- How economic and social factors helped it blow up in the 2000s (and why millennials are “The Fast Fashion Generation”).
- Its impact on workers throughout the world.
- How it altered both consumer behavior and our perception of price and value.
- The changes brands made in order to remain highly profitable while selling everything at a lower price.
And we’ll learn who coined the term “fast fashion.”
“Is working in fashion going out of style?,” BELLA WEBB AND MALIHA SHOAIB, Vogue Business.
“Chanel shoes, but no salary: how one woman exposed the scandal of the French fashion industry,” Stefanie Marsh, The Guardian.
“Fashion; Two New Stores That Cruise Fashion’s Fast Lane,” Anne-Marie Schiro, The New York Times, 1989.
“Swedish Outlet Chain Gambles It Can Change Consumer Tastes : Will Cheap Chic Win Over Stylish French?,” Joseph Fitchett, The New York Times (1988).
“‘Cheap Chic’ Draws Crowds on 5th Ave,” Ruth Ferla, The New York Times (2000).
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This month, Vogue Business has been publishing a series called “Debunking the Dream.” It’s all about the realities of working within the fashion industry, specifically on the corporate side. So far it has not discussed garment workers or retail employees, but the sort of jump off for the series is a survey of 600 fashion professionals, specifically on the corporate side. It’s a fascinating series as someone who has worked within the industry for so long…and hopes to never return to it. A lot of the issues that fashion workers face–underpaid, overworked, no work/life balance, bad managers, favoritism, nepotism, racism, classism, ableism, feeling disposable–these are not unlike just about any other job out there. But what makes it different is that fashion has this patina of glamour, that workers within it should be honored to be overpaid and overworked because it’s…FASHION.
In her 2020 book, “The Most Beautiful Job in the World: Lifting the Veil on the Fashion Industry, anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri wrote,“There is a magical power that fashion has. When people enter the industry, they have an idea that is more of a projection as a consumer, but once inside, they deconstruct part of that image. You last in these structurally unequal situations and you endure free labour, because you think you will reach your dream at some point. The dream and the exploitation are interconnected.”
Mensitieri’s book primarily focuses on the French fashion industry, but it could be about working for a big fast fashion brand, and still make the same statements. In fact, if there is one takeaway thesis from her book, it’s “I’m just lucky to be here.” That’s how I felt for so long. And it was how we were encouraged to feel. We had someone’s “dream job.” I was once told “there are 100 girls ready to take your job tomorrow if you don’t want it.”
And so, we feel lucky to be there. We don’t question things (at least, out loud). We take on more and more work. We watch what we work on become more and more diluted from the original vision. And we continue to reach as hard as possible–even if it means pulling our arms out of their sockets for just a moment–we reach as hard as possible to achieve the ever more impossible-to-reach goals our employers set for us. And we rarely talk about fucked up it all is, because fashion strangely siloes you from one another.
It seems like maybe FINALLY these conversations, the ones that I’ve only had with former coworkers (or coworkers who were on their way out), are being had in a bigger way, and I hope it continues. From a Vogue Business article that I read today called “Is working in fashion going out of style?” (part of the series I mentioned at the start):
“Why is the dream crumbling now? A number of factors are converging at once: overproduction isn’t just affecting the environment, it’s affecting the people propping up the fashion industry. More clothes, more trend cycles and more pressure to make things bigger and better on tighter budgets and timelines are causing people to burn out at an alarming rate. This has only been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, during which industry leaders promised to slow the pace of the industry. These promises remain unfulfilled, and the socioeconomic conditions facing workers are even worse than before.”
Reading this piece was like a more succinct version of my experiences over the last say, 10 years of my career. And it echoed so many conversations I have had with my many friends who have also worked in the industry. But one thing that would always come up in these conversations was “it wasn’t always that way” and “it just got worse over time.” We couldn’t see it then, but as we know, hindsight is always a super sharp 20/20 view. It was the rise of fast fashion. Which changed everything: what people bought, how it was sold, and how the industry worked (the workloads, the processes, the speed). And it only seemed to pick up the pace over time.
Welcome to Clotheshorse. I’m your host, Amanda, and today I am going to be talking about how clothing is made and sold has changed over the span of my career. And how it has impacted all of us, regardless of where we work, live, or the clothing we wear on our bodies. Because this really does impact us all!
When I began working on this, I really thought I could cover it all in one episode. Yep, that’s a nope. Instead, this episode will be part one of two. In the first half, I’ll be talking about the rise of fast fashion 1.0, how that impacted everyone everywhere (seriously), and we’ll even learn who coined the term “fast fashion.” Not gonna lie, I was kinda surprised!
If you are a long time listener (well, first off, thank you for continuing to listen to me talk every week), then you already know that I did not plan for a career in fashion. Yes, I always loved clothes. Yes, I put a lot of thought into what I wore (which was primarily all of the wildest stuff I could find at the thrift store). But fashion felt like a place for people who were not me. People who were prettier, thinner, more charismatic, popular, you know that kind of stuff. I was just the weird smart kid with wild outfits. And as an adult I was the broke single parent who hauled my kid around town on my bike and primarily lived on a diet of quesadillas and 25 cent cheese bagels from Fred Meyer. I cut my own hair and exclusively wore secondhand clothing. I barely knew anything about designers (but certainly could tell you EVERYTHING about the history of hip hop or the nuance of metal subgenres).
So how I ended up with a career in fashion–and to be fair, we’re not talking high fashion here, but I did end up working for some of the most iconic millennial brands–anyway, how I ended up working in fashion was surprising: I was working in a store for a big hipster retailer. And coincidentally, I was approaching a major fork in the road. I had started working there a few years prior, as a seasonal part time sales associate. I know many of you have heard this story before, but let’s just review for the new listeners!
My first day at this job was on my birthday. I had moved to Portland, OR about a year previously with my one year old baby, Dylan. Dylan’s father Ryan had died very suddenly and tragically a few months before they were born. And that changed everything. I moved home with my mom in rural Pennsylvania for a few months to pick up the pieces, but I knew I couldn’t stay there. I wouldn’t stay there. And Portland, Oregon, with its huge trees and snow capped mountains felt like a magical place that would help me heal from the neverending grief I was experiencing.
A year later, it had not been a successful move so far. I did not feel “better” at all. I had a brief and very abusive relationship. I was broke. I couldn’t get hired anywhere. I was selling my books and clothes in order to buy groceries and diapers. And the first of the month–aka rent–was a dreaded day for me. Dylan and I were living in an apartment that cost $480/month. Dylan slept in the bedroom and I tried to sleep on a secondhand futon in the living room. I was bathing Dylan in the kitchen sink because we didn’t have a bathtub. In hindsight, it’s all very twee and charming, but I still remember my constant anxiety. Like, what would happen to us next.
I finally got this job, as a part time seasonal sales associate at the hipster retailer, by walking in and saying “I worked here in college, but in NYC.” And on my birthday, I stood under an air conditioning vent all day, become progressively more stuffed up, folding t-shirts over and over again and counting items in and out of the fitting rooms. The routine was simple: Take the customers items, count them, take them to the fitting room, go inside before them (ostensibly to hang their items on a hook, but really to ensure that there was no evidence of theft from the previous customer), then when they came out, count the times again and inspect the room for evidence of theft like hidden security tags. The doors of the fitting rooms loudly slammed closed no matter how gentle I tried to be. And so my day was just a cacophony of slamming doors, The Postal Service, and counting to seven over and over again. I did this for 12 hours, until a manager appeared to ask how long I had been working. “Oh, I’ve been here since 8 am,” I replied, thinking about the $96 I had just made that day, which was a fortune to me.
I moved up the chain of command in that store both fast and slowly. For a while, I was held back because my defaulted student loans meant that I could not be promoted. Every promotion had a credit check. If I could pass that credit check, I could become officially full time. Get health insurance and paid time off. But corporate wouldn’t make an exception for me, even though the only bad thing on my credit was my student loans. Eventually, I got that promotion, after a brutal interrogation from the Regional Loss Prevention manager (a scary ass former cop named Tony) who asked me why he should trust someone who made so many life mistakes. I suppose he felt the life mistakes were being a single parent? My student loans? Not sure really and I don’t care.
But I got that promotion and Dylan and I were able to move into a bigger place with two bedrooms and a bathtub! We weren’t rich, that’s for sure. Still living extremely paycheck to paycheck. In the winter, I only used the heat in Dylan’s bedroom, while I slept in a coat and sleeping bag in my room. It was true that I was working 40 hours a week–and working really really hard at that–but we couldn’t afford heat. I couldn’t see the eye doctor. We couldn’t afford to take the bus.
I became a department manager later that year, which paid more BUT was salaried which meant that I was expected to work at least 50 hours a week, many many more during the holidays and floor sets. I would often “clopen,” working until 11 or midnight, then starting again at 7 am. It was brutal and it didn’t feel like we had much more money. But it was a path somewhere, right?
After a year or so of this, something about that job wasn’t sitting well with me:
- It was nearly impossible to get more than the most miniscule raise. Like, the biggest raise I could give anyone on my team was 25 cents/hour. And I could only give that to one person. Everyone else would get 10 cents/hour. Neither of these made life any easier for any of them.
- We were asked to cut payroll more and more (despite our store being busier and busier), meaning that hourly staff had to be cut back while those of us who were salaried had to work more hours.
- I was told (as the person who wrote the schedule for the entire store, about 60 people) to ensure that no one ever got close to 30 hours on average because the company did not want to be forced to offer benefits. So if someone had been working 30 hours a week for a month or so, I had to give them a week of like five hours, which would also fuck them over financially. It felt so unfair. Additionally, I was encouraged to schedule the people who had worked there the longest, for the least amount of hours. Why? Because they were paid slightly more per hour.
- I saw a lot of weird stuff around hiring, firing, disciplinary action, loss prevention stuff that felt possibly illegal, or at the very least, unethical. And it felt gross that the company considered us criminals first, employees second. We had to be searched every time we left the store (pulling up our pants to show our ankles, pulling out our pockets, allowing managers to look through our bags), we couldn’t use the bathroom without someone letting us in…it all felt really…not good.
- And I knew that all of us–even me–were super disposable. The company didn’t care about us, we were just bodies doing a job.
Did I want to continue doing this forever? Because there wasn’t really that much growth potential beyond my current job. And eventually upper management would deem me “too old” to work there. So I decided I was going to go to nursing school. It was a way to support myself and Dylan, kinda live anywhere we wanted, and it would give us a level of security.
As I was working on applications and making plans, we had a visit from some executives at the home office. Now, I make this sound casual, but we worked around the clock for a week leading up to it, ensuring that the store was perfect. I gave a walkthrough to the executives, explaining our best sellers, merchandising decisions we had made, and products that I thought would work for us. And at the end, the Director of Planning and Allocations, a lovely man named Kelly, asked, “how would you like to come work for us in Philadelphia as a buyer?”
I had no idea what that meant–and Philadelphia was awfully far away–but I said, “sure.” I assumed it was just a compliment and nothing would come of it…but a week later I was flying across the continent for an interview.
If there was ever anyone in fashion who felt “lucky to be here,” it was me.
All of my coworkers came from money. They had perfect teeth and wore very expensive clothes. I showed up for my first day in a thrifted Boy Scout shirt and a brown corduroy jumper.
They had gone to fashion school or interned for fancy brands or had their own handbag line.
And many of them expected me to fail. There definitely was a strong belief that anyone working in the stores must be less intelligent, have bad taste, be unable to work in a corporate environment. I was the first person to transition from the stores to the corporate office in more than ten years. I learned later that my boss hadn’t wanted to hire me for those reasons, but felt pressured by the executives to hire me.
I felt that. I felt that very strongly. My boss sat ten feet away from me, but only communicated via email. I would go an entire 8 hour day without someone speaking to me. It was quite an adjustment from working in the store, where I had so many friends. But it was also a relief to not be on my feet all day, carrying boxes, moving fixtures, running up and down the stairs. My body needed that break.
The other thing about this job is that I only received a $4000 raise to move across the country and live in a much more expensive city. Many days I had only $10 to spend, $5 after I deducted the cost of taking the subway to and from work. There were no 25 cent Fred Meyer cheese bagels to be found, so I was eating Budget Gourmet meals or ramen. But I only ate that at home because I didn’t want my coworkers to know how poor I was. At work, I would buy a cup of soup from the cafeteria and eat with as many free saltines as possible. Then I would go back to my desk to write orders for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Over time, I did get some raises, but I want to be clear that working as a buyer has never made me rich, despite title changes, promotions, and more responsibilities. It has made me more middle class over time, but barely.
One thing I liked about working in the buying department at my first job was the rhythm of it all, the consistent cycle of meetings and projects. Everything had a timeline and we stuck to it. There were weekly meetings, monthly meetings, and quarterly meetings. And all of them were part of making decisions about product and then planning the products we would deliver to stores.
My first buying job wasn’t exactly fast fashion (yet) but it was sort of “proto fast fashion.” Regular brands and retailers like department stores or higher fashion labels, or even mall retailers like the Gap planned and delivered product by season: Spring/summer, Fall/winter, maybe special collections for holiday or resort. But essentially only a few collections each year. Those collections would deliver at the beginning of a season and then live on the sales floor for months. At the end of that season, there would be a sale to clear through the leftovers, then new stuff would arrive.
Now this strategy also kinda dictated consumer behavior:
- For one, if you weren’t feeling a brand’s trend direction, color palette, or general product assortment during a season, you were sorta out of luck. And if lots of customers didn’t like it…well, the brand was out of luck, experiencing lower sales and being forced to sell more stuff at a markdown to get rid of it.
- Furthermore, as a customer, you didn’t feel like you had to visit a store regularly in case you missed out on something. Because there wasn’t a lot of new stuff to snag. Once a month or every few months would do just fine.
- From an internal perspective, dropping new product far less often meant that retailers had plenty of time to get fit, materials, and all of the other details just right. The timeline for producing product was so much slower, that a retailer would probably start working on a delivery 9 months in advance, ideating, designing, sampling, writing orders, continuing to do fittings and wear tests, until finally receiving the product–shipped the slow way on a boat across the ocean–months later.
- And these brands were in the business of selling you the whole outfit, so building collections of interchangeable pieces that coordinated made it easy to get you to spend a little bit more to build a wardrobe.
My employer delivered new stuff every month. Was it a whole store of new stuff every month? No, but stores would receive shipments of merchandise 4-5 days each week, with a mixture of restock and new items. Rather than marking down things at the end of the season like more traditional brands did, we usually did it after ten weeks. That was the goal: to sell 10% of each order every week and run out at the end of ten weeks. Whatever was left, was marked down. We usually did one round of markdowns each month. And periodically–think Black Friday, maybe Memorial Day or Labor Day, we would do a couple of days of “take an additional 50% off of all sale prices” to clear out more.
We planned our product in themes (called “concepts”) that would last for two months at a time. And each two-month period would have three concepts per department (womens, mens, and housewares). In fact, if you went into a store, you would see each department laid out in these three concepts. The physical areas would use subtle indicators like different paint colors or wallpapers to indicate that you were in a different “zone” with a different theme.
Still, we planned the delivery of our new items in a way that ensured that new products were arriving in stores every week. And store visual teams were expected to move things around the sales floor pretty frequently. The goal was to get customers to come into the store every week or two, so making it seem new and exciting was a way to encourage that behavior.
I will say that we were kinda legendary for high prices that did not align with the quality of what we were selling. That’s because we were marking up the product so much, far more than a lot of other retailers. But this company had a lot of overhead because every store had its own in-house visual team that built and created elaborate displays. That cost money. We put on our own showcase at SXSW. We had a massive corporate staff that worked out of a stunning campus in Philadelphia’s Navy Yard. And we were a publicly traded company, meaning our goal was to pay shareholders. So yeah, we marked up the prices a lot higher than others and you know what? For a long time, people had no problem paying them. The branding was just that powerful.
In general, we were working about six months in advance. Meaning if it was September, we were working on next spring. Some categories–like sweaters and cold weather accessories–took longer. I often planned scarves and gloves 8-10 months in advance.
I was often managing about 5 categories, and each category had (at most) ten new styles delivering each month. So it was pretty manageable. If coming up with 40-50 new products every month sounds difficult, remember that new colors counted as a new style! That was another thing that was a key part of retail at that point: lots of what we called “evergreen” styles that we carried for years on end, adding new colors here and there to get people to buy more of them. But if you bought a pair of skinny jeans and liked them, odds were high that you could come back and buy the same pair in 3 months, 6 months, or even a year later.
When it came to looking for new stuff, I would usually go to New York a couple of times each month to meet with vendors and see what they were working on. I often had pantone swatches and mood boards to help guide my process and over time, it felt like a big (and kinda fun) logic problem to solve. And remember: I had time to get things right. Working 6-8 months in advance meant that there was plenty of time to make changes and perfect the product. We rarely had massive quality issues, and when we did, it usually had something to do with a factory error.
I would say that my first buying job was “fast fashion .75.” Not quite full on fast fashion (yet) but not exactly “slow fashion” either.
So like I said, my employer was making so much money. Business was just growing and growing. And now that shopping online was more normal, we could test out new ideas on the website, then expand them into stores when they succeeded. So it was a pretty good time.
But there were two brands out there that were giving us a little bit of anxiety: American Apparel and Forever 21. Now American Apparel was selling stuff for about the same prices as we were, but everything was (ostensibly) made in the USA and had a good story about workers rights. Our company would never be able to compete with them because we were legendary for stealing designs from artists and you could never make the kind of profits our shareholders expected while also manufacturing in the US. But that didn’t stop our company from trying to make stores look more like American Apparel (it failed) and create their own copies of American Apparel tees and hoodies (which were more successful than you might expect).
Forever 21 was another story. And it was just one of these new retailers that were growing and growing, including Zara and H+M.
These stores took everything we did, but turned up like five notches. Stores received new styles every week, sometimes every day. And everything was less expensive than other brands. Furthermore, FOMO was a big part of the business model: if you didn’t visit regularly and buy something as soon as you saw it, it probably wouldn’t be there the next time you went in. And you would never find it again. Because they weren’t in the “evergreen” business. It was all about newness. And when you went into these stores, rather than seeing 2-3 trend concepts (think: aesthetic themes) playing out, you would find half a dozen or more. It kinda felt like there was something for everyone.
Now, some of these brands had been around since the late 80s, and while they had steady growth during their first years, they were picking up momentum in the new century because they had found a massive source of new customers: millennials. The millennials were the first “big” generation since the Boomers, eclipsing their predecessors Generation X. And they were known for being “disruptors,” not caring as much about the things previous generations had preferred. They cared less about brands (except for how they cared about certain brands), but they also had less money to spend.
In fact, the New York Times is responsible (as the legend goes) for coining the term “fast fashion” in a 1989 article comparing Express and Zara, who were both focused on offering regular newness in their stores.
‘Every week there’s a new shipment from Spain,” said Juan Lopez, who came to New York in February to head Zara’s United States operation. ”The stock in the store changes every three weeks. The latest trend is what we’re after. It takes 15 days between a new idea and getting it into the stores.”
Zara was really focusing on selling items to customers, rather than outfits. But Express was more focused on a collection approach, sticking with that idea that stores should sell interchangeable pieces that could build outfits. To speed up their process of offering newness, the brand did not have designers (wild) and instead, had buyers traveling 4-5 times a year to pick up inspiration (meaning: having them buy garments that factories could copy).
Express really did kinda rule the 1990s (believe it or not), while Zara remained a bit niche here in the U.S, limited only to stores in a few major cities.
I read a 1998 New York Times article referring to a “swedish outlet chain” called H+M. At the time, the company was making a “mere” 250 million garments per year (now they churn out about 3 Billion garments each year). French Cosmopolitan had recently sneered about H=M, “At H&M, they don’t copy, they imitate — and they make no secret of it.” The New York Times wondered if this little Swedish company was going to make it, especially since it was selling clothes on the “bargain” street in Paris, rather than alongside the fancy brands.
By 2000, the New York Times was changing its tune, as H+M arrived in NYC, saying
H&M arrives at a time when consumer shopping patterns have changed markedly in the United States. Ever on the prowl for bargains, and made cynical by frequent store markdowns and promotions, even many affluent customers have deserted department stores. They shop instead at discounters like Target and outlet centers like Woodbury Common in Central Valley, N.Y.
”It’s chic to pay less,” said Howard L. Davidowitz, a New York retail analyst. ”More now than it ever has been.”
The writer, Ruth La Ferla, went on to say that many other brands that focused on low prices and newness were seeing a lot of success: Old Navy, off price stores like TJ Maxx, H&M. Despite a strong economy, she noted that young people (aka, the millennials and xennials) were less interested in the longevity of their clothing, and instead wanted constant newness each season. These retailers were delivering that.
There’s also a quaint little quote from the CEO of Lerner (aka New York and Company) saying that he doesn’t think these new brands will have an impact on the mall brands. Hmmmm…that aged well.
But Forever 21 was a slightly different beast than Zara and H+M. Yes, all three offered constant newness and low prices, but Forever 21’s prices were even lower. Like tank tops that were $1.90. Necklaces that were $2.90. Nothing ever went on sale…because it didn’t have to. It sold at its full low price. The chain began in 1984 as a single store in Highland Park (Los Angeles) called Fashion 21, where it primarily sold closeout clothing. But over time, it grew pretty fast, opening a new store every six months (usually in malls) in its first decade. By 2005, it was becoming such a force to be reckoned with, that it bought the chain Gadzooks, doubling its number of stores to 400!
In fact…this is a good moment to call out something important that I think gave Forever 21 a massive leg up: the mall location! And these spaces were huge (by mall standards) at about 25,000 square feet. And unlike its mall competitors, most stores carried clothing for women, men, and children (other mall brands were more specific). Zara and H+M were not in malls at this point, focusing only on big city stores. But while Forever 21 would begin branching into enormous spaces outside malls (like the 40,000 square foot flagship store in Pasadena, CA that it opened in 2006), it was changing the way malls looked, expanding to multi story stores (in malls) and eating up its neighbors spaces, too. In some malls, Forever 21 moved into abandoned department store spaces.
So here we have the original fast fashion brands (fast fashion 1.0): Forever 21, Zara, H+M, Mango, Topshop overseas. And their focus was constant newness at affordable prices. In the past, affordable prices had meant sacrificing trend or style. They changed that.
Forever 21 and Zara had a catch, though: the steady flow of new products at the lowest prices meant customers had to make a trade off: basically they could have those things for sure, but that meant sacrificing quality and fit. These clothes were quasi-disposable, often not holding up for very many wears, or being unable to survive even one wash cycle. The fit was inconsistent and not great. But it worked. Because customers preferred low prices and trendiness. These brands were trading in volume: get a customer to come in shopping every week, sell them a few items every time, and suddenly you could run a billion dollar business off of selling very inexpensive clothing.
Furthermore, the original fast fashion brands gave millennials something they had never had before: personal choice. Now that they were moving into adulthood, not only did they have the personal freedom to wear what they wanted, they also had the option of many more choices. And if they didn’t like what they were offered this week, that was okay because there would be new stuff next week. It felt like an endless buffet of clothing, where there was always something you needed and wanted. And this is revelatory when you are in that phase of life where you are constantly trying out new things as you figure out who you are and what you like. Clothing is obviously a huge part of that!
The other non-fast fashion retailers initially turned up their noses at the original fast fashion brands. They were cheap, they lacked brand cachet, and surely customers would eventually walk away from the racks of low quality polyester clothing. But they didn’t.
Initially my employer looked down on Forever 21 as trashy. Nevermind that I was shopping there pretty regularly because my job required constant trendy new clothes, but didn’t pay me enough to buy them from our brand (despite the employee discount). And I had to say–as someone whose job was literally to predict what customers would want before they wanted it–Forever 21 was doing that really well.
Forever 21 specifically didn’t care out about selling you basics (H+M still tried to). It wasn’t really stealing looks from the runway (like Zara). It was just offering a lot of new stuff in many different aesthetics. So there was something for everyone.
And the retail industry saw the potential there, as other fast fashion brands grew, including Charlotte Russe, Wet Seal, and Papaya. Yet they also felt that it might be a flash in the pan, or something that only young people would get into…but then 2008 happened, meaning the financial crisis and the subsequent recession. Fashion changed forever.
I was working at my first buying job when the recession hit. It hit hard and it lasted for a long time. After years of being able to take a really high mark up and customers not care…well that came to a screeching halt. And so we had to put a lot of stuff on sale. And then on a deeper sale. And then deeper. We canceled some orders, but mostly we just squeeze vendors on pricing more than ever. In fact, executives concocted a plan to make the same amount of profit (in terms of dollars) while doing less in sales. How?
- We were forced to ask every vendor for a 10% discount on the orders we had already written, in addition to any future orders.
- Our budgets were cut, from travel to office supplies to benefits (our insurance prices went up while coverage went down) and a freeze was put in place for raises and promotions, for two years. Yes, this was a setback to all of our careers.
And wouldn’t you know it? The company achieved a record level of profit that year, despite selling so much on sale.
But the recession didn’t end fast. In fact, its effects continued for years (and I’m not sure any of us ever fully recovered).
Sure people got jobs again, but they paid less. Lots of us got sucked into the gig economy or permanent freelancing. Rent and healthcare got more expensive. Millennials graduated into a terrible job market with record levels of student loan debt.
Most of us were barely getting by…so more and more people opted into fast fashion. In fact, as regular retailers struggled, Forever 21 and Zara were opening up more and more stores, reaching more and more customers…stealing them away from everyone else.
Ultimately, the rest of the retail industry had no choice but to adopt the fast fashion model, too: selling as much stuff as possible, as often as possible. And delivering new stuff as often as possible. First everyone raced their way to the bottom, with endless sales and permanent promos. Places like my first employer, and Anthropologie, Free People, Madewell, J. Crew (big brands with higher prices) took a sneakier path to the bottom: they knew that putting prices like $1.90 or even $19.90 would ruin the image of their brands as more “premium,” as superior to the other fast fashion brands. But they also knew that customers couldn’t really afford those higher prices. So what was the brilliant workaround? Keep the higher prices on the tags, but plan to sell most of the inventory on sale. And if you planned that in advance, you could architect the item to sell on sale and be just as profitable as a full price item had been in the past.
Let’s say that in 2007, a brand had been selling dresses for $68 with no problem. This meant they could pay up to $17/each for each of these dresses and still be pretty profitable. But now, realistically most of those dresses would sell for $29. How to stay profitable at that level? Buy dresses that cost $7-8 to make, put the $68 price tag on them, then sell them at 50-60% off. So yeah, the $58 dress is a different garment than what it was in 2007. In fact, when we talk about a serious drop off in quality in these mass mall brands, this is what caused it.
It’s confusing, right? Because the price looks the same (and you think you got a good deal), but did you?
You get to that lower cost by cutting things.
- First you swap the fabric to something cheaper (but we always would look for something that “looked” expensive or had a “nice handfeel”). Inevitably it was a poly blend.
- Next you cut the details, like pockets and lining. I remember when sheer dresses were a major trend…we could make whole ass maxi dresses for very little money because we didn’t have to worry about the cost of a lining.
- If you still can’t hit the cost target, you start adjusting other things. Make the skirt a little bit shorter. Change it from a long sleeve top to ¾ sleeves. Get rid of the buttons, or perhaps keep the buttons as functionless…and get rid of the button holes. Lose the zipper and add a keyhole. Everything became a highly diluted version of the original design.
- But most importantly, you keep asking the factory or vendor for a lower price. And they go back and recalculate to see what they can hit. Maybe they cut some staff for the project. Maybe they pay their workers a little bit less. Maybe they subcontract to a factory that pays its workers even less. Maybe that factory subcontracts to another factory that pays even less or uses forced labor or commits wage theft. No matter what, these lower prices from the factory are really money taken out of the pockets of humans. Someone is not getting paid.
When low prices were no longer a unique selling point because everyone was pricing the same, it shifted into being the first to offer a trend, no matter how specific or small. And this changed everything.
- Now customers felt the drive to shop multiple times a week, whether that was by visiting a store or shopping online. In fact, as shopping shifted more and more online, retailers were able to offer even more new styles every day or week because they were no longer confined by what they could fit in a brick and mortar store.
- Social media partnerships with influencers gave retailers a chance to normalize a steady flow of new clothes through outfit of the day posts. And every trend–no matter how fleeting–could be shown on Instagram or Tumblr, building more customer interest.
- People working within the industry were working faster, with less time. Rather than planning months and months out, it was all happening in 1-3 months. Everything shipped via air to save time and…of course with less time, there were less fittings (if any at all) and less opportunities to get the product just right. But Forever 21 and Zara had already proven that customers prioritized price and newness over quality and fit.
- In fact, as retailers worked to cut costs year after year after year (because that’s how retail works, you always have to be more profitable this year than you were last year), they pushed the envelope in terms of just how shitty something could be and still be desirable. They had to do this to cover the costs of all of the new things that were becoming the norm as more and more of us shopped online:
- free shipping (yep, someone pays for that, so retailers covered that by pushing down the costs of what they were selling…which meant, squeezing factories and cutting the quality even more),
- free returns (and the tsunami of returned inventory that followed). And guess what? Processing returns often costs MORE than processing your order because it takes more time to receive, inspect, and return items to inventory!
- All that air shipping. Yeah, we’re talking the difference between say, 25 cents/unit for shipping via a boat, versus a couple of dollars/unit to ship via air. That was also covered by cutting corners, and quality, and paying staff less, and on and on.
- But you know what? Quality got worse…And customers didn’t push back. At some point, we accepted clothing as quasi-disposable (spoiler: those clothes live for centuries in landfills when we are done with them).
By 2015, every big-ish retailer had adopted the fast fashion model: any mall store, Anthropologie, Free People, American Eagle, Old Navy, Target, any online retailer (including the ones where I worked, like Nasty Gal and Modcloth).
And OMG did what it meant to work in the corporate offices of these retailers change over those years between 2008 and 2015:
- Remember how I was maybe buying a total 50 new items per month across my five categories in the beginning? By 2012, I was buying 50-100 styles per month…per category! At Modcloth we launched new styles EVERY SINGLE DAY. Everywhere else, we were launching a couple hundred styles every week.
- And markdowns became a weekly thing. When you’re bringing in so much new product, things have to move out of stores and off the website really fast. So I would spend time every week creating new markdown lists and talking things through with my planner.
- This meant we were working ALL THE TIME. Forget about 9-5 or 9-6, it was 9-8 or 9. Dinner became some trail mix or a protein bar. We started drinking in the office around six, anything to feel better. When you have hundreds of new styles, new markdown lists, time to do sales analysis, manage your budget, go to meetings, train your team, and so much more…well, there’s never enough time for any of it.
- Everything felt chaotic. In general, the entire industry had worked on a calendar similar to my first job, but now I was buying some stuff for three months from now, alongside writing orders for things that would arrive in two weeks or less. Because that was the other thing: the industry was so afraid of making a mistake, that corporate teams across every brand were changing the process of product development. Now we had special teams that just focused on designing /sourcing stuff that we could get in a few weeks. As buyers, we worked with them, and outside vendors, and our own design team to deliver more and more new styles without planning too far in advance. I was once yelled at for writing an order that wouldn’t be arriving for 4 months, even though that used to be standard.
- At the same time, brands were barely hanging on. It was hard to make the math, well, math in the fast fashion model. Layoffs became the norm. I was laid off once (when Nasty Gal went under) but I witnessed layoffs every few months from 2012-2016. No one’s job was safe. There was no security.
- And…every time someone was laid off or quit…they were never replaced. Rather, their work was passed off to someone else. So many times I found myself doing the work of 2,3, even 4 different people with no raise or promotion. This was standard in all departments.
So random layoffs, stagnating pay, increasing workload, a diet based on protein bars and food from Starbucks, working on products that were frankly, disappointing and kinda removed the creativity from it all…yeah, it became harder to feel “lucky to be there.” But the outside world still thought what we were doing was glamorous. Multiple people definitely dated me because of what I did for a living. It seemed appealing. It forced many of us into sort of “gaslighting” ourselves into believing that we WERE lucky, even if most days we were trying not to have stress diarrhea in the communal bathroom or trying to hide our exhaustion-induced eye twitch in meetings.
I had a lot of friends who were still working in retail (now often as district or regional leaders) and their stories were similar: payroll continued to be cut, to a point where stores couldn’t stay on top of their regular tasks. So much new product was pouring into stores and going on markdown so fast, that everyone was frantically trying to remerchandise the store with half the staff of previous years. My first employer had slashed its visual teams out in the stores, laying off a lot of amazing creative talent that had worked for the company for a long time. In fact, long time employees were being pushed out because they cost too much.
Workers rights have always been an issue in the fashion and retail industry, but very few people were talking about it. Fast fashion made these issues more egregious.
In 2018, I returned to that big stunning campus in the Navy Yard where I had begun my career. This time I was helping to launch a new rental brand. And after being away for almost ten years, the impact of the fast fashionification of the industry was stark:
- The costs of the items we were buying in 2018 were LOWER than the prices we were paying ten years before. Like, markedly lower.
- The timelines were so short, with product arriving the same month it was ordered.
- The sheer amount of new styles being ordered every week was wild. In fact, some of the brands on the campus had shifted the task of managing the financial/analytical side of product to new roles, so that buyers could spend all of their time searching for new things to buy.
- And almost everything shipped via air. This one blew my mind!
Because for all of the wild changes in the industry that happened in the first 20-ish years of this century, many things remained the same.
For one, the way product made its way to customers didn’t really change.
- First buyers would place an order.
- It would be produced and shipped (often overseas). At the port, it was screened by customs and inspected if there was a suspected issue. In recent years, customs agents would also be looking for any warning signs that a shipment might have been made with forced labor (usually where it originated).
- Then it would be loaded up on a truck and shipped to the brand’s warehouse.
- There it would be received, QA’ed (at least partially) by a team, and then either packed up to go out to stores or put into bins until it was ordered by a customer.
- If it shipped out to stores, it was unpacked there, where another set of humans looked at it and noticed any major quality issues or concerns.
- Then it would be put out on the sales floor for customers to purchase.
So when you take a step back and look at this process, you see a few things:
- There are a lot of points where a safety or quality issue could be caught.
- It’s harder to import items made with forced labor.
- And you see a lot of humans –meaning jobs–as a part of that chain: customs inspectors, dock workers, truck drivers, warehouse workers, QA staff, store employees. Some of these jobs pay terribly (and don’t get me started on warehouses that aren’t climate controlled), but in the world of fast fashion 3.0, a lot of these jobs no longer exist. We’ll be talking more about how/why that is.
In fact, fast fashion 1.0 involves a lot of humans and jobs that kinda begin to disappear as we get to fast fashion 3.0: designers, buyers, production teams, fit models, technical designers, print designers. A lot of the corporate staff kinda disappears, particularly those who are involved in the creation and curation of clothing. You kinda wonder who will be around to feel “lucky to be there.”
But ultimately, as we wrap up fast fashion 1.0 we see a system that has many many problems:
- For workers in all areas, there is low pay, high stress, too much work, and declining benefits. And that’s not just garment workers, designers, etc…we’re talking about retail staff, warehouse workers, truck drivers…and the staff in thrift stores who have to sort through all the rejected fast fashion (and really, fast everything stuff) we bought and didn’t want to keep. In fact, fast fashion exacerbates economic inequality, it pushes down wages (because so many people are employed–directly or tangentially–in the process of making, selling, and shipping new clothes…and then dealing with the waste leftover when those clothes are no longer desirable) that of course the wages paid to those workers become part of the norm for all workers.
- For customers, the product isn’t great. It doesn’t last, it doesn’t fit, and it makes us feel, well, kinda shitty. And we spend our money on it, often needing to buy more of it/more often, so we’re spending even more money than we might have before the fast fashion era. That’s not great for our financial health.
- And then of course there is the environmental impact of it all: clothes shedding microplastics (as of right now 65-70% of new clothes are made of petroleum-based synthetic fabrics that are essentially plastic), the pollution, the water consumption, the carbon footprint of all of those airplane trips for clothing, the landfills and waterways filling with unwanted clothing. Mountains of unwanted fast fashion forming in the Global South. Guess what? That impacts all of us, no matter where we live!
Ultimately, this is a system that impacts ALL OF US. Period.
I can’t help but think about how the online outrage against secondhand resellers is really missing a much larger and more damaging issue. It’s like it’s easier to pile on resellers than to confront larger systemic issues that will require work and change from every single person. Because guess what? This @#$% affects all of us, no matter where we live, how much money we have, or what we wear on our bodies. We all have to care about this.
REMINDER: CALLING OUT FAST FASHION ISN’T ABOUT SHAMING THE PEOPLE WHO BUY IT! You don’t know what you don’t know…and let’s be honest, most of us aren’t making enough money to afford higher end things. Or we don’t have the time to shop secondhand, or access to good secondhand options. Or it’s hard to find our size.
So, no, we aren’t shaming people about this or judging them. We are recognizing that fast fashion isn’t a good deal for anyone. WE ARE STARTING CONVERSATIONS ABOUT A WAY OF DOING BUSINESS THAT PRIORITIZES PROFITS OVER PEOPLE AND PLANET.
The goal is buying less and holding the industry accountable, not making people feel bad.
It’s about pushing for systemic changes via our power as voters and customers.tran
One thing I learned in my career in buying? Only two things make companies change their ways: laws and the fear of losing sales.
LET’S CHANGE SOME MINDs TOGETHER!!!