In recent months we’ve seen evidence that the seemingly unstoppable growth of fast fashion may be slowing, or at least changing. It’s more than just conjecture that many of the mall’s stalwart brands have suffered at the hands of fast fashion giants H&M and Zara, whose ability to significantly reduce time to market as well as undercut pricing of the once iconic brands, have added to the woes of many of fashion’s specialty retailers. Now, in an unprecedented move, H&M the world’s second largest clothing manufacturer behind Inditex’s Zara, announced the closure of 160 stores. The fashion giant was hit hard in mid-2018, after accumulating more than $4 billion in unsold inventory, forcing significant discounting to clear out the goods. The effect of this resulted in unexpected reductions in profits for the 6th straight quarter.
Now, on the heels of this news, Martino Pessina H&M’s president of North American operations, insisted that H&M U.S. has already begun scaling back on the heavy discounting in its North American locations. It’s unclear how a company that has hooked customers on fast and cheap can simply flip the switch, without repercussions. Additionally, in the last several years H&M has seen their rival Zara, the world’s largest fashion retailer, taking share with more fashionable offerings. Meanwhile number-three player, Uniqlo of Japan, is making significant strides with its core of ‘timeless basics’, along with plans for massive Asian growth.
But H&M isn’t the only fast fashion player that is feeling some pain. In the past week, fast-fashion retailer Charlotte Russe filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy. They are initially planning on only closing about 20% of its stores but could end up liquidating if they can’t find an investor to keep the business going.
New, Faster Players
Another annoyance for the two fast giants is the emergence of a whole new breed of online-centric players beginning to beat both H&M and Zara at their own game. These upstarts include brands like ASOS, Boohoo and Misguided in the UK, who are building followings by cutting down supply chains to bring out offerings in as little as a week. Another major disruptor, Fashion Nova is supercharging its digital-first brand utilizing a social strategy, powered by Instagram. They have managed to build more than 14 million social media followers; and in 2017 Fashion Nova became one of the most Googled brands in the world. The company has been able to introduce anywhere between 600 and 900 new pieces per week.
Fast Fashion Backlash
At the same time there is growing evidence of pushback by both millennials and gen Z’s as awareness is growing of the massive ecological damage that this throw-away fashion mindset is having on the planet. More and more environmental and consumer groups are impacting attitudes, raising awareness and altering purchasing patterns.
It’s no secret that fast fashion has been responsible for a catastrophic level of environmental pollution. The trifecta of overt use of raw materials, water pollution and greenhouse gas emissions are only a part of the story. Not only is this circular buy, wear and toss behavior impacting landfills, and becoming a major carbon contributor, that may not be the worst of it. Fast fashion has played a very dark role in contributing to black-market trafficking of forced labor, as evidenced in the New York Times documentary, Invisible Hands, by journalist Shraysi Tandon.
Additionally, hundreds of lobbying groups are raising awareness and influencing consumer demand for drastic industry change. This has led to growing evidence that both millennials and gen Z’s are pushing for a new level of transparency around the ecological footprint and entire life cycle of all products. And according to a recent Nielsen pole, 73% of Millennials have demonstrated a willingness to pay more for products that are sustainable.
Investing In a More Personal Style
Not surprisingly, the other influencer that is causing fashion fixation fatigue is the internet, itself. As more and more of the star social media influencers are identified as ‘just normal folks’ they are impacting the nature and trajectory of ‘what’s cool’. Trending appears to be changing from a top-down fashion evolution, dictated by manufacturers and fashion periodicals, to a bottom-up percolation, driven by social media and personal expression. The effect has both given permission and encouragement to throngs of consumers to cultivate their own, unique personal styles.
Other cultural influencers like Marie Kondo are teaching us to ‘love our stuff’ and begin to look at what we have with new eyes. Combine that with a strong movement away from conspicuous consumption toward seeking out and enjoying experiences, and you have the makings of a change wave. Contrary to the forces behind fast fashion, there is evidence of movement by consumers of all ages and demographics toward investing in fewer, but higher quality basics, that can be mixed, matched and re-worn; even with the addition of some great vintage accessories. There is indeed reason to believe that significant changes are underway; away from what’s trending and toward what’s stylish.