Covid-19 has hit fashion sales hard. It is also driving the completion of a long but radical reboot that started 20 years ago, shifting high-end fashion away from its elitist, luxury traditions towards the logic of fast fashion targeting the masses by the millions.
Phase 1: Targeting the Masses
The first phase of this evolution began around two decades ago, when it started to become clear that style leadership was shifting. If designer brands had been the focal point of the industry during the 20th century, credited with dictating taste and innovation, mass fashion was considered — much like the famous “cerulean” scene in The Devil Wears Prada — to be a lame version of the real thing. Fast fashion labels, from H&M to Zara, were seen as cheap copycats of designs that had originated on fashion week catwalks and were often accused of outright plagiarism.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, the market’s designer and fast fashion segments did not really mix. Just as it had been hard for couturiers to move from haute couture to ready-to-wear in the 1950s, most high-end designers stayed away from mass fashion, which offered look-a-likes of their own products at much lower prices. In part, it was a matter of elitism and pride. And attempts at mass appeal, like Halston’s 1983 line for J.C. Penny, typically ended poorly.
But at the turn of the millennium, it became clearer that fast fashion had become a massive force in the market that could no longer be ignored. With ‘cheap and chic’ products, backed by a direct-to-consumer sales strategy, thousands of stores and a speedy and flexible supply chain, fast fashion took a share of the market that traditional ready-to-wear labels could only dream about. It was only a matter of time before high-end designers would cross over. And they did. With Karl Lagerfeld’s H&M collaboration in 2004, luxury’s paradoxical ambition to go mass became clear. After all, it's hard to build a multi-billion-dollar brand on sales to the privileged few.
Phase 2: Ditching Big Seasons
Since Lagerfeld’s H&M partnership, there have been hundreds of “high-low” collaborations. And, de facto, every designer who took part in these tie-ups inevitably became a fast fashion designer, too, and adopted some of fast fashion’s approach to seasons.
Seeing the fluid, seasonless style updates fast fashion was offering, often up to 100 times a year, high-end labels must have felt restricted by the traditional system of producing two collections a year. To be sure, it was terribly slow for a new generation of hyper-connected consumers that thrived on constant change.
At first, they developed pre-collections. Resort, once a small collection for winter holidays offered by a relatively small number of fashion houses, became the norm, and an opportunity to deliver fresh designs to stores before the spring. That led to the development of pre-fall, which served the same purpose in the second half of the year.
Now, most international fashion houses rely on monthly product drops, reminiscent of fast fashion (and streetwear) brands, backed with social media campaigns, which enable them to be much more flexible and in sync with consumer demand.
Phase 3: The Stan Smith Syndrome
Absorbing the logic of fast fashion has also meant changing the principles of design itself. Designer fashion is rooted in innovation, originality and the shock of the new. While copying is rife, there is no greater insult to a designer than being called unoriginal. But that ethos, too, has been slowly but surely changing over the past decade.
These days, collections often start with lists of top-selling products.
In what might be called the “Stan Smith Syndrome,” renowned brands and designers have flooded their collections with almost identical versions of market hits like Adidas’ famous Stan Smith sneaker. Items resembling the iconic white tennis shoe have been offered by Dior, Prada and Valentino, to name just three. The same goes for many other styles — from Palladium look-a-likes to parkas — transported from cult or street brands at the lower end of the market. These days, collections often start with lists of top-selling products, many of which come from other brands.
Phase 4: Going Direct-to-Consumer
While many high-end fashion brands have traditionally relied on wholesaling their wares to luxury boutiques, fast fashion is typically sold directly to the consumer. Years ago, major luxury brands began shifting their strategies towards their own retail channels. Going direct-to-consumer offers brands fatter margins and greater control over the customer experience. But critically, without middlemen and the need to present the collection ahead of time to numerous buyers, it also offers brands greater flexibility to respond quickly to market demand, much as fast fashion leaders do.
Phase 5: Abandoning Fashion Weeks
Social distancing measures designed to control the spread of Covid-19 have delivered the final piece of the puzzle. With traditional fashion weeks effectively on pause, brands have found alternatives, mostly digital, for showing collections.
But what is most interesting is how quickly some of the sector’s biggest luxury brands have leveraged the situation to break free from the fashion week tradition (which took its present form in the 1970s). Just look at Gucci and Saint Laurent. And when the dust settles, it’s likely that more brands will show their collections closer to when they hit stores, shifting luxury labels towards fast fashion’s focus on real-time marketing.
How far this all feels from designer fashion’s roots. From where I’m standing it’s plain to see: the business that began 150 years ago as haute couture, and which was later reborn as ready-to-wear, has been remade to deliver luxury fast fashion for the masses.
Liroy Choufan is a lecturer at Shenkar College of Engineering and Design, a researcher in fashion theory and a writer based in Tel Aviv.
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