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Slow Fashion – An Impossible Goal?

Slow Fashion – An Impossible Goal?

A few days ago, Business of Fashion posted an op-ed on the difficulties faced by companies operating a slow-fashion model. The term was first coined as the answer to the problems of fast fashion. Though it gained steam during the pandemic, it seems to have disappeared into obscurity when global economic conditions nosedived in the last year.

To operate a slow fashion model in the age of next day delivery is almost Sisyphean in nature. You are essentially asking a customer to choose your product over those of other companies who can provide a quicker and/or cheaper fix to their desires. Is it an impossible endeavour to sustain, or is there a solution that we can work towards?

Before I go any further, we should explore the definition of ‘slow fashion’. Popular meaning includes, but not limited to: not following the typical fashion cycle to reduce the number of yearly releases, operating on a made-to-order basis, and using ethical means of production and higher quality of materials to increase the longevity of the garments.

During the pandemic, companies running the slow fashion business model found themselves gaining in popularity due to multiple reasons. From the demand side, there was the stimulus in the US, with individuals who file taxes and their children receiving three rounds of checks respectively. Across many parts of the world, those who were already employed were able to work from home for a year or more, freeing up the commute time for more leisurely pursuits and considerations. When tertiary industries across the Western hemisphere were blessed with free loans under Zero-Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) and liquidity under Quantitative Easing (QE), they went on a hiring spree to embark on expansions and projects – many of them dubious, driving up wages for a certain class of the labour force. Flushed with time and money, the consumer class was able to divert more of their income and attention into ethical consumption.

On the supply side of the graph, the ZIRP years also reduced borrowing costs, thereby reducing financial risks for new ventures. There is also less incentive to perform due diligence in assessing whether the product offering is sellable over a long period of time, hence the proliferation of fashion startups during the pandemic years. The hallmarks of a startup, as opposed to a fashion design company founded by fashion aficionados, is a generic offering wrapped in shiny marketing campaigns.

In tough times, the market devolves into a popularity contest. Those who can make the most sales are those who can afford frequent advertisements and engaging PR campaigns. Our brains are simply wired to favour those who provide persistent exposure, and it takes extra mental energy to fight against it. This explains why when we are burdened with the stresses of life, we are unable to expend time and attention to seek out less well-known alternatives. The decrease in disposable income makes it harder to justify the higher price tag. Meanwhile, the frequency for desiring dopamine fix may even increase during stressful times, thus reducing the budget for each round of consumption.

Smaller companies – no matter how well-funded or popular they were in the beginning (everyone likes newness) – will ultimately have to come face to face with the astronomical marketing budgets under the disposal of LVMH, Nike and Shein.

Over the years, I have found that consumers – while desiring to be sustainable – face difficulties in aligning their consumption habits with their ethical view for various reasons that could be financial or psychological. It is also important to note that few are compelled to make a purchase solely based on ethical considerations when other options are cheaper or serve their desires in a more effective manner.

It is commendable to bake ethical considerations into a fashion business model. However, it should not be the central premise of marketing communications to the customer. To do so is to ignore why people consume fashion to begin with.

For a slow-fashion company to operate sustainably, it is detrimental to keep up with the trends that come and go. I would argue that it is simply not necessary, if and only if, the designer remembers the one rule that keeps a business afloat: differentiation.

While it is clear that consumers face difficulty in overcoming the allure of convenience and competitive pricing, the key to winning hearts and minds in the fashion industry is not so much altruism, but visually discernible and physically tangible point of view. To compete with the larger fish in the ocean, one has to offer a unique perspective that cannot be easily replaceable by anyone else. In early 20th Century, Schiaparelli’s dresses were significantly different from those of Chanel’s. The same goes for Yohji Yamamoto and Rei Kawakubo. Today, with the exception of the very few, one company’s offering is often indistinguishable from those of another.

What consumers seek ultimately boil down to the perceived quality of the garment vis-à-vis pricing, how it fits and feels to the wearer, what it conveys to the outside world, and most importantly, the kind of attention they will receive. These qualities, when served in a differentiated material-based product offering, will keep consumers loyal towards an ethical business in tougher times longer than a flash-in-the-pan generic offering wrapped in feel-good marketing.

In the end, we should do well to remember that fashion serves dreams in a material form. It is the job of a designer to make life a little more bearable by protecting the vulnerable self and elevating the good qualities people see in themselves.

The archived article can be found here.

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