Fast Fashion vs. Luxury Brands

Disclaimer: I am an average college student with an average college student budget and is aware of possibly sounding like a snobby, elitist fashion blogger. This post is a reflection of my own opinions and not the rest of the 6100 Main team.

Whenever I give brand suggestions and pick out clothes for other people, I usually try to stay in the lower end of the market: Forever 21, Target, H&M, Aldo, and occasionally Urban Outfitters, Zara, Topshop, etc. Other affordable brands include Charlotte Russe, Papaya, A'gaci... you get the idea. All of these brands share the same concept: mass produced fashion that quickly rotates in and out, inspired by high fashion houses like Givenchy or Chanel, made possible by cheap labor in sweatshop factories and a compromise in material quality and craftsmanship. The term for this is fast fashion; these are all fast fashion brands. 

On the other hand, there are those brands that cost a month's worth rent or maybe a kidney or two, and go by F/W or S/S seasons, or simply have one year round aesthetic. But there's a reason why luxury brands have survived all of the economic slumps we've gone through. There's a reason why, despite the Galleria, Memorial City Mall, Baybrook Mall, Katy Mills, and many other malls in Houston, small boutiques carrying Made in U.S.A. (or France or Italy) goods are continuously popping up around Midtown, Montrose, or Rice Village, and thriving. Don't get me wrong, my point here isn't to bash fast fashion (my own closet is composed of all of those brands I listed above.) Instead, I want to share my stance on luxury brands, and maybe persuade you to change your shopping ways.

For the purposes of this post, luxury brands are those of higher quality than H&M, but not as outrageous in price as Prada. There are famous luxury brands (American Apparel, J.Crew, A.P.C.) and there are smaller, lesser known brands (Everlane, Acne, Engineered Garments, Madewell etc.) I will refer to anything of the Gucci or Versace level as high fashion/designer. What are the differences between my luxury brands and designers? First, the price tag of luxury brands are about half, if not less, of that of high fashion labels. A good quality, plain white t-shirt from Everlane costs $15, while the same shirt from Alexander Wang is around $120. A pair of A.P.C. jeans are around $200, while Givenchy jeans are around $680. 

Left: Alexander Wang Cotton Crew, $120; Right: Everlane Cotton Crew, $15. (These are the real pictures from the real websites; no this is not a joke.)

Second, high fashion names are well known and worn by almost every single celebrity around the world. The people in the rich neighborhood on the other side of the freeway wear these names. Almost every single Instagram and Tumblr user dreams of showing off his/her Celine, Louboutins, or Louis Vuitton items. You've probably seen so many Michael Kors watch posts that you literally have negative desire to own one for yourself (or was that just me?) Designer labels, in this day and age of technology and credit cards, are becoming more common and accessible to the middle class. Luxury brands, though becoming more and more popularized, are more lowkey and their audiences are usually the fashion 'hipster' crowds (the artists, photographers, the #vscocam type.) You may spot these people wearing a really nice blazer or leather loafers, or carry a really nice clutch, all unmarked or with an unfamiliar label. Don't be quick to judge these as knock offs - your Forever 21, made in a sweatshop factory that pays its workers a dollar a day, imitation leather pumps are more knock off than those unknown (Emerson Fry) made in an Italian shop of educated and well paid shoemakers, patent leather pumps. This leads to the last difference I will point out between luxury goods and high fashion: designer houses will never be beat in quality and craftsmanship. Luxury goods, however, are an affordable and close second, while fast fashion is absolutely dead last. 

Left: Emerson Fry New York. Right: Christian Louboutin.
Note that I said high fashion is only becoming more common and accessible. This doesn't mean everyone owns a Chanel bag and wears Oscar de la Renta to homecoming. High fashion is still extremely exclusive to the top few percent of the world who have money to spare, to the fashion editors who get editor discounts, or to the minority number of middle class fashionistas who forgo food and water to save up for that Miu Miu bag. (Or to the questionable people who are behind on their rent but are toting around the latest Proenza bag.) And couture? Let's not go there. But why are these brands so ridiculously expensive? 

Because these high fashion brands only employed the most educated and skilled seamstresses, leather craftsmen, embroiderers, and these people hand make their products. Don't believe me? Watch the video below of how Valentino bags are made. 


These employees are working in safe environments and receive a reasonable amount of pay. The materials that they use are of the finest quality. There is no sign of exploitation of workers or any other type of unfair work-trade. From my personal experience of completely hand sewing skirts for the fashion show, I can definitely see why high fashion is expensive as it is. They say time is money, and these craftsmen and women spend their entire lives cutting and sewing to produce quality goods. Now, I'm not saying everyone should live like peasants and dress like royalty. Designer houses produce the finest quality, but also the most creative pieces of fashion. Balenciaga and McQueen are works of art, not just pieces of cloth to cover your body. Most of the time, you don't really need (or want) to be wearing works of art while you're trying to defend a client in court or doing a rig check out in the Gulf. So as an average working class person, I consider designer labels as once-in-while, "treat yoself" investments, and buy only things I can afford and will use and take good care of for the rest of my life, if I ever get to that point of financial stability (because I haven't).

But while I can't afford to buy anything designer period, I am able to purchase a luxury item every other month or so. And if that means expanding my closet at a rate of three shirts, two pants and one pair of shoes per year (six purchases total), then so be it. You probably have a lot of questions for me right now. How will I keep up with the trends? How can I own such few clothing when there are seven days a week? Why do I worship handmade designer labels, put down sweatshop-made fast fashion, and buy from both fast fashion and factory produced luxury goods? Don't I realize I sound stupid snobby? 

Yes, luxury goods are also made in factories. But the differences between luxury good factories and fast fashion factories are the working conditions and pay. We are still in a time where worker's rights in factories are still an issue; the derogative term 'sweatshop' factory was given for a reason. Fast fashion depends on the ability to design, produce, market and distribute in an extremely short amount of time. A turnaround quick enough to have 10+ collections a year. You could walk into an H&M or Zara one month and again the next, and find completely different garments in store. It would only make sense that this pace require cheap labor and possibly worker exploitation. Why do I support Acne Studios and their seemingly outrageous prices? For the same reason I support American Apparel. What makes Everlane, whose products are produced in factories in China, Vietnam, America and Europe, a better choice over Forever 21? Besides quality materials, the factories contracted by Everlane are usually directly monitored by personnel from the company administrations in order to ensure compliance with fair work-trade. If a brand can't send people to check out the factories in person, these contractors are usually already certified and approved as good employers. Fair Wear Foundation provides a list of their own approved factories, among them Acne Studios (http://www.fairwear.org/). I'm not saying all fast fashion contractors exploit their workers - but the chances are pretty high. Google "unfair work trade in fashion" and you'll see just how bad of a problem it is. 
My entirely hand sewn skirt. If I were to put it on sale right now, I'd start it at around $40, but if I were to market these, I'd ask for $55. Materials were $25, but the manual labor totaled about 15 hours. (model: Vy Tran, photo by me)

So when I buy a shirt from F21, I am supporting unfair work trade. I am saying that it is okay for these workers to work 16 hours a day and earn a few dollars. It makes me, a self proclaimed human rights activist, a hypocrite.  

Okay so that's a bit extreme. I use sweatshop factory made products all the time, from this laptop I'm typing on to the needles I use to sew. Looking at the big picture, garment and shoe factories are only a fraction of the entire empire of sweatshops. Which is why I'm not here to say we should boycott fast fashion. My point is that we should really try to invest in luxury and designer goods, when we can. Of course, with the inflation in price of goods but stagnant paycheck amounts, fast fashion is a practically unavoidable option for affordable, good looking clothes. But we should downsize our closets and make sure every piece we buy is well cared for and well used. 

As I began my spring cleaning [out of my closet and jewelry cabinet], I realized I didn't really have much to donate or sell because every thing that I own was bought with careful deliberation ('Will I pick this out from the rack/shelf in my closet? Would I wear this more than once? Can this be worn in multiple outfits?') and I used the item so well that I got my money's worth, and made it impossible to resell/give away. Well, except for the couple of impulse buys that I half regret half can't let go because they remind me of those adrenaline filled moments of 'eff it, I'm going to buy this because I won't find it again.' That's another story.

Watching my closet shrink in size has made me feel significantly better about harming the earth (I had such a huge collection back in high school, I over looked newly bought shirts or wore things only once, ever) and being materialistic. Ironically, some people (like the A&F cult) assume that I'm materialistic when I talk about luxury brands, but in reality, I'm probably consuming less cotton/polyester/etc than those people are (who probably own every single A&F shirt design in every color). Talk about snobby. 


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