No one loves a good fashion deal more than us. I mean who can resist the siren call of a $20 H&M dress? Or the summer sale at Zara, for that matter? But while fast fashion seems awesome (trends right off the runway all for the price of dinner), it could be coming at a serious cost to our planet, our culture, and ultimately, ourselves, as Elizabeth L. Cline warns in her new book Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion (Portfolio/Penguin, $25.95). The book has been likened to Fast Food Nation, but for cheap rompers and jeggings.
At the risk of turning us off of our favorite in-a-bind fast fashion chains for good (sometimes you just have to see how the sausage gets made), we spoke with Cline about why fast fashion is so toxic, what we’ll need to change in the fashion industry, and how you can help.
So, what’s Overdressed all about?
It’s an inside look at the declining cost of clothing over the last decades and how our consumption has sky-rocketed as a result. I wanted to delve into all these really big changes in the fashion industry. I noticed in my own life that I was shopping constantly and shopping very cheaply. And of course I’m not alone. I mean we even have a First Lady bragging about wearing Target.
And what did you find?
The entire mass market fashion industry is really about putting out trends constantly throughout the year, and everyone in the industry is competing to try to sell clothes as cheaply and as quickly as possible. It started out as a niche thing, with stores like Forever21 and H&M, and then it pushed every company in mass market to operate in this way.
How has this affected the average consumer’s pscyhe?
In a very short period of time clothing has gone from something that we need to save up for and something that people valued and took care of, to something that is an impulse and disposal purchase. People are buying throw-away clothes. It’s a big shift in our thinking. Nowadays, people value trends over quality and craftsmanship. I would argue my generation and those that are younger than me, don’t even know what a well-made garment even looks like. When I started researching this book, I definitely didn’t.
How did you train yourself to spot actually well-made, quality garments?
I had to hire a wardrobe consultant to teach me about quality. Also, spending a lot of time in thrift stores and looking at vintage pieces.
In your book you talk about how the fashion industry really runs on copying other people’s designs.
Well, at this point I think it’s really difficult to pinpoint where new trends are coming from. The problem is that that’s why the fashion system is moving so quickly. Because all this information is being spread through the internet and companies are copying the trends as soon as they come out. A trend comes out and it’s exhausted in a couple of months or even a couple of weeks. When you get a company like Forever21 copying a designer it’s certainly threat to every niche market [including established and independent designers].
There’s been some talk about how the current fashion show cycle, which has designers showing six months before the clothes actually hit stores, is out of whack with the way trends move these days. Do you think the designers will have to change the show schedule?
Yes, I think that runway designers are going to have to resolve [this issue]. I think they’ll have to figure out how to really work in the new system, so they’re not being constantly scooped by Forever21 and H&M.
What sort of future problems are we looking at if we continue to buy clothes in the way we do?
Well I think what we’re already seeing is that there are going to be supply problems because there is only so much cotton that can be grown. There’s only so many sheep that can be shorn. If we continue in this way, more and more of our clothing will have to be produced from synthetic material. It’s all going to be polyester. Which I think is sad. Most people don’t want to be wearing plastic but they’re so obsessed with getting a deal that they’ll buy it anyways.
What sort of space does this create for independent, and particularly sustainable, designers?
The problem for sustainable designers, is that we’re going to have to reeducate consumers that what you’re really getting what you pay for. Consumers have come to view a $20 dress as a fair price, when really it couldn’t be further from the truth