Cheap Phenomenon … By Nerida Lennon

Image source: Solid Line Media Blog

Written by Nerida Lennon, Sustainable Fashion Campaigner, Film Maker and Model.

There is a strange phenomenon I have experienced time and time again when I compliment others on their clothing. The scenario goes something like this:

Complimenter (me): “I love your [clothing item] – it’s really lovely!

Complimentee (other): “Thanks – it was really cheap!

This response is not at all surprising. In fact, it is predictable and part of a larger cultural trend. When I was in Jakarta to present at a sustainability and climate change conference I was endlessly approached in the streets to buy something because it was “cheap cheap”. In Australia we have experienced a long history of conditioning to expect most items we purchase to be on sale and in abundance. However, through my journey of learning the sad closet tales behind cheap clothing (e.g. abused labour rights and exploitation of nature), I no longer view cheap clothing with the same rose-tinged lenses.

As The Age Fashion Editor Janice Breen Burns states in her article on Style and Sustainability, “our relationship with clothing, the most visible expression of who we are, has shrivelled to a near-loveless acquaintanceship best summed up as “Guess how much?” It’s human nature to enjoy the fruits of a bargain, but is it something we should be proudly declaring to the world? These questions lead me to explore whether it is actually possible to purchase something that is cheap, but also good quality and fast enough to fulfil our need for the new.

Conducting further research I found a useful theory called Project Triangle. Apparently when purchasing a product we’re given the options of FastGood and CheapFast refers to the time required to deliver the product, Good is the quality of the final product and Cheap refers to the total cost of designing and building the product. This triangle reflects the fact that the three properties of a product are interrelated, and it is not possible to optimise all three – one will always suffer. In other words there are three options:

  1. Design something quickly and to a high standard, but cannot be cheap.
  2. Design something quickly and cheaply, but it cannot be of high quality.
  3. Design something with high quality and cheaply, but it will take a long time.

Which option saturates the majority of the fashion industry? The arrival of the Zara – the world’s largest clothing retailer – to Australian shores, signifies that fashion is faster and cheaper than ever before. Holding the record for the shortest lead time and quick response supply-chain acceleration of any mass produced chain store, Zara is the world champion at reacting to trends by rapidly designing and producing a garment in under thirty days. Zara is the epitome of the fashion ‘churn cycle’, taking full advantage of our addiction to conspicuous consumption and false growth.

It seems that the only option not generally included in mainstream fashion is Good. In her StreetFash article titled How you can benefit from Independent Fashion? Christie Sinclair paints an accurate but depressing picture of the current mainstream mode of operating: “It’s all about churning out large volumes of product, at an absolute minimal cost, resulting in enormous revenue for manufacturers. So of course, something’s got to give. And it’s generally, (always) the quality.” So it seems that the Project Triangle theory has held true in this instance. The trend to devour cheap and fast fashion is a socially constructed norm and I’ve been praying that it’s passing. It seems my prayers are being answered, albeit slowly.

When Karen Webster (previously Director of L’Oreal Fashion Festival and current Program Director of Fashion at RMIT) gave a presentation called The New Luxury she argued “the problem with our industry is that speed and price have dominated our industry for far too long.” Through her research, Webster found that key future consumer trends for the fashion industry revolved around a new luxury market that values conscientious design integrity, quality over quantity and individual expressive style. The consumer desire is moving away from fast and cheap fashion to valuing ‘slow clothing’, which is option number three if we refer back to Project Triangle theory.

I can’t help but wonder: are these observations part of a larger trend? The global financial crisis shocked us, and like all serious shocks, it lead many of us to reconsider what we value and what brings us fulfilment in our lives. From my observation there is a cultural shift occurring that is moving us away from conspicuous consumption of meaningless material things to increasingly valuing rich relationships and meaningful experiences. As a consequence our purchases are now less frequent, more considered, mindful and curated.

Curation is explored in Daniel Dykes’ Manifesto on The New Luxury: The Curated Wardrobe is a reflective piece discussing where consumers’ attitudes lie in relation to fashion. Dykes explains that previously we’ve been spoilt through a plethora of fast and affordable fashion options – experiencing too much of a good thing – but the novelty has evaporated and now we seek more. What more do we seek? Authentic self-expression? Experiential fashion? In the past many sought to mirror celebrity style, to be copy-cats of the catwalk or echo street-style blogs. However, like Sinclair, I make a concerted effort not to be a lemming amongst “approximately five million other twenty-something women waltzing around in that very same top.”

Below are some of the questions I ask myself in an attempt at a curated wardrobe.

  • Do I absolutely love the item? Will I treasure for it till the day it dies?
  • Is it good quality, durable and designed for longevity? Can it be repaired?
  • Is this a piece I can see myself wearing for a very long time? Is it an heirloom piece?
  • Am I proud of wearing this? Does it allow me to express something about myself?

I belong to a consumer cohort looking for style with substance, but the problem we’re facing is that this shift in customer mentality is not being reflected in the fashion industry. Finding garments that meet the criteria above leaves me in quite a quandary. Large retailers are betting their odds on the fast, cheap fashion trend continuing and their opportunity for increased growth and market domination. For instance, Zara and Top Shop are in already Melbourne, H&M is on its way to our shores and Coles have released a new line of  cheap clothing under $25.

There has never been a more critical time to support independent designers who are the future fashion makers keeping our creative industry alive. If we continue to opt for Cheap and Fast fashion over Good clothing we as consumers will lose out in the end with increasingly homogenised fashion choices. Already we are limited in our choices for food in mainstream supermarkets and so too will we find fashion becoming repetitive and wearisome. So what trend will transcend conspicuous consumption and fast, cheap fashion? Conscientious consumption and authentic design integrity is a deeper trend that is emerging and we can only wait in anticipation for its positive impact on the future of fashion. As Holy Dublin of PPR Group (home to GUCCI, Stella McCartney and Nike) says “It’s about paying for the things we never ever paid for. For the river that didn’t send us an invoice, for the forest that didn’t send us a bill – it’s about that.”

Nerida has a vision for a better fashion industry. As an international model who has worked with labels such as Gucci, Chanel, Calvin Klein and Dior, Nerida is well place to comment on fashion from the inside. But it’s not just the glamour of the catwalk that excites her; it’s the industry’s ability to become socially and environmentally innovative. Nerida is a School for Social Entrepreneurs fellow and a recipient of the Big Green Idea grant, awarded by the British Council globally to eco-visionaries. This grant and support from Film Victoria is assisting Nerida to produce a documentary film illustrating that while fashion is foremost about style; in a resource-starved future sustainability is critical to its survival. Nerida is one of 500 sustainable fashion pioneers taking part in a global initiative run by the Ethical Fashion Forum, London. Her work has been featured in various publications and she was included in The Age Top 100 most influential, inspiring and creative people in the city of Melbourne for 2011. With her participation in local and international sustainable fashion groups, Nerida is well connected and well informed when it comes to anything sustainable in the world of fashion.

Follow Nerida on twitter @NeridaLennon

One response to “Cheap Phenomenon … By Nerida Lennon

  1. I think you’re right. But I worry about the things that are expensive and well-made, but are still exploiting people and nature in their production. It doesn’t seem worth paying the extra if the manufacturers are still reaping the profits by using underpaid labour and dumping waste in the environment. But how can you really know?

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