We live in an age of planned obsolescence. Most of us are aware of this on at least a subconscious level. Brand loyal tech lovers fight to be among the first to get the latest iPhone model, knowing full well they’ll be repeating the process next year when the next model comes out. Consumer goods aren’t made to last anymore. That trite saying, “they don’t build ‘em like they used to” has become an objectively true statement. Many companies have seen which way the winds are blowing and have opted for quantity over quality, catering to the increasingly limited attention spans of consumers.
One of the clearest examples of this phenomenon is “fast fashion.” It’s the mentality of the fast food industry, translated to clothing and accessories. Find the cheapest labor you can get, and use economies of scale to drive your prices so low that your products become accessible to the vast majority of consumers. This strategy is nothing new – what is new is how it has been embraced by customers shopping for apparel.
K-Mart was doing this decades ago, and eventually Walmart used a similar business model to essentially hijack the national consumer goods economy. But in those days, it wasn’t “cool” to wear cheap clothes from K-Mart. You did it because it was what you could afford, not because it was the socially opportune thing to do.
But today’s low-cost, mass-market clothing manufacturers have managed to make their products aspirational the way that only designer brands were able to before the recession. Retailers like H&M and Zara capitalized on a large population of consumers who practically overnight found themselves in a much more complicated financial situation.
Now, even though the recession has theoretically been over for years, the fast fashion economy persists. The target demographics of these stores, generally age 35 and under, are precisely the ones who continue to struggle financially, burdened with unprecedented levels of student debt, low wages, high barriers to employment, and a dream of home ownership that is legitimately unattainable for most of them. So millennials continue to patronize these fast fashion companies as a sort of affordable luxury. They get the dopamine rush of having bought something frivolous, but they only had to spend $5.99 to do it.
On the other end of the spectrum, the very high-end retailers seem to be doing just fine. After all, the consumers who could afford to patronize those brands pre-2008 were largely the ones who were spared in the financial crisis. But the mid-level stores, the ones where the middle class would go shopping each September for back-to-school clothes or to buy a nice outfit for a job interview, are dying. Payless Shoes just filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week. The Limited was liquidated in January and shut down all its stores. Department stores are downsizing (Macy’s) or disappearing (Burdines), The Gap is dealing with floundering sales. Business Insider has called it “the retail apocalypse.”
Conflict of values in the fast fashion world
The interesting thing about millennials’ flocking to these fast fashion brands is the conflict of values it entails. As a generation, millennials are more socially conscious and find the concept of ethically-produced goods appealing. But when it comes down to it, when they have to choose between the $40 fair trade t-shirt and the $4 t-shirt made in Bangladesh, likely in deplorable working conditions, the $4 t-shirt usually wins. Their median income is $26,000 a year. Can you blame them?
But market research has shown that this generation craves a connection with their brands. They want a brand “experience,” they want authenticity. It follows, then, that having a message that resonates with these consumers, and staying authentic to that message, is one of the few ways to break into the cutthroat fashion industry as a small brand whose prices are necessarily higher because of smaller production volume.
It seems like an impossible feat, but there are some small startup fashion brands that are doing it. One example of this type of company is Bad AF Fashion, which has found success against all odds in the mere six months since the brand was established. Started by a husband and wife team in Australia, the small company has apparently made a commitment to adopt a more “old-fashioned” business model based on small batches of quality pieces, designing and manufacturing each one themselves. Arguably, the key to their success has been having a clear brand identity that resonates with their target customers, staying authentic to that identity, and knowing how to communicate it to the desired audience.
The designs from Bad AF Fashion are bold and unapologetically sexy, the kinds of things you might imagine the Kardashian sisters wearing. The brand’s mission is the empowerment of women through this sort of daring clothing. Implicit in the styling is the message that there’s no shame in wanting to look sexy and feel great doing it, which is very much in line with contemporary feminist ideals of body positivity and sex positivity.
So, while today’s dichotomized fashion economy, “either” fast fashion “or” high-end luxury, is harder to break into than ever before, there still appears to be room for these types of small clothing companies with a clear idea of who they are and who their customers are. We have seen a movement among the younger generations to “get back to basics” in other industries, with an appreciation for craftsmanship, even if it comes with a higher price. Will fashion ultimately go the same way as craft beer, for example? Given the price points, it doesn’t seem likely. But as long as fashion brands have a laser focus on their target customer, maybe that won’t be necessary.