How COVID Saved Us From Zara and H&M's Trap

Has the coronavirus pandemic dealt a mortal blow to fast fashion as we know it?

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A man walking along London’s Oxford Street, December 2020.
A man walking along London’s Oxford Street, December 2020.Credit: Ilyas Tayfun Salci / Shutterstock
Liroy Choufan
Liroy Choufan

A short stroll along London’s Oxford Street, in the days when it was still possible to wander there without worry, left many visitors amazed. Not because of the fancy display windows of Selfridges, or because of the unbelievable number of people crossing the street, which at times resembled a sea of heads, and not even because of the tempting fragrance wafting from the Arab perfumery at its center. If anything, the amazement came from all of the Zara branches dotting the street. The Spanish retailer of fast fashion – that is, mass-produced, low priced clothing inspired by trendy catwalk designs – has no fewer than four outlets on Oxford Street, and if that weren’t enough, more branches can be found on the adjacent Regent Street and in nearby Covent Garden.

Oxford Street isn’t the only place where every step stirs a sense of déjà vu, nor is Zara alone. Similar phenomena can be found in Paris, where, for example, three Zara branches operate by the Chatelet Métro station, or in Berlin and Bangkok, where the dominant chain is H&M, and in many other cities. In Israel, too, it is hard to escape this experience. Until a few months ago, you could find Castro outlets in Tel Aviv’s Gan Ha’ir, Dizengoff Center, Gindi Mall and Azrieli Mall, all within a radius of no more than two kilometers. Even the small southern resort city of Eilat has three Renuar outlets, a short drive away from one another.

Why are we flooded, not to say suffocated, by so many branches of fast fashion retailers? The question has a short answer: because it’s a trap that works like a filter. An extension of the idea of a souvenir shop at the exit from a museum, the goal of the glut of these stores is to ensure that wherever we go in the urban space, we always encounter a branch of one of the familiar fashion chains, and usually also go inside and make a purchase.

After all, unplanned buying is the essence of fast fashion brands’ strategy. Because they offer items at very reasonable prices, they need to sell a critical mass of merchandise in order to achieve high profit margins. For the same reason, we as consumers need to buy a critical mass of products all the time. And we do, because it’s inexpensive and because the clothes are trendy and trends are constantly changing. Who hasn’t stopped in for a minute just to see what’s new while just strolling on the street, waiting for a movie to start or before picking up the kids from preschool? And because the item very often costs only a few dollars, we pick it up, too, along the way. In other words, there’s nowhere to escape.

For years this strategy worked superbly. But this year it ran into an unexpected enemy: the coronavirus pandemic. Fashion and the coronavirus don’t go well together, because who bothers to dress to the nines when they’re stuck at home, and who has extra money to burn? And if that’s not enough, then all the lockdowns, here in Israel and in many other places around the world, are preventing the masses from wandering and the stores from opening.

The problem is particularly acute for fast fashion brands, which operate based on snap purchases more than on online buying. The result: a dramatic nosedive in revenues, closure of branches and diminished activity. In the absence of wandering, there’s no longer a high chance or even a low chance of encountering those ubiquitous stores, and no more opportunities to instantly toss away money.

The present situation won’t go on forever. There’s no doubt that the coronavirus crisis will ultimately end, either because the vaccines turn out to be effective or because everyone will just get fed up. But what will the fate of fast fashion be in the post-pandemic era? Will the familiar brands regain their resilience and replay their past performance, as some analysts are forecasting? Or will the pandemic accelerate trends that were already evident on a small scale and result in the fast fashion industry discovering that it’s a lot less relevant in the post-coronavirus world?

It takes no great stretch of the imagination to envisage a world with less fast fashion, if only because it wasn’t always here, contrary to what might seem to be the case. As a retail concept, it took shape gradually over the past 50 years and achieved global success at the start of the 2000s. According to one theory, set forth in Dana Thomas’ 2019 book “Fashionopolis,” from around the 1970s on American brands began to discover manufacturing possibilities in Asia, initially in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and afterward also in China – very slowly at first, and with much apprehension, and then with increasing magnitude. The advantage is obvious: These countries offer far cheaper labor.

At the same time, remote-control manufacturing also has built-in shortcomings, and one of these has to do with time. Manufacturing overseas, particularly in the pre-internet era, entails planning collections far earlier. In fact, planning would typically begin about 14 months before sales do, and a relatively large number of items would have to be ordered to make it worthwhile to transport them from one side of the world to the other.

That’s high-risk management, because it compels the fashion brands to gamble on a significant unknown: what the public’s taste will be more than a year down the line. And if, for example, a brand bet on brown just when everyone wants to wear blue, the result could be a collection that never leaves the store.

In the 1980s, American textile manufacturers, watching as their work evaporated in the face of cheap competition from the Far East, came up with an idea to preserve their output. It was dubbed QR – quick response – and at first, it seemed brilliant. Because they were located in the United States, and because they had available means of production, these companies offered the fashion brands the chance to develop and prepare relatively small sample collections in their plants. This would allow them to gauge the public’s response to certain designs before they risked placing far larger orders from manufacturers in Asia, and would also enable them to plug holes and provide a response to specific demands.

Very quickly, however, the hole plugging became the essence. More manufacturers, including some in Asia, adopted the QR model themselves, and brands started to work with small batches, or minicollections, the whole year round instead of relying on large, seasonal collections. This meant they also considerably shortened the development time for each collection – in many cases it decreased to less than two months – avoided risky gambles and also replenished the stores’ inventory frequently, in some cases to the tune of about 100 new minicollections a year. Fast fashion was born.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, it became a true revolution. Every visit to Zara, H&M or Topshop revealed new items that hadn’t been there in the previous visit. It was exciting, it was new, it was young, and it also forced the brands to find ways to get the merchandise out of the stores at the same pace it entered them to avoid getting stuck with a huge stock.

That’s the true meaning of fast fashion, and every means justifies the end: maintaining very low prices that will not constitute a barrier to buying; imitating designer items to create the feeling of a high-value product; insistence on very up-to-date fashions, so that what goes into the closet this week will be different from what went in last week; and dominating the urban domain.

A woman carries a Zara shopping bag in Jersualem, in December 2020, when shops briefly opened in between lockdowns.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

At first, fast fashion looked like the future, or at least a win-win scenario for everyone involved. The clothes are inexpensive, change frequently, are trendy and easy to obtain. The brands morphed into global businesses with thousands of retail outlets. High-end designers such as Karl Lagerfeld and Donatella Versace even came down from their ivory tower to create joint capsule collections aimed at the street.

But gradually, the full picture began to emerge. In the second decade of the 21st century, a new and more aware generation of consumers, perched on the cusp between millennials and Generation Z, noticed that this party was leaving immense chaos in its wake. They saw unsafe if not lethal working conditions, a tremendous waste of money on single-use items, and vast environmental damage from textile waste, pollution-spreading means of production and incessant transportation of merchandise across the globe.

Criticism of the fast fashion brands intensified rapidly. It appeared in the form of news reports, television programs and documentaries such as “The True Cost,” or through new consumer movements that urged the public to wean itself off fast fashion. All this was far from doing away with fast fashion – it continued to thrive – but the criticism began to gnaw at the hems and affect its status.

In contrast to fast fashion, which is frequently based on imitations of famous designs, the secondhand websites offer an opportunity to buy the ‘real deal,’ often at a lower price than the original and with a feeling of purchasing a quality item.

And then thecrisis struck

In one fell swoop this well-oiled machine ground to a halt. Today the brands are trying to offset the pandemic situation by reinforcing their online sales – Zara, which never excelled in web presence, opened online stores in many markets just this year – but the numbers attest to a significant shortfall in revenues. The Inditex group, which owns Zara, Bershka and Pull & Bear, among others, reported that its first-half sales in 2020 plunged to 8 billion euros, down from 12.8 billion for the same period the previous year (though the second quarter hinted at a modicum of recovery).

H&M’s reports indicate a drop of 19 percent in third-quarter sales in 2020 as compared with those in 2019, and Topshop warned in November about possible bankruptcy. It goes without saying that the second and third lockdowns in Europe and the coronavirus mutation in Britain, all of which are sending consumers back home and locking the doors of retail outlets, are likely to stall the recovery trend.

The trend is downward in Israel, too. According to TheMarker, the period between January and October 2020 saw a decrease of 25 percent in sales of apparel compared to the previous year, despite a dramatic rise of 154 percent in online purchases. (The Israeli brands also suffer from an additional problem: local consumers’ clear preference to buy from foreign sites such as Asos and Next.)

An interesting development during the crisis has been the delay of some processes alongside the acceleration of others. As browsing and shopping tourism waned in many countries, it led to the shutdown of factories and a drop in production. From the point of view of fast fashion, which has trained the public to buy “something small” every few days – even a slowdown of a month in the turnover of new designs is a dramatic interruption.

On the other hand, when people don’t buy, or at least when they buy less, they have time to reflect on an alternative solution. It’s clear that the slowdown in consumption has considerably strengthened the narrative that casts doubt on the casual behavior of the pre-coronavirus era: Do we really need so many things? And by the same token: What do we have that’s of real value? Which items do we keep returning to in our closet, now that it’s impossible to buy more at the same pace? Maybe what we’re buying is unnecessary and contributes nothing either to us or to the planet?

This public debate has risen to the top of the agenda. Vogue, for example, published a lengthy article whose gist was that the pandemic offers an opportunity to embrace new values of responsible and ethical consumerism. And last October UNIDO, the United Nations’ organization for industrial development, published an article indicating that the pandemic was likely to accelerate the transition to sustainable fashion. It cited data from Zalando, one of the major online shopping sites of the European fashion industry, indicating a surge of over 30 percent in consumers seeking higher-value fashion that takes the environment into account. Scott Echols from the ZDCH Foundation, which works to reduce textile industry pollution, is quoted as saying that “[the pandemic] is an opportunity to reflect and emerge stronger in the future. We believe that the emerging trends will be increasing consumer awareness on environmental, social issues and ethics.”

Revolving (closet) doors

Even if the coronavirus period gives rise to consumers who are more aware and more cautious, no one thinks the consumer culture is going away. The question, then, is what might replace the old habits. One option is a change in the behavior of fast fashion brands. Indeed, some are already making an effort to adjust to the new reality by launching collections that make greater use of environmentally friendly materials, or are calling on consumers to return old items for recycling. Still, in most cases this is marketing – what some would call only making cosmetic changes. And in any event, these collections account for only a tiny fraction of the general demand; all the fast fashion brands are continuing to work according to the old formula, which integrates ultra-low prices with ongoing minicollections of very trendy items.

Even so, the ground is shifting. “I can attest from my working experience that things are starting to change,” says Sagiv Galam, former head designer for Israel’s Castro chain and today a strategic and creative consultant for fashion and lifestyle brands. “The pandemic has changed the whole approach to design methods and manufacturing methods; it has made the brands streamline and precision themselves. It’s the same for the consumers. They’re still going shopping, because shopping comes from an emotional place, but there’s a search for the story of the brand, the value of the brand and the attitude toward the planet.”

“From my point of view,” he continues, “the greatest change is happening with the concept of fast fashion. If in the past it was a pejorative term for the rapid translation of trends from the runways to the fashion chains, now it has become a concept that refers to the manufacture of items close to the period in which they are required. The term ‘fast fashion’ has given way to ‘fresh fashion,’ which is manufactured on demand and thus avoids surplus production. Very much like seasonal cooking, you buy from what’s available and only the quantities needed, and no leftovers or waste products are created. From this point of view, there are quite a few businesses for which the coronavirus pandemic has been a boon: It has upgraded them and they have improved their performance.”

In the wake of heightened awareness in the industry and the transformations it’s undergoing, new and radical options are emerging and they might become a meaningful alternative to the traditional form of consumerism. One of them, which is a 180-degree turn away from the logic of fast fashion, encourages consumers to use what already exists rather than spending money on new items.

Along with rental services for designer clothes, which are becoming increasingly widespread, designated online platforms that allow consumers to resell items from their private wardrobe have sprung up in the past five years. Among these are Depop, What Goes Around Comes Around, Vestiaire Collective and Cudoni, and if the logic that propels them is that of a secondhand shop – one person’s surplus can be another person’s treasure – the mode of usage and the scale sharply differentiate them from such brick-and-mortar stores. The online platforms are accessible to sellers and buyers around world and offer, relatively speaking, a very fashionable selection.

At any rate, the younger generation is already showing plenty of interest in these developments. According to a report published by the Business of Fashion website last October, 90 percent of Depop’s 21 million users are under the age of 26, 40 percent of Generation Z bought a secondhand item in 2019 as compared with 25 percent in 2016, and the forecast is that this rate will only increase. In the meantime, the fashion trade journal Women’s Wear Daily reported in December that the American site Poshmark, considered one of the leaders in this field, is preparing for an initial public offering.

Two principal causes account for the young generation’s willingness to purchase used items, and both are liable to pull the rug out from under the logic of fast fashion. Though they may not replace it completely, at least they will constitute a significant alternative. The first is about ethics. Purchases on these websites are considered – even if not always justifiably – as fairer in terms of the planet and less polluting, because they don’t entail extra manufacturing. The second is about value. For the most part, these sites sell only brand-name items, often high-end and designer fashions, to which the public attaches high value. In contrast to fast fashion, which is frequently based on imitations of famous designs, the secondhand websites offer an opportunity to buy the “real deal,” often at a lower price than the original and with the feeling of purchasing a quality item.

As an offshoot, they also promote a psychological effect that might encourage consumers to buy new or used designer items with the knowledge that they will be able to resell them afterward. In other words, it’s better to buy an item of high market value from Versace, Louis Vuitton or a well-regarded local designer than a pile of simple, cheap clothes from an average mall chain that will be more difficult to put back into use or make money from in the future.

There are many indications that the resale websites of the future will become a broad consumer phenomenon, besides the fact that they are sprouting up like mushrooms during the coronavirus pandemic. One of the most significant indications is the tailwind they’re getting from important economic players in the fashion industry.

Selfridges, for example, has launched Resellfridges, an online store for the sale of secondhand designer goods. Meanwhile, fashion houses like Gucci and Stella McCartney have hooked up with resale sites such as The RealReal, which was founded in 2011 by Julie Wainwright and is now a powerhouse in its field, and have also offered recompense in the form of coupons and other benefits for selling their brand’s used pieces. Rumors in the industry even claim that there are brands and businesses that are planning to collect and resell their own secondhand items, with the intent to make a second killing on the resale.

Of course, it’s impossible to disconnect the enthusiasm over the resale sites from the fact that they make it possible for people to make money from items that are hanging unused in their closet. During a time when the economy is so shaky, that’s no small thing. For some people, it will undoubtedly be the career that ends all other careers.

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