Our demand for novelty is killing designers and the planet. But if brands won't slow down, then who will?
Step out of Oxford Circus underground station in London and, if you stand on the right corner and squint a bit, you’ll be able to spot four sizeable H&M stores. Nearby, you’ll also see an outpost for Cos, the Swedish retail giant’s fascia that specialises in simple Nordic-inspired staples. Not too far from there lives & Other Stories, the group’s Scandi-boho womenswear brand. Then, around the corner on Regent Street, is Weekday: home to the unofficial Drake- and Kanye-for-H&M lines. Finally, a few doors down is Arket, the company’s newest sub-brand, a lifestyle store where one can buy chic glassware and coffee grinders as well as affordable merino roll neck sweatshirts and unaffordable Tricker’s boots.
In fact, stroll not too far and you’ll hit H&M’s flagship and its three premium marques in the space of 50 yards. Hang another left onto Carnaby Street and you’ll discover Monki (fast, disposable womenswear) and Cheap Monday (stretchy unisex denim). You could conceivably spend a day filling your wardrobe by emptying your wallet solely into the coffers of Hennes & Mauritz AB. The Stockholm-based multinational’s sub-firms have mushroomed, even as profits at the mainline stores have fallen. Novelty is the defence against boredom, as shoppers tire of seeing the same products for more than a couple of weeks.
H&M isn’t the only brand to suffer. It’s been a tough few years for fashion in general. In its top tier, heads have rolled at a pace that makes the Premier League look like a model of long-term planning. The creative directors at Dior, Lanvin and Saint Laurent have been among the highest profile casualties of an industry in flux. Luxury fashion is under assault, both as the Far Eastern markets it relied on to bolster its books through the recession start to contract, and the high street replicates what appears on runways ever faster. When the ship flounders, the folks at the helm pay the price.
Raf Simons, Hedi Slimane and Stefano Pilati are just some of the creative directors to leave high profile posts in the last few years
Yet the ships haven’t really floundered. Before leaving for Calvin Klein in 2015, Raf Simons steered Dior to rave reviews and bumper profits. Under Alber Elbaz, Lanvin shrugged off history to become an exciting, relevant brand for the first time in decades. And at Saint Laurent, Hedi Slimane not only re-engineered the male silhouette, but he also doubled the brand’s profits too. So it seems petty that before his seat was even cold in 2016, bosses reinstated the ‘Yves’ Slimane demanded be dropped when he joined the house, and deleted all record of his tenure from its Instagram account.
These designers are victims not of money, but time. The fashion calendar is rupturing. The time when a label would release simply a spring/summer and autumn/winter collection now looks quaint. These days, they’re joined by resort and pre-fall shows and regular capsules throughout the season.
The creative director’s to-do list is also filled with more than just the clothes; they oversee everything from ad campaigns and store design to the increasingly important social media output. As Raf Simons railed on departing Dior, the eight weeks he once expected for ideas to gestate had been halved. A process that once had at least some semblance of art has become a production line.
The latest sacrifice is the six-month gap between runway show and clothes hitting stores. Originally this space let brands experiment, to see what buyers and press reacted to so that they could adjust their collections accordingly. If a designer wanted to test the water with a more ‘out there’ cut or fabric, they could dip a toe, and not sink cash into pieces that might never sell.
However, according to the likes of Burberry and Tom Ford – both of which have changed tack to adopt a ‘see now, buy now’ strategy in recent seasons – this window is unbearable to the modern consumer. Customers aren’t willing to wait six months for clothes they’ve seen on Instagram – they want to wear a collection the second it’s shown.
In 2016, Burberry reinvented retail with a see now buy now show at London Fashion Week
But, in truth, this condensed calendar is a reaction not so much to audiences as high street brands, which ’emulate’ luxury on an industrial scale. Zara can design, manufacture and ship a product in less than a month. Under the current model, the Spanish giant has got six times that before the designer original is on rails.
It’s not just big brands feeling the bite. Kit Neale, the young British designer whose illustration-heavy designs have long been a highlight of London Fashion Week: Men’s, opted not to show for autumn/winter 2016 to make his release schedule more immediate, long before Burberry announced it was doing the same. “A friend once phoned me to say they’d seen someone wearing a lobster print T-shirt from one of my collections,” he says.
“But it hadn’t been released yet. It was a big brand who’d done their own version.” He hopes that by cutting the time fast fashion retailers have to replicate them, he can slow the flow of his ideas onto the high street.
While this theft is far from laudable, the relationship between fast fashion brands and the luxury labels they leach from is more complicated than the LVMH group would have you think. Yes, consumers are hungry for novelty. And yes, the rapid turnover at H&M, Zara and their ilk – where a piece you like might be gone by next week – stokes an urge to buy now, ponder your purchase later. But if high street brands have made this disposable approach to fashion affordable, luxury brands are at least as complicit in driving our desire for newness.
Zara can design, manufacture and ship a new product in less than a month
Dior’s customer doesn’t weigh up the high street’s version, but if its signature pieces are recreated enough, then they lose their lustre. What air of exclusivity does a £1,000 coat bestow, when the masses are wearing something near indistinguishable, bought for a tenth of the price? So luxury’s response is to accelerate, producing more collections, changing styles at a pace it hopes outstrips the copycats. They, in turn, invest in bigger design teams and quicker production, to get the clothes in store first.
In the end, the customer loses. Luxury fashion is sold on quality. You buy the four-figure version because it’s better made and will last longer than the knock-off. But when trends evaporate so quickly, your investment comes with obsolescence built-in.
“Womenswear needs to build redundancy into its DNA,” says menswear designer Oliver Spencer. “They [brands] want people to move on quickly.” Menswear has always, thankfully, moved at a relatively glacial ebb. But as the sector grows, and men’s fashion becomes more profitable, trends are starting to cycle faster.
It’s not just western consumers who are shortchanged by this breakneck pace either. “It’s very hard to psychologically relate the glamour of fashion, the colour, what seems to be innocent bits of soft, gentle material, to a dirty, chemically polluting progress,” says Jacqueline Jackson, from environmental risk analysts Trucost.
Fashion is the world’s third most polluting industry, after oil and agriculture. There are the enormous quantities of water, the chemicals and dyes pumped into fields, the factory fires and collapses that kill hundreds – all so we can get caught up in the cycle without going bankrupt.
In the last 20 years, the price of clothes has plummeted, even as the cost of raw materials rose. The average westerner now spends less on clothes than they did a decade ago, but purchases more than twice as many pieces. We each throw away, on average, 32kg of clothing a year, because we’ve bought shoddy garments, or bought into trends we’ll never wear again, at prices that don’t make us think twice about tossing them in the bin.
Fashion is the third most polluting industry, after oil and agriculture
So what’s the fix? The four biggest fast fashion retailers almost doubled their profits in 2014, just a year after the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh (where low-paid workers produced clothes for brands like Primark, Matalan and Zara’s parent, Inditex) collapsed, killing 1,130 people. Meanwhile, luxury profits are stagnating, as consumers feel the pinch. Their fix is the hyper-rich, who can afford to spend millions but need to be encouraged to do so by more collections, more novelty, more reasons to buy.
It’s up to consumers to stem the tide by stepping outside the system. “Look for classics, things that are going to last,” says Spencer. “Things that you’ll be excited about still wearing.” For now, menswear doesn’t spin as fast as womenswear. So you can invest in pieces that will last, knowing trends shouldn’t render it unwearable before holes do.
“People need to educate themselves on precisely what they’re wearing, and how to wear it,” says Lucy Siegle, a journalist and producer of the film The True Cost, who’s long covered the fashion industry’s lacklustre approach to sustainability.
“When you know what looks good, and what’s made well, you don’t buy things that you just throw away.” Instead, you invest in items you can wear often, and in a multitude of ways. It’s about doing more with less, but buying the best you can afford. Otherwise, we all lose.