A grandiose invite-only launch party, performers flown in from California and a queue of thousands eagerly waiting for its doors to open – H&M’s recent opening in Melbourne was nothing less than a spectacle. The fanfare surrounding the Swedish fashion powerhouse’s launch in Australia was reminiscent of that of Spanish counterpart Zara two years ago. Together, the two international giants encapsulate the glamorous, hypersonic phenomenon of fast fashion that has taken over the world and is now entering Australia.
From its quiet beginnings in the 80s to its present near-ubiquity across global markets, fast fashion has had a dramatic effect on the international fashion scene. Simply put, fast fashion involves taking trends set at the major ‘fashion weeks’ and making them available for mass consumption as quickly as possible while maintaining affordable prices. While traditional retailers develop new products on a seasonal three-month production cycle, fast fashion companies can move trends from the catwalk into stores in as little as four weeks. Prioritising supply chain agility, high-volume sales and lower price points, these companies have proven themselves to be formidable competitors to established brands.
Australia, though at first disregarded by fast fashion houses because of its relatively small consumer base and geographic remoteness, is now poised to receive a flood of international fast fashion brands. Their brand power and aggressive pricing schemes make them an alarming new presence for local labels. For Australian companies, a thorough understanding of the new kids on the block would no doubt be of value – what lies at the root of fast fashion success?
Perhaps, quite obviously, it is the ability to react to customer demands with both speed and precision that differentiates fast fashion to ‘slow fashion’. In the case of Inditex, Zara’s parent company, this is achieved through use of a ‘total supply chain’, in which the company has either full control or a strong influence throughout a deeply integrated supply chain, from design to retailing. A tested system of real-time in-store monitoring of sales alerts the company to adjust production on an ad hoc basis as individual stores place new orders twice a week. Importantly, in contrast to many competitors, fast fashion retailers often manufacture a significant proportion of their products either locally or in neighbouring countries – this percentage is just under 50 per cent for H&M and Zara, both of which are based in Europe, where wages are comparatively high. Again, the key reason for this is speed.
At the same time, however, putting all these successful brands under the same umbrella of ‘fast fashion’ may be neglecting the idiosyncrasies of each company. In the end, companies discover a business model that embodies a unique focus. Japanese retailer Uniqlo, for example, favours quality and more basic products that appeal to a wider demographic compared to H&M, which keenly follows shifting trends and caters for a younger customer base.
Given the relatively recent introduction of international fast fashion to Australia, we can only guess as to what the future holds for Australia’s own brands. Looking at the experiences of other countries, change seems inevitable. In the United States, the growth of fast fashion retailers such as Inditex has driven brands like Forever 21 and Gap to mimic elements of the fast fashion model. New lines are released on an increasingly regular basis as consumers are demanding fast, trend-driven clothing. Vendors ranging from J-Crew to Target have all but abandoned the three-month seasonal production cycle in favour of a more fast fashion based model. At the same time, once market leading companies such as Dutch chain C&A have shrunk dramatically and are finding competition fierce.
Some bemoan the entrance of international fast fashion to Australia as the beginning of the end for local brands – not to mention the more adverse effects of fast fashion such as environmental damage and labour exploitation, which are complex social and political issues in themselves. But for the impatient fashionistas of Australia, these companies are injecting some much needed freshness into the local fashion scene. As with any industry, competitive newcomers to the market will force Australian companies to either adapt or risk losing market share. As an optimist, I hope that we see the former unfold in coming years. Melbourne in particular boasts an abundance of talented fashion students, a culture of entrepreneurship and increasing government support through such ventures as the recently initiated Australian Fashion Chamber. If Australian companies can indeed innovate and meet the challenge of international newcomers, then what we are witnessing is not a fast fashion invasion, but a fast fashion revolution.
More on the negative effects of fast fashion: http://www3.nd.edu/~jsherry/pdf/2012/FastFashionSustainability.pdf