The Functions of Fashion
What makes fashion valuable? Business changes are forcing designers, merchants, and fashionistas to rethink their assumptions, as Julie Frederickson's posts discussed below, and the Black Friday blogging more generally, demonstrate. In the Boston Globe, Kate Jackson reports on how "cheap chic or disposable clothing" is changing fashion:
Cheap chic is not a new concept, but it's now more foolproof than ever, according to Aaron Keller, cofounder of Capsule, a brand development firm in Minneapolis. "Low-cost retailers are no longer a season behind," he said. "They're side by side with the designers."
Keller credits a combination of technology, overseas manufacturing, and the fierce competition that exists among discount retailers for faster production cycles and lower prices. "For instance, China is getting smarter about quality and product. A lot of retailers have been tapping into these and other countries where labor is cheaper," he said.
As a result, innovative design isn't the competitive advantage it once was. Also, since low-cost retailers such as Target, Wal-Mart, H&M, and Old Navy have such a large presence, they have the financial capital to negotiate for increasingly better quality, he said.
In other words, knockoffs don't look like knockoffs anymore.
Today, a shopper can buy a Marc Jacobs velvet beaded shrug for $440 at Saks or go to Old Navy and pick up a similar version for $26.50. "It may not be the most premium quality, but if it's a trendy piece that will be out of rotation in a few weeks, even the most moneyed shopper is going to choose the less expensive option," Keller said.
According to the Cotton Incorporated Lifestyle Monitor newsletter, 58 percent of women surveyed said they're more likely to shop the apparel department at Target today than they were two years ago, citing better styles and low prices.
In TSOS, I define fashion as aesthetic changes purely for their own sake, without underlying functional reasons. (You could broaden that definition to change for change's sake.) Fashion in this sense isn't limited to personal appearance. So, for instance, baby names go through fashion cycles, even though there's no commercial market for them.
The "fashion industries" traditionally bundle several different values together in their goods. One is freshness, novelty, or trendiness. Suddenly some new style or color just looks right. It offers a new, timely source of aesthetic pleasure.
Until recently, however, that pleasure came attached to a particular meaning. Not everyone had access to the latest looks. Fresh styles were expensive, available at a limited number of retailers, and in many cases unknown to anyone but the cognoscenti until a year or so after they'd been introduced. So wearing the latest styles marked a fashionista as wealthy, well-connected, and well-informed.
Since this limited audience could pay high prices, new fashions also tended to be made with expensive materials and workmanship. Although they were often ephemeral, they tended to be made to last. That's still true at the highest end of the market, but the coming of "fast fashion" means that if all you want is the right look, you can buy it cheaply. If the style will be dead in a year, why buy a piece that will last any longer?
If being stylish means having the look of the moment, fast fashion is truly democratizing style. That creates an uncomfortable situation for businesses and individuals who depend on trendiness to create customer value and maintain personal status.
Over time, we can expect other sources of value to become more important. These may include quirky personal expression and style setting (think fashion icon Sarah Jessica Parker), classic elegance and sprezzatura, fine detail and craftsmanship, and customization.