The first—and, so far, only—Karl Lagerfeld designs I ever bought were from H&M. His collaboration with the Swedish giant of fast fashion was the first one that really blew the roof off collaborations between top designers and inexpensive retailers. The buzz surrounding the launch of the collection was huge. The stores placed strict limits on the number of items (2) that could be purchased at one time. On opening day, line-ups were blocks long. Inside, shoppers devoured the racks and shelves like starved locusts.
I purchased a black silk dress with a lace trim. Once home, I noticed it fit strangely so I had a dressmaker fix it. The dress sat in my closet for a year. Feeling sorry for it, I wore it once to a work function. While reaching for an amuse bouche I heard a seam pop under my arm. Later, during a closet purge, I bundled it into a green garbage bag destined for Goodwill.
Now that the thrill is gone, fast fashion has a new moniker, landfill fashion. Because landfills are where most of it ends up, usually after only one or two wearings. (The clothes have almost no re-sale value because they are so poorly made.)
Disposable fashion is a scourge—it inflicts damage on the environment, factory workers, and, even high-end designers. It’s also a behemoth, representing billions of dollars in annual profits and making the people who helm those enterprises as rich as Croesus.
Fashion used to be a two-season industry: hot- and cold-weather clothing and accessories. Now it runs non-stop with new collections every month. What doesn’t sell is tossed in a disposal bin to make room the next, new thing which becomes “this old thing?” Consumers of fast fashion don’t care that their clothes are ill-fitting and fall apart quickly. The prices are so low that it’s easy to overlook their built-in obsolescence. In fact, people have become so accustomed to wearing junky clothes that it’s become the new norm. Like the rise of cheap, celebrity-driven fragrances, most people have never encountered a well-crafted product, so they literally do not know what they are missing.
By now, most of us know that the factory workers in low-wage countries who make these clothes lead wretched lives, working in unsafe and abusive environments for a pittance. At the entirely opposite end of the spectrum, high-end designers who make a genuine effort to create original and inspiring clothes find that, before their own designs are manufactured, they’ve been knocked-off by low-end purveyors like Joe Fresh, H&M and Zara.
The idea of buying something and wearing it for years, even decades, seems as quaint as a handwritten note or a dance card. In response to the degradation caused by disposable fashion, some fashion houses, like the Italian luxury brand Brunello Cucinelli, are branding themselves as “humanist enterprises” with a mandate “to make work more human”. It’s a noble exercise and I wholly endorse it. There’s only one small problem: Brunello Cucinelli designs cost a fortune. It would take a lifetime, or a very generous benefactor, to allow one to amass a wardrobe.
What’s missing from the retail landscape is the something in-between. Well-crafted, humanistically-made fashions that truly are “investment” pieces—an industry term that means nothing anymore. Landfill fashion, like Chinese junk food, primes consumers to gorge themselves silly— but remain unsatisfied.