Fast fashion: response to changes in the fashion industry
Vertica Bhardwaj* and Ann Fairhurst
Retail and Consumer Sciences, The University of Tennessee,Knoxville, USA
(Received June 2009; ﬁnal version received October 2009)
The fashion apparel industry has signiﬁcantly evolved, particularly over the last
20 years. The changing dynamics of the fashion industry have forced retailers to
desire low cost and ﬂexibility in design, quality, and speed to market, key
strategies to maintain a proﬁtable position in the increasingly demanding market.
This article reviews the literature on changes that have happened in the fashion
apparel industry since the 1990s, highlighting the emergence of a concept of
‘throwaway’ or fast fashion. It describes fast fashion from a supplier as well
as a consumer’s perspective, and draws attention to several potential research
Keywords: fast fashion; supplier; consumer; quick response; fashion season
The fashion apparel industry has signiﬁcantly evolved, particularly over the last 20
years, when the boundaries of the industry started to expand (Djelic and Ainamo
1999). The changing dynamics of the fashion industry since then, such as the fading
of mass production, increase in number of fashion seasons, and modiﬁed structural
characteristics in the supply chain have forced retailers to desire low cost and
ﬂexibility in design, quality, delivery and speed to market (Doyle, Moore, and
Morgan 2006). In addition to speed to market and design, marketing and capital
investment have also been identiﬁed as the driving forces of competitiveness in the
fashion apparel industry (Sinha 2006). Franks (2000) suggested ‘sense and respond’
as the key strategy to maintain a proﬁtable position in the increasingly dynamic and
demanding market. A key deﬁning characteristic of rapid responsiveness and greater
ﬂexibility, in this context, is to maintain closer relationships between suppliers and
buyers (Wheelright and Clark 1992).
Looking at the basic structure of the fashion industry until the late 1980s,
traditionally fashion apparel retailers used their capability of forecasting consumer
demand and fashion trends (known as ready-to-wear) long before the actual time of
consumption in order to compete in the market (Guercini 2001). However, recent
years have seen fashion retailers compete with others by ensuring speed to market
with their ability to provide rapidly the fashion trends revealed by fashion shows and
runways. According to Taplin (1999), such retailers could be credited with the
adoption of ‘quick fashion’ that is an outcome of an unplanned process on the
reduced time gap between designing and consumption on a seasonal basis.
*Corresponding author. Email: email@example.com
The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research
Vol. 20, No. 1, February 2010, 165–173
ISSN 0959-3969 print/ISSN 1466-4402 online
Ó2010 Taylor & Francis
Today’s fashion market is highly competitive and the constant need to ‘refresh’
product ranges means that there is an inevitable move by many retailers to extend
the number of ‘seasons’, that is, the frequency with which the entire merchandise
within a store is changed. With the emergence of small collections of merchandise,
fashion retailers are encouraging consumers to visit their stores more frequently with
the idea of ‘Here Today, Gone Tomorrow’. This indicates a shorter life cycle and
higher proﬁt margins from the sale of fast selling merchandise, skipping the mark-
down process altogether (Sydney 2008). In addition, desire to have variety and
instant gratiﬁcation with price mavenism is motivating consumers to prefer retailers
such as Zara and H&M (National Post 2009).
Several studies have examined various aspects of the buyer-supplier relationship
with quick or fast fashion, such as the apparel design process relative to quick
response (Forza and Vinelli 1996), the role of the supplier in fast moving fashion
(Doyle, Moore, and Morgan 2006), buyer behaviour (Bruce and Daly 2006), and
ﬁnancial performance (Hayes and Jones 2006). However, there appears to be a gap
in the literature focusing on the overall concept of ‘fast fashion’ that has emerged in
the fashion industry from a consumer perspective. Among numerous studies on fast
fashion, only a few studies have focused on the consumer aspects that
drive the changes in the fashion industry (for example, Barnes and Lea-Greenwood
The purpose of this paper is to explore the changes that have occurred in the
fashion apparel industry in the past two decades and attempt to understand how fast
fashion emerged to the extent that it is today. Speciﬁcally, the study examines the
changes in the fashion apparel industry leading to the evolution of ‘throwaway or
fast fashion’. A brief review of the literature serves to systemize and appraise the
existing work. This study further attempts to align the research capabilities with
market growth potential for fast fashion and proposes diﬀerent venues for
conducting research to acquire a better understanding of fast fashion as a
consumer-driven approach, not only supplier-driven.
Overview of the fashion apparel industry
In the course of the last two decades, the fashion apparel industry across the globe
has undergone profound transformation due to various changes in the business
environment. To understand the areas for research in fast fashion for the future, it is
important to consider how it has evolved. The following sections discuss the changes
that have occurred in the fashion industry since the 1990s.
Fading of mass production
Until the mid 1980s, success in the fashion industry was based on low cost mass
production of standardized styles that did not change frequently due to the design
restrictions of the factories, such as Levi’s 501 jeans and a man’s white shirt,
although there were exceptional cases of rapid changing haute couture (Brooks
1979). Apparently, consumers during that time were less sensitive toward style and
fashion, and preferred basic apparel.
Bailey and Eicher (1992) reported a sudden increase in the import of fashion
oriented apparel for women as compared to the standardized apparel in the 1980s.
166 V. Bhardwaj and A. Fairhurst
This reduced the demand for classic though simple apparel as consumers started
becoming more fashion-conscious (Bailey 2001). For instance, the women’s legwear
industry introduced colours and textures to basic hosiery to coordinate with every
outﬁt (Donnellan 1996). Unfortunately, this change in fashion oriented apparel
contributed to an increase in mark-downs in the market, which became necessary
due to the failure to sell fashion apparel during the forecasted season (OTA 1987).
This argument was further supported by Malone (1998, 1999) who provided
evidence that mass production of fashion products was not a solution to gain proﬁts
in the fashion business.
As fashion is considered to be a temporary cyclical phenomena adopted by
consumers for a particular time (Sproles 1979), it becomes evident that the life cycle
for fashion is quite small. Since the 1980s, a typical life cycle for fashion apparel had
four stages: introduction and adoption by fashion leaders; growth and increase in
public acceptance; mass conformity (maturation); and ﬁnally the decline and
obsolescence of fashion. Also, the fashion calendar during this time was primarily
based on the fabric exhibitions, fashion shows and trade fairs, that consisted of the
basic pattern of Spring/Summer and Autumn/Winter ranges which typically resulted
in developing a seasonal range in one full year.
However, towards the beginning of the 1990s, retailers started focusing on
expanding their product range with updated products and faster responsiveness to
the ‘newness’ of the fashion trends; and providing ‘refreshing’ products instead of
only cost eﬃciencies for manufacturing (Barnes and Lea-Greenwood 2006; Hines
2001; Hoﬀman 2007). In order to increase the variety of fashion apparel in the
market, the concept of adding more phases to the existing seasons (that is, the period
of time during which fashion products are sold) in a fashion calendar came into
existence. The addition of 3 to 5 mid-seasons forced immense pressure on suppliers
to deliver fashion apparel in smaller batches with reduced lead time (Tyler, Heeley,
and Bhamra 2006). For instance, Liz Claiborne developed six seasons instead of just
two (Bailey 2001). These changes to the number of mid-seasons arose partly from the
changes in consumers’ lifestyles and partly from the need to satisfy consumers’
demand for fashion clothing for speciﬁc occasions.
Towards the late 1980s, the fashion apparel industry was dominated by several large
retailers which increased the competition levels in the market (Barnes and Lea-
Greenwood 2006). In order to survive the competition, other fashion apparel
retailers switched from product-driven to buyer-driven chains, developed alliances
with suppliers in diﬀerent markets, and promoted their distinctive brands (Tyler,
Heeley, and Bhamra 2006). This resulted in an increase of proﬁts from unique
combinations of high-value research, design, sales and marketing that would allow
them and the manufacturers to act strategically by linking with overseas factories
(Gereﬃ 1999, 43). Tyler, Heeley, and Bhamra (2006) illustrated that the fashion
apparel industry developed an infrastructure around the late 1980s with an emphasis
on promoting responsiveness (quick response) through reduced lead times, along
The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research 167
with maintaining low costs. Hereafter, the phenomena of sourcing manufacturing
and processes in fashion apparel industry to oﬀshore places with low labour costs
became a trend, thereby resulting in a substantial cost advantage.
Despite the merits of outsourcing, it led to signiﬁcantly longer lead times,
complicated supply chains due to geographic distances, inconsistency and variability
in processes at both ends of the chain, and complex import/export procedures
(Birtwistle, Siddhiqui, and Fiorito 2003; Bruce and Daly 2006). In fact, the idea of
cost savings through outsourcing manufacturing to low wage nations became
deceptive as the savings sometimes were signiﬁcantly low compared with the cost of
obsolescence, forced mark-downs, and inventory carrying costs (Christopher,
Lowson, and Peck 2004). Tyler, Heeley, and Bhamra (2006) highlighted product
development as the weakness for the longer lead times to deliver fashion apparel to
point-of-sale to consumers. As further explained, they illustrated that all the key
players in a supply chain (that is, fashion and textile designer, retail buyer and
manufacturers) worked in sequence in order to contribute their role, resulting in
excessive costs, lack of eﬀective communication and reworks due to inaccurate
product developments. Furthermore, instead of translating the trends into the
market quickly, fashion retailers failed to sell the merchandise during the
appropriate season, adversely impacting the proﬁts (Fiorito, May, and Straughne
1995). Not surprisingly, the situation became worse due to the rapid changing
lifestyles and consumers’ choices for fashion and clothing in the market.
All these shortcomings forced the industry toward restructuring in order to
improve their operational performance (Taplin 2006). Some of the examples of
restructuring that emerged around the 1990s include just-in-time techniques and
quick a response with shorter lead times. For example, the number of fashion
apparel retailers in the USA that started implementing a quick response (QR)
strategy grew from 60% to 72% from 1994 to 1995 (Jones 1995). In recent years,
these changes in the fashion apparel industry in the USA in terms of outsourcing
manufacturing to low wage countries and demand-driven ﬂexible supply chains have
shown that quick responsiveness is possible even in the presence of long physical
Fashion is deﬁned as an expression that is widely accepted by a group of people over
time and has been characterized by several marketing factors such as low
predictability, high impulse purchase, shorter life cycle, and high volatility of
market demand (Fernie and Sparks 1998). Thus, in order to be proﬁtable in the
industry, fashion apparel retailers need to take the ‘speed to market’ approach to
capitalize on fashion that is not in the stores of their competitors. It has been further
emphasized that market responsiveness and agility through rapid incorporation of
consumer preferences into the design process in product development increases the
proﬁt margins for retailers (Christopher, Lowson, and Peck 2004).
Looking at history, fashion runways and fashion shows were the biggest
inspiration for the fashion industry. Along with this, these trend shows were
primarily restricted to designers, buyers and other fashion managers. However from
1999 onwards, fashion shows and catwalks became a public phenomenon, where
photographs of the recent fashion shows could be seen in magazines and on the web
leading to demystiﬁcation of the fashion process (Sydney 2008). As a result, fashion-
168 V. Bhardwaj and A. Fairhurst
conscious consumers were exposed to exclusive designs and styles inspired from
runways. Retailers such as Zara, H&M, Mango, New Look, and Top Shop were
adopting such designs rapidly to attract consumers and introduce interpretations of
the runway designs to the stores in a minimum of three to ﬁve weeks (Barnes and
Drawing on the foundations of quick responsiveness, the fashion apparel
industry shifted from forecasting future trends to using real-time data to understand
the needs and desires of the consumers (Jackson 2001). The inability to accurately
forecast or predict future trends (Christopher, Lowson, and Peck 2004) or failure to
quickly imitate and produce fashion apparel as seen on runways (Richardson 1996)
can lead to risk associated with longer lead times and hence failure to attract fashion-
conscious consumers. Using real-time data can eliminate this possible risk.
United Kingdom retailers
The UK fashion industry has been widely acknowledged to have initiated this unique
strategy in the fashion industry (Barnes and Lea-Greenwood 2006). Since its
beginning, the fashion apparel industry has been characterized by high levels of
dominance by large retailers in the UK with inﬂexible supply chains (Hines and
Bruce 2001). Around the 1990s, apparel manufacturers and retailers, primarily from
the UK witnessed price pressure from the strong players in the market. In order to
stay in competition, UK retailers such as New Look and George shifted sourcing of
merchandise to the Far East for a low cost advantage. In doing so, supply chains
became more complex due to extensive geographical distance, thereby forcing these
retailers to introduce practices such as just-in-time (JIT), computer integrated
manufacturing (CIM), total quality management (TQM) in manufacturing along
with emphasis on shorter supply lines and quick response in the market (Bruce,
Daly, and Towers 2004).
As an outcome, retailers in the UK started providing increased variety and
fashionability to their customers, keeping in mind the low cost of the merchandise.
In addition, they also added mid-season purchasing to their previous two-season
calendars, resulting in providing high fashion at a low price ‘throwaway market’.
Since then the ‘throwaway market’ (now called fast fashion) has become a trend or
norm (Tokatli, Wrigley, and Kizilgu
¨n 2008). In sum, the concentrated UK fashion
market resulted in street fashion as an attempt to gain a competitive edge along with
market share through speed to market (Birtwistle and Freathey 1998).
The following sections provide supplier and consumer perspectives in regard to
Fast fashion from the supplier perspective
Apparel markets have become more varied and faster-changing in the present retail
environment. The development of new, quick fashion appears symptomatic of the
transition from a production-driven to a market-driven approach in the fashion
apparel industry. Retailers have started realizing that ﬂexibility and rapid
responsiveness to the market are the areas that are most important in today’s
During the past two decades, the fashion apparel industry has received increased
attention in the context of buyer-supplier relationships, and quick response and
The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research 169
supply chain management to gain a competitive edge in the market (Crewe and
Davenport 1991; Fiorito, May, and Straughne 1995; Sohal, Perry, and Pratt 1998;
Perry and Sohal 2000). In academic study, fast fashion has been researched from the
perspective of a business model with a quick response strategy to reduce production
times (Bailey 2001). Literature on fast fashion reﬂects association with pressure on
lead-time reduction in an organization and coordination with various players in the
supply chain (Barnes and Lea-Greenwood 2006; Wensley 1999).
The obsolete long-buying cycles for many fashion retailers has forced them to
improve responsiveness in reduced time, resulting in an introduction of several
practices in the fashion industry that describe shorter, more ﬂexible supply chains
such as quick response (Fernie and Azuma 2004), just-in-time (Bruce, Daly, and
Towers 2004) and agile supply chains (Bruce, Daly, and Towers 2004; Christopher,
Lowson, and Peck 2004). In order to improve eﬃciency in the demand-driven
market, these practices have often been related to vertical integration focusing on
collaboration, information sharing and trust between entities in a supply chain
(Birtwistle, Siddhiqui, and Fiorito 2003). In addition, improvements in communica-
tion between retailers and producers through technology such as computer-aided-
design (CAD) and electronic data interchange (EDI) have contributed to shortening
lead times (Bruce, Daly, and Towers 2004).
Fast fashion from a consumer perspective
Consumers are becoming more demanding and fashion savvy which is forcing
fashion retailers to provide the right product at the right time in the market – in
other words, provide quick (fast) fashion (The Economist 2005). As the consumer
market is fragmented in terms of consumption patterns, fast fashion is gaining in
importance among consumers. With such developments, researchers should identify
the full spectrum of consumer behaviour towards fast fashion. The literature on fast
fashion highlights various aspects of supply chain management, supported by supply
chain theory to improve the business model of fashion retailers. It is worth noting
that not many studies have addressed fast fashion as a consumer-driven approach,
leaving this an under-researched area.
Information and trends are moving around the globe at tremendous speeds,
resulting in consumers’ ability to have more options and thus shop more often
(Hoﬀman 2007). Changes in lifestyle due to sociocultural factors and a need for
uniqueness forces fashion retailers to renew merchandise constantly to deal with the
growing competition in the market (Sproles and Burns 1994). The constant, varying
demands by consumers has impacted the process of forecasting and product
planning shifting; towards replicating famous designs and styles from fashion
magazines and fashion shows in small quantities more frequently (Christopher,
Lowson, and Peck 2004).
The perception of throwaway fashion varies among diﬀerent generations. For
example, young people of the population that constitute Generation Y would prefer
a higher number of low-quality, cheap and fashionable clothes as compared to baby
boomers, who would prefer to purchase fewer number of higher quality clothes
(Crewe and Davenport 1992). From conservative consumers’ perspective, fast
fashion is viewed as a ‘waste’ because rather than buying one high quality item to
satisfy a wardrobe need, consumers buy multiples that are lower quality and then
throw old merchandise away as quickly as they bring in new ones (Sydney 2008). In
170 V. Bhardwaj and A. Fairhurst
agreement with Barnes and Lea-Greenwood (2006) and based on diﬀerent
perspectives of consumers toward fast fashion mentioned in this study, it is apparent
that fast fashion is a consumer-driven approach, in addition to a supplier-driven
Future research related to fast fashion
Review of existing research on diﬀerent aspects of fast fashion indicates that the past
20 years have seen substantial progress in knowledge generation about the topic, as
evidenced by the increasing number of journal publications over time and the variety
of topics addressed, though these are mostly restricted to the supply chain domain.
Literature on fast fashion implies that rapid responsiveness techniques such as
just-in time, quick response, and agile supply chains can be valuable to the fashion
industry because such techniques can create a competitive edge in the market (see,
for example, Bruce, Daly, and Towers 2004; Christopher, Lowson, and Peck 2004;
Fiorito, May, and Straughne 1995; Sohal, Perry, and Pratt 1998). However, minimal
evidence addresses consumer behaviour towards fashion that is quickly changing
(see, for example, Barnes and Lea-Greenwood 2006). By knowing how and to what
extent rapid changing fashion aﬀects consumers’ purchase behaviour and satisfac-
tion levels, retailers can develop strategies that can lead to improved proﬁtability.
The phenomenon of fast fashion has been extensively discussed in the fashion
press. However, the existing academic literature on fast fashion is somewhat limited
and calls for additional research on aspects such as factors that motivate consumers’
purchase intention such as exclusivity, price-consciousness, hoarding merchandise
for future use, consumers’ perceived risk due to trade-oﬀ between quality and price,
consumer expectation and satisfaction after the consumption process, and
consumers’ eﬃciency in terms of cost–beneﬁt analysis.
The dramatic change in the fashion apparel industry, coupled with environ-
mental concerns giving rise to conscious consumers in terms of fair trade, the green
market and organic clothing, implies that researchers will need to broaden, redesign
and align their research to match the fashion markets in the twenty-ﬁrst century.
Further research can also examine the pricing strategy used for fast fashion apparel
along with analysis of consumers’ willingness to pay more for environmentally
friendly and sustainable fast fashion apparel (for example, organic and green cotton
apparel used by Zara and H&M) (see Ethical Style 2009). Currently, little is reported
in the literature regarding the segmentation of consumers based on the acceptance of
fast fashion. Therefore, it is important to conduct research to analyse the acceptance
of fast fashion across diﬀerent consumer segments. Another area of research interest
could be to see whether consumers perceive fast fashion brands as counterfeit due to
lower price and quality oﬀered by the retailers. Also, it will be worth understanding
how consumers diﬀerentiate value retailing and fast fashion retailing as both aim to
oﬀer lower prices.
Fast fashion is a concept that will continue to aﬀect the fashion apparel industry
over the next decade and will have a direct eﬀect on the way consumers purchase and
react to trends. Although continued research relative to the supply-side of fast
fashion is important, emphasis should be placed on examining consumers’
The International Review of Retail, Distribution and Consumer Research 171
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