THE WAY WE SHOP

Amongst the countless joys of being self-employed is the annual hassle of doing taxes. The most dreadful couple of days of the year (I am sure many can relate) that apart from mercilessly pointing out my complete lack of essential economy skills – which have proven quite beneficial by aiding in the attempt to resolve that infinite ‘where-did-the-money-go’ puzzle. In the words of my dear friend that sharply pointed out that  ‘You can’t eat Gucci for breakfast’,  so having (at least a partial) understanding over where the money went is never a bad thing. Thus in the latest revelation of my personal consumer habits the numbers divulged a change in previously  established shopping patterns supported by my shoe cupboard  jammed-to-the- brim  with vintage mules – 2017 was the year of second-hand and vintage shopping. Though intriguing this particular revelation was, it was not entirely unexpected – the black writing on the piece of paper simply attested to the rising emotional distance from dernier cri. And while my obvious aloofness wasn’t necessarily associated with nor did it reflect  the quality of the inventory offered at stores – the sentiment just didn’t manage to reach the threshold that would result in a purchase. In other words – I liked what I saw in stores but somehow never managed to commit to anything.  

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“My memory stretches to the times when the anticipation of online sales reached an excitement threshold that would turn a grown up woman into a over-eager child.”
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In an attempt to calibrate personal feelings to my surroundings I began asking people who I would meet about their purchasing habits– from people in the industry to the neighbor whom I have never officially met. Hardly a valid study I am aware, and yet – at some point a pattern started appearing,  scarcely enough to lead to an assertive conclusion, but enough to shed light and spark a conversation. The ensuing whirlwind of thoughts was perhaps inevitable – as the conversation that addresses the arising consumer numbness,  (despite the flourishing creativity and obvious abundance of products in stores and online) is well overdue. The waning fervour that has noticeably outlined the shopping habits globally over the past seasons is also backed by concrete numbers:  Britain’s office of National Statistics has disclosed declining retail sales numbers; and while many western markets reported a rise in purchasing will in December 2017 according to McKinsey’s report, these numbers could hardly be deemed as a light at the end of a tunnel. 2018 marks the end of a decade outlined by  post-recessional growth and can easily be a turning point either way for the industry,  thus defining the potential factors that have the inhibiting effect on fashion’s further growth are seemingly the first steps towards recovery – both a creative and a financial one. Perhaps the most important issue on the horizon is the one of over-saturation as it’s repercussions evidently extend far beyond the clustered stores.  

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Having an abundance of choices is all well and good,  yet when faced with infinite racks that stretch as far and wide as the eye can reach, a customer will likely either opt for the premeditated choice (a decision taken prior to entering the store based on numerous factors from social media to the item’s uniqueness) or avert from making a decision.  It is no secret that the  plethora of choices and subsequent mental overload have a bigger chance of inflicting an anaesthetic effect that is more likely to cause apathy than result in a successful purchase – and ultimately a customer can digest only a certain amount of information before the shopping experience becomes a tiresome affair. Another challenge arising with the congested market is the residual stock and value decline. My memory stretches to the times when the anticipation of online (we didn’t have many good stores at the time in question) sales reached an excitement threshold that would turn a grown up woman into an over-eager child. The sales were rare – and hunting for the precious gems was more likely to resemble an episode of The Hunger Games. Now the the facsimile of frilly tops, street hoodies and oversized coats are destined for landfill or incineration.  Alongside the obvious environmental damage that tonnes and tonnes of garments impose on a global scale, one doesn’t have to look past one’s own doorstep to acknowledge that the system in its current state exhibits signs of auto-destructiveness. A certain cynicism is bound to arise when a consumer faces the declining value of their treasured investment. Due to the relentless fashion cycle and speed of changing seasons alongside new product drops these investments are constantly facing the danger of hitting a sales rack within weeks after they reach the store. 

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As design and quality don’t come cheap – it is plain sad to discard garments’ value after just one (short) season, and the emotional investment that mirrors the economical one will in all likelihood leave a bitter taste lingering in the aftermath of such devaluation.
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The pace of fashion is relentless, but so is the speed with which consumers adapt. The double-edged sword of overproduction and plethora of similar garments makes for the smart customer to await sales or check the secondary market for a potentially even better bargain.  Alongside offering better quality for money ration (a brilliant vintage Dior blazer is one click away to the same price as similar high-street piece, so why invest in the latter), there is a lingering sentiment attached to the notion of second- hand shopping. The emotion vintage shopping offers to a customer is rooted in its possibility for the second-chance on a piece that once slipped through the fingers. As well as the opportunity of an exciting dip into nostalgia of past trends or a tantalising treasure-hunt. By advocating for  ‘conscious shopping’ as opposed to blind consumerism alongside offering great prices to the same quality the stores made sure that temptation was too good to resist. 

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Ofcourse not everyone can, has time – nor for that matter wishes to spend hours thrifting. While many apps facilitate the process by allowing to track searches and receive notifications when your personal preferences arrive many are neither enamoured by  the process of (online and physical) thrifting nor the idea of wearing pre loved clothes. And then there is the question of copyright – as it it nearly impossible for a brand to safeguard it’s design and the myriad of ‘inspired by’ are equally present on the market at a much more competitive price than the original version. The indisputable gap in the market urged many mid-priced brands to jump on the opportunity of mimicking fashion’s heavy weights, and as a brilliant quote in the art worlds goes ‘Good artists create, great artists borrow’ – there is no shame in offering what is not on the market? Thus the balance that many brands got right between offering great (sometimes better than the original piece) quality and design, and all that for a fraction of the price positioned them somewhere between the aspiring consumer and savvy-shoppers dream place –ensuring a temporary win-win situation.

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It is only fair to point out that the current state of fashion is not a one-way guilt street – the brands have simply been covering the need and strain the market has placed on them as part of the never ending cause/effect cycle. By the consumer wanting everything now, right now, actually yesterday, the demand for certain products has risen to the point that a normal buying cycle and schedule can’t possibly respond to, nor predict for that matter. Very few people anticipated the ‘Vetements boom’ for instance; and despite the controlled distribution and strategy cleverly employed by the Gvasalia brothers in an attempt to avoid overexposure and thus quick demise there is no cure for the volatile market that moves between insatiable and  oversaturated within a blink of the eye.  Stores could only employ their best skills with a crystal ball in hope to predict the next big trend and perhaps hit that right amount of merchandise that covers the demand –yet ends with minimal overstock –an endeavour resembling that of Sisyphus’ task more than an actual business strategy. In many ways the current situation is reflected in the notion of ‘what came first: the chicken or the egg’ – was it the customer’s demand that heralded for continuous ‘newness’ and thus the ceaseless amount of store inventory or was it the retail sector that in an attempt to reach higher profit margins opened Pandora’s box? The cycle has been spinning faster and faster with every season to an insidious effect and my personal opinion is that an industry has reached it’s decadence peak. Decadence is defined by the decay that inevitably comes after a period of boom, overindulgence and resulting peak (think post recession that rounds a decade in 2018) that follows large social structures, and what is the fashion industry other than a multibillion social construct?

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Fashion’s “decline” in an abstract sense, is a snake that bites its own tail where ultimately nobody wins. The present state of industry where overstock and resulting disposal of tons of clothes alongside uninterested and numbed consumer make for stale sales, does not  only inhibit profit, but also limits the development of new talents,emerging designers and long time growth.Which brands are hot for a season and can potentially make it in a longer run is rather a matter of lottery, that many minor players can afford to play.
On the other hand what was once a cleverly guided taste development rooted in understanding of culture, history and art has been swapped for blind trend-following.  Ofcourse the above is not entirely applicable for all parts of the fashion system as there are more than 50 shades of grey, however ranging from industry insiders to consumers belonging to the higher mid-class the fashion system seems increasingly ingenuine if not platonic.
In many ways fashion as a system needs to align it’s machinery with modern times and the rising consumer intelligence.
A good way to start is to take a look at the  stores and designers that have already identified certain challenges and are realigning their strategy to meet the market needs by offering something that can’t be purchased – and that is experience.
The invaluable experience, the human connection or perhaps the values communicated by the brand that feel more in tact with one’s own sense of community. It is more likely to spend your income at a place where you feel good, contrasting the empty feeling of simply acquiring an item. The Store in Berlin is  a good example of this– by offering a cafe, a ‘book shop’ and gadgets spread over the stores floor accessible to purchase as they simultaneously entertain, build a lifestyle and cater to the aspiring customer, the chances for bigger sales are definitely higher than in a store where clothes simply hang.

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“…was it the customer’s demand that heralded for continuous ‘newness’ and thus a ceaseless amount of store inventory or was it the retail sector that in an attempt to reach higher profit margins opened Pandora’s box?”
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DSM in London is another great example of the same coin – all these stores are offering a human touch making it easier to connect. Perhaps that is what fashion needs to get right at this point, the mixture of analog and digital experience that aligns with the consumer’s behaviour intersecting cultures, cities and states– and give time for these concepts to develop. In a time of global political anxiety, ever changing standards of beauty and a technologically driven sense of disconnection, brands and retailers ultimately need to consider what is going to make customers feel more human. Ultimately, it doesn’t go further than asking the question ‘how do I feel’  and take it from there.

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