THE CONTEMPORARY FASHION INDUSTRY AND ITS FUTURESPosted: 17/03/2013 | |
A Cultural & Historical Studies article dissecting the fashion industry and exploring the transition of the same from a fordist to a post fordist model, within a socio-cultural, economic and political context.
‘Contemporary fashion is post fordist’. Critically evaluate this statement.
As described by Entwistle (2000), fashion “is a system of dress found in societies where social mobility is possible; it has its own particular relations of production and consumption… it is characterized by a logic of regular and systematic change”. The discourse of fashion, as an industry, like any other, has developed and evolved momentously over the past few decades. Consequently, so has the production and consumption of fashion, thereby affecting a multitude of stakeholders that include everyone from suppliers to manufacturers, producers to consumers. In this essay, I will analyze fashion as an industry and make a clear distinction between fordism and post fordism. I will look at why and how the structure of the fashion industry transitioned from the former to the latter over a point of time, within in socio-cultural, economic and political context. Lastly, I will dissect certain important examples that epitomize contemporary fashion as being a post fordist industry.
Fordism, named after Henry Ford, originated in the early 1900s at Ford’s Highland Park factory in Detroit. As described by Allen (1992), fordism is “an era of mass, standardized goods produced for mass markets, created by an interventionist state which gave people the spending power to make mass consumption possible”. In simpler words, fordism primarily deals with the mass production and mass marketing of standardized products intended for mass consumption. The production involves the accurate combination of “standardized parts, special-purpose machinery, the fragmentation of labor skills and the moving assembly line” (Allen, 1992: 185). Workers performed section work specific to their skills along a progressive assembly line, working part by part on sections of a product that came together to realize a finished piece. Large-scale firms that had the ability to mass-produce incurred high fixed costs but this was compensated by them being able to achieve economies of scale as their variable costs were evenly distributed over all the units being produced; thus lowering total costs and maximizing revenue. Specialist machinery and the division of labor did cause some labor unrest due to the dissatisfaction at work from repetitive tasks but economies of scale enabled firms to have “a concentration of highly paid, semi-skilled ‘mass workers’” (Allen, 1992: 185), making pay the primary driving force and only motivation to work. The organizational structure was completely centralized with a hierarchical chain of bureaucracy that gave workers little or almost no control over the manufacturing process. Also, there was a strong element of political and social regulation over production, demand and consumption in order to regulate instability in advanced economies and retain production and aggregate demand at equilibrium. Being the era of mass consumer culture, this lead to the extreme standardization and saturation of markets, with a high level of homogeneity.
When looking at fordism within a fashion context, fashion too was highly standardized, centralized and thus, homogenous. This meant that goods being produced and consumed had little or no significant differences among them. The fashion during the time was dictated solely by esteemed couturiers and fashion houses in Paris, with a high level of consensus among designers who primarily catered to the aristocrat elites. Also to note, during the period, fashion was one of the primary means of class distinction. “The fashion system in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries produced clothing styles that expressed the social position of women who wore them or the position which they aspired” (Crane, 2000: 134). This, in turn, led to trends trickling downwards – from influential fashion designers in Paris to producers and manufacturers catering to the average mass consumer. Stylistic changes from season to season were marginal and homogeneity meant the singularity of fashion – it was about ‘the look’, not ‘looks’. However, consumers readily accepted the trend of the season as subversion signified nonconformity, unawareness and an incorrect mode of behavior.
It was in the late 1960s and early 1970s that a post-industrial era was said to be emerging – a new economic epoch that put consumers at the forefront rather than producers: ‘post fordism’. The saturation of mass markets and fordist organizational structure that was unviable for many industries, namely fashion, led to a radical change in economic and cultural structures in advanced economies. As described by Kumar (1995), economically, post fordism deals with “the rise of a global market and global corporations, and the decline of national enterprises and the nation state as the effective units of production and regulation”. Flexible specialization and the decentralization of production succeed mass production while linear bureaucratic hierarchies become flatter, giving workers more control over manufacturing processes and thus, job satisfaction. Firms seek out new ways of production, disintegrating from vertical and horizontal fordist ventures to a more modern, flexible approach involving subcontracting and franchising. Politically, post fordism sees “the fragmentation of social classes, the decline of national class-based political parties and class voting” (Kumar, 1995). There is a cultural production of individuals rather than masses, followed by “social movements and ‘networks’ based on region, race or gender” (Kumar, 1995). The labor front sees a shift from mass, centralized bargaining to plant-based bargaining and is divided into core and periphery workers rather than semi-skilled ‘mass workers’. Culturally, post fordism establishes “the rise and promotion of individualist modes of thought and behaviour” (Kumar, 1995). It is the end of mass homogeneity and the beginning of “ fragmentation and pluralism in values and lifestyles; post-modernist eclecticism, and populist approaches to culture” (Kumar, 1995).
A product that sheds valuable light on the fashion industry transitioning from a fordist to a post fordist model is denim. Jeans are typically a generic product with several basic, standardized features that may classify it as an archetype – mainly fit, make and detail. Traditionally, jeans were usually washed after making in order to make them softer and thus wearable, making washing purely a technical process. While these may be the qualities of traditional jeans, several points of differentiation emerged with the emergence of the post-industrial era. The first form of differentiation is the choice of fiber, followed by the differentiation in fabric technologies. An example of this is traditional ring-spun yarn using a mechanical twist being replaced by an “open-end spinning frame using rotation and mingling fibers through airflow” (Scheffer, 2009: 132). Stylistic changes in terms of cut, fit and detail are numerous but it is washing that became the most crucial form of differentiation from being a mere technical necessity.
Fig. 1. Differentiation in jeans (http://vintagepixieboots.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/jeans-of-dry-variety.html/, Accessed: 17.03.2013)
Levi’s has been known as a market leader in its sector and one of the most popular denim brands across the globe. Levi’s fordist factories in Europe were highly efficient with the mass production of jeans as they were able to make a pair of jeans in fourteen standard minutes. However, the rise of pluralism, heterogeneity and differentiation resulted in a steep decline in sales by the mid-1990s, forcing them to shut manufacturing operations in Europe in 1998. Meanwhile, postmodern thought gave rise to new innovations in jeans with designers in southern France and northeast Italy developing a generic product – jeans – but with great emphasis on differentiation through washing and visual features such as “studs, seams, shapes, embroidery and localized patches” (Scheffer, 2009: 135). Washing has been a dominant trend ever since, resulting in a variety of styles each season; for example, washing jeans with permanganate in order to create lighter patches or laser marking to produce white areas (Scheffer, 2009).
By the 1950s, the industrial era saturated with mass production, mass consumer culture, standardization and homogeneity began to experience a shift. As Rouse (1989) explains, social and political reforms brought about by the British government in the fifties improved Britain’s standard of living, increased people’s disposable incomes and made them more confident about their economic future. As the youth now had more disposable income, they spent it on teenage gregariousness and the fashion industry took advantage of this fact. However, the economic incline did not last very long and this resulted in a generation gap that kept widening. Young people who had not known pre-war Britain were now identified with this changing world. As young people did not all share the same styles, cultures and ideologies, this further gave rise to the birth of subcultures like the Teddy Boys, Mods and Punks, who were easily identifiable by the way they dressed and behaved socially. The phenomenon of youth cultures along with the rise of ready-to-wear clothing, the Italian and American fashion industry and the saturation of mass markets led to the steep decline of Paris as the centre of fashion. This followed by a disaggregation of demand over a vast spectrum and a rise of socially fragmented market niches catering to specific consumers. Age began replacing class as a means of distinction, thereby leading to the emergence of boutiques, which is probably the turning point that noted the transition of the fashion industry from a fordist to a post fordist one.
Fig. 2. Outside Mary Quant’s Bazaar, King’s Road, London (http://lastyeargirl.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/last-year-reading-quant-by-quant.html/, Accessed: 17.03.2013)
Boutiques were small-scale designer firms that subverted the conventional norms of dress by creating more original, innovative clothing primarily targeted at the youth market. One of the first and most popular boutiques of the time was Bazaar by designer Mary Quant, located at King’s Road, in London. As described by Crane (2000), Mary Quant “took her cues from what young women were wearing on “the street” and, in doing so, redefined the fashionable styles of the period”. This led to the further disaggregation and fragmentation of demand as consumers wanted to dress differently rather than uniformly and producers embraced this opportunity. This lead to the disruption of order and rhythm the fashion industry was succumbed to across the fordist era, breaking up mass markets and giving rise to increased heterogeneous markets and the concept of plurality – it was now about the ‘looks’, not ‘the look’; ‘fashions’, not ‘fashion’ – where multiple fashions began co-existing at any one time. Youth cultures had a significant impact on the fashion industry and cultural setting in general at the time. As trends continued to trickle down from Paris and appear as simplified copies on the high-street, youth culture trends bubbled up to appear on runways in major fashion capitals – namely Paris, New York and Tokyo.
The 1960s and 1970s saw a fundamental change in the discourse and organizational structure of the fashion industry. The rise of youth markets, pluralism and heterogeneity meant that consumers wanted to dress differently in order to communicate an individual identity rather than conform to a ‘mass’ regime. Another phenomenon that directly affected the order and rhythm of the fashion industry was the seasonal obsolescence of clothing, again, primarily influenced by youth culture. This meant that fashion products lost their symbolic value and were therefore no longer wanted, though they may still be in perfectly good working condition. This resulted in upward pressure on the demand for fashion, motivating more producers to shift to a flexible organizational structure, concurrently rising the risk of mass production as producers would have ‘mass’ terminal stock leading to a rise in costs and decline in revenue. Youth culture, pluralism and seasonal obsolescence also lead to hyper innovation. It was not about social emulation anymore but rather differentiation and producers started to address the same. This was mainly done by placing a greater importance on design and producing a wide variety of differentiated styles every season rather than a marginal difference from one season to another.
By the 1980s, the post-industrial era seemed to start taking off in a new, ‘postmodern’ direction. Producers realized the unfeasibility of mass production for fashions due to pluralism, seasonal obsolescence and hyper innovation and thus, embraced consumer demand rather than mass-producing in order to generate mass consumption under interventionist means. Flexible specialization and post modern ways of thought meant that producers now produced smaller batches of goods rather than mass producing the same, consequently also making this more cost effective. However, “new production technology was important in enabling manufacturers to meet these demands” (Nixon, 1996: 26). The changing socio-cultural, economic and political structures also meant advances in technological innovation. As described by Wilson (1985), “the modernization of all processes continued”. This included some crucial inventions – namely Computer Aided Design (CAD), Computer Controlled Cutting (CCC) and computerized lay planning (Gerber technology). Machines that performed laser cutting, hand embroidery and mimicked hand stitching were other technological innovations that aided the changing discourse. The immensely sophisticated technological developments meant that manufacturers could easily make alteration in styles and changes in garments between short batches of production. CAD significantly assisted this process as it had the ability to store garment patterns as well as make instantaneous changes as per demand. The Electronic Point of Sale (EPOS) system was another crucial technological invention. This provided manufactures and suppliers with up-to-date data concerning garments at the point of sale. They could clearly identify what was selling and what stock needed to be replenished, thus being able to delay production decisions till the very last minute as well as avoid costs of warehousing and terminal stock. This was known as just-in-time (JIT) production. As described by Barnes et all (2006), just-in-time production was concerned with “the delivery of finished goods to meet demand without carrying up front supply chain inventory, but in time to meet market demand”. This was a retailer driven approach that placed emphasis on reducing costs in supply chain management. All of the above advances and developments in technological innovation accompanied by changing social structures gave birth to a new phenomenon called ‘fast fashion’.
As defined by Barnes et all (2006), “fast fashion is a business strategy which aims to reduce the processes involved in the buying circle and lead times for getting new fashion product into stores, in order to satisfy consumer demand at its peak”. It is a consumer driven approach to supply chain management and has become increasingly predominant in the UK fashion industry over the last couple of decades. Fast fashion concerns the constant renewal of “product ranges with fashion-led styles that attract media attention and entice their (mostly) young female consumers into stores frequently” (Barnes et all, 2006: 260). Fast fashion comprises of 12% of the UK fashion industry with major players being high-street giants such as Zara, Topshop, H&M and New Look (Barnes, 2006). In the 1990s, UK fashion retailers experienced a downward pressure on prices as players such as New Look and Asda emerged as thriving forces in the fashion market. In order to maintain competitive advantage, UK retailers focused on price and began outsourcing production to low cost and under developed economies in Asia and the Far East. This, in turn, did lead to more complex supply chains and longer lead times but however, they did benefited from the lowered costs, enabling them to sell fashionable clothing at even cheaper prices.
Fig. 3. Visual merchandizing at Zara TRF, Oxford Street, London (http://thewindowdisplayblog.com/tag/burberry/, Accessed: 17.03.2013)
One particular company that has pioneered the fast fashion model in the contemporary fashion industry is Zara – one of the most popular high-street brands owned by the Inditex group. Zara also rose to overpower United Colors of Benetton – one of the first companies to adopt fast fashion and be recognized as a market leader in the sector. Zara, founded in 1963, carried “low-priced look-alike products of popular higher-end clothing fashions in addition to producing its own unique designs” (Sull et all, 2008: 6). Their organization of production and supply chain management was similar to that of Benetton but however, they retained capital-intensive productions in-house, which included computer-aided fabric cutting, whilst outsourcing labor-intensive operations such as garment construction and sewing to a pool of subcontractors. This enabled them to respond to demand quickly as well as stop production if necessary. Though with similar origins, Benetton was the market leader in fast fashion, but not for too long. Both the companies benefitted from cheap, low-skilled labor in emerging markets in Asia and South America but the difference was that Zara’s production was done in close proximity to “its core market, especially for fashion items, in order to shorten lead times and maintain flexibility” (Sull et all, 2008: 6). As for advertising and marketing, Zara doesn’t invest in extravagant ad campaigns or employ popular celebrities for publicity. Instead, Zara depends on its visual merchandizing, window displays and the word of mouth to attract customers. That being said, the most crucial component of Zara’s success as a high-street fast fashion retailer is “its ability to create and maintain shared situation awareness in the rapidly changing fashion industry” (Sull et all, 2008: 7). This concerns Zara being able to acknowledge real-time information regarding trends in fashion, popular culture and thereby, changing consumer behaviour. There are three stages of doing so – observing raw data, making sense of the data and testing hypothesis. The best example to illustrate Zara’s ‘shared situation awareness’ is ‘The case of the puffy ball gowns’. The famous film ‘Mary Antoinette’ hit theatres in October 2006 and the French queen’s obsession with pretty dresses and shoes instantly caught the public’s eye. While the movie was still in theatres and rococo creations yet not released in fashion hubs, “ a collection of puffy ball gowns and velvet jackets with cropped collars and old buttons was already available at Zara stores” (Sull et all, 2008: 7). This clearly exhibited “Zara’s ability to spot opportunities in the churning kaleidoscope of variables that affect fashion trends” (Sull et all, 2008: 7) and put the brand at the pinnacle of fast fashion and consumer’s preferences.
The essay has clearly deconstructed the meaning of fordism and post fordism, thereby analyzing the transition of the fashion industry from the former to the latter, within a socio-cultural, economic and political context and evidencing that contemporary fashion, indeed, is post fordist. Fordism primarily deals with the mass production and mass marketing of standardized products for mass consumption. Workers performed section work on an assembly line with the use of standardized machinery and firms were able to achieve economies of scale as total costs were distributed evenly over all the units being produced. The mass production of goods along with the mass consumer culture during the time made markets extremely standardized, centralized and homogeneous, leading to the saturation of markets and thereby the emergence of the post-industrial era. Fashion during the fordist era was dictated exclusively by acclaimed designers in Paris; the trend of the season filtered down to the masses and was readily accepted in order to conform to social norms. However, the saturation of mass markets along with the rise of youth cultures gave rise to a completely new industrial era – post fordism. Post fordism, on the contrary, embraced flexible means of production and differentiation by placing consumers at the forefront and catering to market niches rather than the masses. Post fordism saw the development of the new international division of labor – dealing with outsourcing production to newly industrializing economies – as well as subcontracting within the developed industrialized nations (Braham, 1997). Changing socio-cultural, economic and political structures also meant improvements in technological innovations. The introduction of CAD, CAM, CCC and EPOS allowed firms to adapt flexible specialization methods of production such as JIT and fast fashion, thereby enabling them to achieve economies of ‘scope’ rather than ‘scale’. Fashion was no longer prescribed by one particular entity but rather trickled down from Paris to the masses and bubbled up from youth cultures to the runways in major fashion capitals. This signified the plurality of fashion – it was no longer about ‘the look’ but ‘looks’, ‘fashions’ not ‘fashion’ – creating extremely heterogeneous markets and allowing individuals to express their identities in a personalized manner. The discourse of fashion has changed tremendously since the fordist era. Obsolescence, hyper innovation, cutthroat competition and ever changing socio-cultural trends that directly affect consumers have generated a very turbulent environment for producers by constantly accelerating the rhythm of fashion production. The essay has clearly manifested contemporary fashion as a post fordist industry in terms of production, consumption and otherwise but as the fashion industry is always in a state of flux, it makes me wonder what’s next? What’s after now? What’s after post fordism? Owing to the fact that postmodernity seems to be at its peak.
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Differentiation in jeans (2012) [online image]. Available from: <http://vintagepixieboots.blogspot.co.uk/2012/08/jeans-of-dry-variety.html/> (Accessed: 17.03.2013)
Outside Mary Quant’s Bazaar, King’s Road, London (2011) [online image]. Available from: <http://lastyeargirl.blogspot.co.uk/2011/02/last-year-reading-quant-by-quant.html/> (Accessed: 17.03.2013)
Visual merchandizing at Zara TRF, Oxford Street, London (2011) [online image]. Available from: <http://thewindowdisplayblog.com/tag/burberry/> (Accessed: 17.03.2013)
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