Slow fashion, fast fashion, short-lived trends and sustainable luxury. The fashion world is torn between conflicting concepts and consumers’ demands for high quality, reasonable prices and a steady flow of new goods. Trend-sensitive customers mix, match and make unique, conscious choices. Come along on a tour through a fashion landscape that is changing.
– Today, people are looking for genuine values like timelessness, authenticity and highest quality – values that are included in the concept “sustainable luxury”. That is what Francois-Henri Pinault, president of the luxury conglomerate PPR, which owns brands like Gucci, YSL and Balenciaga, says. Just the word “luxury” is something that is often associated with excess and waste, especially in fashion – fashion, which in many ways is based on fads and quickly fading trends. But today, many people in the fashion industry are pushing for a new attitude: The concept, luxury, shall be disassociated from the wear and throw away mentality and instead be about high standards, environmental awareness and sustainable production. Naturally, that is a good idea. But luxury brands also have a major agenda in influencing consumer attitudes and making them less price sensitive.
“It is true that an increasing number of consumers ask for quality, environmental awareness and sustainability. Many will gladly pay extra for “green goods” and high quality. This is something that luxury brands have utilised during the downturn in the business cycle since they are forced to find new ways to get consumers to choose their high-priced goods,” says Jeremy Kahn, a journalist who writes about the business sector and culture for The New York Times and others.
Slow fashion – a concept
The luxury brands' reasons for striving after even higher quality (and higher prices) may be to benefit themselves, but over the long-term may still contribute to a change of attitude in the entire fashion industry – from respected old fashion houses to the international “fast fashion” chains such as KappAhl, H&M and Zara. PPR and the competitor LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which owns Givenchy, Donna Karan and Céline and others) function as a trend-setter for the entire fashion industry. If these giants promote environmental awareness, sustainable production and quality, there are good chances that the rest of the industry will eventually follow. “Slow fashion” is already an established concept within the fashion world. As a reaction against consumerism and the stress of getting every new collection out to shops as fast as possible (before the fixed fashion chains do it first), the tempo is being lowered in many areas of the industry. There are fewer collections and greater emphasis is being placed on proper execution and sustainable production. The wear and discard mentality is passé – the slow shopper wants to show both fashion and environmental awareness by consuming less but choosing higher quality at a higher price. But how large is the slow shopping trend?
“People often say that they would gladly pay more for higher quality and that they make conscious choices. But that is not always true. There is a major gap between what people say and what they actually do,” says Maria Sandow, administrative director at Svensk Handel Stil. She adds that it can be a matter of time before consumers start to actually act – first you need to change your attitude and then you can put it into practice. But preferably it should not involve too great an effort to choose “right”.
“Many consumers expect that companies take their responsibility and that what they buy in a shop is of good quality and produced under fair conditions,” says Maria Sandow.
Susanne Ljung is a program host for Sveriges Radio's fashion program, Stil. She believes that the slow fashion trend is basically limited to the relatively small group of consumers that have both time and money. “You can compare this with a similar trend within food where the wealthier can spend time carefully selecting food that is considered to meet the high demands of being healthy and good for the environment. Many, possibly even the majority, do not have the possibility to do this in practice. On the other hand, we always need cutting-edge trends that can show alternatives, and in the long-run, change behaviours,” says Susanne Ljung.
Trying to divide consumers into different pre-determined customer types is an oversimplification of our shopping behaviours. Despite everything, we are a mix of different behaviours and wills: We want to be quality conscious but often choose something fast and simple in order to save time and money. This applies to clothes, foods, travel and culture. At one time or another, who hasn't debated between going to the theater and seeing a movie and chose the latter, simply because it is cheaper and associated with a feeling of “you know what you get”? However, there is no doubt that there is a slow shopping-trend, even if it is hard to say how extensive it is.
Clothes – an investment??
Let's make a comparison with a person who collects antiques or has a passion for art. When someone who is interested in art invests in a new painting he or she does not choose a cheap reproduction “for safety's sake in case it doesn't fit in the living room”. Even so, that is how many people reason when it comes to clothes. We have learned that a high quality garment will likely last longer than a cheap sale item, yet we still choose the cheap alternative. What if the pants don't fit that well after all? If the investment is not that large then the buyer hasn't lost so much in case she later regrets that purchase. But why is it that art and designer furniture is “allowed” to be expensive, but not clothes? Isn't it time we started considering what we wear on our bodies as an investment?
“The entire slow-movement, including slow food, slow cities, etc., is often about circumspection and taking a step backwards. I think that it is a response to overconsumption, that everything is moving so fast. People want a calmer tempo and to also give nature space and breathing room,” says Maria Sandow. The slow fashion movement is viewed with scepticism by many who see it as just another transient fashion fad. The Dutch designer duo, Viktor Horsting and Rolf Snoeren (Viktor & Rolf) add to the doubts:
“Sustainability thinking within fashion risks becoming a trend, and trends disappear,” they said in an interview during a conference about sustainable fashion sponsored by the International Herald Tribune.
The opposite of slow fashion is fast fashion, a concept that describes how a product or look, in the fastest possible way, goes from catwalk to shop to consumer, all in order to capture current trends and meet the market's demand for agility. The Spanish chain, Zara has entered the breach for extremely fast-moving fashion. Topshop and H&M are other examples of chains within the fast fashion segment, as well as KappAhl with series like High Fashion: with minimal production time, in just a couple of weeks they can produce the type of garment customers want. And customers become increasingly conscious, updated and secure. Previously, the fashion week shows were secret events and the trends of next season were unknown until they were shown in Vogue, Elle and other fashion magazines. Today the fashion work is far more open than it was just a few years ago. Thanks to bloggers, web TV and live-broadcast fashion shows, the whole world can see what was previously limited to a closed industry elite. The impatient, trend-following customer doesn’t want to think about or consider a purchase for several weeks. She experiments, gets dressed, dresses up and let all aspects of her personality shine through in different ways every day. She likes to follow trends and doesn't want to get stuck in one style. The frequent changes in her wardrobe do not necessarily mean that she puts an extreme amount of money into buying clothes. She can shop at sales, second hand shops, trade with friends, and look around in closets and at flea markets. She is not satisfied with a strictly limited wardrobe or the “one garment in – one garment out” rule.
Vintage – clothing's new life
Maria Sandow points out that the life cycle of a garment has changed. Clothes that the owner has gotten tired of don't have to end up in the trash. Instead, they get a new life somewhere else.
- Of course, garments circulate fast today, both in shops and in customers' closets. But at the same time there are so many ways to get rid of old garments without throwing them away. More and more people are selling their clothes on the Internet, giving them away to thrift shops or trading with friends. This contributes to fast fashion also having a longer life cycle.
Clothing is also included in a type of life cycle instead of just being thrown away when the wearer gets tired of it. Manufacturers and shops within the fast fashion segment are also looking for new ways to meet consumers' demands for quality and good production conditions without having price increases forced on them. Material can be recycled and changes in the production chain can make the production more environmentally friendly.
The importance of shops
Regardless of how often and how much an average customer shops, there is an abundance of alternative channels to choose from. A visit to a physical shop is still the most common way to shop, but more and more people are choosing to shop online. There, the selection is unlimited and garments that cannot be found in your home city are just one “click” away. Today, clothes and shoes make up one-fourth of all online sales and women shop more than men. Online shops like Net-a-porter have been joined by several web-based shopping forms: auction sites like Ebay are constantly growing and less established alternatives such as bloppisar* are also gaining ground. In the winter, Google launched boutiques.com, a service that compiles and arranges fashion goods so that users can get tailor-made tips based on what garment and designers they are interested in. The service is also available as an iPad application, which naturally contributes to making the shopping even more easily accessible for the user. The importance of the Internet as a shopping channel is enormous, as are the possibilities. A classic like a post order catalogue can seem outdated by comparison but catalogues have developed, become more trend-sensitive and follow the fashion world's seasons. Although today, the actual catalogue functions more as a source of inspiration while the actual purchase is made online.
For the stressed-out family with children, post order and online shopping are flexible ways to buy clothes for an entire season for the whole family. For the demanding fashionista, the web is an unending source of exciting designer fashion and garments that cannot be found in regular shops. In brief: the web has everything, for everybody. But how do the physical shops defend their piece of the customer pie? Lotta Ahlvar is president of the Swedish Fashion Council. She emphasises the importance of knowing your target group in order to understand what type of communication is most effective; a young, fast-moving target group is probably best reached through social media, while an older target group can prefer other types of communication such as TV commercials and print media. How customers are handled in the shops also plays an important role.
“The best thing that a shop worker can do is to be extremely nice, helpful and incredibly sensitive to the needs of the customer. It is a service and a value that the customer cannot get when she shops online,” says Lotta Ahlvar.
*Bloppis: Blogg + loppis (flea market) = bloppis. Bloggers use their own blogs to sell or auction off their clothes.