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Fast Fashion 2.0: New Leaders Tackle Trendy with a Twist

Periodically, the question comes up among industry professionals as to what exactly fast fashion means.

Is it the speed at which a product moves from design to the selling floor? Is it the frequency with which new collections are debuted? Or is it the time between a need being perceived and a package arriving at the consumer’s door?

Over the past few years, the definition of fast fashion has been evolving. Despite the dominance of Zara, the high priestess of speed-to-market, and H&M and Forever 21, which pioneered cheap and chic, and Primark, which virtually invented the phrase “pile it high and let it fly,” smaller brands, many of which are digital natives, are beginning to make significant inroads in the space.

What these new businesses lack in scale they more than make up for in differentiated product, unique services, localization and customization, plus social consciousness and compelling brand stories.

The newcomers are also leveraging technology to create a better customer experience. Every day, billions of new photos are posted to social media, making the practice of secretly repeating an outfit harder to pull off, and making keeping up with trends easier than ever. Each week, it seems, new apps and platforms are launched with the aim of making shopping easier, faster and more frictionless, giving consumers increased permission to dictate what they want and when and how they want to buy it.

Chiquelle, a Swedish online retailer that came on the scene in 2012, targets fashionistas in search of pieces made with a unique twist on current trends. The brand’s affordably priced upscale styles are made in its own factories, giving it complete control over production and quality. Using mobile commerce, pop-up stores, and social media (it has more than 365,000 followers on Instagram), Chiquelle has scaled rapidly beyond Scandinavia. CEO Pouya Boland told attendees at a conference in Norway in March that the self-funded company turned a profit in its second year.

In response to the criticism that fast fashion is clogging up landfills, London-based Rêve en Vert (Translation: Dream in Green) is an e-commerce platform for sustainably- and ethically-produced goods. Founded in 2013, its products sell at price points that are higher than most fast fashion brands, but lower than most eco-friendly brands, earning it the nickname “the sustainable Net-A-Porter.” R.E.V. founders Natasha Tucker and Cora Hilts said they believe sustainable fashion is the way things should be, and that it means more investment and “getting people to think about what they’re buying and then loving it and keeping it and cherishing it.” Many of the items are made locally in East London to minimize carbon footprint, and each item bears a recycled cotton label.

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Another U.K.-based brand, Missguided, has grown rapidly since its launch in 2009, with sales of more than $280 million in its most recent fiscal year and online sales growth in excess of 40 perent. Its trendy styles and message of female empowerment have resonated well with customers. The brand recently put “body positive image” mannequins sporting stretch marks, freckles and other “flaws” in some of its stores, and boasts active customers of almost 3 million. In fiscal 2017, sales rose a reported 75 percent to more than $280 million.

New York-based Ziel produces custom activewear on an on-demand basis for fitness chains, hotels, social media influencers, celebrities and other brands. Founded by Marleen Vogelaar, a former Dutch national running champion who was also co-founder of Shapeways, the world’s largest 3-D printer and marketplace, Ziel requires no minimums and can deliver in 10 days or less, resulting in dramatically reduced inventory carrying costs and increased sell-through. Ziel recently launched with plus-size subscription brand Gwynnie Bee.

Indochino, the 11-year-old Vancouver-based men’s brand, can supply made-to-order tailored clothing in two weeks at a fraction of the cost of a bespoke tailor. Realizing that if it wanted to be a market leader it would have to scale faster in the $7 billion men’s clothing space, in 2014 the company began to open brick-and-mortar showrooms to better reach the guy who needs more help getting introduced to the concept of a custom-made suit. Company executive Drew Green told attendees at a retail conference earlier this year that the company has managed to lower its customer acquisition cost from $140 to $78 over the past two years, and has cut lead times in half. In the most recent quarter, revenue grew 50 percent. The digital voice of the brand is still very present in the technology-equipped stores.

Even luxury brands have dipped their toes into the fast fashion water. Last year Farfetch partnered with Gucci to offer F90, guaranteed 90-minute delivery of the brand in 10 cities including New York, Los Angeles, Dubai and Milan.

TechStyle, the celebrity fast fashion conglomerate formerly know as JustFab whose brand portfolio includes JustFab, ShoeDazzle and the rapidly growing subscription-based Fabletics, is expected to launch a size-inclusive lingerie brand next week with Rihanna called Savage x Fenty.

And, of course, a discussion about “fast” would not be complete without a word on Amazon.

Despite the less-than-inspiring user experience that shopping for clothing on Amazon provides, it is now the largest distributor of apparel in the U.S. The company will be a force to be reckoned with by any online or offline brand looking to meet consumer needs more quickly and conveniently during that “last mile” of the product journey. Last year it was granted a patent for an on-demand apparel production system, and now has a 3-D body scanning unit thanks to its acquisition last year of computer vision startup Body Labs. Its “Echo Look” style assistant will even give you a second opinion on your outfit. It’s only a matter of time before the Seattle phenom figures out how to make fashion shopping on its platform a more inspiring experience.

As these leaders and innovators have made clear, it is not enough just to offer trendy clothing at low cost. Instead, a unique position or idea is allowing newer players with digital know-how to become successful by staying laser-focused on their target audience and providing unique, on-trend product, cutting-edge tech capabilities, and perhaps most importantly—a compelling brand story.