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Is Fast Fashion a Dirty Word?

Fast fashion has been blamed for the demise of retail, for the glut of disposed-of garments in landfills and likely for depriving executives at traditional retailers of sleep. But whether it’s deemed a dirty word or not, it’s here.

The notion was one a panel of experts mulled at the Decoded Fashion New York Summit 2017 last week. One major problem with fast fashion, they found, apart from what’s generally considered the obvious, is that it can neglect the art portion of fashion—and that’s where smaller brands stand to realize opportunity.

[Read more from Decoded: Stefan Larsson on Why Simplicity Should Supersede Speed in the Supply Chain]

“Inherently fast fashion does not believe in creation,” said Lawrence Lenihan, co-founder and co-CEO of Resonance, a platform that helps creator brands build a business that’s scalable. “We build an infrastructure that enables every creator to run like Zara.”

With Resonance, creators are left to do what they do best while Resonance supplies the company providing experience, the industry insight, the manufacturing capabilities, the technology and the capital.

Resonance fully believes there will never be another start-up fashion brand to make $1 billion in revenue. The company even goes so far as to say it’s possible no fashion brand started in the last five years will ever generate that kind of money. It’s the end of the $1 billion brand, so to speak.

“All of the money invested in fashion start-ups to maintain their early growth rates will not drive the returns venture capitalists had hoped for when they invested huge sums of money at sky-high valuations,” Resonance writes in its company manifesto. “Much of this capital will be lost, leaving in its wake a general malaise and depression that will affect the fashion start-up ecosystem for years to come. But, ironically, this impending reality will also mark the beginning of the most incredible time in the history of fashion for entrepreneurs to build great brands.”

Most brands—big or small—are doomed to make too much or too little in their efforts to surmise what consumers will want before they want it, and get it to them before they don’t want it anymore.

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Brands, no matter the size, have to be ever more nimble if they are to compete for consumers’ selective attention—and spend. And it’s going to take supply chains equipped to handle less than million-unit orders.

“You’ve got to be able to make one, not dozens or hundreds,” Lenihan said.

What’s more, many brands are putting out product that garners no excitement, and ultimately provides little value to the consumer. Startups have often been able to skirt that scenario by creating product that resonates with a niche. With that, plus their innate nimbleness and the resources companies like Resonance provide, these small but relevant brands will continue to steal share from those that have been holding it for perhaps too long.

“I think you’re going to see more and more of this approach to how small designers can compete,” Lenihan said. “You’re never going to out-manufacture Zara, you’re never going to out-manufacture H&M. But you can out create.”

That, however, begs the question: are customers willing to pay for that creativity?

According to Lenihan, yes.

“There’s this golden age of creativity coming…I don’t think people are just going to be buying sh*t forever,” he said. “First of all, we can’t sustain it.”

Rag & Bone global CMO Johanna Murphy agrees.

“Obviously fast fashion is making fashion very disposable,” she said. “But there’s also a counter influence going…in sustainability and the demand for us to create product that actually lasts longer,” she said. The proliferation of product is the thing that’s impacting the apparel industry more than anything else, she added.

At Rag & Bone, both quality and collection quantity have increased, with designs being done by month rather than designing for fall and spring collections, because today’s consumer doesn’t do status quo if it doesn’t work.

“We’re an industry that likes to navel gaze…but things outside of our industry are changing consumer expectation and what consumers want,” Murphy said.

Pointing again to Starbucks as a beacon for what apparel brands should really be aspiring to, as other forward thinkers in the space have, Murphy said the coffee company and its ever-convenient app have changed the way service works.

With Starbucks, consumers can order a $5 Starbucks coffee from the company’s app while they’re sitting in an Uber, pay for it via the card and simply walk in and collect it.

“I’m selling premium priced products—why can’t I figure out how to create that same experience in the retail environment?” Murphy posed.

The focus in rectifying what retail still doesn’t realize shouldn’t be squarely aimed at fast fashion, the favorite culprit.

“It’s really the world that’s going on outside of our industry that’s making us a little less relevant,” Murphy said.