Once upon a time, people would buy 9 outfits a year, they would get their clothing tailor made (keep in mind that this was a lengthy process that required several fittings with a waiting time of weeks to months), and they would own around 12 items only. Now, people in developed nations own around 120 items, buying an average of 64 items of clothing per year, and they keep their clothing only for half as long.
So how did the behemoth conglomeration that is fast fashion come to be? To go into this in full, we need to first take it back to 1760.
The Industrial Revolution marked a change in manufacturing and textiles quickly surged as the dominant industry for employment. Unfortunately, this also went hand in hand with the slave trade. Cotton fed the textile revolution in the United States, and Britain relied heavily on American cotton for over 80% of its essential industrial raw material. What this meant was that cotton productivity was seminal to the American economy – a vicious cycle whereby cotton planters were fed with dramatically higher profits, in turn creating an increase in the demand for more slaves. The textile industry was built on the backs of the black people working as slaves in the States.
International Divide of Labour
The immediate effect of machinery increased the supply of raw materials, but the cheapness of the articles produced by that same machinery, combined with the improved means of transport and communication equipped them to conquer foreign markets. So while Europe and America experienced vast economic development, the rest of the world paid the price as colonized territories were drawn into the service of industrial economies. The effect of the expansion of capitalism was inherently spatial. Take East India for example, they were forced to produce cotton (among many other natural fibres) for Great Britain – creating a relationship of structural dependency and an international divide of labour. One part of the globe was an agricultural field of production, supplying for the other part which remained an industrial field. A divide that still carries on today; a foundation for the patterns of uneven development across the world now.
From Runway to Real Life
Fast forward to the early 2000s. You could say that the fashion industry began with the Big 4 fashion capitals: New York, Paris, Milan, and London. With these runway shows, there was a general consensus spread across America and Europe – a willingness to purchase replicas of the latest fashion trends as seen on the runway as long as there was a steep decrease in the price tag, even if it means settling for a lower quality standard. Chief operators of fashion retail saw this to be a coveted opportunity; a key to the Pandora’s box that is fast fashion.
So began the rat race: a contention between brands to turnover designs from runway to real life, and manufacture at an accelerated speed with the lowest possible price.
A concept that redefined the entire dynamic of the fashion industry; disrupting it with the undercurrent need for clothes that were disposable and were available at your disposal. Plus, with great increase came greater demand for affordable clothing; meaning massive textile mills were opening up across the developing world – allowing US and European companies to outsource their labor for cheap. Remember that international divide of labour that was established years ago when one part of the globe was an agricultural field of production, supplying for the other part which remained an industrial field? Yep. Still a thing! That relationship of structural dependency is just as palpable today.
So, what now?
Fast fashion stands on belief that we need more and newer clothes because it’s what expected in our society. As much as it is an expression of individuality, it is also a means of conformity, and a necessary contribution to economic and global success. This is the perception that needs to be challenged, and it’s no small feat. But it begins with a shift in the way we see clothing, the clothes we wear should be made to last.
As brands, what would it look like if we designed our clothes with the intention for it to last our customers for the years to come? As customers, what would it look like to create a culture of pride around loving and caring for what we already own?
We’d love to know what you think. Join the conversation and comment down below.