Friday night my friend and I went to the mall to see a movie, but ended up at Target instead. Having taken a fairly major spree on serious things at the mall earlier in the week, more shopping was off limits. And somehow I ended up buying a gaggle of fun. And then I read this article that a friend of mine posted to Facebook, and I began to feel guilty about my frivolous purchases.
Fast fashion is coming under fire; first from the CFDA (Council of Fashion Designers of America), and more recently from Great Britain’s House of Lords. There are a lot of valid arguments against it, and personally I don’t believe in fast fashion (but then again, I also don’t believe in wearing shorts, athletic shoes when you’re not exercising, or rubber flip-flops on a daily basis. I do, however, believe in wearing earrings every day), but I also can’t condemn it.
I wasn’t really moved by the argument of the CFDA. They recently rallied against chains like Forever 21 because that chain (like others) brazenly copies designs and sells them for waaaaay less money. It is indeed unfortunate that creative artists who design clothing have no protection for their creations, but the point of fashion is to be spread. It spreads among designers and it filters out into mainstream culture. In the autumn/winter 07 shows (which forecast for spring/summer 08) “painterly” prints were a huge trend. Almost all of the top names – Chanel, Gucci, Dior, etc – showed items expressing the trend. Instead of a backlash against copycats, word spread to buyers and editors that this was a major trend and clothing should be selected and bought accordingly. That’s how the industry works. Designers share the same shapes, the same silhouettes, the same color palettes, the same fabrics, and the same trends.
And if you’ve seen the Devil Wears Prada, you might remember the scene where Anne Hathaway scoffs at the debate over the choice of a belt, and Meryl Streep icily informs her that the choices made by the people in that room ultimately led to the color of her lumpy shapeless sweater purchased from the Gap. Clearly designers want influence; their livelihood depends on other people wanting what they present.
Why then, is it a problem when lower priced retail stores offer what consumers want at a price they can actually afford? Should only wealthy women be able to be well dressed? This might be a news flash for the big-name designers, but most Americans cannot afford to pay $1000 for a shirt, or even $500. Even for those who can, why does this shirt cost $500??? It shouldn’t. What’s happening to the fashion industry happened to the music industry. When the price of goods is artificially high, another party will find a way to produce the same good at a lower cost. If you inflate the value of what you sell, somebody else will be able to sell it for less. If you price for exclusivity, an entrepreneur will find a way to make your goods accessible.
There is also an environmental argument against fast fashion, which I find more palatable. At best, cheap and trendy clothes crowd closets and distract women from what it actually takes to develop style and build a wardrobe. At worst, these clothes are disposed of and crowd landfills. Producing these clothes then, is also wasteful, if they ultimately have a short shelf life. Even some of the longer lasting fabrics are degrading to the environment – and this is something that I haven’t resolved for myself either. I am a huge fan of a new textile called modal (also called lyocell, tencel or rayon). It is soft, hangs beautifully, and washes well. It’s natural, made from wood-fiber, but the chemical treatment of these fibers releases toxins into the environment. This is more of a macro-argument – how far back in the production chain should we take responsibility? Is it enough to only buy clothes that will last a long time? Or must I also know and approve of every step of the production process?
People also like to condemn fast fashion because sweat shop workers in developing countries are paid very little in order to keep costs low. I’m going to put on my “asshole economist” hat for a second, and defend those sweat shops. Even though these workers are generally paid very little, there is evidence that these jobs are better than the alternative of having NO money. So I’m not going to say that low wages are necessarily a bad thing. It’s easy for people to condemn sweat shops and bemoan how little people across the world are paid, but until people become willing to spend more money on clothes, and show that they’re willing by buying more expensive clothes, sweat shops will not go away, no matter how many people clamor against them.
It’s tough to say “no” to fast fashion. I have an unfortunate ability to spend a lot of money on clothing, but as a young person who has felt broke most of my adult life (college included) I understand the lure. I’m happy to spend $75 on a pair of jeans that make the lower half of my body look fabulous, or full price for a pair of well-made shoes that go with everything. But I’m also still experimenting with my look (and my budget) and even I can’t justify spending the big bucks every time I go shopping.
For young people I think that experimental clothing is just as legitimate as investment clothing. But in an attempt to find some kind of resolution, I think the cost-per-wear argument is the best way to go. A while back I bought a beautiful top at Anthropologie because I thought it was perfect – and I had just gotten paid. I’ve worn it maybe 4 times. A few weeks ago I bought a purse at Target that I’ve used nearly every weekend since. Sure, Target is a bastion of fast fashion, but at the end of day that bag was the better buy.
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