A recent visit to a suburban shopping complex on a busy Saturday evoked a sudden gut wrenching nausea. Walking into a mass fashion chain, the smell of plastic and chemically related materials emanating from the children’s shoe department was overwhelming. Imagine if you worked in the factory that made these shoes, would the potential toxins leave a long-term impact? Part of the effect was just how many of these shoes filled the shelves? In some cases the price was less than what we pay for a reasonable cup of coffee. I scanned the store with its high shelves and masses of racks that housed an overpowering multitude of merchandise. Why, as consumers, are we led to believe that we need so much stuff?
Our grandparents spent a significant amount of the family’s earnings on clothes. They didn’t buy a high number of garments but they did spend more on better pieces. Statistics that are alluded to, indicate that 50 years ago approximately 20 per cent of the family income was spent on clothing related expenditure. Fast forward to today and that figure is purported to be less than 4%. Are we then buying less? According to Sandy Black in her book Eco chic—the Fashion Paradox, “Clothing sales have increased by 60% in the last ten years.” When is too much, too much? We spend significantly less to buy excessively more. Stop the fashion system I want to get off.
No other creative industry works at the speed of fashion, producing new product on a constant basis at ridiculously low prices, encouraging a disposable culture. Fashion has shifted from a historical formulaic process of two significant collections a year, to multiple delivery drops on a fast track turn around where similar styles are released across the globe simultaneously. This aspect of the industry has created significant impacts including unsustainable practices and overt consumption leading to excess waste.
The yearning to get fashion product created quickly and cheaply contributes to a system where ‘speed to market’ is given priority over quality product that is unique and market ready. The current global system exposes a lack of respect for design originality through blatantly shortcutting manufacturing processes and encouraging product disposability. Online portals have directly connected anonymous product development teams with designers of influence, who release their latest looks on international runways enabling a plethora of medium to large scale fashion organisations across the globe, to download and translate the key trends into commercial adaptations. For an industry that is renowned for being innovative and creative the practice of overt adaptation is prolific.
For an industry that is renowned for being innovative and creative the practice of overt adaptation is prolific.
As the system continues to ramp up and is speeding ahead, is the fashion industry in a position to reverse or change? Simply, there is no choice. The considerable cost to the environment cannot be ignored and alternatives should be considered. There are millions employed in this industry and to reverse its unmitigated implosion will not be an easy task.
What if the fashion industry wasn’t constricted by a fashion calendar? The larger chains and department stores function on weekly drops. Although the fashion seasons are divided by Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter, the year is punctuated by the constant flow of new product that quickly fills floor space in anticipation of quick turn around sales. The reality is that chains now have over-arching markdown strategies embedded into their buying systems. Fashion obsolescence is an ugly reality of the industry. The costs of oversupply go beyond the fiscal issues faced by companies who have to dump sale product often at loss. There is also the significant environmental impact.
Excessive supply is united with the quest for speed, which sees designs released into retail merchandise and delivered into store in time frames as tight as ten days. This pattern has been spearheaded by global power brands such as Zara, H&M and Topshop who have set the unrealistic pace. More does not equate to better.
Why is it that the fashion industry has adopted a system where product is released into the market based purely on calendar requirements, not consumer demand or product readiness? In parallel industries the time devoted to design development is purposefully considered. This ensures sufficient review and analysis to refine an idea, test it in the market and produce it to a quality level that will align to customer needs. Does an architect release concepts and models before they are perfected? Would a high profile electronics company release a new toaster before it has been resolved? A fashion product development team by contrast is required to provide a constant flow of ideas for not one product, but mass collections that are developed in the fastest creation time frame of any design industry.
Equally it’s a denigrating process where once released the assumption is made that the design efforts are transitory and of no lasting value with a limited shelf life. Any product that is still in store after two months (and sometimes shorter) is regarded as mark down material. Disposability and obsolescence are now expected within the world of fashion. The only other industry that works with this level of disposability and abandonment is the food industry. Food by contrast is directly linked to sustenance and the reasoning behind high levels of disposability are straightforwardly ‘in sync’ with the potential chemical changes that lead to contamination and the viable time frame for consumption. Clothes do not require a use-by-date. Reflect back to the habits of our grandparents who, by contrast, bought a really good coat and a pair of carefully constructed shoes that would last for years. A man’s suit would be a life long purchase.
In the premium sector of the fashion market the concept of rapid turnarounds has increasingly become an issue. The late Alexander McQueen, an exceptional designer, addressed the issue of the fashion industry churning out merchandise on a constant basis: “This whole situation is such a cliché. The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem. There is no longevity” (The Real McQueen 2009). There is a belief within the fashion industry that the pressures of the fashion industry were directly linked to McQueen’s suicide in 2010 and contributed to the embarrassing public demise of fashion designer John Galliano in 2011.
Galliano and McQueen have a history of exceptional and innovative talent; their abilities should be heralded and nurtured within the fashion system. If the system contributed to their demise, then it is a resounding wake up call to the industry that the mechanisms driving it are simply not right. Is it possible to create a system that promotes unique and innovative product that is developed without the pressures of timing constraints?
If we were to shift the focus from constant supply, as well as the existing calendar decrees imposed by fashion weeks, we may start to make a difference. This is not a radical shift as the traditions of major fashion weeks, scheduled twice yearly, are already starting to blur from a buying model to a marketing model. Historically fashion weeks were of importance as they provided an opportunity for the retail buyers to view collections and place an indent order in advance, providing the company sufficient time to produce the quantities required. Today they have evolved into a media circus marketing tool with front rows filled with bloggers and celebrities, who will capture the experience and spread the visual extravaganza across the world to inspire the purchase of more handbags, perfume and makeup aligned to the brand concerned. We all love a fabulous fashion spectacle but it doesn’t have to dictate the release of seasonal collections.
Perhaps a change in the fashion system will come to fruition if the seasonal dictates of fashion week focus more on exciting promotional projects that contextualise the designers' vision, rather than demanding full collections to be produced. There are some smaller independent organisations that are implementing alternative processes. In Australia this includes designer labels such as S!X and Materialbyproduct who respectfully release concepts within the framework of the seasonal calendar but their collections evolve from ongoing archetypes that embody and build on the key elements of their overall ethos. They do not need to reinvent new collections from scratch. It’s a journey of creative development, rather than distinct reinventions.
There is an emerging cultural shift which recognises the implications of excessive supply and the lack of value in cheap disposable product. There is a mindset shift in the contemporary consumer, who has increasing awareness of the value of buying less and buying better. The adoption of slow fashion principals across the globe has shifted from a fringe construct to larger organisations. Consumers of fashion recognise the need to acknowledge the social, cultural, economic and environmental impacts of what they purchase.
A considered opportunity for designers and fashion consumers lies in fashion that embraces longevity, within the genre of heirloom products. The concept of heirloom fashion does not have to focus only on what is often assumed to be long lasting classics such as the tuxedo jacket, the refined white cotton shirt or the little black dress. Contemporary fashion embraces concepts of personal style and individuality. As a consequence the fashion consumer could buy long-lasting, exceptional designs that are unique, eccentric and flamboyant if that aligns to the wearer’s personal ethos. Longevity equates with quality manufacturing, considered design and consumer attachment, not whether the product fits into a classic genre.
For the fashion industry to prosper, there is immeasurable value in reconsidering current practices to implement slower and more purposeful processes. Reflection and analysis will help to reinvigorate design development models that understand appropriateness to the market within sustainable frameworks. This involves reassessing the fashion calendar and reducing the constant supply within the fast fashion sector. Most importantly, the fashion consumer has to take a considered approach to facilitate change. These practices are integral to the continuing vitality of the fashion industry and its future prosperity.