are low. But not that low.”
And according to Raffaello Napoleone, chief executive of the Pitti group of fashion fairs in Florence, the concept of fast fashion is not even new to Italy.
“We call it ‘pronta moda’ and it’s an old story,” Napoleone says. “Other countries may have to pick from Zara or Banana Republic but we have 35,000 small retailers in Italy.”
Yet most fashion people see a difference between cheap and cheerful clothes banged out by the garment trade and the current fast fashion chains that have pretensions to being design emporia: Hence the desire to bandy about established designer names.
“I don’t want to do a collaboration, but I think it is good because it raises the value of designers, rather than just copying,” says Diane Von Furstenberg of the current trend. “But then I think we have reached a time of excess – of all kinds. And fast fashion is excessive. I believe in authenticity.”
When even Sir Philip Green, chief executive of Topshop, the mother and father of designer collaborations, seems ambivalent, something is in the air. After returning from New York last week, where logistical reasons led him to delay the opening of the Topshop flagship until spring, Green ruminated on the business in which he has spent his working life.
“Fast fashion is changing – it is going to have to be better,” says Green, who introduced the Kate Moss line to upgrade style (and prices) in the post-Primark period.
“Getting it wrong is not going to be a good option, when everybody at any level is pulling in their horns a bit,” says Green. “For fast fashion, you have got to think that there should now be a pause for breath.”
Suzy Menkes is fashion editor at the International Herald Tribune.
I HATE so called fast fashion and would never shop at Forever 21 or H&M, no matter how temptingly cute and cheap. I hate the way they deliberately rip off designers and make the knock-off just different enough to not be sued.