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Friday, April 11, 2014

Inside The World Of Fast Fashion

Buildings are reflected in a Forever 21 storefront in Washington, D.C. Forever 21 is the largest fast fashion retailer based in the U.S. (vpickering/Flickr)

Buildings are reflected in a Forever 21 storefront in Washington, D.C. Forever 21 is the largest fast fashion retailer based in the U.S. (vpickering/Flickr)

If you pay any attention to fashion, you know that new styles often make it from the runway to retail clothing racks in what seems like warp speed.

There’s even a term for this phenomenon. It’s called “fast fashion,” and it’s radically changed the cost, quality and risk of producing the clothes we wear.

Christina Moon, assistant professor in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons The New School’s center for Design, has been studying and documenting the families involved in fast fashion.

She joins Here & Now’s Sacha Pfeiffer to explain its impact on our relationship with clothes and design.

Interview Highlights: Christina Moon

On the impact of fast fashion

“It’s really, I think, changed our relationship to clothing. We no longer really go out there to buy things that will last. We really walk into an H&M knowing that what we’ll buy for under $50 or even $15 may not last, may fall apart in the washing machine. You may only wear it once, but it’s okay, because you spent not so much money on it.”

“What’s so remarkable to me about fast fashion is they’re able to have these designs and styles immediately, every single day, on the retail floor. And a lot of the manufacturers I speak to they say that they’ve been able to collapse this very complicated global production, design and production of fast fashion, from what used to be a three-month cycle to now just two weeks.”

On how fast fashion is changing the industry

“What has really changed is now, these manufacturers are actually designing themselves, and so they actually need to have these designs and styles within their warehouses and within their showrooms by the time the retailers actually call, so that when a store like Forever 21 calls up the retailer and says, ‘I received your look book,’ or ‘I looked online to see what new styles you have. I’m gonna order, you know, however many thousands or hundreds of thousands of pieces of this one particular style, in these colors and sizes.’ That manufacturer can say to them, ‘Well, it’s sitting in our warehouse right now. We’ll have it all packed and shipped for you, you know, truck it out by this afternoon.'”

On the families behind fast fashion

“When I actually went out to Los Angeles and started to talk to folks, what I realized was that many of these manufacturers were families. And it turns out that you have two generations, normally, working within the business. You have an older generation, the parents, many of whom who’ve had two to three decades of experience actually manufacturing garments, but what they really lacked was a sense of fashion. And that’s where kids come in. What I thought was so fascinating was to see the coming together of these two generations. You have, on one hand, an older generation who knows everything about the actual garment, has connections to different factories across the world. And then you have this younger generation with perfect English, perfect language skills and quote-unquote an American sensibility. They have knowledge of the fashion world, they have knowledge of design, of what’s trendy.”

Guest

Transcript

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

It's HERE AND NOW. If you pay any attention to fashion, you know that new styles often make it from the runway to retail clothing racks in what seems like warp speed. It's called fast fashion, and it's radically changed the cost, the quality and the risk of producing the clothes we wear.

Christina Moon studies this industry. She's and assistant professor in the School of Art and Design History and Theory at Parsons The New School for Design, and Christina joins us from the NPR studios in New York. Welcome.

CHRISTINA MOON: Thanks for having me on.

PFEIFFER: And Christina, for people who aren't as familiar with the term, would you first define fast fashion for us in your terms?

MOON: Sure. Fast fashion is very inexpensive, very cheap clothing that follows the latest trends in fashion and designs that you see off the runway shows. It's really something that has only really emerged within the last decade, and if you can just think of retailers like H&M and Zara and, in this country, Forever 21, these are all retailers that carry very, very trendy, they call it disposable clothing that's incredibly affordable, that's sold very cheaply.

PFEIFFER: You're actually making me think of a story related to H&M. A few years ago the first H&M opened up in downtown Boston, where we're based, and I remember somebody I work with saying the clothing might only last for three or four wears, but that's OK because I only want to wear it three or four times. So is that kind of exactly the business you're talking about?

MOON: That is exactly it, and you've just really perfectly summed it up. It's really, I think, has really changed our relationship to clothing. And we no longer really go out there to buy things that will last. We kind of walk into an H&M knowing that what we'll buy for under $50, for even $15, may not last, may fall apart in the washing machine, you may only wear it once, but it's OK because you've spent not so much money on it.

PFEIFFER: So just how quickly can clothes go from the design stage to actually being sold in stores? What's the timeline?

MOON: Well, this is what's so remarkable to me about fast fashion, is they're able to have these designs and styles immediately, every single day on the retail floor. And a lot of the manufacturers I speak to, they say that they've been able to collapse this very complicated global production, design and production of fast fashion, from what used to be a three-month cycle to now just two weeks.

PFEIFFER: Two weeks?

MOON: Two weeks. That means there's somebody who's thinking up of a design and sketching it. They have sample makers, who are actually creating the mock-up for it. It means by evening they're on Skype with other countries, factories in places like China, and they're coordinating this global process overnight, in 24-hour cycles. In two weeks' time they will either ship it or air it back to the U.S. and have it available to folks immediately.

PFEIFFER: That is really incredible when you think about the steps required, as you said from design to production and to manufacturing, to shipping and logistics and wholesaling and marketing, and you're saying in two weeks all of that can happen.

MOON: Yeah, and what has really changed is now these manufacturers are actually designing themselves. And so they need to actually have these designs and styles within their warehouses and within their showrooms by the time the retailers actually call so that when a store like Forever 21 calls up the retailer and says I received your look book, or I looked online to see what new styles you have, I'm going to order, you know, however many thousands, or hundreds, thousands of pieces of this one particular style in these colors and sizes, that manufacturer can say to them, well, it's sitting in our warehouse right now, we'll have it all packed and shipped for you, you know, truck it out by this afternoon.

That's one of the ways in which fast fashion is disseminated so quickly.

PFEIFFER: That is really incredible. How is that kind of speed even possible?

MOON: That's the really fascinating part, I think, of this story. When I actually went out to Los Angeles and started to talk to folks, what I realized was that many of these manufacturers were families. And it turns out that you have two generations, normally working within the business. You have an older generation, the parents, many who have had two to three decades of experience actually manufacturing garments, but what they really lacked was a sense of fashion.

And that's where kids come in. What I thought was so fascinating was to see the coming together of these two generations. You have on one hand an older generation who knows everything about the actual garment, has connections to different factories across the world. And then you have this younger generation with perfect English, perfect language skills, an American, quote-unquote, "an American cultural sensibility."

They have knowledge of the fashion world. They have knowledge of the designs, of what's trendy.

PFEIFFER: So these children of immigrants bring a kind of American sophistication to their parents' kind of know-how of the trade.

MOON: Absolutely. I mean, they bring so much to the table. And I will say that in interviewing these families, they say they can't work without the other. The parents need this younger generation because they know so much of the fashion world, but this is also an incredibly cutthroat business. It creates such slim profit margins. It's an incredibly, incredibly risky business to enter into.

And for that, you really need to have, from what this younger generation was telling me, you really need to have that older generational knowledge and those connections to be able to succeed in such a competitive business.

PFEIFFER: And Christina, you also made the really important observation that this fast fashion trend comes with great shift in who bears the risk, and that there are high stakes on what clothing styles will be big hits, and it's possible to gamble wrong.

MOON: Absolutely. I think that when we think of the fashion industry, we often think of the designers, and then we think of, you know, factories in another country like China, as if we can just, you know, phone call the factory and say make me 1,000 T-shirts of, you know, so and so. And that's just actually not the way that the fashion industry works. It's actually incredibly complex.

It involves so many different kinds of people, and these - this community in L.A. is just one link of this larger, larger complexly global process that I'll say, you know, there's risk at every level beneath the very top of the food chain, beyond, you know, the top companies like H&M and Zara and Forever 21.

The folks who are working within this community, they liken this industry to gambling. There's a lot of bad feelings in the district. It's highly competitive, and it's because, you know, retailers set the prices, set the standards. You have to be able to produce a design before it actually hits the larger market that's going to sell. And so you have to have a lot of trust among the people that you're working with to create designs that'll sell and ahead of the game.

And I think a lot of what we don't see, although we do hear of these, you know, the rags-to-riches stories of a company like Forever 21, I think there are just hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of these small mom-and-pop manufacturers that never do succeed.

PFEIFFER: Christina Moon is an assistant professor in the School of Art and Design History and Theory Parsons The New School for Design. And she directs a master's degree program in fashion studies there. Christina, thanks for talking with us.

MOON: Thank you so much.

PFEIFFER: And we've love to hear what you think about fast fashion. Do you like the wide availability of cheap, stylish clothes, even if they aren't high quality and won't last long? Or do you avoid buying clothes that fall apart after a few wears and instead spend your money on longer-lasting items? What do you think are the upsides and downsides of clothes that go from the design stage to retail shelves in just three weeks? Tell us your opinion by posting a comment at hereandnow.org. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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