When she got out of college and moved to New York, Elizabeth Cline liked to shop at vintage-clothing stores. They were the kinds of places tucked away on side streets in Manhattan and Brooklyn, where a lot of hunting and a little luck might reward you with a great, inexpensive cocktail dress that no one else had.
Then she discovered the world of "fast fashion" — chains like Forever 21, H&M and Zara — and it redefined her whole notion of bargain shopping.
"The products are very, very cheap," says Cline, author of Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion. "The design is pretty attractive. And if you walk into the store, I think, for a lot of consumers, it's virtually impossible to walk out empty-handed."
'Selling An Ocean Of Clothing'
Over time, Cline had amassed 354 items of clothing, some of which she never wore. And such excesses aren't all that unusual, she notes. Chains like H&M are constantly turning over their merchandise, introducing ever-trendier clothing and feeding their customers' desire for novelty.
"We want to surprise the customers," says Margareta van den Bosch, the company's hugely influential style adviser. "We want to have something exciting. And if it's all the time hanging the same things there, it is not so exciting, I think."
Much of H&M's clothing is so inexpensive — a $10 leopard-print top or a $15 sweater, for example — that consumers can afford to buy it in quantities that wouldn't have begun to fit in our grandparents' armoires. It's so cheap that it isn't even worth returning if we get home and decide we don't like it, Cline says.
But despite the low prices, fast fashion chains can be enormously profitable. Sales at H&M's parent company rose by 11 percent in 2012. Its chairman and largest shareholder, Stefan Persson, is the 17th richest person on the planet, with a net worth of $26.3 billion, according to Bloomberg. Amancio Ortega, founder of Zara, another highly successful chain, is the third richest, worth $58.3 billion.
How can these stores make so much money selling $10 shirts? Mostly because of volume.
"A store like H&M produces hundreds of millions of garments per year," Cline says. "They put a small markup on the clothes and earn their profit out of selling an ocean of clothing." H&M has 2,800 stores in 48 markets and it's growing fast, especially in China and the United States, according to the company's website.
The success of chains like H&M and Forever 21 represents a paradigm shift in the retail world, one that has affected every corner of the industry.
In the 1960s, people generally bought their clothing from large retailers like department stores, which in turn bought from manufacturers. But in the 1970s, retailers began to manufacture clothing themselves, giving them direct control over the manufacturing and distribution process.
Among the pioneers of the change was Les Wexner, founder of the Ohio-based women's clothing chain The Limited, says Frank Bober, CEO of Stylesight, a company that helps retailers and designers spot trends.
"He was the guy that recognized that, 'Hey, I can do this myself. I can understand what my clients want, what my customer wants, and then I can go make that for them. I don't need to go to a bunch of manufacturers to do that,' " Bober says.
The End Of The Two-Season Shopping Calendar
Meanwhile, computer technology transformed the entire process, enabling retailers to design, manufacture and ship products much faster and more efficiently. At one time, the fashion industry worked around a two-season calendar that unfolded at a predictable pace.
"I remember my mother would take me shopping in August for the fall, and I would just be dying, putting on these itchy sweaters when it was 90 degrees outside," recalls Sharon Graubard, Stylesight's design director. "Nobody does that anymore."
A relentless drive for speed now characterizes the industry. Chains like Zara are so fast, they can design, manufacture and get clothing onto store shelves in a month. Customers can now easily see the latest fashions online and have become conditioned to expect a constant stream of trendy new styles from retailers.
This focus on speed has affected every kind of retailer, even those not generally considered fast fashion.
"What that has done is made the industry move faster and work faster and have to produce more product," says Ed Filipowski, president of KCD, a public relations firm that represents some of the biggest and best-known brands in fashion. "It's created a sort of year-round calendar for fashion as opposed to a biannual calendar for fashion. It's made our job a lot harder and it's made creativity a constant challenge."
But now that retailers have whetted customers' demand for novelty, they have to keep their products affordable — a big challenge. That means manufacturing in low-wage countries like China, but it also means using cheap, synthetic materials and rudimentary manufacturing processes.
The simple fact is that much fast fashion doesn't survive more than a few washings. Simon Collins, dean of fashion at Parsons The New School for Design, likes the way fast fashion has brought a level of style to the masses, but he laments how poorly made it can be.
"You see some products and it's just garbage. It's just crap," he says. "And you sort of fold it up and you think, yeah, you're going to wear it Saturday night to your party — and then it's literally going to fall apart."
Author Elizabeth Cline remembers buying a shirt at Old Navy, a chain she used to frequent. "I had this tank top that had two flowers, kind of like on the strap, and ... after I started writing the book, I just started looking at my clothes, and the flowers were actually affixed with some sort of tape. They weren't even sewn on."
Poor quality has turned the fast fashion label into something of a pejorative, so much so that chains like Uniqlo and H&M now reject the term altogether.
And the chains have other image problems as well. Cline says there's a growing public consensus that the mass production of so much cheap clothing is an enormous waste of resources such as fuel and water. While many people donate their clothing to charities and consignment shops, fast fashion tends to be so cheaply made that no one wants to buy it, she notes. Instead, it gets recycled into industrial rags and insulation, or even thrown out altogether — generating the term "landfill fashion."
The fast fashion model may be cracking in other ways, too. Factory workers in China, where a lot of clothing is manufactured, are increasingly pressing for higher wages.
Companies have responded by moving production into places where wages are even lower, like Bangladesh. But such countries lack the sophisticated manufacturing infrastructure of China, and in the rush to fill the void, tragedy has sometimes ensued. A fire at a clothing factory on the outskirts of the capital, Dhaka, killed 112 people in November.
The industry will no doubt adapt over time, but the days when fashion gets faster and cheaper every year are probably at an end.