Brands are winning customers with super-speedy copy-cat celebrity styles – but this comes at a cost.
When super-influencer Kim Kardashian posts a picture of herself on social media wearing an outfit that ticks all the trend boxes, a flurry of activity begins. As the first few comments and likes begin to roll in, fast fashion retailers and brands quickly assess whether they can – or should – replicate the outfit, and get the items straight into production, propelled by social media and aimed largely at younger women.
However, while this approach allows retailers in the aggressively competitive fast fashion space to offer their customers the latest celebrity-driven trends within days, it also carries with it higher costs – both to the business and the environment – and the risk of crossing the legal line between inspiration and copying.
It’s about being the first one to the market
Bobby Samari, Femme Luxe
Many emerging fast fashion retailers have built their models upon the ability to turn trends around at breakneck speed, often by sourcing from the UK.
A March 2018 report from research agency McKinsey & Co found that the top-performing 20% of fashion retailers surveyed made speed to market a priority in their development, and sales in the traditional fast fashion sector have grown by more than 20% in the past three years.
“Buy, test, repeat”
Women’s young fashion etailer I Saw It First, which launched in the UK in 2017, can have samples of celebrity-inspired styles in the head office within 24 hours.
The buying team sends images from social media to a network of UK manufacturers, who produce the initial samples and have them back to headquarters the next day. If the first sample is perfect and needs no fit or styling adjustments, the style could be shot on a model and uploaded to the site for pre-orders the same day. A customer could receive it a week after appearing online.
Similarly, rival Femme Luxe can turn around new products within a week, thanks to its network of UK manufacturers.
We’ve seen fashion brands changing their production cycles to meet the instantaneous demand
Anusha Couttigane, principal fashion analyst at Kantar
“It’s about being the first one to the market,” explains Bobby Samari, who founded the company in 2015. “If a celebrity posts things in a similar style to the kind of clothing we sell, we look at their posts, and the average comments and likes across each one, to see which items have more interest.”
Once an item has gone live, Femme Luxe operates a “buy, test, repeat” model on styles, starting by ordering a small number – often 15 to 20 styles – and upping this depending on customer demand. This speed builds customer loyalty and taps into demand, making production investment is worthwhile.
Despite potential added costs, Anusha Couttigane, principal fashion analyst at Kantar, notes that retailers are seeing return on investment when they develop rapid-response production cycles: “It’s very clear that brands and retailers are feeling that pressure to respond as quickly as possible, and they are seeing the benefit of taking on that investment in order to respond.
“We’ve seen fashion brands changing their production cycles and the abilities of their infrastructure to meet the instantaneous demand.”
Other brands take advantage of vertical business models to ensure speed.
Mike Branney, CEO and co-founder of womenswear etailer Oh Polly, says that having control over the design and manufacturing process allows it to be more agile: “We are vertically integrated – we have our own factories in Bangladesh and China, so we can tell them to stop or start production as we need.”
The designers and our creative director spend the whole time they’re not designing looking at Instagram trends
Mike Branney, CEO and co-founder of womenswear etailer Oh Polly
He describes the typical response to spotting a promising style online: “The next day we would have our sourcers out in the Zhongda fabric market [in Guangzhou, China] and you can get the swatch cards back that night.
“We give them to the design team and they can start work within 24 hours of seeing a particular sort of fabric online.
“The designers and our creative director spend the whole time they’re not designing looking at Instagram trends. When you get a celebrity lined up with your fashion and trend predictions, then you know that’s going to be big and you jump on it.”
Despite having the infrastructure to get a product on sale within seven days, Branney says that typically the turnaround would be 24 days, as the brand seeks to distance itself from the “fast-fashion” label: “We’ll never rush something out to make a quick buck. For us quality is the number one thing. That’s how we differentiate ourselves from the market.”
Samantha Frost, co-founder of womenswear etailer Pretty Lavish, argues that speed is the best way to secure customer loyalty. When a trend takes off, Pretty Lavish can fly products in from its suppliers in the Far East to capitalise on immediate demand if they predict it will be a short-lived hit.
“Fashion is so fast, especially for the younger audience,” says Frost. “When customers want something, they’re not going to wait around for the brand to slowly develop and launch it. They’re going to buy what’s out in the market there and then.”
Production cycles are speeding up across all levels of the fashion industry, and Couttigane gives the example of
Luxury Italian brand Moncler, which changed from biannual showcases to monthly collections: “Consumers want that newness, and [Moncler] want to be able to react to trends faster. As a result, they’ve had to invest in expanded production facilities that are closer to the base of business in Italy, so that they can then produce collections much closer to the season they’re going to be dropping in stores.” For the year to 31 December 2018, Moncler’s revenues rose by 22% and adjusted EBITDA was up 34.5%.
Primark, which announced in March that 220 UK-based product roles are to be moved to its Dublin headquarters, is another retailer pursuing efficiencies.
Many assumed this was a Brexit-related decision, but Couttigane suggests an ulterior motive: “The functions that they’re merging moves the design, product and merchandising functions under one roof with analytics and logistics. There is an efficiency to be created there: you have all the components that play a role in responding to trends and to what consumers are saying they want, and then can actually deliver that in a really responsive and speedy way.”
However, as well as considering the cost implications, retailers should be cautious of pursuing a super-fast model at the expense of ethical and legal considerations.
In February, Kardashian filed a $10m (£7m) lawsuit against fast fashion retailer Missguided, accusing etailer of profiting by replicating an outfit she posted on Instagram. Missguided had posted a version of a gold dress worn by Kardashian and designed by Kanye West, with the caption: “The devil works hard but Missguided works harder” – pointing to a pre-order page for the style.
Missguided responded to the complaint with a statement: “Missguided shoppers know the score. We’re about the look, without the celeb bucks. For the record, as much as we love her style, we’re not working with Kim on anything.”
Sally Britton, partner and head of the brands group at law firm Mishcon de Reya, warns retailers to tread carefully in this area: “There is inspiration in fashion, and it is about when it goes over the line into being a copycat – taking advantage of the original designer’s investment in the piece.
“In terms of asserting design rights, you are looking at whether the item you say copies your item creates same overall impression.”
Pretty Lavish’s Frost says its own designs have been copied in the past, so she takes this into account in their own work creating celebrity-inspired items: “It’s so disheartening when you see retailers that are literally just copying it exactly and often selling it for half the price. We always keep that in mind and make sure we’re using trends and styles as inspirations only, not just copying them. Our designers spend a lot of time making sure everything looks new and looks ‘Pretty Lavish’ – we don’t want to be the same as anyone else.”
Although these production models provide rapid results, Couttigane notes that retailers need to be cautious as the sustainability credentials of throwaway fashion practices come under scrutiny: “The response of businesses has to be calculated more carefully because fast fashion has had a bad rep in the past, contributing to waste and as being perceived as unsustainable,” she says. “And I think there are different ways of businesses can respond to this trend.”
She says that despite controversy, the demand shows no sign of slowing down but that clever merchandising and “momentising” – where brands draw on existing ranges to tap into cultural trends – are possible ways for brands to provide celebrity style with less environmental impact.
The demand for instantly accessible celebrity styles is booming, and while it continues to grow, retailers will continue to find innovative and creative ways to give their customers access to the styles they want, as soon as they want them. Celebrity culture has shifted the way that retail operates, and only those able to cater to the need for speed will succeed in grabbing a share of the market.