Forget the runway-copying conglomerates. The new breed of fast-fashion designer can turn a social-media trend into affordable clothing in the blink of an eye. Which is exactly as cool—and as ethically complicated–as it sounds.
After the #menswear boom of the mid-to-late aughts, guys began looking in the mirror at their chambray shirts, raw selvedge denim and moc toe boots and wondering what was next for their sartorial lives. It wasn’t long before they were trading in Yuketen for Yeezy, Ralph Lauren for Raf Simons, and A.P.C. for SLP. But swapping heritage gear for high-fashion looks put pressure on their wallets. Fast-fashion retailers like Zara and H&M were there to give them the trends they craved at a fraction of the cost (and often testing the boundary between “inspired by” and outright ripped off in the process). As menswear became more like womenswear—more driven by “it” items from season to season—guys started looking for new ways to keep up with the revolving door of trends.
The times are changing once again. Interest in fast-fashion is, for the first time, waning. In the first quarter of this year, H&M had their first monthly sales drop in nearly four years, and Zara parent company Inditex SA saw profitability shrink to an eight-year low. They attribute these strains to divergent spending habits and the rise of competition, but it’s also coming from the ground up—via young, independent, hungry labels that have used social media to attract young, trend-hungry customers. These brands might not categorize themselves as fast-fashion, but despite their relatively modest sizes, they understand the importance of instant gratification to their style-savvy, cost-cognizant audience. And like their more corporate competition, brands like Represent, KNYEW, and MNML have gotten popular by flipping the hottest current trends into instantly-available items, while using social media and YouTube to reach new customers. But to the designers giving the inspiration, like Fear of God’s Jerry Lorenzo, some of these new-age fast-fashion brands are more like imitators than actual designers.
Richard Sung, the co-founder of Las Vegas lifestyle brand KNYEW, knows what makes customers apprehensive about traditional fast-fashion retailers. “When I think of fast-fashion, I think of a massive tornado,” he says. “It sucks up everything in its path, feeding off other designers, destroying the environment we live in with absolutely no remorse for the devastation it leaves behind.” But labels like Sung’s are still taking a page out of the Zara playbook. Rather than revolutionize by inventing the next big trend, they’ve gotten ahead by hopping on current trends quicker than anyone else.
Brothers George and Mike Heaton started Represent with a small collection of distressed and ripped denim. Since then, the line has evolved into outerwear, velour hoodies, mohair shirts and crepe sole boots—the kind of products that hit runways a few seasons ago but are just now trickling down to the masses. “Fast-fashion puts such a pressure on the high-end seasonal approach to retail,” George says. Represent has to keep up with trends just like any fast-fashion brand, but being small allows them to be nimble and selective about which trends they choose to hop on. They don’t have to make clothes in line with every trend. They just need the ones they bet on to be hits.
Represent’s competitive prices—bomber jackets for $370 and jeans for $150 that resemble the $1,000-plus versions made by Fear Of God—are a product of striking while the trend iron is hot. “We’re able to exceed minimum quantities [for fabric orders], which in turn brings prices down, which helps us create a wholesale margin as well as a healthy retail profit,” George Heaton says. In that way, Represent isn’t much different than a traditional fast-fashion retailer. Sell a shit ton of a shirt or pants, and you can buy up the fabric to make them for less. Where they differ is in the amount of products they offer. Selling fewer total styles, which keeps the need to buy multiple different fabrics to a minimum.
Like their customers, Represent pays close attention to social media. So do other brands. “We’re always keeping an eye on what’s going on in other industries as well—music, visual art, design—to make sure we’re developing upon other relevant areas to incorporate into our line,” says George. “With blogs and influencers, that product elevation allows [products] to be pushed hard to the masses, which in turn makes it a trend.” Parisian brand Nid de Guepes, too, points to a vague idea of “youth culture” as their inspiration, but they also have a pragmatic-veering-toward-cynical approach to the industry. “In the ready-to-wear industry and fast-fashion, everything has been invented, you cannot create something really revolutionary,” says Erwan Ferriere, the brand’s communications manager. “We don’t have the same market power Vetements, Gosha [Rubchinskiy] or Off-White has. It’s risky for a brand like us to release something that will be trendy before any high fashion brand releases it. So we must re-interpret what’s trendy—which is in the fashion world most of the time un-wearable—and make it wearable.”