I'm writing this 3 Part Series partially for myself, and partially to open up a discussion with you all on just what exactly defines fashion, who gets to play and why it matters at all. If you're familiar with this blog, it's pretty clear that fashion design is a distant 2nd in my heart to interiors and through this series, you'll see how my love of fashion is burdened with a self-deprecation that can only come from feeling like perhaps I'll never truly belong. After all, the closest I've ever gotten to the Fashion Week tents was the season finale of Project Runway on TV and I don't even own a single statement bag or red-soled shoe. The fact that I'm OK with that only further proves my point.
So this is where my mental landscape was when I came across this article from New York Times Magazine on Zara's success as a "fast fashion" retailer. I highly recommend reading it- if for nothing else than the quintessentially snooty reader comments that could only come from fashion-critical NYT readers. But also so you'll know what the hell I'm talking about.
Fast fashion is the fast food of the clothing industry; not a lot of craft or quality but enough business to make it matter. But while eating shitty food laced with chemicals is clearly not good, fast fashion isn't quite as clear-cut. There's just as much praise for Zara as their are criticisms and the negative effects of an industry based around frequent impulse purchasing and lightning quick, low-cost manufacturing are not as visible as rapidly ballooning asses and cholesterol levels. But they can be equally, if not moreso, damaging when you consider the environmental and labor quality implications. But we never do see the children working on our $15 t-shirts (even if we suspect there's no earthly way a shirt could cost $15 without sub-standard working conditions somewhere). All I know is my own reality: that ever since I quit my investment banking job 5 years ago to work in television, my disposable income has gone from existant to not so much. I can't walk into a boutique and purchase a $500 dress that was likely made by fair-wage employees in a first world country and still make my rent. Furthermore, I don't know how much responsibility I should have to determine where and how my garments were produced. Maybe I'm a terrible person for purposely turning a blind eye. Or maybe I'm just normal and busy.
Indeed, fast fashion fills a very real void in the fashion industry; the one between fantasy (read: Pinterest) and reality (read: closet). The artistic endeavors of haute couture are classicly un-economical. Chanel, Givenchy, Prada, Gucci, Balenciaga... oh the list goes on... are not designing clothing for a mass market and there is no amount of exquisite design that can create demand at their price points. In a sense, most fashion houses are merely bad businesses, staying afloat by their accessories lines because they quite simply don't make money from their clothing. And then here's Zara- the largest fashion retailer in the world, responding to customer demand in real time. They're innovative, flexible, responsive and for a company of their size that is fucking impressive. Brilliant, really. As the article states, they have literally changed the fashion industry all the way to the top. “Now, pretty much half of the high-end fashion companies” — Prada and Louis Vuitton, for example — “make four to six collections instead of two each year. That’s absolutely because of Zara.”
Don't get me wrong, when I say "bad business" I'm merely referring to business efficiency and profitability, not any measure of meaningfulness or mission. In fact, art is nearly always bad business because it rejects practicality in the face of passion. This is why I love fashion and design in general, and it's also why I despised working in finance. Bad businesses can be wonderful. Conversely, good businesses can be evil.
Then there's the other criticism of fast fashion; Zara and the likes don't design clothes, they copy them. This is trademark infringement. It's also the necessary evil of fast fashion; how else can you go from concept to garment in less than a month? Looking through Zara's collection online you'll find pretty spot-on imitations of Prada, Alexander Wang, Loeffler Randal, Gucci, Nicholas Kirkwood, Pierre Hardy... and that's in their shoe collection alone (see this post to compare designer shoes to Zara knockoffs). But that's also the window left open by fashion houses. Use relatively pedestrian materials with arbitrary prestige markup and your designs will be imitated at cheaper price points; the simpler the design and materials, the closer the knock-off will be. In a perverse way, the Zaras of the world make fashion better by forcing designers to create inimitable design with superior craftsmanship and detailing (and I'm not saying that this is right or trying to blame the "victim", I'm merely explaining the reality of the under-regulated capitalistic mechanism in this instance).
Though they may try to deny the designer knock-offs, Zara makes no false pretenses that their clothing is of superior quality. Speed and imitation are the essence of their business model, not quality. In fashion the appetite for new is insatiable and Zara's success wrests squarely on the fact that the "closet life" of their clothing is short. Fashion goes out of style years before that damn McDonald's french fry will ever decompose (seriously, have you seen Supersize Me?). Who cares if the seaming on your pleather hot pants won't last 2 years if you won't be caught dead in them even next season?
This brings me to the final major criticism of fast fashion, and perhaps the most troubling: its propagation of endless consumption. I'll get more into this in Part 2, but how much clothing do we all really need? When is enough enough, and when will those insufferable "here's me in a new outfit every day" blogs stop FOR THE LOVE OF GOD?!!! OK, confession: I follow a few of them- and let me tell you, those ladies wear something from Zara nearly every single day. I think that's significant.
So where does that leave me? I don't want to feel guilty for liking fast fashion, sometimes. Like so many New York women, I don't make enough money to buy RTW or even exclusively Contemporary Sportswear fashion (think DVF, Nanette Lepore, Theory, BCBG). But I have to be fashionable because it's part of my identity and it makes me happy. The Zaras, H&Ms, Topshops, etc. of the world thrive because I'm not the only one who feels this way. On the other hand, I don't LOVE fast fashion and I would choose quality every single time if money were of no object. Like, if I had won the Powerball last week, I'd be at Barney's right now instead of writing this manifesto.
Where do you fall in this whole mess? If you've read this far, you clearly have an opinion and I'd love to hear what you have to say. Even if you think I'm stupid. Especially if you think I'm stupid because I'm seriously unsure.
And stay tuned for Part 2 next week. I plan to read Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline. And in Part 3 I'll be reflecting on Designer Collabs. At the end of the series, I'm hoping to have a better understanding of my relationship with fashion. After all, I have to live with it, we might as well be friends.