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.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish. At the recent fashion week in Paris alongside Valentino, Chloe and Chanel came a surprise - a runway show from the low price retailer H&M. The company is a purveyor of what's known as fast fashion. You may not know what that means but it almost certainly affects the way you shop and the clothes you buy. This week, we'll be exploring changes taking place in the fashion industry. And NPR's Jim Zarroli gets us started with fast fashion and how it has transformed the retail business.
JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: When she got out of college and moved to New York, Elizabeth Cline liked to buy clothing at thrift stores. She loved finding a great old sweater at a cheap price. Then, she discovered chains like Forever 21 and it redefined her notion of bargain shopping.
ELIZABETH CLINE: You know, it's not something that anyone plans. It's just very easy. The products are very, very cheap, 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.
ZARROLI: Before she knew it, Cline was shopping at places like Forever 21 and H&M all the time.
CLINE: I got to a place where just by shopping sort of casually and continually I had - you know, I counted it all. I suddenly had 354 items of clothing.
ZARROLI: Cline never even wore all of the clothes she bought but she says if you buy a $10 sweater, it may not even be worth the trouble of returning it. And Cline, author of "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," says that's part of the secret of fast fashion success. At H&M's store in Soho in New York City, another big shipment of clothes has arrived and employees are racing to get it on the shelves. H&M changes its merchandise all the time and the turnover keeps customers coming in.
Margareta van den Bosch is the chain's design director.
MARGARETA VAN DEN BOSCH: We want to surprise the customers. We want to have something exciting. And if all the time it's hanging the same things there, it is not so exciting, I think.
ZARROLI: The clothes that H&M sells are amazingly inexpensive, like a leopard skin print top for $10. But Elizabeth Cline says, they sell a lot of them.
CLINE: A store like H&M produces hundreds of millions of garments per year. They put a small markup on the clothes and earn their profit off selling an ocean of clothing.
ZARROLI: And the profits are staggering. The founder of H&M is now the world's 17th wealthiest man. The founder of another fast fashion chain, Zara, is number three. The success of these chains has upended the retail world.
(SOUNDBITE OF OLD NEWS REEL)
ZARROLI: In the 1960s the fashion industry operated under a series of fixed relationships. People shopped at department stores, which bought their clothes from manufacturers. But Frank Bober, CEO of Stylesight, says by the 1980s, retailers learned they could manufacture their own clothes. Bober says Les Wexner, founder of The Limited, was one of the pioneers of this trend.
FRANK BOBER: He was the guy that recognized that, hey, I can do this myself. I can understand what my clients want, 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. I can do that. It was a paradigm shift, an earthquake.
ZARROLI: By cutting out the middleman retailers could control the manufacturing and distribution themselves. And with computer technology they were able to bring clothes to market much faster. Today, throughout the industry there is a relentless focus on speed. Chains like Zara are so fast, they can design and manufacture clothing and get it on store shelves in a month. Ed Filipowski runs a public relations company that represents fashion firms. He says, even high-end designers are feeling pressured to work a bit faster.
ED FILIPOWSKI: What that has done is made the industry move faster and work faster and have to produce more product. 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.
ZARROLI: Meanwhile, customers are conditioned to expect a constant stream of new fashions. But to keep them buying, fast fashion has to be affordable. That means manufacturing in low-wage countries like China. But it also means using cheap synthetic materials. Simon Collins, who heads the Parsons School of Design at The New School, says, fast fashion has brought style to the masses but much of it is poorly made.
SIMON COLLINS: You see some products and it's just garbage. 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.
ZARROLI: As a result, the term fast fashion has become something of a pejorative. And companies like H&M now reject the label altogether. H&M has also introduced a green clothing line. Author Elizabeth Cline says there's a growing public consensus that all of this clothing manufacturing is a huge waste of resources.
CLINE: Producing a single T-shirt requires 700 gallons of water. So, just from a resources perspective, the fashion industry can't continue to operate the way that it currently is.
ZARROLI: The fast fashion model may be cracking in other ways, too. Factory workers in China are demanding higher wages, forcing production into even lower-wage countries. But as the recent factory fires in Bangladesh so tragically showed, those countries often lack the infrastructure to become major manufacturing centers. Fashion companies will no doubt find a way to adapt but the days when clothing becomes ever cheaper are probably at an end. Jim Zarroli, NPR News, New York.
CORNISH: And tomorrow, more fast fashion. We'll hear about the reclusive billionaire behind Zara, Spain's fast fashion empire. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.