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Is luxury fashion more sustainable than fast fashion?

By Mahrukh Tahir 23 December 2020

Header image courtesy of Style Carousel (via Facebook)

No, because luxury fashion has become a contradiction.

“Luxury fashion” is a term that sparks confusion for anyone who ponders its meaning for more than a minute. The term “luxury” has an association of permanence, timelessness, heritage, and generational value, whereas “fashion” is, by definition, ephemeral.

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Hey Google, define fashion.

Fashion today is synonymous with short-lived trends. Google’s similar word suggestions—“craze,” “rage,” and “mania”—accurately describe the state in which the luxury fashion industry is in, and since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the situation has only become direr. The pandemic has put intense pressure on an industry that was already showing signs of fraying, from unsustainable levels of pollution and waste created, to workers right violations, to the exploitation of international garment workers and a growing list of additional problems. But it was not always this way. And there may be a chance for redemption.

Photo credit: Hannah Morgan (via Unsplash)

How fast fashion ruined the luxury fashion business model

Most top luxury fashion houses, which have endured the test of time, emerged in the 1800s after the First World War. These brands include familiar names like Hermès, Chanel, Lanvin, and Louis Vuitton. At the time of their inception, they were the furthest thing from being mass-market produced. Their labels were equated with fine workmanship and enduring quality, and that’s where the bulk of their brand equity still comes from today.

In the 1800s, luxury brands embodied qualities that actually resemble the rallying call of many sustainable fashion brands today:

  • Produced in small quantities: Often, clothes were specially made to order.

  • Produced with highly-skilled, high-paid labour: Having especially skilled labour was a marker of quality and craftsmanship, which is why luxury garments and goods were valued so highly at the time.

  • Built to withstand the test of time: Many garments were passed down through generations and cherished through multiple wears. 

But when fast fashion entered the market at the turn of the century, it offered cheap knock-off versions of expensive designer styles. Brands like H&M and Zara were downright accused of plagiarism and looked down upon by the designer elite which they emulated. Yet after years of steadily chipping away market-share, it became clear to designers that fast fashion could no longer be ignored.

In a plot twist that can only be described as Shakespearean, luxury fashion today has come to resemble the very thing it considered an arch-nemesis for decades. “The business that began 150 years ago as haute couture, and which was later reborn as ready-to-wear, has been remade to deliver luxury fast fashion for the masses,” said Liroy Choufan in a recent op-ed for Business of Fashion.

Photo credit: Harper’s Bazaar

How luxury fashion has started to look a lot like fast fashion

  1. High-low collaborations: Partnerships between luxury designers and fast fashion brands started with Karl Lagerfield’s H&M collaboration in 2004 and went on to spur a movement of designer brands collaborating with fast fashion houses. This movement included brands like Stella McCartney, Roberto Cavalli, Jimmy Choo, Lanvin, Versace, Balmain, and many more since. These partnerships have inevitably brought these brands into the fast fashion fold encouraging them to target the masses with their styles.

  2. Using inexpensive international labour: With pressures to produce more for less and improve profitability, many brands have shifted to offshore production to reduce their cost of goods sold. Multiple luxury brands including Prada, Dolce and Gabbana, and Hugo Boss have been highlighted by the Clean Clothes Campaign for having poverty-level wages as well as unsafe working conditions for their international garment workers.

  3. A shift from two fashion seasons a year to 52 micro-seasons: From having two seasons a year (Spring/Summer and Fall/Winter) to monthly—and sometimes weekly—product drops, it has put increased pressure on designers to produce designs in time, often sacrificing quality in favour of cheaper materials that can be made quickly. This has also led to increased waste and pollution throughout the entire value chain, with brands resorting to incinerating over-stock to ensure a perception of scarcity and protect their brands from over-discounting.

Photo credit: Burberry (via Facebook)

While luxury brands have steadily moved away from their more sustainable business practices in favour of mass-production, they’ve been met with an insatiable demand from consumers. Most consumers, still blissfully unaware of the impact of their buying decisions, continue to tacitly support the industry’s waste and labour practices. Knowledge is power, so here are some staggering statistics that every conscious consumer needs to care about to sustain our global temperature and move towards guaranteeing basic human rights for all:

  • Clothing production doubled from 2000 to 2014.

  • The number of garments purchased per capita increased by 60 percent during that period, yet people only kept the clothes for half as long.

  • In Europe, fashion companies went from an average of two collections per year in 2000 to five in 2011.

  • The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.

  • The fashion industry is responsible for 10 percent of humanity’s carbon emissions.

  • If the fashion sector continues on its current trajectory, that share of the carbon budget could jump to 26 percent by 2050, according to a 2017 report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.

And here’s the thing that many consumers don’t realise—they hold all the cards and influence to change the trajectory of where the future of fashion is headed. In 2018, when Burberry revealed it destroyed millions of dollars of unsold merchandise every year to preserve its reputation of exclusivity, consumers met the news with a global outcry to boycott the brand. And the outcry worked—Burberry quickly announced it would not destroy its excess product immediately following the controversy. Beyond protesting, here is one simple way for all of us to start our path to a more sustainable and stylish future.

Commit to better style this holiday season

It’s time for luxury fashion to return to its more sustainable roots and the only way that will happen is if consumers take action. This holiday season, buy less and rent your memorable holiday looks for your intimate (Covid-19 compliant!) gatherings instead.

You can choose from a host of sustainable brands and local companies to support and also book from luxury clothing rental platforms that offer one-time bookings as well as subscriptions for women looking for a more sustainable lifestyle change. From evening gowns and cheongsams to casual dresses, there are now homegrown companies that offer clothing rentals for every occasion.

By booking or renting dresses that you would normally only wear a few times, you end up having complete fashion freedom to have a new wardrobe just a few clicks away, and you know you’re rescuing items that would otherwise end up in landfills. Luxury “fashion” does not need to remain a contradiction. Our understanding of fashion can change—and the power is with you to make that happen.

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Mahrukh Tahir

Contributor

Mahrukh Tahir, fondly known as MT, is the director of marketing at Style Carousel, a luxury fashion styling and clothing rental service quickly scaling in Hong Kong. Outside of her interests in fashion and sustainability, she is an artist and unleashes her creativity by making large-scale contemporary paintings. She has also lived in five countries (and counting)!

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