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What is fast fashion?

Apr 17,2010
Take a quick look through your closet for these brands: Uniqlo, Zara, Mango, Forever21, SPAO or H&M. If you see them, and there are lots of them, you are likely a fashion-forward but thrifty teen constantly on the lookout for new trends at low prices.

That’s what “fast fashion” is all about. These brands aim to offer the latest, super-stylish clothing and accessories at relatively cheaper costs than other brands.

Think of them as the McDonald’s or Burger King of the fashion world. Unlike pricier restaurants where you sit and wait 10 to 15 minutes for a plate of seafood tomato spaghetti or cream risotto, fast-food chains offer quick bites of hamburgers and French fries; you order, eat, and the turnover is high. Likewise, fast-fashion brands are just what the name implies, turning out new items nearly every day, rather than every month or every season, as more traditional brands do. And like the fast-food eateries, their prices are lower: Because the companies cut margins on production, retail and distribution and unify production and sales, most items do not cost more than 100,000 won ($90), and some T-shirts or shorts are less than 10,000 won.

The looks appeal to not just the thrifty, but the stylish. Trend-conscious consumers welcome the arrival of these brands because they let them keep up with the very latest fashions, no matter how fast they change. It’s a short-term pleasure for a small investment.

A fast-fashion store has nothing like the hushed calm that prevails in big department stores. Loud music vibrates through the aisles, and there’s a huge variety of items on display. Fast-fashion stores need a lot of room to hold their ever-changing stock: Displays are changed twice a week, and no item is kept in the stores for more than four weeks, industry sources report.

Critics warn that fast fashion is simply a marketing tool and may trigger shopping addiction. But it may be unstoppable. Fast fashion (also referred to as SPA, short for specialty retailer of private-label apparel) has been increasing its share in the global fashion industry for several years now and is still a growing market, especially in Korea,

The already popular market gained even more popularity after the economic crisis began in late 2008, as it provided “cheap chics” the chance to stay trendy while they tightened their belts.

Korea currently has six major fast-fashion brands, including Japan-based Uniqlo, Spain-based Zara and Sweden-based H&M, which are mainly clustered around fashion hub Myeong-dong in central Seoul. The first fast-fashion brand in Seoul was Uniqlo, which debuted in September 2005, opening three stores at once - one in Jamsil, southern Seoul, and the others in Youngdeungpo and Incheon, Gyeonggi. By the end of that year Uniqlo’s sales hit the 30 billion won mark; sales rose to 140 billion won 2008. The brand, which already has 48 stores in Korea, is aiming to open as many as 100 more by next year, and targeting total sales of more than 400 billion won.

The latest brand to launch in Korea was H&M. In February, the label - which last year raised more than 18.6 trillion won in sales from its 2,000 stores in 35 countries - celebrated its grand opening in Myeong-dong. There were long lines as frenzied shoppers searched for clothes, accessories and shoes.

“With an increasing number of working women who are under a burden to wear something new every day, fast-fashion brands are very efficient. They can buy 10 different items of clothing for maybe less than 150,000 won. In department stores, that won’t even buy one thing,” said a consumer who was lined up to pay for new work outfits.

Though Uniqlo was the first large store to introduce Seoul’s shopaholics to fast fashion, it’s a concept that has been around for a while. Even before the millennium, private vendors and merchants at Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets - Korea’s shopping meccas - brought in new items every two to three days that reflected the latest fashion trends set by celebrities. But these small outfits never formed themselves into a global brand like H&M or Zara, which managed to allure a global customer base by keeping a chic image despite their low prices. The clothes may be cheap, but fast-fashion brands sell them in luxurious settings.

Leading consultants Interbrand rank the worldwide brand power of H&M and Zara at 21st and 50th, respectively - a step down from Samsung’s 19th, but higher than Hyundai Motor’s 69th. Surprisingly, the fast-fashion labels even have greater brand power than Chanel and Hermes, which stand at 59th and 70th, respectively.

With the global appetite for fast fashion increasing, Korea’s E-Land group introduced the nation’s first official fast-fashion brand, SPAO. At the launch, the company said it would offer its wares at 40 percent below the cost of foreign brands, as it will not need to rely on imported products.

“Fast fashion is a hot issue in Korea’s fashion industry,” said Lee Min-kyung, a merchant. “The most beneficial part of fast fashion is that the production period of new items is so short that it can reflect the latest trends.”

By Lee Eun-joo [angie@joongang.co.kr]

A mob of shoppers line up to pay at the Uniqlo store located in Myeong-dong, central Seoul. Provided by Uniqlo

Clockwise from top left: A Uniqlo T-shirt; a Zara blouse; Mango clutches. [JoongAng Ilbo]
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