Before we really dive into the meat of this article, I want you to visualize the most expensive garment you own and the least expensive garment you own. Got ‘em? Good.
If I had to guess, you’re thinking of a winter coat and a t-shirt. Or maybe it’s your shoes and an on-sale button up. What do you know about each? What benefits do they provide you? What did each cost? Most importantly of all: what’s the delta between those prices?
Spurred on by the big business of “casual luxury” and the explosive growth of fast fashion, the wardrobe of the trendy modern consumer is becoming increasingly polarized: dramatic overspends on lavish name-brand casual items supported by skimping for everything else. This “grail” culture, as it’s been called, certainly creates an odd mix: an $800 Mackage coat covers a $10 H&M tee; $600 Golden Goose sneakers sit below the crop of $40 Zara jeans. Extreme cases even push 4 figures (a Moncler Maya down sweater retails for $1150.00; Optic White Converse All-Stars, a paltry $55). While luxury outerwear specifically is cross-marketed as functional, even the most advanced mountaineering gear on the planet only begins to approach the price of luxury skiwear brand Moncler.
Flaunting material wealth through fashion (especially in a college environment) is not new. In the 80’s, Lacoste polos became synonymous with prepsters and disposable income alike. Then came the 90’s, and Polo Ralph Lauren turned gators into ponies – at the same price point as before, nonetheless. By the early aughts, now-mass market Vineyard Vines was making inroads in the Northeast. The cycle repeats. Housewives could set their clocks by a new expensive-but-not-unattainable prep brand (and its cheery animal embroidery) stealing the show at the turn of each decade.
The common thread (pardon the pun) of all the above is an above-average, but not atmospheric, price point supplanted by an aura of elevation. A Polo oxford was no Italian dress shirt, but it could hold its own in job interviews and semi-formals alike. Yes, the contrast pony over your left breast was a tad ostentatious, but it was still a versatile garment. And after all, it was $80: you washed it on cold and made sure to iron, but it wasn’t your rent.
Think about that. That last part, specifically. Doesn’t wearing a rent check’s worth of price difference seem a little… well… inconsistent?
While the casualization of luxury is certainly a modern and unprecedented trend, the prices of even the most “casual” luxury goods (sneakers, down jackets, etc.) are priced and distributed as prohibitively as ever before. Affordable luxury brands (Coach, Michael Kors, Kate Spade, even The North Face/Patagonia) have always existed and continued to exist, but only recently has true luxury began to permeate the market on a large scale.
Canada Goose and Moncler are multiple standard deviations in cost above the “expensive winter coats” of years past, and more significantly are marketed specifically as luxury goods. Even the infamous black North Face parkas of years past topped out at $600, a full 33% less than the cheapest full-length Canada Goose. Past price barriers alone, luxury brands are characterized by attainability - how easy it is to even access the product, regardless of your ability to spend. North Face jackets were available at sporting goods stores around the country. Moncler has 14 mono-brand stores in the United States, and only a handful of high-end retail accounts. How, then, did luxury jackets become ubiquitous enough to warrant YouTube parodies?
Luxury’s value proposition has not budged, yet more and more luxury is sold: despite an unseasonably warm winter in its largest markets, Moncler logged a record-high €880m earnings in 2015. Where exactly are these new consumers coming from? To add yet another piece to the mystery, Americans today (specifically, the Millennial generation) are spending less on clothing than any generation before. Flagging profits at traditional retail giants Macy’s, Nordstroms, and Bloomingdales all reflect this.
Assuming x inflation-adjusted dollars were spent yearly circa 1999 (the inflation-adjusted peak of department store sales, according to the U.S. census), and an amount materially less than x are spent today, increased purchases at the top just couldn’t be financed without another part of the same denominator falling dramatically. Luxury goods are superfluous by definition; they are purchased after essentials, not in lieu of them. As cool as luxury outerwear looks and feels, spending every cent of your clothing budget on a single jacket (at the expense of, well, clothing) is a sure way to a public indecency charge. To enable current habits, then, something else had to give.
What gave is the low end. The rise of fast fashion has created a bimodal spending distribution with concentrations at “dirt cheap” and “ludicrously high”, where occasional splurges on formerly-inaccessible pieces are supplanted by a lower absolute cost of consumption. The discrepancy has nothing to do with buying fewer clothes. Fashion shoppers are still buying the same volume of garments, if not more. But when your closet is stuffed with $10 sweaters instead of a single $50 piece, there is suddenly a lot more room in your budget to reach for your grails.
Luxury vendors realize this, too, and the segment has grown in recent years – even during a worldwide financial crisis - as a result. In Bain & Company’s Spring 2015 Worldwide Luxury Goods Update, the consulting firm predicted 2-4% real growth for the €224 billion global luxury segment and listed an increase in the “overall number of luxury consumers from 140 million worldwide to over 350 million” as a primary reason why. It's worth nothing that Bain & Company has had a controlling stake in luxury brand Canada Goose since 2013.
The luxury brands, however, are not to blame. They are merely responding to social forces spurred on by chains like Zara, H&M, and Topshop. The luxury goods industry has even been touted as a model of sustainable business due to its emphasis on quality over quantity. However, whatever good increased luxury consumption causes is offset tenfold by the ills that have enabled it.
I could go into great depth about the inherent danger of fast fashion. So have the fashion, environmental, and business press – a simple Google search for the term “fast fashion unsustainable” returns 82,000 results. For one, fast fashion gamifies apparel consumption by playing on your neurological response to achievement. Each shirt bought is a trophy; each card swipe, a chemical “hit”. And because it costs pennies on the dollar, it’s repeatable. The crux of fast fashion is shopping made addictive entertainment. $5 shoes are just a bonus.
The grander irony of fast fashion, however, comes from the very economies of scale that enable its price point and therefore guiding philosophy: unethical labor practices (the Rana Plaza collapse that killed 1,129) and scathing environmental audits are seen as unfortunate side effects of a firm’s goal to produce “democratic clothing.” That is, clothing at an ultra-accessible price point that can reach as much of the market as possible. I’d love to hear what thousands of Bangladeshi families think of this democracy, especially when they’re at risk of being burned alive just by going to work. Or if Bangladesh is too far, pop over to Turkey and ask the Syrian refugees-turned-child textile laborers there about their work. The Guardian did; it wasn’t pretty.
Cognitive dissonance aside, the forces that sustain this dramatic price difference that has come to characterize the modern luxury consumer are inherently unsustainable and borderline dangerous.
Human capital abuse is just one of the issues: in an effort to keep costs low enough to facilitate margins on ultra-discounted retail products, worker salaries are slashed and factory conditions become a mere afterthought. The Rana Plaza collapse is just one of a multitude of human rights abuses that can be directly tied to fast fashion cost-cutting. In 2013, Zara was fined by Brazil’s ministry of labor for subjecting workers at a supplier’s factory to “slave-like conditions.” Child laborers worked 16-hour shifts, earning $170-289 a month, well below the $339 Brazilian minimum wage. All in the name of democratic clothing. While “consumer awareness” of fast fashion-associated labor abuses may have increased in the wake of Rana Plaza, fast fashion chains continue to post record growth. Consumers may be cognizant of their actions, but the votes they cast in the checkout line are only encouraging more of the same.
The real elephant in the room, specifically in the shadow of the recent Paris climate talks, is the pure material waste created by the high order volumes that sustain fast fashion. I’m not just talking about the inherently-wasteful “landfill fashion” phenomenon, either. Even though the EPA estimates that the average US resident now throws away 70 pounds of clothing each year, that’s a mere drop in the bucket compared to the environmental cost of growing, manufacturing, and shipping the materials needed to make a cost-cutting garment.
The garment & textile industry is the world’s second largest aggregate polluter, trailing only the energy industry. Global supply chains require hydrocarbons to fuel shipping. Indigo-dyed jeans require readily-dissolved metallic bonding agents to attractively fade. A single cotton t-shirt may use up to 2,700 liters of water during its production. If you’re only buying one $80 button-up every once in a long while, these hidden environmental costs stay relatively low. It’s the $20 shirt, designed with "planned obsolescence" and therefore repeat purchases in mind, that misaligns incentives and causes the real damage.
On the other side of the same coin, luxury goods may even be the key to the garment industry’s sustainability crisis! But just like before, fashion buyers ultimately vote with their dollar. Buying two $20 shirts in the same time frame as one $80 shirt costs immediately less (saving money that can otherwise be put towards a “grail item”) and is perceived as functionally equivalent, since, you know, you’re not naked. The real cost of that doubled environmental impact is much farther out.
Think back again to your bimodal wardrobe, and why you underspent on what you did. I can recall distinct moments in time where I didn’t buy that shirt or those sneakers because I wanted to save for something else. Essentially, I made a trade-off between fashion consumption and everything else. And what is life but a series of trade-offs?
I’m not suggesting that everyone must prioritize apparel spending by any means – if clothing makes you happy, then by all means, pop tags. And if you can afford a wardrobe full of exclusively luxury goods without significantly impacting other parts of your life, please comment below so I can forward my resume. I’m instead asking you to consider the danger of having it all.
Fast fashion allows you to buy without immediate consequence; to invest paltry sums in an ever-rotating wardrobe that’s always trendy AND go to the bar on the weekends; to buy that new t-shirt AND get the grail piece you’ve always dreamed of.
The operative word is “immediate”. The 4-figure price delta that characterizes the wardrobe of the modern luxury consumer enables happiness in the present. Given the unsustainable nature of the forces that created it, however, I wonder if the opposite lies in our future.