In the Spring of 1931, Coco Chanel set sale for Hollywood after signing a one million dollar contract with Samuel Goldwyn to design and dress his female stars on and off the screen. Upon her return to France, she stopped in New York where she discovered Samuel Klein, a popular discount store where customers shopped without any assistance through the iron racks and selected dresses that were all copies of one design or another. Klein's business model relied on rapid turnover of inventory by cutting prices. The company didn't spend any money on advertising and still managed to generate 25 million dollars in annual sales, which at the time was a considerable amount of money. Samuel Klein in 1931 was what Zara, Forever 21, and H&M are today in 2014. What Coco Chanel stumbled upon was one of the first fast-fashion businesses. Based on all historical accounts, she was in awe at the industrialization and democratization of fashion and had the foresight to declare that fast-fashion was inevitable and Klein's selling policy was a sign of things to come.
Coco Chanel (right) with actress Ina Claire (left)
The bold and sharp-tongued designer stated that "fashion does not exist unless it goes down into the streets. The fashion that remains in the salons has no more significance than a costume ball." Her response to copies was more accepting than other couturiers, declaring "what rigidity it shows, what laziness, what unimaginative taste, what lack of faith in creativity, to be frightened of imitations! The more transient fashion is, the more perfect it is. You can't protect what is already dead." Coco Chanel even went so far as to present a fashion exhibition in 1932 where she invited dressmakers and manufacturers to attend in order to copy her designs. She wanted her look to reach the mass market because she understood that this imitation was what made the designs into fashion.
Even with this stamp of approval from one of the most influential and innovative fashion designers in history, fast-fashion continues to be a polarizing topic among industry insiders and fashion lawyers. There are those who view fast-fashion as part of the fashion cycle, creating trends by taking the aspirational looks and designs seen on the runways and bringing them to life on the streets by making it affordable. The trend continues until the fashion elite decides to differentiate themselves from the group and create a new set of trends, starting the cycle all over again. Those who hold this viewpoint believe in what has been coined by legal scholars as the "piracy paradox," where copying plays an integral role in the cycle and business of fashion.
Then there are those who view fast-fashion companies as nothing more than knock-off mills that copy major and emerging designers and dilute their brands. Those who adopt this point of view do their best to steer clear of stores like Forever 21 and Nasty Gal. Fashion blogs like Racked, Fashionista, and The Fashion Law have even made it a point to police fast-fashion companies and call them out whenever they produce a copy of a famous design.
While it's important to encourage fast-fashion companies to avoid copying original designs and producing knock-offs, these articles go so far as to put a "ban fast-fashion" spin to their stories, which is a drastic over simplification and unrealistic solution to a business model that generates hundreds of millions of dollars in annual sales and revenue. It is also ignoring the industry's own acceptance of the importance of fast-fashion in spreading trends. Designers like Proenza Schouler, Altuzzara, Marni, Maison Martin Margiela, Isabel Marant and many more have launched design collaborations with stores like Target and H&M as a way to take their look to the masses in an effort to reach out to a larger, untapped customer base and bring brand awareness.
This strategy has also been criticized by bloggers, who claim that such design collaborations target customers who won't be able to afford the designer line anyway and simply encourage consumers to shop more fast-fashion. However, these types of partnerships aren't just mere short-term sales drivers. They ultimately serve as a customer acquisition tool, be it immediate or in the future, by allowing luxury brands to access an entirely different market of young and budding fashionistas. Maybe she can't afford the Marni, Isabel Marant, or Altuzzara line in the short-run, but she now has accessed the brand and will likely grow to shop it in the future when she can afford it.
Even Vogue has acknowledged the significance of fast-fashion, most recently in its issue last March with an article on Sophia Amoruso, CEO of Nasty Gal. However, some industry insiders were critical of the coverage due to the company's history of copying designers. While these views held some valid points, they were a bit short-sighted and ultimately showed a lack of understanding of Vogue's very own mission statement, which is the following:
“A commitment to visual genius, investment in storytelling that puts women at the center of the culture, and a selective, optimistic editorial eye.”
As part of the Silicon Beach start-up scene, Sophia Amoruso and Nasty Gal are at the epicenter of the growing fashion-tech space. The company and CEO's success reflect the impact of E-commerce and social media on the industry, reveal the consumer habits of the Millennial generation, and embody the entrepreneurial and #Girlboss spirit and female empowerment of the time. While Nasty Gal has a long way to go in improving its business model to avoid selling blatant copies, Vogue was completely in the right to cover the story. Bloggers and industry insiders often forget that the magazine isn't just about promoting high-end designers and luxury brands. It is about providing its readers a snapshot of what is in fashion in both the literal and figurative sense, and that includes the business of fashion. Furthermore, looking back on Vogue's history, the editorial choice is not at all unusual given how Anna Wintour launched her tenure at the magazine. Her first cover in 1988 heralded a high-low street style, featuring model Michaela Bercu wearing a $10,000 Christian Lacroix jacket with a pair of $50 Guess jeans.
The general criticism of Nasty Gal outside of the Vogue article also reflects a lack of understanding of the growing pains a fast-fashion company has to go through as it transitions from a start-up venture to early stage company to eventually major corporation. The path to keeping up with the growth is often filled with mis-steps as the companies iron out their organizational issues and try to become more efficient. It is often true when companies claim that they are unaware of the infringing nature of any one item. Their large merchandising teams make quick purchasing decisions at high volume from foreign third party vendors in order to meet the customer demands. In many cases where a knock-off slips in to the selection, it very well is a mistake prompted by the fact that the original fashion work is not as readily identifiable as one would assume. This isn't an endorsement of companies that intentionally sell knock-offs. There are fast-fashion companies who have been in business for many years who implement this business practice, and we here at TFG don't condone that. However, the policing of this activity must be done within the context of the stage the fast-fashion company is in.
When it comes to fast-fashion, rather than ban it or be obsessed with it, we here at TFG encourage a more middle of the way approach. As a consumer, it should be shopped in a conscious way for filler pieces and add-ons to one's wardrobe. There's no need to raid the stores for every trend one sees in magazines and fashion blogs. Define your style, set your budget, support quality designers where you can, and make fast-fashion a vehicle for rounding out your look in an affordable way.
As a business, the fast-fashion companies that have managed to push the envelope in adopting the runway trends without actually copying the original fashion work are the ones that should be emulated by other fast-fashion companies. While walking this tight-rope is not always successful, companies like Zara have managed to take the runway trends, have their internal design team tweak as needed in order to avoid infringement issues, and make them affordable for the masses to enjoy. It does what fast-fashion companies should do with their merchandise, which is to take the look, give a nod to the designer's aesthetic, and transform it into its own inspired version. Zara's model exemplifies how literal copies aren't necessary to produce a multi-million dollar business. And while other fast-fashion companies have a long way to go in perfecting their business model in order to avoid becoming knock-off mills, one thing is clear...fast-fashion is here to stay. Merely policing the infringing activity over blogs isn't a sustainable solution. A more viable and business savvy approach would be to provide specific tools that fast-fashion companies can realistically utilize to help them become more compliant. For example, in my current job at a fast-fashion company, I work with the merchandising team to go over monthly selections and help them identify which items are infringing copies and which are not. I then work with the design team and vendors to alter the infringing items, removing any registered design marks or protected features, and transforming them from knock-offs to inspired-by versions. Over time, the merchandising and design teams have learned to apply these practices more efficiently and intuitively without any policing. I also created guidelines to help the merchandising team identify infringing goods before placing a large order from foreign vendors.
The examples above are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the types of turn-key programs that can be created to develop better business practices. Fashion lawyers, reporters, and industry insiders should shift the focus away from criticizing fast-fashion to adopting a more solution-oriented approach to its deficiencies. The business model has clearly stood the test of time and fashion lawyers and professionals must extend their knowledge base beyond policing the companies and start putting on their business caps to come up with specific tools and training that can be integrated into a company's operations. No single blog or online article will have as significant of an impact as developing detailed and viable guidelines that become inherent to the company's practices and provide a long-term solution towards compliance. Not even this post.