We now purchase more affordable clothes because high-street stores are constantly creating new designs. It’s a trend that, as Lucy Siegle in her new book To Die For reveals, will end up costing us far more than we think.

My fashion history is what greets me every morning as I wake up. They won’t leave, despite my corrections, mistakes, good buys and bad buys. My wardrobe is located opposite my bed and, as a broken zipper, the door will not pull out to conceal the excess. In the cold light of day many of the micro trends I’ve “invested in” – T-shirts with chains, a one-shouldered jumpsuit, and other designer lookalike items – merge to form a type of sartorial wasteland.

My collection is a testament to the amazing way that we now consume clothing. You don’t even have to go to my house to see what’s in there. Our tastes have become more homogeneous over the past decade. You’ll notice a decrease in formal wear and an increase in office wear if your clothing choices follow fashion trends. Instead, hangers, shelves, drawers, and drawers will be stuffed with home and leisurewear. There’s also likely to be evidence of your purchase into new categories like luxe loungewear. Along with the close relative, the skinny-ribbed vest, the T-shirt is most likely to be the most common item.

assorted-color hanging clothes lot

Today, you will need four times as many clothes than you did in 1980. The average person will spend PS625 per year on clothes, but that’s only the average. You get a lot for your money. You’ll end up with 28kg worth of clothes in a year, which is equivalent to 1.72m tonnes of new fashion annually in the UK. The most striking thing about this is that nearly all of the fashion you purchase will end up in the trash bin.

In the 1980s, fashion purchasing habits and relationships with garments began to change. Academic research began to pick up the key points by 2005. Grete Birtwistle and Louise R Morgan set up eight consumer groups to survey 71 women about their buying habits. Nearly everyone admitted to having spent more than they used, but it is notable that almost none of them had any idea how long they would keep their purchases. The majority of them also acknowledged that “cheap” clothing would end up in the trash bin, not the washing machine, when it was damaged or became stained. The way we consume clothes today has very little in common with the old way of buying clothes. It was based on income and seasons.

This mindset may explain why a fashion industry commentator was horrified to see one happy customer walk out of Primark’s flagship Oxford Circus shop with six to seven brown paper bags stuffed full of clothes. As the young lady walked down Oxford Street, it was pouring heavily. One of the handles gave way and the cotton fell on the pavement. The journalist expected the girl would bend down to collect the clothes. But she didn’t. She continued walking. Fashion had apparently become so disposable that it was now litter.

The UK’s main fashion industry consisted more of the sale of clothes than of making them. Philip Green was, and arguably still is, the undisputed king. Green, who was the owner of the pedestrian high-street staple Bhs in 2002, bought Arcadia for PS850m. Topshop was responsible for PS1bn in UK clothing sales within the first half of 2002 (the entire market for clothing was worth only PS7bn).

Business analysts, fashion journalists and consumers all lauded Green’s ability transform these mundane stores into cash cows. Topshop was a popular destination for anyone interested in fashion. It was easy for consumers. The magazines provided tips on how to get the look from international runways. Next, you went to Topshop to search for affordable pieces that reflected the latest design trends.

A number of retailers followed the Topshop example and sought to replicate its success. Fast fashion was a standard industry practice. Clothes were made in smaller quantities and at dizzyingly high rates. Fashion on the high street was always alert for every new trend or consumer demand. This industry called it “quick response”. Imitating Topshop’s magic meant getting the fastest supply chains. Each stage of the production process was compressed into days, hours and not weeks. The “time to market” period, which is the time when factories make garments and deliver them to customers’ stores, was cut in half. It was then divided again. Buyers began to fax their suppliers in the developing world at all hours of day and night, with some tweaks from the UK design staff.

brown Henry paper bag

A factory that supplies a major retailer used to expect to produce 40,000 garments in four styles over 20 weeks. It will be difficult to get a commitment from the retailer to produce four styles at 500 garments per semaine for five weeks. After the design team has determined whether Taylor Swift, Daisy Lowe or Lindsay Lohan are the main consumer, the remaining 30,000 items will be ordered. Topshop was able to reduce its production time from nine to six weeks while H&M reduced its lead times from rail to design to three weeks. They weren’t the only ones who brought about the greatest revolution. Zara was the only name that seemed to be more mature and staider on the high-street.

Legend has it that Zara’s first store in Britain opened on Regent Street. It was a surprise to many shoppers. It seemed that the prices were too high and the pieces would not be available if they returned next week. This was not the Zara way. Zara’s way, which was different from all others, was that they produced very small quantities of each style. Zara’s 200 designers create 40,000 designs every year. That’s 12,000 more than Topshop. You might miss your chance as a shopper if you hesitate at purchase. This causes a severe hunger in the consumer. Harvard researchers refer to this as “a feeling of tantalising exclusivity”, which is a pervasive fear that you will miss your chance to purchase the catwalk hit.

Zara’s strategy was revolutionary. Philip Green even snubbed his hat. “Genius. He spoke to Retail Week about the essence of the fashion industry. Esprit and Mango were also attempting to claim the top spot on the high-street. They used the same strategy: shorter lead times, multiple seasons, and reduced delivery times. Holding on to stock in excess, or any stock at all, was clearly out of fashion.”

We quickly changed our priorities as consumers. We gave up our long-standing skills in buying clothes, such as looking at labels or assessing quality, to get what was new. As we enjoyed the thrill of changing two wardrobe seasons per year, for upwards 20 dollars, we changed our priorities. Modern life is as relevant as Gregorian plainsong.

In the late 1990s, business analysts and economists were starting to take a closer look at the extraordinary profits of once workaday stores. It was like listening to the sounds of a long, wild party until you feel the need to get up and go see it for yourself. It was a party: it was a story of remarkable growth that was even more fascinating to analysts, as the UK’s clothing industry had historically been a bit of an a damp swamp.

Fast fashion’s stellar financial achievements came at a time when clothing costs were actually declining. The UK’s July 2001 sales of footwear and clothing grew by 12%. This was the highest annual growth rate since the mid-1970s. In real terms, however, the cost of clothing had dropped dramatically. This is when the dark side to fast-fashion alchemy begins. The average clothing price fell between 1996 and 2000. They fell by 6% in 2001, the year that was a landmark year for high sales. The average retail fashion price fell 10% between 2003 and 2007. We simply spent less and bought more.

Although fast fashion is a significant influence on most of our wardrobes, it is not the only story. Fast fashion was only able to transform base fabrics into the golden trends that consumers adored. The “value” or “discounters were the ones who effected the greatest fashion revolution on planet Earth, and had the most reverberations.

Matalan, Peacocks, and New Look were the leaders of this movement. They are known for aggressive pricing strategies that sold at 30% to 50% below the price of the mid-market. None of these companies had the same clout as Primark. Primark was to discounters what Zara is to fast-fashion retailers. It was a trailblazer who showed how profits could be made. We were persuaded by discounters to put all other values aside and ask one question: “But, is it really, really affordable?” That was all the consumer wanted from then on.

Value retailers were supported in their quest to dominate the UK fashion market with a compliant fashion media, which was just as titillated as everyone else by the conflation between fast and cheap. PS4’s “wow” prices, directional styling and the “primarni” tag were reassuring. This helped to denigmatise fashion that was almost as cheap as chips. It was fashionable to wear disposable, worthless clothes. You could switch outfits up to four times per day, have the wardrobe life of a Wag, and pretend to be a celebrity.

50% discount sign

How does Big Fashion manage to keep costs down? Fashion’s engine is driven by the Cut, Make and trim army, which employs 40 million workers. Cut, Make and Trim is where garments are actually manufactured. An additional 30 million homemakers (mostly women), sew, embroider, and bead sequins onto garments.

Low and exploitative wages have become synonymous with garment factories in overseas. A garment worker is often the only source of income for a family. In Bangladesh, earning PS1 per day is well below what it takes to support a family with three, four, or five members.

Research has shown that large orders are placed by western companies with CMT facilities in southeast Asia. They do not make accurate calculations about the capacity of these facilities and so garment workers are under tremendous pressure to meet deadlines. One of the most contentious issues is forced overtime, which is often not paid. Some of the most grave allegations involve working hours that are extended from 10 to 15 hours per day, with workers being locked in factories at night to complete orders. They may also be subject to violence and intimidation to make them feel forced to stay. Evidence shows that workers are kept locked up in factories until they finish. Fire escapes are also locked.

It takes no genius to see that ramshackle production plants with faulty electrical wirings, boilers under pressure, and piles of inventory, fabric, and yarn add up to a tinderbox.

Luxury goods were traditionally and still are handcrafted in Europe’s most renowned ateliers. Both the craftsman and seamstresses are admired. After one particularly pearl-and-bead-encrusted Chanel show, the great and the good, led by Karl Lagerfeld, even paused to pay tribute to “les petites mains” (the tiny hands), the highly skilled seamstresses who make haute couture what it is.

This contrasts with Big Fashion’s insistence on skirting over the fact it uses women to hand sew and embellish its clothes. The handworker is a celebrated part of luxury. In Big Fashion, she is an unfortunate truth. These two seemingly opposing links in the fashion chain make a strange alliance. What is their connection?

These are the “cheapskating” elements, a  style phenomenon and a unique trend. It first appeared in Britain around 2005 when Deirdre Farand described it as “the art and science of blending luxury and low-cost items”. According to Cheapskating, if you were dressed in value fashion (save), you could spend a lot on one of the status pieces (splurge).

Dana Thomas, a fashion writer, explains that corporate tycoons as well as financiers saw the potential. They purchased or took over luxury companies and then turned their attention to a new audience: the middle market, a broad socioeconomic group. Luxury executives explained that the idea was to “democratize” luxury and make it ‘accessible’. All of it sounded so noble. It sounded almost communist. The goal was simple: make as much money heaven can afford.”

Luxury conglomerates lost control of their supply chains in the rush to “democratise”, their high-end products. In an effort to lower wages, key production elements were moved to Asia and Eastern Europe. European production does not guarantee a shining responsibility record or happy workers. Prato, a Tuscan textile city, now employs 25,000 low-wage workers mainly from China to make “luxury” products. As shown in Schiavi de Lusso in Luxury Slaves, an Italian TV documentary, working conditions can be harsh. A British tabloid investigation found that workers were paid less than half of the minimum wage in Italy.

The 2007 WWF report “Deeper Luxury”, attempted a rating of the top luxury brands in terms sustainability. It awarded LVMH (Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy), a C. However, this seems quite insignificant until you see that Tod’s was given an F after failing to answer basic questions. LVMH was removed from the FTSE4Good index in March 2007. This index tracks companies that meet environmental and social criteria for supply-chain issues. It was re-inducted into the FTSE4Good Index in March 2009.

The larger point is that cheapskating with its save-and splurge logic is not as rational as it seems. Similar to democratised luxury, it rarely delivers the value it promises. This is the sign of large-scale wardrobe malfunction. We are less likely to have control over the clothes we wear. We don’t consider the expected lifespan of clothes before we buy them.

woman in black long sleeve shirt standing in front of clothes

The average amount that we spent on footwear and clothing in 2008 was 4.6% of our weekly budget. We should also mention that we have been purchasing more clothes at a lower cost. 40% of our wardrobes were filled by value retailers, and 17% of our clothing budget was used. This might seem counterintuitive given our cash-strapped lifestyle, but it is important to consider whether we have a large enough budget and if we are directing the money in the right direction.

If you have an average income, I would say that both of these are not relevant. To ensure a better wardrobe and longer lasting power, I think you should increase your weekly income to spend 6%. You would spend 6% of your average gross annual salary of a woman aged between 30 and 39 years old (which still falls behind that of a man) to buy clothes. This gives you PS1,323 after tax. You will only get a little more than PS20 per week if you cannot break the cycle of buying clothes each week. You would have around PS100 to use if you slowed down your purchasing rate to once per month.

You can think of it like this: Most of your weekly fashion fixations aren’t working. Imagine you’re in an addiction cycle where you buy two new items each week. You would be able to identify 20% of the garments you love and will wear again, which would reduce your annual purchase to 104. This would mean that you could spend an average of PS60 per piece for the year. That’s enough to give yourself more options and make you a more powerful consumer. We need to restore true value to the national wardrobe and buy Big Fashion immediately.

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