Fast-fashion retailers were popular back home in Dallas, but since officially relocating to New York City earlier this summer, I’ve noticed something: They’re quite a big deal in The Big Apple.
At what seems like on every corner and between virtually every street, you’re certain to find a Zara flanked by an H&M, adjacent to a Joe Fresh, a stone’s throw away from a Forever 21. And a survey of at the windows will connect the dots between the stylish looks outfitted on the mannequins and the originals they were “inspired” by months earlier on the runway.
These clothes, often a fraction of the price of the designer version, represent the final stage in feverish fashion cycle that I’ve taken the liberty of summing up for you: Designers show clothes each season, buyers decide which pieces they’ll buy and editors decide which island to send a styling team to for a shoot featuring said clothes, as consumers scarf up the runway images from social media like vultures. Meanwhile, the previously mentioned mass retailers forecast the prevailing looks that will appeal to younger, trend-conscious-but-cash-challenged shoppers and in a matter of weeks recreate — critics say “knock off” — those looks which end up on the mannequins I walk by each day.
On the one hand, it’s an inescapable consequence of fashion’s current walls-down, democratic climate. After all, shouldn’t everyone be able to participate in the fun and fierceness that fashion pervades? Yes, most contend, which is why these stores are so popular: They provide a pinch of the Prada perfection that most adore — but can’t afford — at an accessible price point.
But designers — Alexander Wang and Diane Von Furstenberg immediately spring to mind — have holes to poke in that rationale. First, they argue the creative component. There are brand signatures that are straight-up replicated by these mass stores (for Wang, think the studs on the bottom of his popular Rocco bag or the trademark prints von Furstenberg has built her brand on) that are the result of months of braininstorming and planning, trial and error. So to swoop in and capitalize on those ideas is, in their eyes, nefarious to say the least.
Then there’s the issue of sustainability. We’ve always endorsed the idea of smart shopping — “buy less, buy better” is the industry mantra — and not just because it makes getting dressed in the mornings less stressful, but because of the waste that results from filling a closet full of one-hitter quitters as I’m known to call them: pieces that have a short shelf-life due to trendiness or construction. With cheap clothes, zippers are susceptible to breakage with one violent tug too many and if you’re not careful, the buttons on a blouse are prone to popping off at a moment’s notice. You’re often getting what you pay for, leaving many in the industry and business world at large left to wonder: Is it worth it?
Those are just a few reasons that I found Balmain’s creative director Olivier Rousteing’s comments on Zara’s way of doing business so intriguing.
“I love seeing a Zara window with my clothes mixed with Céline and Proenza! I think that’s genius. It’s even better than what I do! I love the styling, I love the story… I watch the windows always, and it’s genius what they do today,” Rousteing told The Independent this past weekend. “They go fast, they have a great sense of styling and how to pick up what they have to pick up from designers. I’m really happy that Balmain is copied — when I did my Miami collection and we did the black and white checks, I knew they would be in Zara and H&M. But they did it in a clever way — they mixed a Céline shape with my Balmain print! Well done! I love that.”
An unexpected sentiment from the chief creative at a luxury heritage brand, to say the least, but is there credence in Rousteing’s position?
“I think when you’re as big as Rousteing it is absolutely appropriate to be flattered by the fast-fashion imitation. We currently live in an age where the masses are enamored by high-fashion and haute couture,” Sabrina Dunn, an Atlanta-based journalist and founder of the website Fashion of Culture, says. “Before it was only the fashion insiders who knew what was happening on the runways in Paris, but now our biggest pop stars are wearing those clothes so it has become hugely normalized to our society.”
It all boils down to the bottom line for Dunn who says “a Balmain maxi skirt alone could easily run you a cool $3,000, no challenge,” which to the average American is unattainable. And that’s where fast fashion comes in. “So in that case,” she says “it all works out just fine: Rousteing still gets the praise and Ashley MiddleofAmerica gets to rock the look.”
But when it comes to indie designers, Dunn draws the line: “The only time I do have an issue with fast-fashion copy of high-end clothing is when it is a look stolen from a less known and more underground designer. That’s flat-out wrong.”
“I think when you’re as big as Rousteing it is absolutely appropriate to be flattered by the fast-fashion imitation. We currently live in an age where the masses are enamored by high-fashion and haute couture.” –Fashion of Culture’s Sabrina Dunn
So one could contend that the question now isn’t whether or not cheap versions of runways styles are ethical and-or legal. Instead, maybe we should ask: Should more designers join Rousteing’s corner?
“I think it was Coco Chanel who said if you’re original, be ready to be copied,” he said. And just as live-streams and Instagram snapshots are a now-expected part of fashion’s spectacle, it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest so is the industry’s trickle-down effect.
It’s an effect that’s definitely flawed, but whether it’s because of consumer demand, the price gap between luxury and mass good or the courts’ narrow protections of designers and their trademarks, we’re living in a new normal it seems. One where a fashion editor like me can stroll by a window in awe of a what at first glance appears to be the cashmere and angora Derek Lam collarless coat I fell in love with when it debuted on the runway in February. Only to realize after a double-take, no, it’s just Zara.
I admit, Olivier: Damn, these guys are good.