Fast Fashion is Challenging the Retail Apocalypse Narrative
While the rise of online shopping has forced many retail stores to close, the fast fashion industry contines to grow. Madison Van Oort attributes this to their strong commitment to innovation and exploitation of retail workers.
In early 2017, Macy’s announced it would close nearly 70 stores nationwide and lay off almost 4,000 workers. The oldest of the closing locations had anchored downtown Minneapolis for over a century (originally as Dayton’s, then Marshall Field’s, and eventually Macy’s); when it shut down in March 2017, 280 employees lost their jobs. In the months leading up to the store’s final days, the Minneapolis Star Tribune and Minnesota Public Radio overflowed with local memories of the family destination, once a special excursion and now, a symbol of times past.
If you’ve entered a mall in the last year or two, you may have noticed that Macy’s isn’t the only retail chain closing shops around the country. Payless, The Limited, Wet Seal, JCPenney, American Apparel, Guess, and Sears are just some of the many retail companies shuttering hundreds of stores in recent months, if not liquidating all together. The phenomenon is so widespread many believe we’re on the brink of an imminent retail apocalypse.
Most analyses blame the mass closings of department and branded apparel stores on the rise of online retailing. If this were the only thing going on, preparing for the end of retail shopping would make sense. After all, how do you compete with Amazon? But I’ve witnessed first-hand the boom of another kind of apparel retail that deserves critical attention –fast fashion. Some people see Amazon's drive towards automation as potentially good for workers since menial labor will be done by robots, allowing humans to “move up the value chain,” but fast fashion is evidence that the opposite is happening. If we really want to understand this moment in retail capital’s evolution and its potential impact on workers, we mustn’t leave the fast fashion sector out of the equation – or relegate it to the province of pre-teens.
To me, this decline of retail signals not a final death, but rather its adaptation to the ever-changing circumstances that come with capitalism’s constant renewal. In fact, stores like Zara, H&M, and Forever 21 have in recent years become some of the world’s most successful companies, offering shoppers a ceaseless array of trendy, cheap clothing. Along with the likes of Amazon, fast fashion is dramatically altering the retail landscape. During a recent visit to a mall in Iowa (where my niece works at one of the few remaining department stores), I noted the disappearance of teen clothing store Wet Seal. Forever 21, which had occupied the space next to Wet Seal since the mall’s inception, was not only still open, but had in fact expanded, taking over the former Wet Seal storefront.
This pattern can be seen across the country. At the Mall of America in Minneapolis, Forever 21 grew to a staggering 80,000 square feet when it took over the old Bloomingdale’s space in 2012, and a two-story Zara opened just last year to wide acclaim. I was not surprised, then, to see a Minneapolis real estate developer waxing favorably of fast fashion’s future: “I think Zara would kill it [in the old Macy’ location]. You have to have a store that is unique so people will drive downtown and pay to park in a ramp.” Over in New York City, Zara is snapping up some of SoHo’s most expensive real estate, and in certain segments of the city, H&M’s density even outpaces Starbucks.
If industry figures prove correct, fast fashion will not be slowing down anytime soon. Forever 21 says it will add 300 stores in the next three years, and H&M aims to open 360 stores in 2017 alone. Last year, Inditex, Zara’s parent company, opened 279 additional locations and anticipates similar growth this next year. Meanwhile, fast fashion CEOs reap enormous profits. Forever 21 cofounders Do Won and Jin Sook Chang share a combined net worth of three billion dollars, leading Forbes to dub them “America’s most successful immigrants.” H&M’s main shareholder, Stefan Persson, is worth $20.7 billion, and at the top of the list sits Zara’s founder Amancio Ortega, worth $78.1 billion; for a short period in 2016, he outstripped Steve Jobs as the world’s richest person.
How exactly has fast fashion become so lucrative? Business analysts say fast fashion represents the “long-awaited realization” of just-in-time production in the apparel industry, “with items produced in small batches and within short lead times.” That is, their achievement derives not from innovative clothing designs (they’re regularly lambasted for ripping off both high-end and independent styles) or even from successful marketing campaigns –Zara in fact, barely advertises at all –but from their ability to offer a constantly evolving inventory of cheap stuff. Basic items are outsourced to garment factories around the globe while trendier pieces are made closer to company headquarters. Zara, based in Spain, makes many of its pieces in nearby Morocco, while some of Forever 21’s garment manufacturing happens in California (where workers are paid as little as $4 an hour).
Such practices keep fast fashion a step ahead of most older brands. The New York Times reported that many retailers struggled during 2015’s unseasonably warm winter, but fast fashion persisted as usual by rapidly re-configuring their offerings. Jesús Echevarría, chief communications and corporate affairs officer for Inditex, told the Times, “Designers try to react as closely as possible to customers’ demands and tastes throughout the season. Inditex is able to do this by producing items close to its distribution centers in Spain, with which the company has long-term relationships, and by delivering new shipments to all of its stores twice a week.” If customer tastes (or weather patterns) change, fast fashion can almost immediately alter its stock.
In addition to agile manufacturing, the quality of fast fashion garments is notoriously bad, keeping prices low while hooking in customers to persistent shopping. I, for one, struggle to find jeans that last longer than six months before falling apart. Just last week, in fact, I hopped on my bicycle, only to find that my comfortably stretchy H&M pants (which cost me $14, all I could afford on a graduate student budget in New York City), dramatically shredded across the thigh as I began to pedal. So the cycle continues.