As times get hard and green consciousness grows, lasting styles made with organic and fair trade materials are gaining in popularity.Posted Jan 15, 2009
The credit crunch has put paid to high times on the high street, but retailers are reporting the rise of ‘slow fashion’ as consumers think harder about what they buy.
Fast fashion, its antithesis, has had the clothing industry in its thrall for much of this decade, with customers seduced by cheap versions of styles that had graced the catwalks of Milan and Paris weeks previously. But with disposable incomes on the wane, even clothes at disposable prices are losing their appeal; the new must-haves are ‘made to last’ or, better still, ‘locally-made’.
Internet fashion retailer Adili is at the forefront of the ‘slow fashion’ movement. In fashion-speak, it sells products that are ‘trans-seasonal’ and made to be kept, with all materials organic, recycled or fair trade.
‘Slow fashion is not just about responding to trends,’ says Adili chief executive Adam Smith. ‘It is a mentality that involves thinking about provenance and buying something that won’t look unfashionable after one season.’
Former Topshop brand director Jane Shepherdson, who now runs Whistles, says the industry tends to move in cycles: ‘The high street is vast, and has to be fast; it may slow down a bit, but customers are used to newness. In a credit crunch people are said to make fewer, more considered purchases, but I’m not sure that has been borne out yet.’
“It is a mentality that involves thinking about provenance and buying something that won’t look unfashionable after one season.”
The prospect of a recession has led retailers to question whether customers will be as engaged with ethical issues as last year or, with money tighter, be more preoccupied by price. But Paula Nickolds, head of product development at John Lewis, says the recent publicity surrounding the discovery that some Primark suppliers had used child labour was keeping corporate social responsibility firmly in the public eye. ‘We see evidence of people buying up the quality spectrum if it gives them the confidence about the quality and longevity of what they are buying,’ she says. ‘We are also seeing strong sales in more premium materials such as silk, linen and cashmere.’
Sainsbury’s chief executive Justin King says that customers ‘won’t go backwards’, and that areas such as fair trade and organic are more important than a year ago: ‘They want to make sure every penny is spent well. Price is more important than a year ago, but it’s as well as, not instead of, these things.’ Sainsbury’s he says, has seen a massive increase in demand for more expensive free-range chickens after the campaign by celebrity chefs Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and Jamie Oliver, because customers were ‘engaged on the issue’ and willing to scrimp elsewhere to feel good about what they buy.
People are prepared to pay a higher price for something that is perceived to be good quality. Adili markets the idea of assembling an ‘enduring wardrobe’ of classic pieces and is vying to become an ethical lifestyle brand, adding menswear and household goods. Its own labels sell at similar prices to the high street, but Smith says demand for expensive designer jeans by Edun, the ethical brand started by Bono’s wife Ali Hewson, is also strong.
While Smith admits a third of its shoppers are more affluent and keen to be seen to ‘consuming responsibly’, while another third are what he calls ‘darker green’, Shepherdson says ‘slow fashion’ tends to appeal to an older customer: ‘You get to the point where you see hundreds of things in your wardrobe that you’ve worn once or [that] haven’t washed well, and are willing to buy something more expensive you can care for and keep for longer.’
“You get to the point where you see hundreds of things in your wardrobe that you’ve worn once or [that] haven’t washed well, and are willing to buy something more expensive you can care for and keep for longer.”
Nickolds interprets ‘slow fashion’ as buying for quality and longevity, but says it also chimes with the nostalgia people tend to feel in straitened times: ‘Trust becomes even more important.’ She reports that customers are scouring their stores for products made in areas that have a reputation for quality, like Scottish cashmere or shoes from Northampton: ‘Where there is a particular heritage, people are keen to buy British,’ she adds. John Lewis operates the Herbert Parkinson factory in Darwen, Lancashire as part of its home furnishings business. The plant, which employs 250 people, means it can satisfy customer orders in seven days.
Also, against an industry trend that has seen many of its competitors move production to the Far East, footwear brand New Balance manufactures 28,000 pairs of shoes a week in Flimby, Cumbria. One of the founding principles of the privately held American company, which has annual sales of $1.6bn (£810m), is a commitment to a domestic workforce; it operates five factories in the US and employs 210 people at Flimby, where around half the New Balance shoes sold in the UK are made. New Balance managing director for Europe Jonathan Ram says the policy gives it flexibility and speed to market: ‘It gives us an advantage as the economy gets tougher, as a lot of small retailers are cautious about taking inventory. We can work closely with them, replenishing stock as and when they need it.’
New Balance has not researched whether British shoppers realise their running shoes may have been made in Cumbria, but Ram says the brand, which does not sponsor big-name athletes, aims to ‘do the right thing by its customers’. ‘In more difficult times,’ he says, people become nostalgic and interested in authenticity and that could be one of the things they look at.’
Many retailers can’t do fast fashion anyway. Whistles, for example, orders fabric from Italy, so the manufacturing process is far slower and Shepherdson says that means the product has to be worth waiting for: ‘You have to approach business differently in times like this. You have to tempt people to buy something by making it more beautiful and interesting. Some retailers will be able to go cheap, but because of the high operating costs others won’t.’
Smith adds: ‘I think people are thinking pretty hard about what they spend their money on and if it will last. Slow fashion is very real – our customers believe in it.’
Source: The Observer (UK)