Covid-19 has hit fashion sales hard. It is also driving the completion of a long but radical reboot that started 20 years ago, shifting high-end fashion away from its elitist, luxury traditions towards the logic of fast fashion targeting the masses by the millions.
Phase 1: Targeting the Masses
The first phase of this evolution began around two decades ago when it started to become clear that style leadership was shifting. If designer brands had been the focal point of the industry during the 20th century, credited with dictating taste and innovation, mass fashion was considered — much like the famous “cerulean” scene in The Devil Wears Prada — to be a lame version of the real thing. Fast fashion labels, from H&M to Zara, were seen as cheap copycats of designs that had originated on fashion week catwalks and were often accused of outright plagiarism.
Until the beginning of the 21st century, the market’s designer and fast-fashion segments did not really mix. Just as it had been hard for couturiers to move from haute couture to ready-to-wear in the 1950s, most high-end designers stayed away from mass fashion, which offered look-a-likes of their own products at much lower prices. In part, it was a matter of elitism and pride. And attempts at mass appeal, like Halston’s 1983 line for J.C. Penny, typically ended poorly.
But at the turn of the millennium, it became clearer that fast fashion had become a massive force in the market that could no longer be ignored. With ‘cheap and chic’ products, backed by a direct-to-consumer sales strategy, thousands of stores, and a speedy and flexible supply chain, fast fashion took a share of the market that traditional ready-to-wear labels could only dream about. It was only a matter of time before high-end designers would cross over. And they did. With Karl Lagerfeld’s H&M collaboration in 2004, luxury’s paradoxical ambition to go mass became clear. After all, it’s hard to build a multi-billion-dollar brand on sales to the privileged few.
Phase 2: Ditching Big Seasons
Since Lagerfeld’s H&M partnership, there have been hundreds of “high-low” collaborations. And, de facto, every designer who took part in these tie-ups inevitably became a fast fashion designer, too, and adopted some of fast fashion’s approach to seasons.