Obsessed with fleeting trends and seduced by bargains, we've never bought so much - but a new book says it all adds up to more clothes, less style

How well I remember the day I fell out of love with ‘Fast Fashion’. I was in search of an inexpensive trend to tide me over through that awkward period between winter and summer wardrobes — the time you never quite know what to wear.

The style press all pointed in one direction: an updated version of the ‘rock chick’ look — wet-look leggings and longish T-shirts coupled with tousled hair, chunky bangles and a pair of black high heels. It was a born ‘fast fashion’ trend: a look seen on celebrities but that could be reproduced cheaply, using inexpensive materials for a fraction of the price.

In this case, the leggings were inspired by a design from up-scale Australian brand Sass & Bide, which had been a big hit with stars like Cheryl Cole. Who didn’t want to bag a little of that celebrity shimmer for a fraction of the price?

Quality not quantity: Lucy Siegle advises againstcheap fashion buys

Quality not quantity: Lucy Siegle advises against cheap fashion buys

Back in 2008, I wasn’t yet immune to the lure of the micro trend. I went for it, tried some of the ubiquitous leggings on and viewed myself in the communal changing room mirror (extra humiliation) with a sense of horror.

The wet-look leggings (predominantly made of nylon) made my own legs look like two shiny black puddings. The T-shirt might have been new, but it felt threadbare  (low-quality cotton, bulked with chemical fillers) and wasn’t quite long enough to cover my backside. Forlornly, I attempted to balance this unappealing silhouette by making my hair big with the comb in my bag.

I hadn’t got the Cheryl Cole look, but I did remind myself of someone. It appeared the prevailing fashion wind wanted me — a woman of 34 with a reasonably defined sense of personal style — to look like Russell Brand. Incredibly, for reasons unknown to me, I still bought two pairs of the leggings.

For centuries we’ve been using our sense of personal style to signify something of our characters, feelings and aspirations. The nation’s wardrobe is a barometer of our national psyche.

In times of confidence it is filled with quality fibre and expertly tailored pieces that we can hand on to the next generation. But at the moment it does not look good.

Today’s national wardrobe is a rag bag of cheap, unwanted, barely worn items and expired trends.

So much so there is every chance the idea of hand-me-downs will soon be redundant. The quality of pieces has declined to such an extent that textile sorters who earn money by collecting our donated textile waste — sorting and baling it for export to countries in the developing world — have expressed grave concerns about the quality of basic items.

While the quality has shrunk, our wardrobes have grown. We have never possessed so many clothes — in 2007 an incredible three pairs of jeans were being sold every second in the UK — and they’ve never been so cheap (between 2001 and 2005, while spending on womenswear rose by 21 per cent, the price of individual garments dropped by 14 per cent).

Around 80 billion new garments are produced every year and still many of us feel as if we haven’t got a thing to wear.

Our obsession with celebrities doesn’t help. While we’ve always been interested in how A-listers dress, interest has turned to obsession.

Get the look: We have become obsessed with copying the style of celebs such as Cheryl Cole, left, even when they are dressed down, like Kylie, right
Get the look: We have become obsessed with copying the style of celebs such as Cheryl Cole, left, even when they are dressed down, like Kylie, right

Get the look: We have become obsessed with copying the style of celebs such as Cheryl Cole, left, even when they are dressed down, like Kylie, right

Every handbag, every dress, every first-night number worn by anyone from Kylie Minogue to Scarlett Johansson is photographed and beamed around the world for instantaneous analysis so we can find a lookalike item.

And it doesn’t stop there. We also want what these women wear off-duty. The tracksuit they wore to the coffee shop and the jeans they threw on to go shopping.

The ‘worst’ mistake a star can make is to wear the same thing twice (Kylie was featured on a number of ‘fashion mistake’ magazine pages for repeatedly wearing the same pair of python shoes).


We have four times as many clothes in our wardrobe than we did in 1980

This ethos has filtered down to us mere mortals, too, thanks to canny retailers. It’s quaint the way the high fashion industry still has two fashion weeks a year. It suggests there are still two fashion seasons a year: spring/summer and autumn/winter.

In reality, that’s about as relevant to the way we live now as Gregorian plainsong — the High Street has between 30 and 50 new seasons a year. And the average woman buys in at every opportunity.

The style magazine has also evolved. Whereas once the fashion-lover waited with bated breath for Vogue magazine to hit the shops every month, she now has a crop of weekly fashion bibles to show her where to get the ‘hottest’ clothes on the High Street.

This creates a terrible hunger among consumers. If we aren’t buying and constantly refreshing our wardrobes, we feel empty. And supremely frumpy. 

‘Fast fashion’ arrived about 15 years ago and admittedly breathed life into a very dull High Street. Once upon a time cheap clothes looked cheap and trends were sluggish. But then things changed.

Spend, spend, spend: The rise of internet shopping has increased our debt and accumulation of unneeded items

Spend, spend, spend: The rise of internet shopping has increased our debt and accumulation of unneeded items

ASOS.com was born — while it’s now just an acronym, it was originally launched as AsSeenOnScreen.com and offered a fast way for shoppers to snap up celebrity looks.

Then there was Jane Shepherdson, now at Whistles but once creative director of Topshop, and known for her ability to produce ‘fast fashion’ hits.

She says: ‘We thought at the time, well, we’re selling lots of stuff, but let’s make stuff that has some design integrity and make it interesting and exciting. That’s what we did.’

Nothing ostensibly wrong there. But the problem is that fast fashion just kept picking up speed. Spanish retailer Zara is credited with turning fashion retail on its head. The brand arrived in the UK in 1998.

Before this, retailers took nine to 12 months to decide on trends, using forecasters and analysts. This was not the Zara way.

Instead, at the Spanish HQ, a large production team was in near-constant contact with trendspotters on the ground. What were the fashionistas wearing? Which star did they want to be?

All these details and more were relayed back to head office and put straight into production.

The result? The 60 UK Zara stores received new lines in store not once, but twice a week. Every other High Street retailer scrambled to keep up.

As for us — the consumers — we bought fast and hard. The result is that our wardrobes are stuffed full of micro trends of dubious quality and with hulking environmental and social footprints. But hey, we can afford it! Because not only did fashion become fast, it became cheap.

Bag a bargain: But are cheap clothes that don't last long really worth the money?

Bag a bargain: But are cheap clothes that don't last long really worth the money?

The so-called value retailers (or discounters), such as Matalan, Peacocks and New Look, were known for their aggressive pricing strategies, selling at 30 to 50 per cent below the prices of mid-market retailers.

But none of them had the clout of Primark, which was to the discounters what Zara was to fast fashion retailers: a game changer. The big profits made also attracted the supermarkets, all hungry for a slice of the non-grocery pie. By 2005, supermarkets held nearly 20 per cent of the fashion market and you could pick up a cashmere twinset with a bag of frozen peas and nobody batted an eyelid.

If criticised, the value retailer’s standard defence of these cheap garments is to stress that they democratise fashion and provide clothing for those on low income. They should drop the act.

First, someone else, somewhere else is paying the true cost of producing that item. Often this is the environment, the impact felt thousands of miles away with cotton crops diverting water needed to grow food, or the use of dye-houses that release chemicals into waterways.

And while retailers will swear blind there is no correlation between cheap fashion and sweat shops, it’s not difficult to find testimonies from garment workers on the global assembly line making for main brands who earn nowhere near a living wage.

Second, the idea that discounters provide for desperate consumers doesn’t quite add up. These stores only really took over the UK fashion market when middle-class fashionistas with disposable income began buying in.


We each accumulate 4½ stone of clothes a year

Glossy magazines trumpeted about how terribly clever we were to be dressed in an outfit bought for the price of a panini and a latte. It became cool to trot about in disposable fashion.

At least we pocketed the difference from the years of fashion deflation and sensibly put it in a savings account. I’m joking, of course.

In fact, we ended up spending more money on fashion than ever before, just buying in bulk. We hauled home bag after bag of clothing. Our monthly browse around the shops became a weekly event. Then it became commonplace to buy clothes two or three times a week.

It’s no surprise the fast fashion phenomenon coincided with unprecedented levels of women’s debt.

We also embraced ‘hi-lo dressing’ — spending a large amount of money (sometimes upwards of £800) on an It-bag or a statement shoe from one of the major luxury designer labels before bulking out the rest of our wardrobes with cheap garments.

Therefore our cupboards have become places of extremes, and this suits brands at either end of the market. Discounters claimed a huge slice of the fashion market while the luxury houses made money hand over fist.

(By the way, do not be fooled by the fashion week collections unveiled by luxury brands twice a year. These are largely cosmetic. Today, these venerable luxury labels are conglomerates dedicated to shifting as many It-bags, pairs of status shoes, belts, watches and perfumes as they can. It’s all about flogging accessories, not clothes.)

Now, we’re at a style crossroads. The price of cotton — the lifeblood of cheap fashion — has soared. If you’re unable or unwilling to break an addiction to cheap clothes, get ready to wear a lot of synthetics, but don’t expect them to have much of a future in your wardrobe.

We must opt out of this churn. Buy things with an eye on the future. Set a budget you can afford and plan how your wardrobe will develop in the long term, not just what you will wear to lunch next Sunday.

Reassess your idea of style as well. It’s not simply what the latest Hollywood ingenue is wearing.

Decrease the amount you buy. You can spend the same amount buying one good piece you’ll keep for five years rather than 30 things you’ll wear once or not at all.

Swap, loan, mend, restore. These are words that can become more important again. Buy with knowledge, power and purpose. It won’t just make you feel better. You’ll look better, too.

To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out The World? by Lucy Siegle is published by Fourth Estate at £12.99. To order a copy (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000.


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