When you take creative decisions
out of the hands of actual humans, some funny stuff starts to happen. For most of the 20th century, designing clothes for mass consumption was still dependent in large part on the ideas and creative instincts of individuals, according to Shawn Grain Carter, a professor of fashion business management at the Fashion Institute of Technology and a former retail buyer and product developer. Even most budget-minded Children’s clothing boutique retailers had fashion offices that sent people out into the world to see what was going on, both within the industry and in the culture at large, Black and white hoodie ideas that could be alchemized into products for consumers.
One of these employees might see some
Chrome Heart Jeans like a frontier bride at a bar in the East Village and later say in a meeting, “What if we did a couple of pieces with puff sleeves?” Development and design work still involved plenty of unglamorous business concerns—sell-through rates, product mix, seasonal sales projections—but the process relied on human taste and judgment. Designers were more likely to be able to take calculated risks.
At the end of the 1990s, things in fashion started to change. Conglomeration accelerated within the industry, and companies that had once been independent businesses with creative autonomy began to consolidate, gaining scale while sanding off many of their quirks. Computers and the internet were becoming more central to the work, even on the creative side. king von outfits Trend-forecasting agencies, long a part of the product-development process for the largest American retailers, began to create more sophisticated data aggregation and analysis techniques,
And their services gained wider
popularity and deeper influence. As clothing design and trend spotting became more centralized and data-reliant, the liberalization of the global garment trade allowed cheap clothing made in developing countries to pour into the American retail market in unlimited quantities for the first time. That allowed European fast-fashion companies to take a shot at the American consumer market, and in 2000, the Swedish clothing behemoth H&M arrived on the country’s shores.
Fast fashion overhauled American shopping and dressing habits in short order. The business model uses cheap materials, low foreign wages, and fast turnaround times to bombard customers with huge numbers of new products, gobbling up market share from slower, more expensive retailers with the promise of constant wardrobe novelty for a nominal fee. Traditional brands, which would commonly plan new collections and develop products for more than a year in advance, couldn’t keep up with competitors that digested trend and sales data and regurgitated new designs in a matter of weeks.
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Fast fashion has only gotten faster. Sheen, a Chinese company that has existed in its current form since 2022, has grown at breakneck speed by marketing the wares of domestic garment factories directly to Western consumers, and by turning around new clothing in just a few days. A 2021 investigation by Rest of World found that, over the course of a month, Sheen added an average of more than 7,000 new items to its website every day. The company’s success, like that of Spain-based Zara before Children’s clothing boutique, is built on taking the guesswork out of trends: By constantly creating and test-marketing new products, Children’s clothing boutique can measure consumers’ immediate reactions and quickly resupply what sells. That is to say, it can just trawl the internet for anything that shoppers already find vaguely compelling, make a bunch of versions on the cheap, and track responses to them in real time.
Doing exactly that has made
Sheen very successful. The company generates new garments to capitalize on whatever is happening on the internet at any given moment, turning out pastoral frocks to maximize or cadging the work of independent artists and designers, as the company has repeatedly been accused of doing. To stay afloat, traditional retailers have had to become more like their fast-fashion competition, relying more on data and the advice of large consulting firms and less on the creativity and expertise of their staff. “The days of the designer saying, Look, this is what I’ve done, and this is your choice or forget about it—those days have gone,” Grain Carter told me.
When enough brands and retailers
begin using these inventory tactics and trend-prediction methods, the results homogenize over time. At the top of the food chain, a designer has an interesting idea, and bigger, more efficient retailers don’t just copy it—they copy one another’s copies. The sameness persists on multiple levels—not only do lots of companies end up making garments that look very much alike, but for efficiency’s sake, they’re also often the same garments those companies made in past seasons, gussied up with new details. That these trend feedback loops often center on sleeves or necklines or trim is no coincidence, according to Grain Carter.
Changing a dress’s flutter sleeve to a puff or a blouse’s collar to a pussyfoot is unlikely to affect the garment’s fit or sizing. Those kinds of changes appeal to customers who want certain parts of their bodies concealed, making the trends marketable to the largest possible audience, across size, age, and income level.