Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Cheap Chic

Okay, a little something not about the riots in France…

From The San Francisco Chronicle:

Customers have flocked to the stores, enticed by the changing selection and affordable prices. Cheap chic also lends itself to the idea of disposable fashion, where clothes are worn only a handful of times before being relegated to the backs of closets or handed off to the Salvation Army.

Lois Huff, senior vice president for Retail Forward, a market research firm in Columbus, Ohio, said that cheap chic represents the future of retail…

"Once you change consumer expectations, it's hard to move back," Huff said. "The idea of disposable as opposed to building a wardrobe is more popular now."

Retailers that specialize in cheap chic have to get the merchandise into the stores and sell it quickly. Peter Brown, vice chairman of Kurt Salmon Associates, a retail consulting company, said that these stores turn around inventory at a somewhat higher rate than a traditional retailer, moving merchandise seven or eight times a year instead of the typical six.

What cheap chic does not necessarily emphasize is quality. Fabrics tend to wear out after a few months, but it doesn't matter much, said Harry Bernard, a partner with the independent San Francisco fashion-marketing and consulting firm Colton Bernard Inc. "It's worth whatever it costs," he said.

Is it any coincidence that this trend is aimed at those from 20-45, with women being a particular target? Forget classic and timeless design. Everything is disposable. What Ikea has done for furniture, these retailers are doing to fashion.

What happened to “Reduce, Recycle, Reuse,” the mantra this demographic chanted every Earth Day?

And there’s a social cost, too:

The Internet has pushed fashion trends to great speeds, but it is global sourcing that has put the cheap in cheap chic. Retailers are increasingly tapping the resources of Third World countries to manufacture their merchandise at the lowest costs possible, allowing them to keep their prices down.

Workers are constantly expected to fill big orders without being paid overtime, a problem that predates cheap chic but one that is growing as more retailers follow that model, Kernaghan said. "As the system gets faster and faster, it gets more brutal," he said.

With the cost of living rising in many of the countries where labor is an export, workers' wages are being squeezed in order to keep prices low in places like the United States. "The system is almost set up now to encourage the race to the bottom," Kernaghan said.

"If the American people could see the faces behind these bargains, they may not want it," he added.

Sorry. I don’t think these folks are terribly interested in where or how their clothing is made. Style is the operative word here.

Thus, the degradation of the social fabric continues. Style trumps substance. Flash over practicality. Immediate gratification over thoughtful consideration.

I’m not surprised. These young adults (and some not-so-young) have been conditioned to get what they want now. Take out a second mortgage for an exotic vacation because, damn it, I deserve it! My clothes, my spouse/significant other/friends bore me—so change them. Take a cruise and put the kids in daycare. Give them their own cash card so they won’t bug me every five minutes.

Of course, the above is exaggerated. Some outfits, like swim suits or summer clothes, practically beg to be disposable. Time away from loved ones can be a source of renewal. Cruises are truly relaxing.

But how long before the exaggeration becomes the reality?