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Can Fashion Get Over Instagratification?

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Your 2017 winter coat is coming down the runway right now!

coats-nyfw-2016
Looks from NYFW 2016. Photo via Elle.

That promise didn’t do much for you, right? That’s because our shopping expectations have changed.

It’s a time of instant gratification. Or, let’s call it Instagratification to be topical. Nowadays, it’s easy to scroll through Instagram and click-to-buy something because a brand or blogger made it look irresistible. Our transactional decisions are predicated on an aspirational life, but now it’s sold to us in expertly edited 1080 x 1080 square pixels.

Instagratification has been the norm at NYFW for a few years. But this season, something has changed. It’s the first time a number of designers are speaking out against the traditional, four  season [Spring/Summer, Resort, Pre-Fall, and Fall/Winter] calendar [read: CNBC]. There are many motives behind this, but in general, designers are saying production demands are too high and the lag time it takes them between runway and retail allows fast-fashion brands to copycat their designs at a lower standard [Instagratification in action].

It’s a blurry era in fashion where luxury can’t decide whether to compete against its fast-fashion foes or set itself apart. Fast-fashion is left suspended in time, hoping its copycat model keeps working. 

Typically, when there’s this much confusion in an industry consumers need something to fill the void. It has to be something they didn’t know they needed but when it hits, it makes perfect sense. Ethical designers would be crazy not to jump at this opportunity to find their foothold amid the chaos. It’s the perfect time for an ethical intervention.

phillip-lim-ethopia
Photo by Phillip Lim, Ethiopia.

Here’s why.

The luxury industry is fed-up

Real craftsmanship and luxury design isn’t appreciated the way it used to be. The fashion industy as it exists is a trend producing machine built for women (and men) chasing an ephemeral notion that new clothes will fill a void – of coolness, of credibility, of whatever tickles their fancy.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m guilty of indulging in style. I love the feeling of finding a brand that gets my aesthetic as much as any gal. But fashion is art. Design is hard work. And it’s not being respected because we’re able to find copycats of real design so easily and so cheaply.

Imagine yourself as a designer today. The process goes something like this: seek inspiration – toil over sketches – present idea to team – negotiate with manufacturers and suppliers – burn hours of midnight oil in production against looming runway deadline – pitch collection to retailers – host big-budget runway show –  see a crappy, poly-rendition of your design on a prosaic Zara mannequin at the mall for $74.99 three weeks later. I bet that feels rewarding to Burberry’s head designer.  I can’t even afford these clothes and it irks me.

There are other forces at play that have designers fed-up. Luxury sales are lagging due to weather trends because designers are unable to adapt and produce on-season clothing at the same pace of mass retailers [read: nytimes]. This is also where inventory becomes a concern. If designers are producing seasonal collections a year in advance with no predictive data on consumers or the weather, they can be left with huge stockpiles of unwanted clothes when their designs reach retail.

The bottom line is, what’s driving this change is not based on ethical decisions. But it may lead to more stringent supply chain management and less production in general. And that’s only a good thing. It could, however, mean competition from luxury designers that would pit ethical brands against fashion’s establishment.

Blogger, The Blonde Salad takes a selfie.
Blogger, The Blonde Salad takes a selfie.

The lines of fast-fashion are blurring

The change is not just happening with luxury retailers. Fast-fashion brands are wising-up and adapting to two key trends. They’re moving toward more eco-conscious and ethical designs and scaling their clothes up to offer higher-quality, curated collections. Why? Because consumers are saying they prefer buying consciously and dressing in a minimal, uniform way.  This shift sounds promising, but fast-fashion is answering this call with half-baked ethics.  

Take Zara’s studio collection as a case-and-point. According to R29’s interview with a Zara spokesperson, “With the ‘studio’ collection, the quality standards are not different; however, [those] garments tend to carry a more elevated and exclusive feel. In spite of this, all of our production follows the same SRC policies.”  So basically, They’re positioning it a luxurious option, but what they’re really selling you is a load of BS when it comes to quality. See what I mean about blurry and half-baked?

zara-collection-fall-winter-2016
Zara Collection, Fall/Winter 2015-2016

Fast-fashion brands are also defying traditional notions that luxury is reserved for the few.

Retailers like Banana Republic and Jcrew have shown at fashion week. And, most recently, H&M launched another collaboration with the front-row-girl’s favorite brand, Balmain. This is a more refreshing trend that proves conventional models are out the door and off the showroom floor.

h&m-balmain
Last year’s splashy H&M Balmain Collaboration

Consumers are confused

All of this protest and change between luxury and fast-fashion is creating confusion that’s rippling into the cost of clothing. The middle tier of fashion has disappeared. There’s either ultra high or discount bin low.

My favorite example of this is a writer who challenged himself to spend $150 on every piece of clothing [read: Atlantic]. He was intent on buying better quality, investment pieces to last him a long time and found it  much harder than he anticipated.

How ethical can win

Amid this confusion, ethical brands need to wise-up and see the opportunity. A few standout brands like Reformation and Everlane have been able to thrive. But they don’t reflect the majority. Real talk: mosts of the brands selling ethics and sustainability have flopped.

Consumers report they want conscious fashion [read: bof]  but the reality is that they’re only buying these as supplemental purchases. The bulk of their wardrobes are still built on fast-fashion. To make things more complicated, the Huffington Post recently reported in The Myth of the Ethical Shopper that it will take much more than changing consumer purchasing patterns to reform fashion. There’s gritty, long-term government reform that needs to be done.

Still, there are fashion brands that are making progress. They’re cutting back on emissions, treating workers fairly, managing supply chains better and being transparent with consumers. But they need to do more to motivate consumers to actually buy their stuff.

Here’s how ethical brands can make this happen.

Do more of this:

  • Own your innovation. Ethical fashion was a pioneer of the minimalistic dressing that’s everywhere and now luxury and fast-fashion are stealing your thunder! Tell the story about your design and clothing, sometimes more than the ethics.
  • Lead with the clothing. Okay, this one is tough. But unless you can pull off an irreverent or cool brand of ethics like Reformation, the clothes need to come first. Practice ethics wholeheartedly, but keep them low profile so they’re not preachy or off-putting. Mass appeal is tough!  
  • Compete at a common price point. Ethical fashion is in flux when it comes to pricing. If it continues to occupy the middle, it may never stand out. I don’t have an answer for which way it should go, except to invite competition and conversation about the topic.
  • Create one-stop-shopping. A customer’s dreams is having one resource for their entire wardrobe. Give it to them by joining with other brands, developing online marketplaces and making them  memorable.
  • Make clothing searchable. This includes SEO and on-page searchability. I can’t tell you how many ethical brand pages I’ve left immediately because I couldn’t search for what I needed. Making it searchable by cause wouldn’t hurt either. The asos website works brilliantly as a model.

Do less of this:

  • Infiltrate fast-fashion. Soko launched a collaboration with Forever 21 that was celebrated, but it crushed my soul. Don’t water down your mission by joining the wrong brands,  go at alone.
  • Create websites for small collections. I’ve seen a ton of this with ethical lingerie, jewelry and athletic brands. This is a sure fire way to send your consumers packing in search of more offerings. If you’re small, that’s okay. Just join forces with other brands.
  • Sell yourself short. Talk about your design, your story, your cause – more. Over-market your brand. If you want to compete with the big dogs, get out the big gloves and implore their tactics.

I’d love to hear what you think about this in the comments or on twitter with #SlowDownMyClothes.

10 Comments

  1. June says:

    Great post! So much of this is exactly what is happening in the industry. Fast fashion is causing the art of fashion and quality purchasing to be overlooked. I like all of your suggestions about how to stand out, especially for smaller brands like mine. Again, great post!

    1. thepeahen says:

      I’m glad you think so June. I hope it helps your brand grow and move the industry forward. We need more ethical designers like you.

  2. the Weekly Rundown: A Big Opportunity for Ethical Retailers + 90's Home Design Trends – Seasons + Salt says:

    […] According to The Peahen there’s a big gap in the fashion industry as it stands today – between high-end and fast-fashion – and that could mean big opportunities for ethical retailers. Find out what’s causing the gap and how ethical companies should move forward. >>Read More […]

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Very interesting and well-written article! You have some great ideas for the ethical fashion industry, especially liked the advice to “lead with the clothes” and to create a wider online marketplace.
    I think the pricing issue might be a tougher one though. If ethical fashion goes high end it becomes unattainable for most but if it tries to compete with the lower-priced brands, companies might have to compromise some of their standards (labor-wise and environment-wise)… curious about your thoughts on that!

    1. thepeahen says:

      Elizabeth, it’s such a tough question. I think it can’t afford to go cheaper without compromising standards. It might be about closing the gap just a bit and narrowing in on a focus price-point. For instance, I’m more likely to buy fashion that’s in the $70-300 range at my age, but if it goes above that they lose me. I think it’s about the age demographic the ethical designer is targeting and figuring out logical pricing that’s competitive from there. What do you think?

  4. Rianna says:

    Great article! I’m curious to see how the luxury industry will deal with its fast fashion competitors, aside from just complaining. Now that their bottoms lines are threatened, luxury brands will have to do something, regardless of ethical motivations. These brands have the power to call attention to fast fashion’s problems, but so far I haven’t seen much from their end in the media. Have you heard of any brand responses so far?

      1. Rianna says:

        This article does a nice job of spelling out the main issues: the dangers of fast fashion’s shorter production cycle, the financial difficulties of battling copycats, and the lack of legal protections for clothing designs.

        I’m not convinced that the so-called “piracy paradox” benefits anyone but fast fashion retailers. Fly-by-night trends are part of the problem; consumers feel compelled to buy more clothes for less money to keep up. This lessens the incentive to invest in well-made, thoughtful pieces. I also think there is a difference between a trend and outright copying a designer’s unique details, and that’s where the lack of intellectual property regulations causes issues.

        As far as designer responses to copycats, the most common approach seems to be consumer outrage that coerces brands into removing the offending pieces. I would love to see consumer education on craftsmanship and art become the impetus for change, rather than temporary negative publicity.

        1. thepeahen says:

          I completely agree. I would also like consumers to get to a point where they can identify and speak out against fashion copycats before the original designers have to protest on social media. That’s the sign of a real conscious consumer. Do you follow The Fashion Law?

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