The rise of “fast fashion” is arguably the best thing to happen to the American woman’s wardrobe in the past decade. Chains like H&M and Forever 21 have revitalized the way we dress by making chic, trendy pieces affordable again. For working women in particular — women who have both limited time and budget when it comes to shopping — fast fashion is a godsend.
Or is it?
J. Crew sweater, originally $148
Forever 21 sweater, $21.99
This week, Bloomberg Newsweek published an eye-opening behind-the-scenes look at Forever 21, currently the undisputed king (queen?) of fast fashion marketing. While I’m not a big Forever 21 shopper, I will admit that I have a few pieces in my closet, including a fabulous black bubble skirt that I picked up for $16 last summer, and a sequined cardigan that I bought specifically because it was a lower priced copy of a J. Crew sweater I was coveting. I’m a little less in love with those pieces now, though, after reading about the company’s business practices.
(You can see the full Bloomberg Businessweek story here, or Jezebel’s quick take on it here.).
Fast fashion chains have completely changed the way we shop, and with good reason. Industry insiders say that Forever 21 is doing a lot of things right — ordering only small batches of each garment, for example, which forces shoppers to buy now, before an item is gone. “They learned that what’s new has to be up front, and it has to change daily,” Ilse Metchek, founder of the California Fashion Association, told Bloomberg. “Most retailers stay with dead inventory too long. Forever 21 is all about movement in the store.” This model lets Forever 21 turn over up to 20 percent of a store’s merchandise each week — twice as much as similar retailers. And of course, there’s the price; nothing at Forever 21 retails for over $60, even the pieces that are direct copies of higher priced designer items.
skirt, $16 at Forever 21
For many women, fast fashion copies are as close as we will ever get to owning a designer item. So if the price is right and the skirt fits, what’s wrong with paying $16 for it?
Lots of things.
Also in the news this week, Miuccia Prada, head of the eponymous brand, told WWD that she wouldn’t even consider a “fast fashion” Prada line. Prada sums up, in two quick sentences, exactly what is wrong with Forever 21’s business model: “For now, what I see more or less is the bad copy,” Prada says. “Also with clothes that cost little, you need to ask why they cost so little. Because no one ever asks themselves that.”
Prada raises what are, in my mind, the most salient issues when it comes to fast fashion: cost and copyright. While H&M has partnered with designers to create cheaper versions of luxury lines, Forever 21 has been accused — repeatedly — of copying clothes from other chains and designers (including Diane Von Furstenberg and Anthropologie) — in essence, stealing the designs. At the same time, Forever 21 has been accused of wage and labor violations. That combination of money-saving strategies makes it possible for Forever 21 to offer cheap knockoffs of trendy designer items.
Like my $16 skirt.
I will admit that I do not know as much as I should about the design and labor practices of my favorite brands; I will also admit that I have bought pieces at Forever 21 knowing that they were knock offs of other brands, including brands to which I am typically very loyal (hello, faux J. Crew cardi). But I also have to admit that after reading both the Bloomberg piece about Forever 21 and Miuccia Prada’s interview with WWD, I’m a little uncomfortable about having those pieces in my closet. I’m thinking that a better practice — both in terms of the quality of my wardrobe and the ethics of my spending — will be to do my homework before I shop, not only by choosing carefully what I buy but where I buy it.
How much research do you do into the business practices of the brands you buy? Should we worry about the ethics of fast fashion, or just call a bargain a bargain?